For All Life As We Know It: The Case for Humanist Environmentalism

The following excerpt is from a speech given by AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt to the American Ethical Union on June 9, 2018. He expands on these ideas in a book due out in early 2019.

When it comes to humanism, our worldview has two foundational principles: reason and empathy.

When it comes to the environment, starting with reason means that once we’re exposed to the evidence of shrinking glaciers, rising surface temperatures, and climbing sea levels, we’re likely to draw the obvious conclusion that climate change is both real and accelerating. It also means accepting what we’ve learned about climate change and our role as humans in making it steadily worse. Knowing that we’re the perpetrators of species extinctions, infertile soils, undrinkable waters, and similar hardships, we are more likely to take responsibility for correcting our course. Not expecting any higher power to save us at the last minute, we’re more likely to accept that now is the time for us to buckle-down and accept some sacrifices in order that generations to come will have a planet to enjoy.

Our empathy and the compassion that flows from it also encourage us to act on environmental justice issues. In our compassion for the plight of others we can see that environmental problems disproportionately impact minorities. For instance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 71 percent of Black Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, and they are three times more likely to die from asthma-related problems than white Americans. Many communities of color lack safe drinking water and the members of those communities swim near waste-contaminated beaches and live near polluted flood waters. Indigent Black and Brown children are eight times more likely to be poisoned by lead. The growing climate change problem means that such communities will soon have to pay more for basic necessities as their prices outstrip growth in wages. As humanists, we can see an additional responsibility to address climate change in order to support social justice.

Humanists commonly recognize that we are part of an interconnected web of life and that anything significant that impacts one strand can also shake the web. Humans may be our understandable first interest, but all life and the biosphere itself has value that must be recognized when we discuss the importance of humanity in order to put it in the proper context. In some ways, humans are possibly the biggest blight on the planet, killing off species, nearly eliminating life from some geographies, and accelerating climate change. We’re smart enough and capable enough to improve the quality of life on this planet, not just for ourselves, but for other life as well.

Humanism and Its Aspirations (the third and most current Humanist Manifesto) reminds us of our “planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.” The humanist commitment to the environment was also prominent in the preceding document decades earlier, which read:

In learning to apply the scientific method to nature and human life, we have opened the door to ecological damage, over-population, dehumanizing institutions, totalitarian repression, and nuclear and bio-chemical disaster. Faced with apocalyptic prophesies and doomsday scenarios, many flee in despair from reason and embrace irrational cults and theologies of withdrawal and retreat.

This is why it’s so important to support the efforts of governments and private organizations that seek to promote family planning and help people to cooperatively decide to reduce population growth and live sustainable lifestyles. Programs that educate us about food waste, distribute contraception, and help combat environmental degradation are absolutely crucial if our children and grandchildren are to live in a world that can sustain them. The United Nations recognized this need for action in a 2013 report, which stated the now obvious: “We must act now to halt the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation, which pose unprecedented threats to humanity.”

While some traditional religious groups refuse to participate in comprehensive family planning efforts and claim that the distribution of contraceptives is immoral—or evil—humanists see it as a means by which individuals can gain autonomy over their bodies, better plan for their future, and lead happier lives. Unlike fundamentalists and the faith-based organizations they support, humanists don’t rely on a god to fix things, don’t rely on an afterlife to improve our lot, and don’t have archaic prohibitions about contraception, abortion, or other means of providing family-planning options. That’s why population dynamics matter so much to humanists—we humans have the ability and the responsibility to protect our planet.

We have to learn from history when we address the present. In his books Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, 2016 Humanist of the Year Jared Diamond details some historical success stories that actually worked. In past Japanese and New Guinean societies, for example, people learned to avoid the devastating environmental effects of deforestation by replanting trees at rates that exceeded the harvesting of their natural resources. Over recent years, Costa Rica leveraged eco-tourism to its benefit, and Denmark now generates most of its energy from renewable sources.

Diamond also pointed out spectacular failures we can learn from, such as when Easter Island was deforested to the point that the island could no longer sustain its once robust culture. He even pointed out how it was a logical economic decision from a personal standpoint to cut down the last tree on the island, but a devastating decision for their society. We have to be forward thinking and implement the necessary regulations and norms in our culture so it doesn’t become advantageous to damage our resources beyond recovery.

We need to act quickly on broad-scope measures that will address the strains of overpopulation on our planet and reverse our negative global trajectory. Behavioral changes are needed that reduce our ecological footprint, and global lifestyle changes are needed so that we lessen the burden we place on our planet. While there’s no silver bullet to the ecological conundrums we now face, waiting for disaster is just not a humanist option. Let’s use all we know to alleviate the problems now and use humanist reasoning to find better solutions for the future.

We humanists help ourselves by being active in environmental justice as well as other social justice measures. Being a humanist should suggest that we recognize the responsibility to maintain the earth as an interesting and wonderful place to live—its plant and animal species, it waters, ecosystems, and its air need to be preserved, not extinguished or turned into junk piles, toxic dumps, or deforested wastelands. And we need to make the world a better place for ourselves, for future generations, and for all of life as we know it.