Individuals must often work toward conclusions and actions in daily life, and to do this they frequently rely on ethical stances to guide their reasoning. When working purely through ethics, people prioritize the objective, rational thought process over subjective feeling and emotion. Because ethics points toward an end without implying means, two individuals can have drastically divergent ethical views, yet still end at comparable outcomes.
This divide is clear within the environmental movement. Bron Taylor, an American professor in environmental studies, discusses how ethical stance influences environmentalists’ viewpoints on why protection of the environment is worthwhile. Taylor writes that for “[anthropocentric] ethics, nonhuman life is valuable at most indirectly […while] for ecocentric ethics, human interests do not trump that of all other life forms and the well-being of the biosphere as a whole” (598). Anthropocentric environmentalists believe that the purpose of saving the Earth is to keep life tenable for the benefit of humankind. In contrast, the ecocentric environmentalists reject the idea that humans are centrally important and instead emphasize the Earth’s intrinsic value independent of any benefit to humankind.
Regardless of these groups’ differing motivations, their overall goals are the same, namely, a healthier planet maintained through more sustainable methods. Two of the most formative books of the environmental movement – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006) – are each written from either an anthropocentric or ecocentric ethical stance, respectively.
Both Carson and Lovelock discuss harmful environmental changes caused by humans and encourage human action to address these changes. In Silent Spring, Carson focuses on the damage chemicals and pollution can cause to the natural environment, framed in terms of the negative effects that this damage could cause the human population. Aligning with the anthropocentric viewpoint, Carson focuses solutions on balancing human interests with concerns for the Earth’s wellbeing.
When discussing agricultural pest control, for example, Carson hopes “to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves” (296). Conversely, in The Revenge of Gaia Lovelock conceives of the Earth as a single being known as Gaia, a self-regulating entity that maintains itself in homeostasis by interacting with the organisms and climatic shifts on Earth. Thus, he adopts an ecocentric viewpoint that favors addressing climate concerns because of the intrinsic value of maintaining Gaia’s balance, not just because this balance allows humans to thrive. Lovelock suggests broad and drastic actions that prioritize the environment, stating at one point that “[h]umankind comes second” (121) in importance to the Earth.