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Humanism versus environmentalism

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 23 April 2015

In a recent post I mentioned a talk by Freeman Dyson, which so captivated me that I went looking for further talks and texts. They’re not hard to find. He has given a fascinating TED talk about the kind of life we might expect in the coldest reaches of our solar system. And I came across an address he had given a few years ago, which seems to be very like another, hour-long, lecture I watched with interest and enjoyment.

In both he made a distinction between two sorts of people, humanists and naturalists. By the latter he means environmentalists, and I prefer that word, since ‘naturalists’ comes with the baggage of people who enjoy nature, watch birds, love lakes, and so on. Here’s some of what he says about the two groups.

Don Aitkin writer and authorIt is not surprising that honest and well-informed experts can disagree about facts. But beyond the disagreement about facts, there is another deeper disagreement about values. The disagreement about values may be described in an over-simplified way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tunafish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.


The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet.

I like the distinction, but I think that pure types of either would be hard to find. I am a humanist with more than a tad of respect for nature, and a pervasive worry about the obvious examples of destructive impact that we human beings have had and are having on specific sites. Yes, we learn from our mistakes and we can clean up after us, but sometimes we don’t. Dyson goes on.

The sharpest conflict between naturalist and humanist ethics arises in the regulation of genetic engineering. The naturalist ethic condemns genetically modified food-crops and all other genetic engineering projects that might upset the natural ecology. The humanist ethic looks forward to a time not far distant, when genetically engineered food-crops and energy-crops will bring wealth to poor people in tropical countries, and incidentally give us tools to control the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Here I must confess my own bias. Since I was born and brought up in England, I spent my formative years in a land with great beauty and a rich ecology which is almost entirely man-made. The natural ecology of England was uninterrupted and rather boring forest. Humans replaced the forest with an artificial landscape of grassland and moorland, fields and farms, with a much richer variety of plant and animal species. Quite recently, only about a thousand years ago, we introduced rabbits, a non-native species which had a profound effect on the ecology. Rabbits opened glades in the forest where flowering plants now flourish. There is no wilderness in England, and yet there is plenty of room for wild-flowers and birds and butterflies as well as a high density of humans. Perhaps that is why I am a humanist.

I greatly enjoyed his little parable of England as a man-made eco-system, and it brought to mind an incident a few years ago when Canberra environmentalists made a fuss about possible human impacts on the Jerrabombera Wetlands, a nature reserve quite close to Canberra airport. None of those protesting seemed to understand that the wetlands hardly existed before Lake Burley Griffin was filled in 1964. The present wetlands are almost completely man-made.

In similar fashion (and Dyson talks about this with respect to birds and flowers), the dogs we see in our somewhat doggy city, from poodles to Irish wolfhounds, are all descended from canis lupus, the wolf, and are the results of thousands of years of deliberate breeding by human beings — along with some indiscriminate mating on the part of dogs themselves. Human beings are responsible for all the kinds of domesticated animals we now have. Australian flock masters have grown the merino sheep into its present form over two hundred years. The grains we employ, the fruits we harvest, along with those animals, have all been ‘genetically modified’, and we take that process utterly for granted.

Genetic modification is not simply something that takes place in the laboratories of a multinational corporation. It occurs whenever a human being grafts a branch from one fruit tree onto another, or ensures that a mare is serviced only by a particular stallion. It is part of the way in which human beings serve as stewards of the natural environment. Like Dyson, I think that that stewardship is is an essential part of our existence. Yes, we have the capacity to cause destruction, but we also have the capacity to care for the environment which we ourselves have helped to make. The cries about destruction and the end of species, about which I have written before, seem to me unbalanced and hyperbolic. There are very few real examples of the end of particular species, and our mapping of where small creatures live is scanty.


So much of what we see, read and hear about the environment is infected with doom and gloom, whereas one could point easily to the growth in the number of national parks, ocean reservations, conservation farming, and even recycling as signs that in our country, and in many like it, there is much to look at with satisfaction and pride. As I have said before somewhere, environmentalism will never be short of impending so-called disasters, from the Great Barrier Reef to a particular frog. Yet the evidence points the other way.

It’s time that the environmental doomsters were called to account. Alas, who is to do it? The doom-and-gloom psyche infects our whole society, which is the real worry.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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