In the Name of Crisis: Defending Anthropocentrism as the Most Plausible Environmental Ethics

Risalatul Hukmi
Risalatul Hukmi
Post-Nietzschean free thinker

Almost all ecological discourse is always built in the construction of criticism of modernism that places man at the center. It is not surprising then that ecological thinking always departs from the critique of anthropocentrism, which is somehow always regarded as the root of the whole crisis of modern humans; environmental crisis, social crisis, and ecological crisis. It is undeniable that humans are important actors in an ecological crisis. But the question, is it possible to base ethical justifications to save the environment with anchors other than humans?

We must go back again to deconstruct the ontological structure from the crisis itself. From whom and for whom the attribute of crisis is actually in the ecological discourse to summarize all phenomena such as climate change, global warming, species extinction. Is the crisis attribution objectively attached to all these phenomena, or is it internally only valid for humans as bearers of the meaning of the crisis itself?

Two major arguments can justify these questions; realism and anti-realism. The main claims of realism explicitly state that there is a world that is independent of the mind and that we can objectively access that world. In this argument, a crisis can be justified ontologically as an objective fact even though no human being has given it value. Meanwhile, the opposite anti-realism argument states that there has never been an objective reality outside of what is sensible for humans. Crisis, therefore, is always correlated with human judgment, as the subject of values.

There is so much ecological literature actually that uses the word crisis in its title; The State and the Global Ecological Crisis (John Barry, 2005), The Real Environmental Crisis (Jack Hollander), and many others. However, no one talks about the semantic and ontological status of the crisis itself. Maybe Janet Roitman is the only one who has a concern with this through his book Anti-Crisis (2013). However, Roitman does not talk about ecology but only gives a semantic analysis of the word crisis, as a term that is quite crucial in many philosophical discourses.

In this paper I use semantic analysis to justify that the ecological crisis is entirely about humans; as the subject behind the crisis, the subject bearing the meaning of the word crisis, and the subject morally responsible for the crisis. I then use this justification to argue how anthropocentrism is the only plausible environmental ethics. I prove that conservation and movements to save the environment can only be justified through the ethics of anthropocentrism. I show that ecocentrism as alternative ethics which aims to justify humans as the main actors of the crisis is a fallacy and philosophically implausible.

Crisis and Semantic Problem

The word crisis so far has developed in an an sich meaning, which seems that need to be affirmed positively in its existence; environmental crisis, energy crisis, and especially ecological crisis. The word is always used as a diagnostic term to describe a specific historical condition impartially. Yet, does that the case really have a basic premise to be objectively justified as a crisis?

Hitherto, the word crisis has always been used to refer to a condition that is not as it should be. In other words, there is something wrong with a system that makes the system not run as it should. With this definition, a condition can then be justified positively as a crisis. However, this justification clearly requires a complete construction of knowledge about the system itself, namely the knowledge that the system really is what we thought from the beginning so that we can judge that something is wrong with the system.

In this assumption, Roitman, as quoted by Imbriano (2014, p.115), stated that the crisis is a term that is built in second-order observation, not an object of first-order observation. This means that the word ‘crisis’ is not a term that refers to an objective entity. A crisis is a propositional attitude about a condition that has certain criteria that make it then can be stated as a crisis. “The term crisis is,” Imbriano said,

“in fact, a category of knowledge, a transcendental placeholder, an a priori that both marks historical events and qualifies history as such and is therefore no a condition to be observed (loss of meaning, alienation, faulty knowledge); it is an observation that produces meaning. That is to say, it is a term that does not describe an objective reality, but instead serves to offer an interpretation of this reality.”

(Imbriano, 2014, p.115)

Crisis refers to the final condition of historical events measured by a patterned sequence, which means that it cannot be empirically confirmed and referred to an entity in itself. That is why a crisis is called a second-order observation because it requires a set of historical data which patterns can be analyzed and concluded to be a condition that carries the meaning of the crisis. Without that data, there will be no crisis. Shortly, crisis depends on the historical data so that it cannot be self-evident.

It has been clear that the crisis does not have any reference in objective reality. However, a crisis semantically can be justified as a self-reference term. In other words, it can refer to the term itself. In its semantic status, the word crisis can be juxtaposed with the word unicorn as a term, although ontologically the status is different. Unicorn does not have a reference in an objective entity, but as a word, it has a meaning which can refer to itself, namely an abstract entity constructed from the objective entity ‘horse’ and ‘horn’; unicorn is a horned horse.

That is the reason Janet Roitman (2013, p.11) elucidates that a crisis is a signifier for the gap between the real and what is portrayed as a physical, erroneous, or illogical abstraction of the real. The gap, according to Roitman, is a marker of dissonance between empirical history and philosophy of history. Why is that? Because the abstraction of a condition so that it can then be stated as a crisis always departs from historical empirical facts. Climate change, for example, is an empirical fact from a collection of historical data about climate that changes from time to time. The empirical facts of history are then abstracted and justified as a crisis, and the crisis presupposes further abstraction into a philosophy of history; teleological, deterministic, and cyclical history. In that sense, Roitman (2013, p.34) states that crisis is not an innocent term; crisis serves a philosophy of history. Meanwhile, the philosophy of history is always about human history, nothing else.

The point I want to argue here is that crisis is never self-evident, although semantically self-reference. A crisis is not a term that refers to objective observable reality. A crisis is a propositional attitude that always assumes intentional justification that intertwines the subject’s beliefs. It presupposes an ontological anchor that carries the meaning, an anchor that determines the criteria that must be met by the term crisis itself; global warming, climate change, species extinction, deforestation, etc. Therefore, the only plausible ontological anchor of the ecological crisis is none other than human; the only subject that has intentions, at least in the discourse of ecological crisis. Climate change may be an objective phenomenon; it really exists with some evidence of its historical changes. However, the facts about the changes do not then imply logically as a crisis. Those changes are only some of predetermined criteria that we create based on our intention; that this climate change will harm us, and we have to overcome it.

In such an analytical understanding, we can state that the denial of climate change is implausible. There is no reason not to acknowledge climate change when it has been proven by statistical data historically, regardless of methodical problems in retrieving the data. The only thing we can deny is whether or not climate change is indicative of a crisis because basically a collection of natural phenomena which we then label as a crisis applies only to human interest. The crisis attribute is not inherently embedded in the phenomenon itself. It is always about humans.

Anti-realism and Internalism Argument

Giving a ‘crisis’ attribution to a natural phenomenon leads to an argument about whether the attribute is inherently contained in the phenomenon or is it just a value that we embed to then be morally justified. This problem clearly requires two justifications at the same time; ontological and epistemological. As it becomes an important topic in the ecological discourse, we need to justify whether a crisis is an objective entity or merely a human construction.

Ecocentrism is clearly built on a paradigm of realism ontology which believes that there is an objective value that is independent of human attribution. That is, an ecological crisis in the view of ecocentrism is an objective fact even though there is no assessment from the subject of natural phenomena, it can still be justified as a crisis in itself. In other words, global warming, climate change, etc. can be stated as a crisis without the existence of human beings as the cause or bearer of the consequences.

We cannot base crisis on other than humans, because all of the natural phenomena that we categorize as indications of crisis are only sensible for humans. In other words, it is human who creates certain criteria arbitrarily and particularly to declare a crisis condition. For example, we never take into account species extinctions that occurred long before humans as a crisis simply because apart from the lack of access to these data, we have no direct experience of these events. That is the significance of species extinctions that occur so that it can be justified as an indication of crisis always presupposes the human subject to be meaningful.

In that frame, we then arrive at the problem of ancestrality in the realism and anti-realism debates that once proposed by Quentin Meillasoux:

Consider the following ancestral statement: ‘Event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans.’ The correlationist philosopher will in no way intervene in the content of this statement: he will no contest the claim that it is in fact event Y that occurred, nor will he contest the dating of this event. No – he will simply and – perhaps only to himself, but add it he will – something like a simple codicil, always the same one, which he will discretely append to the end of the phrase: event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans—for humans (or even, for the human scientist).

(Meillasoux, 2008, p.30)

If we consider a crisis as an objective fact independent of human judgment, then it must have universal standards that apply to all circumstances. With these universal standards, we can say that if species extinctions, global warming, and climate change have really happened in the past, the crisis is not significant because the earth was once in a condition that could be worse than the crisis we faced today. Phenomena that we consider to be the current crisis become problematic because we are present in it and become part of the object of sufferers. Therefore, the crisis is again our problem as humans.

The anti-realist position, or correlationist in Meillasoux’s term, it is clear that the crisis that we attach to natural phenomena only applies to humans — or even the human scientist for the significance of the crisis itself depends on humans. That is why we have difficulty justifying all of the natural events that took place before the appearance of humans. This is because there is no subject of meaning when the event occurs. The meaningfulness only appears later after humans find historical data about these events. And again, meaningfulness also only applies to spatio-temporal at this time.

Epistemologically, the view of ecocentrism can be justified through the argument that externalism breaks away from human intervention. Externalism can provide a reasonable explanation for why an attribution of crisis can be justified despite ignoring and getting rid of the subject’s point of view. Accessibility is the key to the argument for externalism; that there are objective facts that can be accessed by humans. Facts about species extinction, global warming, etc. is an objective fact that does not require justified belief to affirm that it really exists. However, the argument of externalism cannot explain whether these facts can be objectively said as a crisis or not. In John Locke’s view, this falls to the question of primary and secondary qualities in the ontology debate. Locke’s argument is not exactly the same, but I will reargue it further.

The temperature in itself is a primary quality, while heat and cold are secondary qualities. John Locke emphatically states that knowledge which is accessible to humans is only limited to secondary quality; that the weather is hot lately. It means that we cannot access more than what is sensible for us. This was also affirmed by Kant in his division of the world of noumena and phenomena. Kant, as an anti-realist firmly believes that the knowledge we have is only limited to phenomena; it is the world of appearance that is sensible for humans.

I can firmly state the crisis as a secondary quality, or if we use the ontological construction of anti-realism, it is only tertiary because climate change and global warming are only qualities that are sensible to humans. Changes may be justifiably justified as primary qualities, but the ‘hot’ assessment of these changes is secondary quality as the only accessible one. Meanwhile, giving the attribute ‘crisis’ is a quality that is in a more abstract layer. That is no longer an ontological or epistemological justification, but axiological. And that justification cannot stand on an ontological foundation other than anti-realism; that the crisis only applies to humans as bearers of meaning and value.

Compare to ecocentrism, anthropocentrism has a clear ontological anchor as a value bearer. Humans are the only benchmark of world significance. Therefore:

Anthropocentrism considers humans to be the most important life form, and other forms of life to be important only to the extent that they affect humans or can be useful to humans. In an anthropocentric ethic, nature has moral consideration because degrading or preserving nature can in turn harm or benefit humans. For example, using this ethic it would be considered wrong to cut down the rainforests because they contain potential cures for human diseases.

(Kortenkamp and Moore, 2001, p.2)

Ecocentrism as ethics is thus philosophically unable to justify a crisis because it does not have an objective anchor on the criteria of the crisis itself. The only anchor that can be used as an argument is the preservation of living systems on earth; if it moves toward the brink of extinction it means it is in a crisis. However, this argument is feeble when faced with a proposition that extinction is part of the mechanism of life systems on earth itself. Ecocentrism will not be able to explain whether a crisis still exists in a condition where the earth has not been inhabited by organisms that in millions of years have evolved to give birth to humans — as the cause of the crisis. If we stick to the ecocentrism ethics, the most plausible thing is to let the natural mechanism work as it is; deforestation causes global warming, global warming causes climate change, climate change results in the extinction of organisms, the extinction of organisms causes starvation, starvation causes human extinction, human extinction provides space for the earth to breathe again, rebalance, then give birth to new organisms, evolve and give birth new humans—which might be much better.

If my view of ecocentrism is correct, then using it as a basis for environmental ethics to overcome ecological crises is a fallacy. Ecocentrism cannot provide legitimacy for us to act saving the environment because it does not have any correlation with human interests. Ecocentrism cannot provide an answer to the simple question “why do we have to preserve the forest?” Let’s say the answer that will appear with the consistency of thought is “because the forest is the lungs of the earth, if the lungs are damaged and destroyed then the earth will die.” The next question that will emerge is obviously about the significance of the death of the earth itself, and the most reasonable answer is human.

Deep Anthropocentrism: Religion, Science, and Environment

Proof that humans are the single most reasonable anchors of environmental ethics is obviously related to the role of religion in overcoming the ecological crisis. This is in line with what was conveyed by The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), which was later quoted by Zainal in his paper on Laudato Si’ (McKim, 2020, p.38), “saving the forests requires saving people who live there—and vice versa.” Even though the statement has a tendency to give an equal position which can then be legitimized through ecocentrism, but humans remain the main anchor for saving the forest. I can state frankly that what is more appropriate is to save the forest means to save people without being bi-implicative because without humans the forest remains as it is.

However, anthropocentrism has difficulty in providing satisfactory answers about why we have to save animals from extinction, not throwing trash in the sea, protecting the forest, or even treating injured street dogs. Practically, such actions do not have any benefit for humans. Roughly speaking, there is no correlation between caring for street dogs and human interests. The only answer that anthropocentrism can give is that taking care and feeling pity for animals can give human satisfaction for their desire. It can fulfill human feelings and gain their happiness.

I can use Nietzsche’s argument on the will to power to justify this case. Well treating others is a part of the will that can give fulfillment for a lack-will. There is no an sich good behavior in this argumentation because every behavior will always correlate to human interests. Even when we consider animal rights to justify such a thing, we still use human standards; at least we suppose that animals should have rights because they are living beings like us.

That is the reason anthropocentrism is unconsciously always implemented in every environmental movement with its anthropomorphic narratives. Even in Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis writes: “This sister [the Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have experienced from our irresponsible use and abuse of the foods with which God has endowed her (Bauman et al., 2017, p.30)”. The statement is clearly very anthropomorphic which implies ‘human, and all too human.’ And thus, it then makes sense to state that the role of religion, whether world religions or indigenous religions, can only be justified within the framework of anthropocentrism.

For example, the doctrine of humans as caliphs on earth in Islamic teachings clearly only applies within the framework of the interpretation of anthropocentrism. There is no space for ecocentrism and biocentrism in religion, only anthropocentrism or theocentrims. The former provides space for humans to be able to save life on earth, and the later sees all crises that occur as the will of God, which may be the signs of the last day which can then prove and justify the truth of religious faith.

Likewise, in the indigenous community, I believe that the construction of belief used also remains within the framework of anthropocentrism even though, academically, it is forced to be constructed within criteria that presuppose equality of beings: ethics, responsibility, and reciprocity. Humans are still humans with all their desires and needs to survive. Indigenous communities will continue to place humans above others in certain cases. For example, they would choose to kill a tiger rather than let their child be eaten by a hungry tiger. However, it is possible that indigenous people have a different understanding of anthropocentrism in greater depth, which is to look further at the relationship between one another, which I later call this understanding with deep anthropocentrism.

I use the term ‘deep anthropocentrism’ to distinguish it from ‘shallow anthropocentrism’ which so far has been translated into supervisory meaning so that it is closer to egocentrism; that is, everything is measured by the interests of the human ego. I use deep anthropocentrism to argue that all values ​​will always be centered and end in humans. Humans are alpha and omega of all value constructions; both ethical and epistemological. We can even further draw the construction of the goal of ecocentrism into the framework of anthropocentrism, meaning that the submission of ecocentrism as an ethical basis for environmental movements will lead to the final goal for the benefit of humans.

Such a fallacy that equates anthropocentrism and egocentrism becomes a cause why many ecological thinkers mostly blame anthropocentrism as a justification for corporate legitimacy to exploit nature. Almost all ecological thinkers always put anthropocentrism as a suspect for all the crises that occur. It leads them to build arbitrarily alternative theories as an ethical basis in ecological discourse. Aldo Leopold, for example, states that:

There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. . . The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is. . .an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.

(Leopold, 1949, pp. 238-9)

I think the effort to build an alternative ethical base is a redundancy, if not even fallacy. Because, however, the reasoning that is built — whether biocentrism, ecocentrism, or in Leopold’s term Land Ethics — will always lead to anthropocentrism. The reason is very simple, all the values we give to anything are always human biases; animal rights, environmental rights, co-creature success, whatsoever. This happens because the main claim of anthropocentrism is very broad scope, not only limited to survival issues and material matters. As stated by Donahue (2010, p.51-2), “Anthropocentrism is the view that only things are valuable in themselves are human beings; their desires, needs, and purposes; and the satisfaction of those.” But I am not in agreement with Donahue, which in his paper stated that “Gaia theory is true, then it is likely that anthropocentrism is false,” and I will refute it.

Donahue built his argument using the Moderate Kibosh Thesis which states that if Gaia theory is true, then anthropocentrism is wrong. The main claim underlying this proposition is that if humans are part of a system as stated in Gaia theory, then humans cannot be the center. Meaning that anthropocentrism doesn’t make sense. In consequence, the only way to refute Gaia theory is to prove that humans are not part of the system of life on earth. Donahue, in his conclusion, has invited a rebuttal to this proposition and invited him to be an open question. This most absurd rebuttal is proven by humans on earth, and the proof can be made by the development of space science and technology—Elon Musk will probably prove it?

It is precisely in that anticipation which Donahue proposed I put my argument to reject Gaia theory and ecocentrism. If the terraforming project is successfully realized, then not only ethically but also cosmologically, anthropocentrism will once again prove its truth and take over the trophy. Humans will always be the center of living systems wherever humans are because humans can create their own living systems with the help of terraforming science and technology. In other words, a crisis may not be significant anymore when such technology has been realized.


It has been proven that anthropocentrism is the only reasonable position in the discourse of ecological crisis. Semantically, a crisis cannot be a self-evident term because it requires a value-bearing subject to justify its truth. Therefore, a crisis is a propositional attitude, not a rigid signifier that refers to objective reality. This semantic proof leads further into the ontological assumption of anti-realism which states that objects in themselves are never accessible to humans. The position also proves that the claims of internalism are valid. We cannot affirm a crisis objectively without presenting the subject.

For further consideration, I have proven that anthropocentrism makes more sense than the entire ethical basis built by ecological thinkers. Moreover, if science can prove that terraforming can be realized through technological engineering, then there is no longer a chance to refute anthropocentrism than simply by drawing Gaia theory and ecocentrism to a broader scale; univercentrism. Because, wherever humans go, they will always be a part of the universe system.


Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. Trans. Ray Brassier. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Moore, Colleen F. and Katherine V. Kortenkamp. “Ecocentrism and Antrhropocentrism: Moral Reasoning about Ecological Commons Dilemmas. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2001.

Donahue, Thomas J. “Anthropocentrism and the Argument from Gaia Theory. Ethics and the Environment , Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall 2010), pp. 51-77. Indiana University Press.

Roitman, Janet. Anti-Crisis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.

Imbriano, Gennaro. “A Semantic Analysis of Crisis”. Contribution to the History of Concepts, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Winter 2014), pp. 114-118. Berghahn Books.

Mckim, Robert. Laudato Si’ and the Environment: Pope Francis’ Green Encyclical. London and New York: Routledge, 2020.

Bauman, et al. Grounding Religion: A Field Guide to the Study of Religion and Ecology. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Leopold, A. A Sand Country Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

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