Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 13, No. 7, July 2017
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Twilight of Anthropolatry

John Michael Greer

Originally published in
Ecosophia, 21 June 2017

Anthropolatry is the worship of humanity as a god

During the last three months, while on hiatus from blogging, I’ve looked back over the eleven-year run of The Archdruid Report. As my regular readers know, the point of that prolonged experiment in online prose was my attempt to explore the primary historical fact of our time—the accelerating decline and impending fall of industrial civilization—from every angle I could think of, including some I never imagined addressing at all when I started blogging back in 2006.

Those changes of angle happened partly because it gets boring to talk about the same thing in the same way over and over again, of course, but there was a deeper factor as well. I started off discussing what I thought was the straightforward point that you can’t fuel infinite economic growth by drawing down a finite resource base. Sounds like basic common sense, doesn’t it? It did to me, too, but it nonetheless fielded a remarkable amount of pushback. A great many people seemed to be unable to get their minds around the fact that each ton of coal, barrel of petroleum, or cubic foot of natural gas burned to fuel their lifestyles really does go away forever.

So I began discussing that issue from different angles of approach, and over time the blog gathered an online community of people who found one or more of those angles interesting. We talked about systems ecology, economics, history and the cycles by which civilizations rise and fall; we hauled the appropriate-technology movement of the Seventies out of the memory hole to which it’s been consigned for the last thirty years, and unpacked some of the things it had to offer, now that we’re experiencing the future that the movement’s spokespeople warned about.

En route, we strayed into an assortment of strange byways, from faith in progress as an ersatz religion to the possibilities open to science fiction once it gets back to work discussing the kind of futures we’re actually going to get. Tolerably often, the results were interesting enough to be worth reprinting in book form—that’s where ten of my nonfiction books, three novels, and a newly released collection of short stories came from. In the process, the community around the blog grew to a degree I’d never anticipated, with up to a third of a million readers a month dropping in to check out the latest post.

All the while, though, the pushback continued—and the attitude behind it became more and more entrenched in the wider world. The rise and fall of climate change activism, for example, makes a good proxy measurement for the failure of industrial civilization as a whole to engage in basic reality testing. With each year that passes, the annual cost of weather-related disasters rises, the broader financial impacts of climate change take a bigger bite out of the global economy, and such unsubtle signs as seawater flooding the streets of Miami Beach, methane explosions blasting craters in the Siberian permafrost, and freighters steaming through the formerly impassable Northwest Passage sound nature’s equivalent of a warning klaxon.

Yet even among those people who think they take climate change seriously, you’ll have to look long and hard to find the very few who take it seriously enough to stop making the problem worse with their own actions. I had a pleasant email exchange with one of those few a couple of weeks ago. His name is Peter Kalmus; he’s a scientist who researches climate change; he decided, after careful assessment of the data, to give up air travel in order to cut back on his own contribution to the problem he studies; and he’s written a thoughtful book, Being the Change, which will be published later this year, and which talks in forthright terms about the way that change has to begin with our own lifestyles, if it’s going to begin at all.

Kalmus made a midsized splash in the sustainability end of the blogosphere a while back, when he published an essay suggesting that climate scientists might want to take the lead in giving up the carbon-intensive lifestyle habits that all of us are going to have to give up in order to keep the planetary climate from spinning hopelessly out of control. A few of his colleagues have taken up the gauntlet he threw down—last I heard, the number is up to half a dozen or so, out of the tens of thousands of scientists currently researching climate change. The rest keep on flying carbon-spewing jets to conferences where they talk learnedly about how we all have to stop spewing carbon, and then wonder why so few people take them seriously.

Think about that for a moment. If climate scientists—the people who have the most reason to understand what we’re doing to the Earth’s climate by using its atmosphere as a gaseous trash can for our wastes—aren’t willing to change their own behavior in response to that knowledge, how can they expect anyone else to do so? Again, this is basic common sense, but you’ll find any number of people doing their level best to evade it these days.

Check out any other issue where the survival of industrial society is at stake, and you’ll see the same thing. In case after case, it takes very little work to identify the habits and lifestyle choices that are dragging our civilization to ruin, and only a few moments of clear thinking to realize that the way to avert an ugly future has to begin with giving up those habits and lifestyle choices. Yet that last step is unthinkable to most people. It’s not just that they refuse to take it, for whatever reason; it’s that they don’t seem to be able to wrap their brains around the idea at all.

That incomprehension isn’t something that the movements to save industrial civilization from itself have yet really grappled with. Many activists still seem to think the difficulty is purely a matter of knowledge: if only they can explain what’s happening and what has to be done about it to enough people, they think, people will change their ways and everything will be fine. This approach hasn’t worked well, in case you haven’t noticed. If even climate scientists, who are as thoroughly informed as anyone about what their lifestyles are doing to the planet, aren’t able to take the very simple step from there to changing those lifestyles, knowledge is clearly not enough.

Among those activists who’ve grasped the failure of earnest explanation, the next step is usually to frame the discussion in ethical terms: if only they can get people to see that what they’re doing is wrong, they think, people will change their ways and everything will be fine. That hasn’t worked either. There are complex reasons for that, reaching back to the broader failure of ethics as currently understood to have much of an effect on human behavior—a theme we’ll be discussing at some length in later posts. Yet even those who have convinced themselves that the fate of the Earth is a moral issue of compelling importance seem, by and large, to be unable to go from that ethical realization to the obvious next step of giving up habits and lifestyle choices that actively harm the global ecosystem. Thus ethics are clearly not enough.

Among those few climate activists who have grasped the failure of knowledge and ethics, it’s common to hear the difficulty framed as a matter of will: if only they can find some way to motivate people to do what’s necessary, they think, people will change their ways and everything will be fine. That hasn’t worked any better than the other two notions. There are good reasons why it hasn’t worked; notably, most activists try to motivate people by threatening them with a really ugly future if they don’t change their ways, and this sort of rhetoric has been done to death for so long that it’s lost what clout it once had. Yet again, the issue of personal lifestyle choices casts a useful light: if activists who are perfectly willing to devote long hours on their own nickel to the cause can’t apply the same focused will to the task of changing their own lifestyles, will is clearly not enough.

It’s easy to dismiss all this as a matter of simple hypocrisy, but this doesn’t cover the territory either. We live in a hypocritical age, and one advantage that accrues from that fact is that most of my readers will be very familiar with the manifestations of hypocrisy in action. We’ve all seen hypocrites respond in plenty of different ways when they’re called on the mismatch between their words and their actions: the disarming smile, the sudden rage, the elaborate cover story, the sudden effort at distraction, and so on. A blank look like a cow staring at a passing train isn’t one of these—and yet that’s what I tend to get consistently when I bring up the failure of people to make the changes in their own lives their own rhetoric demands that others make.

The problem isn’t knowledge, then; it’s not ethics, and it’s not will. What remains?

Some decades ago, in a book far more often cited than read, historian of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out the role of paradigms in the process of scientific research. A paradigm, in Kuhn’s sense, is a particular scientific achievement that counts, in the eyes of scientists in one or more fields, as “good science.” For the scientific movement as a whole, for example, the research program carried out by Isaac Newton in the late seventeenth century, culminating in his epochal book Principia Mathematica, was for several centuries the paradigm par excellence, the epitome of good science; students in most sciences treated it as a model for imitation, not only in its procedures, but in the kinds of questions that it asked and the kinds of answers it got.

The difficulty with paradigm-driven science, though, is that no matter how good the procedures, questions, and answers mandated by any paradigm may be, sooner or later they stop yielding useful insights into nature. At this point whatever scientific field has relied on the paradigm in question slams facefirst into crisis; you see the endless circular debates, the frantic elaboration of existing theory, and all the other signs of a discipline that’s lost its way. In due time, somebody succeeds in solving some key problem the old paradigm couldn’t address, their achievement by and large becomes the new paradigm, and the cycle begins anew.

We’ll be discussing Kuhn and his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a great deal in posts to come, as it points out some of the crucial reasons why science remains stuck in so many unproductive ruts in our time. (Straightforward corruption by corporate and ideological interests accounts for most of the others.) The point I’d like to make here, though, is that Kuhn’s insight can be applied far beyond the boundaries of the sciences.

In every human society, every aspect of life is mapped out according to a paradigm of some kind, which defines what’s important, what’s relevant, what’s possible, and what’s unthinkable in that part of the world of human experience. This is by no means a wholly conscious process; it’s more akin to the habits of hearing by which most of us can tell when a musical note is out of tune, say, or the visceral discomfort most of us feel when some norm of our culture is violated. The more successfully a paradigm addresses its area of life, the less it’s likely to be noticed; it’s only when crisis comes, and the only way to deal with some pressing problem is ruled out by the paradigm of those who must confront that same problem, that the paradigm itself becomes fully conscious—and when it does, it generally loses its power to shape human behavior.

In every human society, in turn, all these subsidiary paradigms relate in one way or another to a more basic pattern—the society’s ur-paradigm, its concept of what it means to be a human being, which every member of that society either imitates or deliberately rejects. Concepts of this kind vary far more from culture to culture than most people ever quite grasp, and a good many of the failures in understanding between people of different cultures happen because each party tries to apply their own sense of what it means to be human to a person who doesn’t share that sense. Like scientific paradigms, though, these social ur-paradigms eventually stop yielding useful insights into the basic questions of existence; crisis comes, and a new paradigm has to be found.

We’re in the midst of exactly such a process in the industrial world today. Our core assumptions about what it means to be human, how we relate to the universe and how it relates to us, are well past their pull date; they no longer yield useful insights into the problems that beset us today. It’s because of that failure that the paradigm itself is becoming visible to us at last.

We could talk about that paradigm in a great many ways, but I’m going to suggest a deliberately edgy label for it: anthropolatry, the worship of humanity as a god.

Think about the blank looks I mentioned earlier in this post, the ones that show up on cue when I suggest the necessity of personal change to people—even to people who are well informed about the environmental crisis of our time, who grasp the moral issues involved, and who show in every other aspect of their lives the presence of adequate willpower to change their lives in response to a clearly recognized need. What lies behind those blank looks? A paradigm that insists that human beings are above nature—in the full literal sense of the word, supernatural—and therefore can’t possibly need to rethink their own choices for nature’s sake.

More broadly, think of the rhetoric that’s been lavished on our species over the years, especially back when you could get away with referring to the lot of us collectively as Man:  Man the measure of all things, Man the summit of creation, Man the conqueror of nature, and so on in an embarrassing parade of self-praise that lavishes on humanity pretty much all the characteristics that most other cultures have traditionally assigned to their gods.

The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that the scientific worldview that’s so often brandished by believers in the cult of anthropolatry contradicts this overblown image in every particular. Pay unbiased attention to the evidence from science, and it’s impossible to avoid realizing that humanity is simply a species of megafauna native to a single not very important planet. Like rats, crows, and feral swine, we’re invasive, omnivorous, and adaptable; we’ve evolved some unusual cognitive and behavioral tricks, but we’re not above or outside nature in any sense that matters. (Does that statement upset or offend you, dear reader? If so, why?)

We evolved from other species long after life emerged on this planet, and we’ll go extinct long before life dies out. However important we may be to ourselves and each other—just as rats are important to other rats, for good reason, and swine to other swine—in the greater scheme of things, we’re a temporary perturbation in the damp film that covers one small rocky world in an ordinary solar system on the fringes of an ordinary galaxy, and that’s all we will ever be. (Here again, dear reader, if that last statement upsets you, it may be worth asking yourself why.)

Most traditional religions embraced a similarly modest sense of our place in the cosmos, though the details differed for a range of reasons. The contemporary cult of anthropolatry, by contrast, insists that humanity is destined to bestride the stars, outlive the sun, give meaning and purpose to the cosmos, and so on. That enthusiastic embrace of the quality the ancient Greeks called “hubris” is its distinctive feature. It’s also its distinctive flaw, because—as an honest scientific assessment of our limited gifts and vast dependencies could have predicted a long time ago—the project of living like gods isn’t working too well for us these days. Despite the increasingly shrill claims of Man’s devout worshippers, what’s more, it shows no signs of working any better in the foreseeable future—quite the contrary, in fact.

The paradigm of anthropolatry thus faces a familiar crisis. Over the months to come, we’ll take a closer look at the way that humanity got assigned the dubious status of an ersatz god, explore the ongoing unraveling of that improbable ideology, and consider some of the possibilities for a new paradigm that fits our species with a less embarrassingly oversized role in the scheme of things.


For a number of years, John Michael Greer has written The Archdruid Report, a weekly blog on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society. He is the author of four books on peak oil -- The Long Descent, The Ecotechnic Future, The Wealth of Nature, and The Blood of the Earth -- as well as numerous books. He just started a new blog, Ecosophia.

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