Environment & energy, Food & water, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia, The World

26 June 2020

Despite attempts at building an eco-centric definition of sustainability, it is still human interest that always comes above the environment for policymakers, Kanika Jamwal writes.

Earlier this month, a pregnant elephant was murdered in Kerala by unidentified miscreants who fed her a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers. An alternate, equally gruesome version of the incident has surfaced, that the pineapple was placed to hunt and kill wild boars, and the elephant consuming it was an unfortunate coincidence.

This is not a one-off incident; it is a traditional hunting technique still prevalent. Ironically enough, the theme for the 2020 World Environment Day, which falls on 5 June every year, was ‘Celebrating biodiversity’.

This problem is global. In the summer, Australia’s bushfires destroyed several species of flora and fauna, and a similar scenario was observed in the recent forest fires in Uttarakhand. These varied incidents reveal a common concern: the increasing materialisation of catastrophic consequences of humankind’s negligent interference with the non-human environment. Such interference is nurtured by systemic anthropocentrism.

Anthropocentrism takes the position that humankind is the most significant entity in the world and informs the hierarchisation of human over the non-human environment. Consequently, thus far, humankind has exploited natural resources to secure its own interests, which has had severe impacts on the non-human environment. In fact, based on these noticeable impacts, Paul Crutzen termed the current geological epoch as the ‘Anthropocene’.

More on this: Building a resilient and sustainable future

Anthropocentrism is systemic because it runs deep and apprises human decisions at all fronts, whether they be social, legal, political, or economic and, at all levels, individual, national, and global.

Unfortunately, deeply entrenched anthropocentrism has even infiltrated conservationist efforts, and only a deliberate movement towards eco-centrism can counterbalance this, and foster a sense of respect for the non-human environment.

The widely adopted definition of sustainable development is itself anthropocentric, for it prescribes for judicious use of natural resources such that the development needs of the present generation are met, while leaving enough for the future generation to meet their own needs.

By limiting environmental protection in so far as it is instrumental to satisfying human interests, the definition does not account for nature’s intrinsic value or its worth beyond such its usefulness to humans.

Despite the fact that occasional provisions in the Convention on Biological Diversity are eco-centric – that is, they acknowledge the intrinsic value of non-human environment – calls for conservation are often deeply rooted in anthropocentric interests.

More on this: India’s road to a sustainable energy future

Notably, of the three objectives of the Convention, two are blatantly anthropocentric, in so far as they aim for sustainable use of components of biological diversity and, fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.

Expectedly, the Convention’s definition of sustainable use precludes the long-term deterioration of biological diversity, but crucially, it qualifies that this is in order to maintain its potential to meet the needs of the future and the present generation.

Closer to home, seemingly eco-centric judicial decisions reveal compelling anthropocentric undercurrents.

To illustrate, in Indonesia the case of Animal Welfare Board of India v A Nagaraja, banned the use of bulls for the sport of Jallikattu, and recognised that while every species, including animals, have a right to life, for animals this is subject to the exception of human necessity.

Effectively, it placed human interests over animal life, reinforcing the very anthropocentrism it was endeavouring to overhaul.

In addition to this, an analysis of the five ideological trends in the Indian environmental movement, reveals that only one of these trends was eco-centric – the wilderness movement.

The wilderness movement furthered the idea of species equality and concomitantly urged remedial action aimed at conserving biological diversity. However, it had a limited role in the Indian environmental movement, and the rest of the movement was dominantly shaped by three other inherently anthropocentric trends.

To counterbalance such long-standing, forceful anthropocentric tendencies, mainstreaming eco-centrism in all policy-making decisions, at all levels, is the only potentially effective solution. Unless that happens, the argument of human necessity will continue to trump ecological interests and reinforce anthropocentric superiority over the non-human environment.

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