Climate change

The worrying rise of anti-humanism

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‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated’. These words were written in a cable by the author Mark Twain after his obituary had been mistakenly published. The idea that the left-right binary no longer exists, like the above anecdote, has been deployed ubiquitously. 

Except for David Goodhart’s fascinating concept of “somewheres” versus “anywheres”, journalists have been unable to identify a new binary that is holistic enough to encapsulate the complexities of modern British politics. Instead of this, to borrow from Gramsci, ‘a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’ and many smaller divisions have become increasingly apparent. One of the most notable, that can be identified best in the climate debate, is the dichotomy between humanism and anti-humanism.

Sometimes the designation of humanist, like that of “spiritual but not religious” seems obtuse and frankly pretentious. Definitions of both concepts are either so watered down as to make them functionally meaningless and banal, or merely defined in opposition to other beliefs like materialism or the supernatural.

However, there are some constituent parts associated with being a humanist that is both clear and potentially polarising. These are the ideas that the humanist places ‘human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making’ and has ‘a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality’. 

Anti-humanism is, therefore, the willingness to view humans as subjects to be managed for an abstract greater good outside of humanity itself. The rise of anti-humanism is a worrying trend and should be challenged. 

This brings us to Prince Charles and his sister Princess Anne. In a recent interview with Women’s Weekly, The Princess Royal revealed that she and Charles have fierce disagreements about farming, specifically the utility of genetically modified (GM) crops. In her typically terse style, Princess Anne stated that arguments with her brother on the issue of GM are ‘rather short’. What is more interesting perhaps than their views on the topic, is how Princess Anne frames her views in a humanist way whilst her brother adopts an avowedly anti-humanist stance.

Anne argues that ‘it has been an enormous advantage to many parts of the world to use GM’ and has been proven completely right. Her assessment is strengthened by the science writer Ed Regis. Regis’ book shows that if the genetically modified “Golden Rice” had been distributed when it was developed twenty years ago, millions of preventable deaths would have been avoided. 

When Anne speaks of the ‘many parts of the world’ GM could help, she is referring to the people who live in these parts of the world with whom her sympathy appears to lie. 

This human-centred focus becomes clear when Anne argues that the First Nations people of Australia are the people best placed to help deal with the wildfires that raged last year, as they ‘have a much better understanding of what the dangers are, and fire would have been a massive danger throughout their existence’. Such insistence on the autonomy of the First Nations people illustrates truly humanist support for their right to exercise sovereignty over their surrounding natural environment.

By contrast, whenever Prince Charles mentions people, or more accurately, poor people in his views about the world, they are always stripped of agency and presented as a problem to be overcome. In a recent speech to Davos, he stated that much of his life was dedicated to ‘the restoration of harmony between humanity, nature and the environment’. One does not have to subscribe to Tennyson’s image of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ to be at least somewhat unwilling to restore the ‘harmony’ of the past when it comes to nature and the environment. 

This is not to mention the fact that the Prince has relegated humanity to being less important than nature and the environment combined. Vague mentions of humanity aside, many of the allusions to specific groups of people refer to amorphous ‘consumers’ who apparently ‘demand sustainable products’ and ‘deserve to be told more about their product life cycles’. 

Meanwhile, he very subtly reveals his willingness to harm the most economically vulnerable through his denunciation of ‘perverse subsidies’ of fossil fuels which exist in various nations across the globe. Egypt is one nation that, admittedly for largely mercenary reasons and with the enthusiastic support of the IMF, has acted on this kind of suggestion and slashed their fuel subsidies. Unsurprisingly such a policy hits the bottom 60% of the Egyptian population – who are classified as being in poverty – the hardest. 

The above is not to suggest that climate activists are anti-humanists and their opponents are humanists. Environmentalism, like so many other issues, has its humanist and anti-humanist wings. The kind of eco-management preached by Prince Charles is different from the laudable environmental Keynesianism championed by politicians of different stripes across the globe. Sadly, however, advocates of the latter often find themselves defending or even unknowingly backing the ideas of the former.

Prince Charles is wrong: nature is not ‘the true engine of our economy’ nor our society in general. That honour instead goes to humanity. Though he completely failed to live up to his own ideal, Trotsky provides the best rebuttal to the views of anti-humanists, particularly when it comes to environmental issues, in his claim that the ‘end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and decreasing the power of man over man’.

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