My current article in Environmental Values (online first, 2022), ‘Anthropocentrism, Ecocentrism and Hunter-Gatherer Societies: A Strong Structurationist Approach to Values and Environmental Change’ takes a hard look at the relationship between orientation toward nature and environmental change. The article critiques the thesis that anthropocentrism – the idea that only human interests are relevant and that the rest of nature can be treated with moral indifference – is the underlying cause of the contemporary ecological crisis. The latter claim is frequently validated by referencing the low environmental impact and non-anthropocentric orientation to nature of small-scale societies, particularly hunter-gatherers. However, I point out that the anthropological literature demonstrates that the low levels of environmental change often associated with small-scale societies are largely due to the unintended consequences of other factors, most notably the technologies employed and population size. Most importantly though, my article is concerned with showing how the ‘anthropocentrism thesis’ employs a simplistic conception of both the agent and the role of values in the generation of environmental change. I demonstrate that strong structuration theory might inform a more fruitful approach. Rather than dismissing values in favour of more structural or material accounts, the strong structurationist approach articulated considers the role of the ‘inner’values, beliefs and knowledge (as part of the agent’s wider hermeneutic frame) in the context of ‘external’ structures (social, technical and physical/ecological) in the production of anthropogenic environmental change.
As the editor of The Journal of Population and Sustainability (also part of the White Horse stable) my personal approach to the role of demographic factors such as population size and migration draws heavily on a strong structurationist perspective and, more normatively, emphasises that values and human welfare are central to any transition to environmental sustainability. This clearly anthropocentric approach needs to be delineated from the caricature of anthropocentrism of which my EV article is critical, since clearly such a narrow and arrogant anthropocentrism would be antithetical to human welfare and a more expansively defined good life.
In contrast, what we might call ‘ecologically enlightened anthropocentrism’ has no foundational pretensions and, by adopting a philosophically pragmatist approach (Rorty, 1991), side-steps questions of intrinsic value and the ‘authentically’ good life, accepting that these cannot be decided outside of social discourse. Many would accept that defining the “good life” must be the outcome of articulation and negotiation, but may be more sceptical about the same being said of defining what is meant by “nature”. My own concern is for the natural world that exists now, or more accurately perhaps, that which existed in some not-so-distant past. This will include parts of the world which have been subject to thousands of years of human manipulation as well as areas regarded as ‘pristine’ wilderness (even though such areas are often the product of millennia of human management often by small-scale societies). More broadly and abstractly, I am concerned, as I also assume are most environmentalists, with the preservation of the conditions of Holocene, not with some other past or future epoch devoid of Homo sapiens.
This still leaves the question of what the future natural and social world looks like relatively open, but clearly more ‘material’ or external structural questions of population size and systemic planetary boundaries are critical to the nature of the “good life” to be enjoyed by all and to the kind of natural environment we wish for. Many have attempted to arrive at figures for an environmentally sustainable population and furnished figures typically ranging from 1 to 3 billion depending upon the assumptions on the level of welfare, the socio-technical systems for providing it and its distribution as well as the extent of anthropogenic manipulation of ‘nature’. Personally, I do not find these optimum population calculations particularly enlightening due to their sensitivity to initial technical and value assumptions.
Nonetheless, the importance of population size is endorsed by recent work (O’Neill et al., 2018) that suggests a good life for all within planetary boundaries (Rockstrom et al. 2009) might be enjoyed by 7 billion but not many more. The authors show that redistribution alone cannot sustainably meet the basic welfare needs of the current population (nearly 8 billion), and while a complete revision of socio-technical systems accompanied by a shift from high consumption norms to a focus on sufficiency could provide good welfare to 7 billion, it is not likely that this can be achieved for many billions more without further breaching critical planetary boundaries. Of course, the value assumptions of this model (and indeed the model upon which it draws), such as global equality of welfare, are just as critical as in those studies to which I previously referred, but such calculations do give us cause to be mindful of the potential trade-offs between welfare, population size and environmental change. Clearly then, it is equally easy to imagine a range of future population sizes from that where the (perhaps uneven) meeting of basic human needs takes place under barely tolerable but stable global systemic environmental conditions, perhaps with the significant loss of biodiversity, to one where we and other species might flourish. While the precise sizes of these populations remain debatable, it is evident that future population size is an important consideration for universal sustainable welfare.
Yet, despite the fact that population growth is universally scientifically acknowledged to be, amongst other factors, a significant driver of environmental change, calls to pre-emptively tackle it divide environmentalists. Those who oppose active population policy frequently characterise the issue as a struggle between Neo-Malthusians, who catastrophise population growth as breaching natural limits, and Anti-Malthusians who see population policy as a morally perilous and futile struggle against intractable forces, and the “population problem” as one of unequal resource distribution rather than absolute scarcity.
However, the characterisation of debate as polarised between Malthusians and anti-Malthusians is not only unhelpful but misconceived – few concerned with human population size are in fact Malthusians. Historically, the majority of discussions of Malthus’ essay on population have not been focussed upon population size or growth as such, but on his reactionary conservative position on the unavoidability of poverty and low welfare for a large section of the population. Malthus’ objective was to show that Godwin’s and de Condercet’s ideas of the ‘perfectibility of man’ were mistaken and that a combination of natural limits and human nature would inescapably determine the poverty and misery of a significant proportion of society.
Marx’s scathing critique of Malthus correctly pointed out that there is nothing ‘natural’ about poverty and scarcity, that they are a product of exploitative social systems and can be solved through system change, technical progress and equitable distribution – an argument which is still pertinent today and shared by many of those in favour of population policies as well by as those who oppose them. Marx’s key insight was that there are no abstract natural laws of population when applied to behaviourally modern homo sapiens (in the anthropological sense), only ones arising from the particular historical conjuncture. Clearly, this does not exclude the idea that there are natural boundaries to be negotiated in the achievement of good welfare, and indeed it is clear that Marx’s understanding of natural limits and the ability of humans to transcend them was more nuanced than traditionally portrayed (Saito 2017).
Joel Cohen makes a similar, although less structurally deterministic, point when he argues that the idea of ‘carrying capacity’ is a specious notion when applied to human beings. He argues that the Earth’s capacity to support human beings is the outcome of both natural factors and the aggregated choices made by individuals during the conduct of everyday life (Cohen 2017). Cohen’s observation is important, but his emphasis on ‘choice’ may convey too much of a sense of voluntarism. Environmental change is largely the unintended consequence of everyday social practices, some of which may involve a moment of choice, but the majority of which are habitual and conducted in socio-technical contexts of which agents may have limited knowledge and little or no control. This lack of control may in part be due to their structural position in the (global) social hierarchy, and as such, this approach accommodates the role of social power in the production and reproduction of social norms and practices.
Obviously, since habitual social practices are a result of deeply embedded social norms, they are potentially amenable to change via a range of different policy interventions. But most importantly for this discussion, social norms are also critical in perpetuating or slowing the reduction of high fertility rates (Dasgupta and Dasgupta 2017). It is important to remind ourselves that so called ‘demographic transition’ from high to low mortality and fertility is not a universal law of nature taking place behind the backs of agents but the intended and unintended outcome of actions and choices conditioned by norms and values as well as the operation of structures of power and domination.
Fertility outcomes may be the product of deliberative choice, but, as with all social practices, they are conditioned and influenced by the social context in which the agent is embedded. This context will include accepted social expectations, such as norms around family size and gendered roles, as well as much more overtly oppressive patriarchal structures and value systems such as perpetuating child marriage, restricting access to contraception, preventing female participation in the labour force etc. That these social norms should be regarded as sacrosanct from the Western liberal tradition which regards the individual as sovereign, or the equally Western idea of absolute cultural autonomy, seems problematic. Perhaps most importantly, we know that in the face of environmental change high rates of population growth have a negative impact on resilience and adaptive capacity which especially adversely affects the welfare of children and women (Beegle and Christianensen 2019; Price 2020).
We see then that any discussion of population size and environmental sustainability involves not just the consideration of planetary boundaries, but also highly normative issues surrounding questions of human welfare and welfare inequality, notions of the good life, issues of the autonomy of the individual versus wider collective interests, the valuation of “nature” in its multiple definitions and much more. These are intellectually, socially and ethically complex and challenging issues involving compromises, trade-offs and potentially problematic power dynamics. However, given what is at stake, it is imperative that we should not treat it as taboo and close our minds to critical examination of our own value assumptions.
Beegle, K. and L. Christiaensen. 2019. Accelerating Poverty Reduction in Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/32354 (accessed 29 November 2021).
Cohen, J. 2017. ‘How many people can the Earth support?’. The Journal of Population and Sustainability 2 (1): 37–42. https://doi.org/10.3197/jps.2017.2.1.37.
Dasgupta, P. and A. Dasgupta. 2017 ‘Socially embedded preferences, environmental externalities, and reproductive rights’. Population and Development Review 43 (3): 405–441
Kidner, D., 2014. ‘Why ‘anthropocentrism’ is not anthropocentric’. Dialectical Anthropology 38: 465–480. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-014-9345-2
O’Neill, D.W., et al. 2018. ‘A good life for all within planetary boundaries’. Nature Sustainability 1: 88–95.
Price, R.A. 2020. The Linkages between Population Change and Climate Change in Africa. K4D Helpdesk Report 900. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.
Rockström, J. et al.2009. ‘A safe operating space for humanity’. Nature 461: 472–475.
Rorty, R. 1991. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saito, K. 2017. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Samways, D. 2022 (online first). ‘Anthropocentrism, ecocentrism and hunter-gatherer societies: A strong structurationist approach to values and environmental change’. Environmental Values: https://doi.org/10.3197/096327122X16491521047062