From ISLE 1.1 (Spring 1993); reprinted in The Isle Reader (University of Georgia Press, 2003)




Harold Fromm


            All life continues in existence by feeding on other life, favoring itself at the expense of everything else. Though crude, depressing, insane, no way has yet been found to circumvent this enabling murderousness--except by means of upbeat redescriptions, like "image of God," "realm of freedom," "new world order." Thus, mice, rats, cockroaches, and the AIDS virus look to their own survival at all costs, and people are necessarily anthropocentric. Biocentrism, a recent invention that one might call "cosmic pro-lifeism," entails the redescribed alter-egos of certain types of well-fed, bourgeois anthropocentrists, more or less freed from the struggle for survival, and now with time on their hands for romancing the wild from which they have been emancipated by the technology that keeps them alive with little effort, but which they frequently profess to hate. Indeed, Aldo Leopold, a pretty straight-talker, in his introduction to A Sand County Almanac says of "wild things," "These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast." But do real biocentrists eat breakfast, or anything at all? For the authentic inaugurating act of a would-be biocentrist should properly consist of suicide, since by staying alive he uses up another creature's resources--even its very life. To be alive, it would seem, is to be against life, or at least everyone else's life except one's own. But nobody appears to be doing themselves in out of biocentric remorse. On the contrary, "biocentrists"  consume paper, electricity, computer products, as well as food (and jet fuel to attend conferences) just like ordinary people (and jet fuel could be said to have been made available not just by the ancient deaths of fossils but by the recent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis). Biocentrism begins to look a lot like one more redescription of the anthropocentric will-to-power, with an agenda whose worldly underpinnings are conveniently muffled by transcendental neologisms. In a word, a lot like conventional religiosity. Instead of the "will of God," one invokes the "will of the biota."

            Still, even Roderick Nash in The Rights of Nature is ready to concede that "no environmentalist seeks literal equality for the subjects of his or her concern," but such a concession (that one may perhaps be a little bit anthropocentric) is tantamount to admitting that one may be only a little bit pregnant. Because once a "biocentrist" is free to pick and choose, there is little to distinguish him from vulgar anthropocentrists, who also pick and choose, since very few people are total monsters of depravity. Though I myself sometimes step on ants and take anti-biotics to murder bodily invaders, I certainly don't ever step on dogs and cats.  What must I really not step on to qualify as a bonafide biocentrist? The toes of other biocentrists? But I shouldn't say "other biocentrists," because like Aldo Leopold, I'm just an anthropocentrist.

            Why then did I put ironic quotation marks around "anthropocentrist" in referring to Leopold in the title of this paper? Not because Leopold is not really an anthropocentrist. But because everybody is an anthropocentrist, except corpses pushing up daisies: they are the real biocentrists, giving their all so others can live. When John Muir talks about "thinking like a glacier," or when Leopold talks about "thinking like a mountain," they are engaging in quintessentially anthropocentric appropriations of reality, for to think like glaciers or mountains is already to have nothing to do with those things and everything to do with people. Only a person can think like a mountain, and that thinker is inevitably someone whose genetic inheritance is to think like an anthropos, never more thoroughly than when he is "thinking like a mountain." Biocentric terms like "ecological egalitarianism," "inherent value," "a sense of place," "bioregionalism," "ecosystem," "sacred space," "aesthetic experience of the wilderness," "caring about nature" (all of which I've taken from Devall and Sessions' Deep Ecology), are saturated through and through with the anthropocentrism of creatures constructed like us. To attempt to think "biocentrically" is to try to sneak a look through the back door of the universe so quickly that one's observations would escape the indeterminacy principle and one would see things as they really are in their unseen selves. But things as they really are in their unseen selves are presumably not perceptions or thoughts. No matter how empathetically we try to apprehend noumena on the sly, the act of knowing in itself transforms them into phenomena, that is, into humanized interests. If it is therefore impossible for human beings to know the intrinsic interests of animals and trees (because knowing is the quintessential anthropocentric act of appropriation), perhaps when we talk about the interests of trees we are really talking about our own interests, as when we used to talk about the will of God. This is not to say that there is no difference between selfishness and unselfishness, between inhumaneness and humaneness. Rather, even unselfishness (call it "biocentrism" if you wish) derives its force from a context of human interests in which neither trees nor animals participate. Yet despite this interestedness, only human beings have displayed the faculty of empathy with the rest of creation, an empathy entertained by no other species, however much it is a projection of human pathos upon unknowable "others."

            The paternity behind much of today's rights-based and deep-ecological ethics is Aldo Leopold's pioneering work, A Sand County Almanac, written during the course of many years before being published posthumously in 1949. Since this book has now achieved almost scriptural status, a brief but revisionary glance at its purported biocentrism is needed in order to correct what has latterly become an out-of-context misappropriation  of a few germinal sentences from the section called "The Land Ethic."

            In this by-now excessively quoted chapter, Leopold introduces (or reintroduces) for his contemporaries the idea that the use of the earth solely as an economic resource will eventually destroy both it and us. Ethics, therefore, must be extended to include "soils, waters, plants, and animals," and humans must change their role from "conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it"(204). His most cited statement is that "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise"(224-5). These remarks, which are made in the course of a rich and well-considered account of contemporary ecological deterioration (and things were much less dire when Leopold wrote than they are now) have been taken up as part of a new set of doctrinal imperatives by a number of recent biocentric ecologists. Leopold's aim, however, was to show the extent to which society's response to nature had been determined almost exclusively by economic considerations throughout the colonial and post-colonial periods of United States history. To redress this imbalance, therefore, he warns us "1) That land is not merely soil. 2) That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not. 3) That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen"(218). After outlining the character of "the land pyramid" and the operation of its food chain in order to suggest this comprehensiveness, he concludes with a summary: "A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual [as opposed to purely governmental] responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity"(221) At the time he makes his famous remark about "integrity, stability, and beauty," he has been urging his readers to take into account not just economics (which he concedes will always be foremost) but "what is ethically and esthetically right" as well. In other words, trying to counterbalance the overwhelming force of almost universal ecological short-sightedness in the 1930's and '40's, he allows himself a moment of dogmatic insistence on the longer perspective.

            But Leopold's now almost Mosaic criteria, far from being inscribed on sacred tablets derived from the biota itself, are rooted in ultimately anthropocentric concepts that have been newly refurbished by environmental proselytes to serve as "revelatory" foundations for a contemporary eco-theology. Taken as absolutes lifted from the needs of Leopold's rhetorical context, however, these criteria pose serious problems. The notion of "wholeness" or "integrity," for example, has come in for a good deal of post-structuralist criticism, particularly in connection with the old "New Criticism's" touchstone of "organic unity," but it is also generally dismissed in other fields besides the literary. Understood to exist in the mind of the beholder, who selects a number of qualities and data to stand for the whole while ignoring everything else, integrity or wholeness are nowadays seen as purely conventional moments of understanding, not aspects of "reality." Could anyone ever expect to enumerate all the possible qualities and data that might be said to inhere in any given entity or system? Indeed, to name them is in large measure to create them, since colors, textures, relationships, etc., are mind-dependent. And if an entity's essential characteristics cannot be finitely identified, how can anything be proclaimed to be a system or whole? ("O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer," asked Yeats, "Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?" And what about the chemical transactions of symbiotic micro-organisms?) Thus, the qualities and data involved in describing a system would appear to have little to do with "nature" and a lot to do with the cultural history and teleological interests of the describer. As for "stability," the belief that ecosystems are stable is no longer generally supportable. Daniel Botkin, having devoted an entire book to demonstrating the falsity of this idea, explains how stability, in a case like that of ecosystems, is attuned to human perceptions of what is relatively enduring (from a short-term perspective) in a constantly changing material universe. "Wherever we seek to find constancy we discover change", a phenomenon that Botkin illustrates over and over again in his discussions of forests, predators and prey, winds, fire, elephant preserves, and birds. By the end of his book, the idea of "nature undisturbed" seems like an incomprehensible contradiction in terms. As for "beauty," it is too obviously culturally determined and consciousness-generated to require comment. (John Passmore points out that wild alpine landscapes were regarded as junk vegetation before the late eighteenth century, and owe their aesthetic appeal to the cultural program of the Romantics.) Perhaps speaking in a figural way one could say Leopold's outlook is "biocentric" as compared with the traditional attitudes that he criticizes, but when his entire book is taken into account Leopold's preoccupations look simply like another set of human interests, different from those of General Motors and Exxon, and almost certainly better for the world of human beings in the long run, but anthropocentric nonetheless.

            Benign as A Sand County Almanac may be overall in its aim of preserving a usable and beautiful world, it has a regressive side as well. Leopold can at times appear to extol the preservation of "systems" at the cost of the individual members, with all of the transcendental religious implications that are present in such viewpoints. Although at first glance such positions may seem "biocentric" and "disinterested" in their apparent put-down of people, they can also be seen as a form of elitist, gnostic transcendentalism, related to Leopold's powerful response to natural phenomena, which he wants to preserve for aesthetic contemplation and defend from the invading, democratized rabble, with their motorcars, high-tech sports equipment, and sports columnists who tell them where the fish are biting. (It's not for nothing that the essays recently collected as The River of the Mother of God keep referring to "Mr. Babbitt," Sinclair Lewis's arch philistine, or to the mass mind, or to Ortega Y Gassett's The Revolt of the Masses. Leopold, alive today, would never pass muster as a spokesman for political correctness.) Indeed, despite his precursorship of today's "biocentrism," with its pretensions to cosmic egalitarianism, Leopold has no objection to killing for sport and can talk, just like you or me, about "worthless" grasses and vegetation. His "thinking like a mountain" is actually an expression of concern for the destruction of mountain vegetation by a deer population allowed to grow because human beings have killed their natural predators, the wolves. Because this denuding of mountains is in the long run harmful to various human interests, the aesthetic as well as the ecological, he believes that predators must be allowed to flourish. Although most of Leopold's strictures would in fact benefit the human race at large, his own interest in them often betrays the concerns of an elite, high-toned sportsman with exquisite aesthetic tastes verging on mysticism, though a mysticism sorely compromised by a powerfully atavistic (to use his own word) attachment to hunting that begins to trouble him only late in his life. (In his essay, "Goose Music," from the collection Round River, he rhapsodizes over the flights and sounds of geese while simultaneously extolling the pleasures of shooting them, a paradox he doesn't attempt to iron out.)  In sum, there is more ideological complexity and affective strife in Leopold's many-faceted book than is suggested by the handful of ecological imperatives that have been abstracted from it in the interests of postmodern biocentric politics. Indeed, the need to appropriate Leopold for what they prefer to call "non-instrumental" values drives even such philosophers as J. B. Callicott and Eugene Hargrove to criticize some readers of "The Land Ethic" for describing Leopold as anthropocentric, even though they concede such a reading is easily possible. Recently, they have jointly remarked that Leopold's program there and elsewhere was "primarily motivated by aesthetic concerns, rather than concerns about human welfare. Thus [reading these writings] as grounded in instrumental rather than the intrinsic value of wild nature does not correctly represent Leopold's views as they historically developed." But aesthetic response is the most powerfully anthropocentric interest of all, produced as it is by the very nature and operation of our bodies and psyches: our metabolism, sense mechanisms, heart rate, sexuality, braincells, and enculturation in temporal human societies. The "beauty of nature," strictly a "human interest" (however indirectly instrumental), leaves geese and bats quite cold.

            Drawn to evolutionary biology to satisfy his frustrated religious longings, viewing the universe through aesthetic glasses and thus disdainful of capitalism's cash nexus while at the same time acknowledging its inevitability (and its attractive side as well), caught somewhere between a down-home concern for the future of human life and a type of intellectualist snobbery, Leopold would very likely have a few wry words for today's Luddite, misanthropic, biocentrists. Call him what you will, it is Leopold's highbrow anthropocentrism, with all its unresolved contradictions, that finally makes him so ambiguously attractive.



Botkin, Daniel B. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology For the Twenty-first Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

DeVall, Bill and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattere. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1985.

Hargrove, Eugene C. and J. Baird Callicott. “Leopold’s ‘Means and Ends in Wild Life Management.’” Environmental Ethics 12 (Winter 1990) 333-37.

Leopold, Aldo.  A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____­_______The River of the Mother of Godand Other Essays.  Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

____________Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. New York: Oxford UP, 1953.

Nash, Roderick Frazier. The Rights of Nature. Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Passmore, John. Man’s Responsibility for Nature. New York: Scribner’s, 1974.