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Both a Hero and a Villain: Human Goodness and Planet Earth

If you've been paying attention to the environmental movement over the past 30 years you will have noticed that one of the most powerful rhetorical appeals has been to vilify humans as the cause of both social and environmental problems.  For good reason!  In many cases humans are the cause of both social and environmental problems.  But knowing that humans are the cause of many social and environmental ills does not mean that humans (by virtue of their humanity) are destined to cause social and environmental ills.  In other words, it would be incorrect to conclude that all humans are evil even if we were to conclude that all evil is caused by humans.  Humanity has been both the villain and the hero over the course of history.

Vilifying humanity and by extension man's need to consume natural resources can be a rather dangerous component of environmental rhetoric.  Essentially, by vilifying humanity, environmental rhetoric can drive a wedge between solutions and those who must ultimately be responsible for creating and implementing solutions.  If I feel my presence is unwanted, or worse, is innately evil, it is going be to quite difficult to motivate me to collaborate with the universe that sees me as innately evil.

Generalizing "man" as environmental enemy is a vast oversimplification and ignores man as environmental steward and integral component.  We simply must recognize that we are NOT the enemy.  We are are brothers and sisters and even lovers.  We can be the best of friends, we can help each other, we can mourn for one another, we can sacrifice for each other.  Man is NOT the enemy, but we certainly can take on characteristics that are undoubtedly at odds with the world in which we live.  We can become consumed by greed, anger, envy, pride, or lust.  We can act selfishly.  We can do all of these things, but we can also do better.  Our humanity is not defined by our mistakes, but by our capacity to overcome those mistakes.

I particularly enjoyed the video below as a reminder of what we CAN do when consumed by those things that are at odds with the natural world, but I do not find it particularly useful to label the character in this animation, "MAN".  It is not man walking through this film, it is greed.  What I love most about my humanity is that I have choices.  I can choose to abandon greed as could the man in this film.  Many others would have done so, but they are left out of this film.  They would have tried to strip this man of greed.  They would have tried to control his greed.  They would have tried to save him NOT from his humanity, but from his vice.  We are much better than this!!

Vincent M. Smith - PhD


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Vincent_Smith Vincent Smith, chief author of The Organic Times Blog earned a bachelors degree in biology from his home state of Missouri, his Masters in Environmental Science from Oregon State University, and his Ph.D. in Environmental Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He now teaches at Southern Oregon University and conducts research on coupled human-natural systems. Vincent is responsible for many of the business aspects of Silent Springs as well as responsible for the research and resources offered on the site. When not teaching or running a business, Vincent enjoys spending time with family, gardening, and just being outdoors.
  • Mer

    Definitely some food for though! I think it's also helpful to try not to wholly separate man and natural things...it's sometimes hard but we need to remember that man is a part of the environment.

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