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Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism: Where do we Stand in Greater Yellowstone?

In this guest essay, Clint Nagel examines two world views of humanity’s role on planet Earth and in our own backyard

Illustrated stereotypes such as this of the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood have long contributed to a fear of nature called biophobia.
Illustrated stereotypes such as this of the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood have long contributed to a fear of nature called biophobia.
by Clint Nagel

What is man’s connection to nature? Throughout history, it’s been a long, complex and convoluted story characterized by those who revere all living things to those who have hastened the extinction of a species and given no thought about it. 

For many of us, our relationship with the natural world can be described in analytical terms, biophilia hypothesis, the belief that the orientation of man has the propensity to form a relationship with nature and all that is alive within it. In other words, man has a natural tendency to desire a relationship with every living thing in nature.

While that concept exhibited itself as early as the 18th and 19th centuries, during the Age of Enlightenment, one could argue the concept was observed well before that. But it wasn’t until Erick Fromm, a German-born psychoanalyst coining the phrase in 1973 whereby we had a name for it. In his writing, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, he discusses the human lust for cruelty, questioning our aggressive nature; is it inherent, or is it learned from our environment?

Shortly thereafter, a more prominent, well-known author and scientist by the name of Edward O. Wilson, published a book in 1984 named Biophilia. This American
E.O. Wilson's book "Biophilia" won two Pulitzer Prizes and contends that our affinity with nature connects us to other living things.
E.O. Wilson's book "Biophilia" won two Pulitzer Prizes and contends that our affinity with nature connects us to other living things.
ecologist/biologist has earned the respect of many in the conservation and environmental community today, some attributing him, as the Teton Science School did, as the father of biodiversity.” He trumpeted the critical role that biodiversity plays on our planet.

But as we know, relationships are a two-way street. Just as humans have an affinity for the natural world, others have developed a condition known as biophobia, or the fear of nature. This connection is perhaps more easily recognizable, more easily understood, such as the fear of predators or being in the wild. But as man and technology have evolved over time, our participation in the natural world has declined. We’ve removed ourselves from the close connection we once had with nature to the lifestyle we enjoy today, quite a contrast from whence we came. To counteract that sense of loss, many of us strive to get back to that original closeness we once had.

In doing so, the rush to get back to nature has run headlong into old stereotypes and beliefs about our environment, beliefs which have been deeply immersed in our society for generations. Examples of this ideology include the ill-will of predators and that our nation is a land of endless resources. The latter example helped develop the contrast between those who want to protect the environment and those who see it as a money-making proposition. Time has not changed this perception, which frustrates those who thought our society should have advanced further along in our ability to use science and conservation principles in the 21st century.

Instead, we live in a paradigm today whereby many believe our individual rights supersede those of the common good. That ideology has meshed nicely with the politicization of wildlife. This belief that I have precedence over that of others, especially wildlife, help feeds the selfish nature and perhaps the worst character of man. It’s a dangerous trend and one that has pushed into the backseat the application of the best available wildlife science and our longstanding conservation-minded principles. Humankind has sadly not learned to escape the prejudice, hate and racism over this nation’s two-and-a-half centuries. If anything, we have adopted those ills to new heights in the world of wildlife management. 
We live in a paradigm today whereby many believe our individual rights supersede those of the common good. That ideology has meshed nicely with the politicization of wildlife.
In today’s world, there seems to be a tendency by some to raise the ire, hatred or desire to extirpate certain species from the landscape. Perhaps they do so at unprecedented levels to gain attention, or to gain some notoriety. A philosophical phrase that describes this behavior is that of “speciesism,” the belief that certain species are inferior to others or that humans have the right to use nonhumans as we see fit. We should abhor such ignorance and arrogance. Much of this prejudice, though not all, is exacerbated by special interest groups, those who have either a financial or personal interest to pit one species against another.

This dichotomy of wildlife conservation has also resulted in direct attacks on predators, with the belief they are deserving of man’s historical brutality. The fact those attacks are based upon hatred and fear, many of which have derived from our European ancestry, makes no difference. The pervasive feeling that the only good predator is a dead predator has been the norm throughout the American West for centuries, much of that from the Manifest Destiny idea of taming the West.
Just as humans have an affinity for the natural world, others have developed a condition known as biophobia, or the fear of nature.
But this sensational desire to kill predators has upset the ecological balance across our largest ecosystems. It is prevalent today like no other. It is a direct result of man manipulating the conversation, allowing our fears and superstitions to drive the political discourse, rather than utilizing the best scientific rationale to drive policy. Basically, some in our society believe we have the right to overrule the laws of nature for the benefit of mankind, and by doing so we can also extirpate those that cause harm as we perceive it.

However, this belief is not held just for predators; it has evolved toward other species as well, such as our National Mammal, the bison. Any species which we perceive interferes with our private operational or transactional interest on public land is vilified. Rather than allow science to dictate terms of wildlife management, it is the perception that rules the day. All beliefs and falsehoods get sucked into the world of politics by those willing to use public land to exploit or extract resources for personal enjoyment, wealth or gain. And when those same groups gain power and influence over the decision-making process such as the last two legislative sessions in Montana, then you have the politicization of wildlife.
All beliefs and falsehoods get sucked into the world of politics by those willing to use public land to exploit or extract resources for personal enjoyment, wealth or gain.
There are even some entities, agencies and NGOs that carry wildlife in their name, and who are solely dependent upon a species’ monetary value. Small species, those non-game species, are less important to manage or protect because they don’t provide a source of income or sport to the program, so they are either expendable or ignored. When this rationale is used in our wildlife management, it shows a failure to understand the world in which we live, the planet upon which we depend.

It is time to renew our pledge to become better stewards of our planet and its biodiversity, much like that which E. O. Wilson taught years ago. If we don’t, we will constantly fail in our greatest global and domestic challenge: to preserve the life-giving functional processes of planet Earth. If we can’t live among our fellow inhabitants on this planet, we have failed ourselves.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Clint Nagel
About Clint Nagel

Clint Nagel is president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association of Bozeman, Montana. He retired after 31 years of full time work with the U.S. Geological Survey and works feverishly along with others to protect wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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