A little before Christmas, Andrew Copson and Alice Roberts, Chief Executive and President of Humanists UK respectively, hosted an online discussion following the publication in 2020 of their new book entitled The Little Book of Humanism. I was very glad to be able to participate in this discussion and to raise a question relating to how humanists respond to the threat posed by climate chaos. The book itself and the answers I received to my question have prompted me to write what follows.
The ‘Little Book’ is essentially a collection of humanist thinking and ideas from the present day and earlier. The first chapter is entitled ‘Children of Earth’ and it was this that raised some concerns for me about how humanists respond to environmental issues. The chapter highlights – albeit perhaps unwittingly – what I believe to be a serious challenge for humanists on the road ahead.
Full of different quotations, some centuries old, from luminaries as diverse as George Elliot and Terry Pratchett, the chapter reflects a common ‘biophiliac’ assumption that as humans we all feel deeply bonded to the natural world. It seems reasonably uncontroversial to say that people generally do appreciate the natural world around them. But the elephant in the room here has to be the fact that this in no way captures the reality of our human relationship with the ‘pale blue dot’ that is our home. Put simply, whilst humanists – and many others – may wish to live ethically and sustainably, humans en masse by and large do not, or at least have not done so through much of human history.
I will admit to my disappointment in ‘The Little Book’ in this one respect, therefore: it seems to me that it really doesn’t matter if my children love to climb trees when so much evidence shows that the so-called anthropocene is a testimony to how we as human beings have moved through the earth for millennia – and continue to do so – to the huge detriment of, let’s say, at least 75% of other living organisms.
It is undeniable that we face a human-made climate crisis unprecedented in all recorded history. Humanists must surely have a clear role in speaking to what Abraham Lincoln once referred to as ‘the better angels of our nature’ as we face this challenge. After all, human beings do have the capacity to better their own futures; this is something that can be done in a way that respects the natural world both now and for the future.
But the human attributes that humanists see as beneficial – our human capacity for reason, our ability to imagine new things, to find answers to the problems of living, our industry, our creativity – all these attributes are just as implicated in climate change (and, for that matter, in the creation of the inter-continental slave trade in the C17th and the atomic bomb in the C20th) as they are in the founding of modern liberal-democratic governments, in the writing of Plato’s Republic or Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene.
What this otherwise very engaging little book neglects to assert therefore is that it is incumbent upon all of us to face up to the greatest challenge ahead for humanity, that being to respond robustly and with understanding and self-compassion to our own failings as humans and to use our abilities to make life sustainable for all living things.
This task does not require us to be more than human; however, it does require from us that we become a different kind of human. And much of this will depend upon the values we teach our children – and that they teach us – and not simply on the grades that our failed education system can squeeze out of high school and university graduates. It depends too on how we value ourselves, as reflected in what we produce, not just on the share of the profit we take from our industry.