The Big Picture: Anthropocentrism, Essential Psychopathy, and Ecocide

Richard Posner I Ecology & Sustainability I Commentary I January 8th, 2014

Kind reader;

Being a self-educated generalist, it has long been my practice to wade in the shallows of many disciplines rather than plunging into and fully immersing myself in any one. I think this has served me fairly well since I have consequently not been restrained by the bounds of specialisation. I have not drowned myself in the depths of any single field of study to the exclusion of all others.

It's my opinion that being a generalist enhances one's ability to take a broader view of Life, its tumultuous history and seemingly endless mutability. It enables one to more readily see "the big picture".

You may note, and I trust it will not be too disconcerting, that I follow something of a non-linear path with this essay. That's simply because that's how it was conceived and consequently presented.

I may occasionally diverge from the specific subject of any given section to temporarily pursue a tangential but relevant thought, only to return a paragraph or two later.

There may also be some instances of redundancy, which simply means I feel that certain points warrant repetition.

The Rise of the Human Empire

"Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth."

- Albert Schweitzer

A basic rule of thumb in evolution seems to be: the larger and more complex the organism, the more slowly it adapts to changes in the environment and, consequently, the longer its evolutionary path. With a very short generational time line, a virus may mutate in a matter of days or even hours while a creature like a whale, or a human, with generations lasting many years, may require hundreds or even thousands of those long generations to undergo any widespread, substantial, physiological alteration.

All the creatures of Earth that have come and gone over a span of years numbered in hundreds of millions, excepting only Homo sapiens, have either succeeded or failed while attempting to adapt and evolve to the environmental changes Nature has thrown at them. Our species alone, in lieu of adaptation, has turned to the radical and irreparably destructive process of altering the environment, on a massive scale, to suit our preferences.

Discounting events such as asteroid strikes, massive volcanic activity or other rapidly occurring natural disasters, some triggering widespread extinction events, manifold species have either managed to adapt to changes in their landbase or migrated to new places that better suited their physiology. If their survival tactics failed, they simply disappeared into the void of extinction.

Our ancient ancestors, going back some five or six million years, adapted and evolved in the same manner until quite recently. During the Paleolithic Period, beginning a mere 750,000 years ago, we still existed as a part of and in balance with Nature.

The Paleolithic ended around 15,000 years ago and, sometime shortly thereafter, in the early stages of the Neolithic Period, something happened that took the human species off the path of natural evolution.

Somewhere around 10,000 to as long as 13,000 years ago, our ancestors started behaving oddly. They abandoned the way of Life that had allowed the primate family Hominidae, the hominids, which includes H. sapiens, to survive for some five million years.

"In the Levant - the area that today encompasses Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, and western Syria - archaeologists had discovered settlements dating as far back as 13,000 B.C. Known as Natufian villages (the name comes from the first of these sites to be found), they sprang up across the Levant as the Ice Age was drawing to a close, ushering in a time when the region's climate became relatively warm and wet". (source)

These settlements were not constructed by farmers but by hunter-gatherers.

"Yet although the Natufians lived in permanent settlements of up to several hundred people, they were foragers, not farmers, hunting gazelles and gathering wild rye, barley, and wheat. It was a big sign that our ideas needed to be revised," says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef . (source)

Archaeological evidence from locations such as Gobekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey, indicates that, around eleven thousand years ago, Neolithic humans started building large structures, temples, and places for ritualistic gatherings. At the same time, most significantly and most damning, we began to think of ourselves as separate from and superior to all the other Life of Earth.

"Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies.

Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt's way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it " (emphasis added). (source)

We were thus set upon the path of ecocide.

This seems to be when, where and why the human animal stopped evolving. Our physiology and mores are essentially still much the same as they were in the Paleolithic era. Our "progress," advancing exponentially since the Neolithic, has been far too rapid for our bodies and morality to keep pace.

Rather than adapting to a changing world, humans began radically and destructively altering the planet to suit their needs and desires. Eventually desire came to be more important than need. Our inability to keep pace with the speed of our "progress" has sickened us physically and morally.

We became "civilised" and were overwhelmed by pathological anthropocentricity.

Is anthropocentricity a genetic aberration?

"Human behaviour is widely believed to be essentially rational and therefore fundamentally distinct from the behaviour of all other animals. This leads automatically to a belief system that is best described as 'anthropocentric'."


(1) Viewing the world in terms of human experience and values.

(2) The belief that our species is the star that crowns an evolutionary Christmas tree of Life.

(3) The belief that humans are the pivot upon which our divinely ordained universe turns.

"Yet we share the planet with some 20 to 100 million other species, all of them genetically driven. One would think that only a deranged gambler would be fool enough to bet on the presence of a solitary exception in such a vast biota. In other words, anthropocentrism hinges on an extraordinary proposition, one that demands extraordinary proof. Unfortunately, none exists.

Not the slightest scrap of hard evidence, either morphological or genetic, suggests that Homo sapiens is not, like all animals, a natural by-product of genetic and Darwinian evolution. We should therefore assume that we, like they, are uncontaminated by any supra-natural influences. We may well be excellent communicators and tool-makers, and also the most self-aware, mystical and malicious animals on Earth, but overwhelming evidence shows that all these distinctions are of degree, not of kind. And yet the myth lives on." (source)

Nevertheless, some of us managed to convince the rest that we somehow are indeed "god's gift to the world," superior to and masters of all other Life and all of Nature.

And so we built permanent settlements and began the drastic and destructive modification of the ecosystem. As a consequence, there came the hierarchies needed to administer, govern and control rapidly growing populations.

Within these vertical power structures and large populations, a type of human, who had previously been held in check by social power, is able to acquire personal power. By virtue of their lack of conscience and compassion and their skills at manipulation, deceit and obfuscation, hidden by the structure of the new social systems and blending into the growing numbers of humans, they rise through the hierarchies and finally reach the positions of power and control they could never achieve as a member of a small, intimately interrelated and interdependent tribal community.

With the coming of civilisation, the essential psychopath escapes from the prison of the self-policing indigenous culture and is free to begin the millennia-long quest for pathological dominance over the rest of humanity. Ponerogenesis is enabled and Pathocracy is born.

The following examples make clear how the psychopath was kept in check for millennia until the cancer of civilisation metastasised during the Neolithic Revolution. In a few remote locations that still harbour indigenous people who have not yet been "civilised," ponerogenesis is still held at bay by the social power of the small traditional community.

A story reported by Dr. Jane M. Murphy, now director of Harvard's Psychiatric Epidemiology Unit, serves as an example of the vigilant stance that one millennia-old, indigenous culture - a group of Inuit in Northwest Alaska - takes regarding psychopathic types within their midst . (emphasis added)

So aware is this group regarding the existence of these individuals that their language includes a term for them - kunlangeta - which is used to refer to a person whose "mind knows what to do but does not do it," resulting in such acts as lying, cheating, stealing and taking advantage of the tribe without making sufficient contribution. (emphasis added - a concise description of the modern capitalist financier, corporate CEO or politician)

And how seriously do the group's members take the need to respond to the threat such individuals pose to the group's sustainability? When asked what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, Murphy was told "Somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking". (source)

Ancient Indians referred to the culture Christopher Columbus brought to the new world as "wetiko" - meaning a culture of cannibals - a culture that feeds off the lives of others. (source)

In the West, the formal recognition of psychopaths goes back at least as far as Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, whose study of the Unscrupulous Man defines the basic characteristics of psychopathy. (source)

While research into prehistoric psychopathy is admittedly sparse, due to the absence of recorded accounts or other physical evidence, the narrative of the "kunlangeta" above indicates clearly that there have been psychopaths among us for thousands of years. Ergo, they have survived in spite of being more easily detected during the ages before very large concentrations of population became the norm.

Though they might have been unable to achieve any dominance in small tribes or groups, which is by no means a given in all cases, they were nonetheless able to procreate. The ponerogenic gene was thereby passed along and into the era of the Neolithic Revolution where I theorise that the psychopathic met with the opportunity to flourish.

And so we created societies that could not sustain themselves without exceeding the carrying capacity of their landbases, and the settlements became villages, towns, cities, nations and empires, all of which were inevitably destined to exceed the carrying capacity of the land.

When any given society or culture could no longer be sustained by its ecosystem, its landbase, it became necessary to obtain resources elsewhere. So we invented colonisation, occupation, and wars of conquest.

We came to "believe" we had the unquestionable right to exploit everything and everyone in order to continue upon this new path. We developed a sense of entitlement and invented religions and technologies to support it until, today, the cancer of 'civilisation' has spread around the world.

By now, it should be abundantly clear to anyone with even a modicum of simple common sense that civilisation is killing the planet; it is murdering our Mother. When someone attempts to murder your mother, what do you do?

A Matter of Priorities

It seems likely that the Anthropocene Epoch will not be discussed in any future history books or scientific journals for the simple reason that there will be no such books or journals nor historians or scientists to fill them.

But for now, every day, there are thousands of "articles" to be read online regarding the multitude of catastrophic issues facing the human species.

A mob of "pundits," who make a lot of effort to sound like they know what they're talking about, write lengthy and often mind-numbing disquisitions about a plethora of these "issues":

  • the economy
  • unemployment
  • food stamps
  • social security
  • medicare
  • education

· the financial industry (now there's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one)

  • police brutality
  • gun laws
  • politics
  • global warming
  • climate change
  • nuclear power
  • war
  • poverty
  • same sex marriage
  • peak oil
  • renewable energy
  • hydraulic fracturing (fracking)
  • the ostensible war on terror
  • health insurance
  • unions
  • mountain top removal
  • strip mining
  • deforestation
  • etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum

The list could go on for pages and that's a major problem, because all these individual issues we face today add up to one very big problem: global ecocide. This can end only one way: near term extinction of humans and possibly all Life on Earth.

The expert commentators, more often than not, treat these incidental problems as if they were of the utmost importance and their resolution vital to the general welfare of humanity.

In fact, nearly all these "issues" are nothing but distractions, and many are kept in the public focus for that very reason.

These issues are merely branches of a poisonous tree. Everyone is hacking at the branches but ignoring the root. Even if you cut down the tree and grind away the stump, any root allowed to remain below the surface will continue to send up new shoots. You cannot kill the tree by hacking at the branches; you must destroy the root. The root of this tree is industrial civilisation.

This is not to say that the human race must be destroyed. But, after many years in denial, during which time I clung desperately to a utopian illusion of a sustainable, enlightened, techno-industrial society, I have finally reached the conclusion that industrial civilisation must be brought to an end or the human race will effectively destroy itself and quite possibly all Life on Earth.

The single "issue" that must be resolved above all others is the destruction of the ecosystem, the murder of the planet. The only resolution is the end of civilisation as we know it. All the other issues only exist as effects of civilisation. Putting an end to civilisation will, in due course, automatically and naturally resolve them all.

It won't be pretty or pleasant, easy or even bearable, but nothing less will suffice.

What Have We Done?

In all probability, the global warming "tipping point" has already been passed, a planetary state shift has begun and the Sixth Great Extinction is underway.

Humans began contributing to environmental lead pollution as early as 8,000 years ago, according to a University of Pittsburgh research report. ( source)

Demand for the mercury compound vermilion was strong enough to support a large-scale mercury mining industry in the Andes as far back as 1400 B.C., according to a new study. (source)

In 1306, Edward, instigated by a group of prominent noblemen and clerics, passed legislation banning the burning of sea-coal. ( source)

London also recorded one of the earlier extreme cases of water quality problems with the Great Stink on the Thames of 1858, which led to construction of the London sewerage system soon afterward. (source)

The greenhouse effect was discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824, first reliably experimented on by John Tyndall in 1858, and first reported quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. (source)

In 1896 Adolf Just wrote, in "Return To Nature":

" Man in his misguidance has powerfully interfered with nature. He has devastated the forests, and thereby even changed the atmospheric conditions and the climate. Some species of plants and animals have become entirely extinct through man, although they were essential in the economy of Nature. Everywhere the purity of the air is affected by smoke and the like, and the rivers are defiled. These and other things are serious encroachments upon Nature, which men nowadays entirely overlook but which are of the greatest importance, and at once show their evil effect not only upon plants but upon animals as well, the latter not having the endurance and power of resistance of man ." (emphasis added)

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says that " half the world's great forests have already been leveled and half the world's plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century."

"It is with the coming of man that a vast hole seems to open in nature, a vast black whirlpool spinning faster and faster, consuming flesh, stones, soil, minerals, sucking down the lightning, wrenching power from the atom, until the ancient sounds of nature are drowned in the cacophony of something which is no longer nature, something instead which is loose and knocking at the world's heart, something demonic and no longer planned-escaped, it may be-spewed out of nature, contending in a final giant's game against its master."

Loren Eiseley, (September 3, 1907 - July 9, 1977) an American anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer, who taught and published books from the 1950s through the 1970s.

So, as we can see, we have been receiving cautionary messages regarding our reckless, headlong rush of "progress" for a long time. We have been "polluting" Earth's atmosphere since we learned to use fire. However, it was not until the Neolithic Revolution and the consequent growth of permanent settlements with the attendant sedentary agriculture and surge in the growth of human population that pollution began its evolution into something Nature could not deal with.

This steady, unrestrained poisoning of our biosphere finally became insuperable with the eruption of the industrial age. Unless this industrialised civilisation is stopped and dismantled, the fate of human Life on Earth seems dubious at best.

That being said, it must be added that those who conflate "the end of the world" with the extinction of Homo sapiens are experiencing the delusion of human exceptionalism. Contrary to popular misconception, the world does not need us. We need the world and we need it to exist within very narrow parameters in order to ensure our survival. Our "civilisation" is moving the conditions of Earth's ecosystems far outside those parameters. If we do not make the necessary fundamental changes to our culture immediately our species will not survive. But, if that be the case, after we are gone Earth and whatever Life remains will continue to evolve quite nicely within the new paradigm of the world without people.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to be stuck in a mindset that demands any actions we take to address the multitude of distracting issues created by our culture be predicated upon the continuation of the very "civilisation" that is their cause. I don't think so.

A problem cannot be solved by applying more of the same reasoning and principles that precipitated it.

A culture and economy that demands perpetual growth and depends, for its very existence, upon the endless and unrestrained extraction and destruction of non-renewable resources cannot endure.

As far as I can see, it all shakes out about like this: Industrial civilisation is unsustainable. The existing paradigm can end only one way: the collapse of civilisation.

The landing could be made a little softer if, putting our accrued knowledge and power to good use, civilisation was intentionally and rationally dismantled, but that's not likely to happen.

Instead, the ruling class will cling to their self-proclaimed, unquestioned "right" to exploit everything and everyone; unhindered, until it's physically impossible to do so. Then civilisation will crash, hard.

The longer we wait for civilisation to break down, or the longer we delay bringing it down ourselves, the greater the suffering and death for whatever Life survives through and after the collapse.

Seems to me nobody has a clue how bad things really are or will become. Suffice it to say it will probably be worse than anyone is expecting.

I'd suggest anyone under the age of eighteen be given a crash course on how to live as a hunter-gatherer, sooner rather than later. Why wait til the last minute?

Evil Stew

Whether or not governments, corporations and financial institutions of civilisation are evil depends upon whom you ask. I think it's more likely that the actual evil is to be found in the essential psychopaths who create and sustain such institutions. The institutions themselves are only symptoms of the terminal disease called industrial civilisation.

Ultimately there are no solutions to any of the separate issues in this mélange of catastrophe that will make any significant difference in the big picture and over the long term. This disease cannot be cured by putting band-aids on the symptoms. Unless the cause of the disease is eliminated, the patient's premature death is assured. The end of civilisation as we know it is the only cure that can ensure the possibility of continued human Life on Earth.

Acculturation to the compartmentalised character of our civilisation makes it extremely difficult for its individual members to reach an understanding of its mortiferous nature. The forest cannot be seen for the trees. People just don't see the big picture. They are consumed by their own pet issues, their specialised functions and their own self-interest.

However, it should by now be getting easier for people to see that this system cannot be "fixed", that we can't get things back to "normal", that normal is the problem, not the solution.

Simply put, the main function of industrial civilisation is to turn all things into profit for the purpose of keeping a ruling class in power. This is done by killing the planet and transforming that death into sellable commodities for us to "consume".

That the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources without restraint cannot go on forever should be self-evident to anyone. Yet this culture not only consumes non-renewables with reckless abandon but devours or destroys renewables, like land, trees, fish, all other food sources and water, at a rate far surpassing that of their recovery. Any culture that depends for its very existence upon such a system cannot endure.

What is the big picture?

Industrial civilisation is unsustainable and irredeemable. Its members, both rulers and ruled, will not voluntarily enact the changes needed to transform it to a culture that is rational, sustainable and natural. Therefore, it will collapse.

Only when humans have completed the transformation of Earth from a luxuriant, verdant, bountiful and nurturing home into something akin to their own sterile, barren and lifeless inner landscape will they finally understand the horror they have visited upon themselves; and then it will be too late.

Consummatum est