Embracing human-centeredness and expanding our senses of selves
Lately, I've been really trying to expand my conception of the “self”—moving beyond my atomized, contained body, decentering humankind, and maximizing my sense of embodiment. This has been my attempt to take on and empathize with a sort of “Earth-consciousness,” stemming from the philosophical invitations of multi-species justice—to transcend human-centrism and to think and feel on behalf of our whole, extended networks of beings.
As I took this to the farthest extent I could, though, it started to challenge some of my pre-existing views, making me question the very foundations of how I define planetary wellness. What does collective healing mean? And is it possible to not be anthropocentric with these inquiries?
Read on for my working explorations, which led me to eventually dissolve the dualism of human- versus eco-centeredness.
In my recent conversation with Heather Davis, we explore the paradox that the widespread presence of plastics and their associated petrochemicals have been at the time same endangering certain species and causing reproductive toxicity for some while enabling the proliferation of other, and new, forms of life.
If we could, with a magic wand, delete every piece of plastic “in the environment,” objectively, it would lead to the endangerment of the beings born out of and reliant on that present community makeup. So if I stood against the endangerment of certain beings from the increased spread of plastic remnants, would a completely non-anthropocentric perspective mean that given the reality of Earth's bodily composition today, I also resist the purist deletion of plastics from the ecosystems they have become embedded parts of, as that would result in the extermination of the life now dependent on those transformed terrains?
This thought made me uncomfortable, so I knew I needed to let it marinate some more. I wanted to get to the bottom of whether the “holistic” perspectives I have been developing, which I thought to be divorced from human interests, were, after all, still privileging them.
“Regenerative” under what measures?
There seems to be a dominant view of “regeneration” that is centered on enriching the land in very particular ways—mostly to do with greening the landscape and making soils more “fertile” as “arable land.”
However, this ought to be understood with the context that almost half of the planet’s landmass, based on the Earth’s recent history, consists of drylands.
As Rosetta S. Elkin of Plant Life asks, “Why do humans insist on planting so many trees in places that do not support tree life?”
Somehow, initiatives such as transforming parts of the Gobi desert, with species that thrived in their own right in that particular ecosystem, into more “fertile” landscapes for farming are celebrated as “regenerative.” Somehow, tree planting in land bases with conditions that have not supported their growth also gets propped up as an unquestionable act of environmentalism. Yet, when arable land gets turned into desertified land, people do not perceive that as a positive for enabling the generation of new, other forms of life.
With a more objective lens, all of the above could be seen simply as the reconfiguration of life in particular landscapes—the former two enabling the new growth of species that require wetter, more foliage-dense terrains, and the latter establishing a habitat that better supports species that require drier conditions. This is an oversimplification, of course. But in a sense, they all could be interpreted as being “life-enhancing” for some species. In another sense, they also could be interpreted as destructive to the pre-established communities of life.
So my questions remain: Why do people view certain changes in the landscape as regenerative and other changes as degenerative? Is it that we define regeneration as making the land more “fertile,” better able to grow plants and crops that are of more use to the dominant cultures’ ways of life? Does this mean that we ought to determine the “health” of land based on how productive they are, with productivity defined in very particular ways? Do we assign greater value to tropical jungles teeming with much more visible biodiversity than desert ecologies?
In light of a climate crisis heavily, and reductively, framed as a mathematical imbalance of atmospheric CO2 levels, and in light of the truly troubling levels of deforestation and desertification taking place around the globe, it feels like many efforts to “green” landscapes are supported no matter their context as positive, simply because they might offset or cancel out the disproportionate levels of emissions and habitat conversion happening elsewhere.
As Elkin writes:
“Why does afforestation persist? The answer to this question is found in a corrupt environmentalism that couples tree-planting ‘good’ with a fraught reading of drylands. By definition, drylands are the context of afforestation, and attest to the scale of the ‘problem’ because they occupy 41.3 percent of the total planetary land surface.
It is simply too much to accept that such a large portion of the planet is less than hospitable to humans.”
I would reframe that last line, however, because I’m not sure that people whose land-based cultures and foodways emerged from and rely on the unique diversity of life in rangelands, grasslands, deserts, or arctic tundras would necessarily perceive afforesting their lands, or, say, transforming them into wetlands that they have no relation with, as making them more hospitable.
The Land Gap Report has also expressed its concerns with how tree-planting projects created in the name of carbon sequestration can lead to the displacement of local and Indigenous peoples who had long stewarded those lands—becoming a distraction and even part of the problem. Their conclusions suggest that moving towards agroecology, protecting existing primary forests, and “securing Indigenous and community land rights are more effective than carbon capture plans requiring land-use change, including reforestation.”
Plus, I think that the dominant, disassociated cultures have universalized and imposed their more-or-less formulaic idea of what a “food system” ought to look like, thus seeing a wide variety of landscapes and subsistence cultures that do not conform nor readily support that vision as unproductive.
Or maybe it’s more so about power and control.
On the opposite extreme, we also see very biodiverse rainforests unappreciated for the clearly rich food sources they offer, and instead being converted into mono-crop plantations to feed global commodity markets.
Although aridity is often associated with food insecurity and desertification trends, I am more critical of the confounding factors of power relations, land access, arbitrary boundaries, and private property preventing open migration and movement—and forcing intensive farming practices on fixed, pixelated parcels of land evidently not supportive of that form of a food system.
“Tree planting does not moderate tree loss, although this is precisely the discrepancy occupied by global afforestation schemes. […]
Planting is a radical rearrangement of the landscape regardless of extant conditions. It entangles humans by producing economic cultures reliant on models of standardization and governmentality.
There is nothing ecological about digging a hole into the living soil where other plants are either established or lay dormant, just as there is nothing inherently ecological about inserting a woody plant into the land by will or force. […]
We cannot just plant trees, and calculate units to escape, survive, or solve crises. This is a strategy of nonsense and repetition. Rather, we could safeguard extant trees in humid biomes; we could attend to fragmentation through reforestation, and insist that planting trees does not replace the slow accumulation of plant life. We could also learn to love drylands.”
—Rosetta S. Elkin
Rather than standardizing and reducing “regeneration” to something like increasing soil carbon or greening terrains, I suggest reorienting it towards enriching place-based relationships and overall biocultural diversity.
During a time when so many of us have become uprooted and disoriented in our relationships to place, I would invite us to think about collective healing as challenging power structures that rob people of belonging, nurturing our relational networks of care, and realigning our dreams and senses of vitality with that of our communities with whom we are interdependent.
This means pushing back against universalized knowledge, measurements, and prescriptions of “environmentalism,” and instead starting from a place of deep humility and intuitive listening.
Intuitive land care and reconfiguration
Farmer Rishi recently wrote a piece dismantling the binary and judgments of “healthy” and “unhealthy” when it comes to the food that we eat. Recognizing that every body is unique with their own needs, sensitivities, and allergen or toxicity gauges, all of which evolve for every person over time as well, it pointed to the troubles with de-contextualized dietary guidelines and universalized concepts of healthiness. As an alternative, it suggests practices of intuitive eating, (re)learning to listen to our own bodies and how different foods make us feel.
But reducing our role to simply “listening” also leaves out the agency that we do have, and should embrace, to co-create and reshape the ecosystems of our bodies.
When I feel depressed, for example, I typically just want to lay low, stay in, and eat more sugary foods that can give me immediate doses of pleasure. To an extent, I listen to my body and let myself do so because they do help me cope with the moment. But I also recognize that “listening to my body” in such a way without any intentional direction could lead me down a vicious cycle, as my immediate desires to shut down would result in some of my senses, motivation, and muscles atrophying from inactivity. As the configuration of my body changes based on the activities I engage in (or not), so would my bodily needs—and signals of the needs that I “listen to my body” for.
As another example, we know that eating more sugar-rich foods supports the proliferation of particular species of bacteria in our microbiome—which then results in one experiencing more cravings for sugar. Indeed, many who have intentionally and against their cravings cut out added sugars for a certain duration of time end up having fewer bodily cues asking for those foods.
And this isn’t just about sugar. There has been a growing number of research suggesting that intestinal microbes “may trigger foraging behavior for foods containing certain nutrients.”
Zooming out, we might use this analogously as an invitation to listen to the biomes of which we are a part. Every ecosystem has different needs to enable them to further enhance the life and relationships that already exist there. The introduction of certain trees can be enriching for some places, while the same can be disruptive to the extant communities of life elsewhere. This underscores the problem with top-down, prescriptive practices of regeneration that do not consider larger contexts, place-based conditions, and established relationships.
At the same time, intuitive land care, rooted in passive listening, ought to be coupled with a knowing that we do have the agency to actively change the makeup of our ecospheres.
A water-intensive cotton farm started in a dryland bioregion might express persistent signs of illness and frailty. Listening to those signs of distress could mean giving them just what they need: continuously feeding them certain inputs and water diverted from elsewhere regardless of what “externalized” impacts that might have on other communities. But a relational view would spark more foundational questions, such as whether that community and configuration of life ought to be transformed altogether—so as to realign the needs and gifts of those present in and arranged in certain ways in the landscape with what their larger biomes can best support.
This isn’t about turning back the clocks—because the evolutions that our planet has already experienced and will continue to go through mean that health cannot be seen as static. I would be wary of framing “healing” as a restoration to a more “pure” past, as a conservation of a fixed present, or as a “regeneration” that pays no attention to context. Instead, I would ask, how do we strengthen every interconnected but unique community’s resilience, networks of care, and capacities for self-regeneration, grounding them in both (re)alignment with existing relationships and adaptability to new conditions?
Change, including anthropogenic change, is the only constant. The more pertinent question is: What changes will we lead, enact, and contribute?
A diversity of anthropocentrisms.
Various people I have had the honor of learning from, including Nick Estes and Jason Moore, have pointed out the faults of labeling climate change “anthropogenic,” or of calling this current time the “Anthropocene.” These concerns stem from a rightful recognition that it has been particular cultures, systems, and groups of people who have been disproportionately driving the destruction of habitats and the imbalance in Earth’s atmosphere. Painting with such a broad stroke invalidates and dehumanizes those who have been the protective and creative forces of their landscapes.
In the same way, “anthropocentrism” cannot hold a standardized meaning. After all, people define what it means to be human in different ways, and that affects how they show up for their communities. Some might see the human as these atomized, disconnected, individually bound bodies of flesh, who need not care much about their impacts on the “external” world. Some might even hold discriminatory views that certain groups of people are less-than-human. And others might see the human as more porous, interdependent, and inseparable parts of their greater superorganisms.
For me, anthropocentrism simply means that our perspectives as humans start from our place as humans—an inevitable reality.
We can—and I believe we should—learn to expand our senses of selves, to blur the binary of “selfishness” and “selflessness.” But we cannot help that they ultimately center us, given our unique vantage points.
I would also venture to say that there is no one such thing as “ecocentrism,” when every ecosystem is continually being reshaped, both collaboratively and competitively, by every being and species leaving their marks—often in attempts to make their environments more hospitable for their immediate networks of interdependence.
This can be seen through how beavers expand the watersheds they call home, how birds enhance their own food security by spreading the seeds and habitat range of the shrubs they forage from, how many tree varieties are known to be “allelopathic,” altering the biochemical composition of their surroundings to render them less friendly to the growth of other competing plants, and so forth.
Diné musician, scholar, and cultural historian Lyla June also shares:
“Indigenous peoples have intentionally augmented grasslands for buffalo by bringing gentle fire to the Great Plains. For millennia, following the grass-burning moon of our lunar calendar, we would transform dead plant tissue into nutrient-dense ash, nourishing the soil and unlocking the seeds of pyro-adapted grasses and medicines like echinacea.
Over time, this fire would prevent trees and shrubs from taking over the grasslands, and would nourish the soil to generate topsoils up to four feet deep. Many people think we followed the buffalo, when in fact, the buffalo followed our fire.
In this manner, we anthropogenically expanded buffalo habitat as far south as Louisiana, and as far east as Pennsylvania.”
I see this form of regeneration as human-centric—enhancing the particular biocultural systems and relational networks stewarded by the Native community of people. Otherwise, would a purely “ecocentrist” perspective vouch for the augmented grasslands or the growth of the trees and shrubs who would have established themselves otherwise?
Further south, the ancestral peoples of the Amazon rainforests held a common practice of burning woody material into their soils, creating terra preta, or biochar. This slowly made their lands less acidic and more capable of holding water, contributing to changes in their rainforest ecology over time that would have looked at least somewhat different if not for those generations-long human contributions. But the reality remains that plenty of other life forms could have asserted themselves and redirected the diversification of that bioregion.
“Climate change, for example, is producing new life forms. Ticks are doing really well in the Northeast where I live—deer ticks. And that's great news if you’re a deer tick, and it’s less good news if you’re a deer, or if you’re a person who might get Lyme disease.
It's okay to say that you are on the side of certain worlds, and not on the side of others.”
Besides recognizing that diversity and complexity in a community lend themselves to resilience, it’s impossible to hold or pinpoint one consciousness of “ecocentrism.” Even with the destructive forces of habitat conversion aside, the persistent, co-driven transformations of our planetary body seem unframable—almost asking for nonjudgment but rather acceptance, alignment, adaptability, and perhaps just awe at our synergistic, cumulative creative potentials.
In spite of one universal view of “ecocentrism” not holding ground, I believe it more deeply speaks to our need to shift away from human superiority. And the underlying humility that it calls for actually means coming to terms with our anthropocentrism—that humans, like all other species, have unique views and innate desires to survive and thrive.
Rather than pretend like I can achieve some divine transcendence to take on a planetary consciousness disentangled from my human body, it feels more honest to own my place and dreams of “regeneration” in the world. And rather than reduce what we understand to be “human” by equating human-centeredness to harm, it feels more imaginative to diversify its possibilities—crucially, including one which holds, front and center, our deep interdependence with our larger, interconnected webs of life.
After all, the erosion of the planet’s varied communities of life does not stem from the myriad of anthropocentrisms in and of itself.
Instead, as I would posit, the trouble, and the hopes, lies in the deeper worldviews of what it means to be human—leaving open invitations for us to root deeper, stretch outwards, and reweave ourselves into the richly textured, layered, and colorful fabrics of life as Earth.
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Related recommendations from Green Dreamer:
Thom Van Dooren: The evolving cultures of the more-than-human world
Sophie Chao: Pluralizing justice amidst the expansion of palm oil projects
Christine Winter: Rethinking the philosophies underlying settler politics
Plant Life, a book by Rosetta S. Elkin (we have a podcast episode with Rosetta publishing soon on Green Dreamer—stay posted!)
The Flowering Wand, a book by Sophie Strand (our interview linked here)
Kinship (a 6-week course by Advaya exploring community, relationality, and belonging in a world of islands; discount code GDKIN20 for general admissions tickets.)
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