Opinion: Time for Humanism to turn back to nature

As the name suggests, Humanism is a human-centric belief system. Though it is described as rational and progressive by its adherents, it is lacking when it comes to humanity’s relationship with nature. Cath Sutherland argues for a form of ‘Eco-humanism’ that embeds ecology and an awareness of humanity’s dependence on nature at the heart of Humanism.

Sun on the horizon
Sun on the horizon
Cath Sutherland

Around half of us in Britain identify as “non-religious” and some of that half identify as Humanists. But what is a Humanist and do our ideals still fit the needs of the planet and its populations? I believe we need a new form of Humanism, let’s call it ‘Eco-humanism’. This new Eco-humanism will uphold the rational, humane and progressive values of Humanism, but it will also encompass the environmental values of the ‘green movement’. 

Most of us want a framework in our mind to help us to see how we fit into life, how to think about right and wrong (morals), deaths or tragedies, or uplifting beauty. And most of us also like to step back from the day-to-day practicalities sometimes, into a state of mind that is calm and awake to beauty.

For people who are not religious our lives can seem to consist of nothing more than practicalities and materialistic concerns. But humans have emotions and love and a sense of right and wrong, of beauty and joy and compassion and enlightenment. A set of ideas that legitimises these feelings can reinforce them and help us to have confidence in them. 

Humanism can provide this set of ideas. Humanism provides a way of thinking based on logic, science and reason, and its organisation provides a group of people who you share these values with. Humanism is progressive, it values all people, has strong belief in human rights, equality, and freedom of expression and worship.

But is this enough?

For people who care passionately about the environment and other animals, the problem with Humanism is that it is all about humans.

This focus on human life is part of the culture that has dominated western civilisation, in fact most civilisation, for a couple of thousand years. The dominant culture that says that human beings are the only thing that really matters, that all the earth is here just for our benefit, that we are entitled to plunder it as we wish, and that moral behaviour is entirely about how we behave towards other human beings, that how we treat animals is not a moral issue. Humanism follows this ‘human-centric’ view of life, the clue is in the name. 

At last, most of the world is waking up to the reality that we are destroying our natural world on many fronts – climate change, destruction of the wildlife of the oceans, collapse of soil quality, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, the list goes on. People are starting to understand that our planet is at a critical juncture, and that this is not a temporary phenomenon – it won’t become a memory like the 2008 financial crash or Brexit.  

We need a creed, a belief-set, that reflects new ways of seeing our relationship with the rest of the natural world. There are times in history when big changes occur, and we are at the beginning of one of them now.

Sooner or later us humans in Western capitalist society will fundamentally rethink our relationship with the natural world, and adopt ways of seeing ourselves as inseparable from the rest of nature, as needing to revere, respect and protect nature rather than just plunder it for our own advantage. For the Western world it will be a deep shift in the way of seeing life. For many indigenous people it is a way of thinking that they have never lost, but their wisdom has been ignored.

Along with realising that we have been taking nature for granted is an increased awareness of the incredible suffering that humans have inflicted on animals, and more people are determined to change that.

Of course Green Parties across the world have been campaigning hard for many years for people to see their relationship to nature and animals differently, and along with many campaign groups can take some of the credit for the shift in realisation that is now taking place.  

For many Green Party members Humanism is a good fit as a belief. I think that we need to take the world views of Humanism, and what I would loosely call ‘the green movement’, and work towards integrating them into a unified and progressive ideology – Eco-humanism.

As the preciousness of our natural world becomes more and more apparent, I think a new belief or creed of Eco-humanism could be a perfect way of thinking. I would be delighted to hear from, and work with, other people interested in developing an Eco-humanist creed.

The modern values reflected in Eco-humanism would be as demanding as those of many religions – respect for other people, no discrimination, respect for science and rational thinking, care for animals, lifestyles and a society that minimises damage to nature, love and care for the natural world. It could be summed up in the lyrics of Joni Mitchell: 

We are stardust, we are golden/ We are billion-year-old carbon/ And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

Cath Sutherland is a member of Nottingham Green Party, a Humanist Celebrant and active in Greenpeace.