Sun Tzu discussed resources as imperative to state power about 2,500 years ago in The Art of War. By the time Thomas Hobbes linked resources and anthropocentrism in his 1651 classic, Leviathan, resources were clearly accepted as human rights. Consider, for example, a single line from the latter text: “The ‘value’ or ‘worth’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power.” By 1651, humans had become feedstock for the wealth of other humans.
There was no open discussion of exploitation, a trend that continues today. Rather, the underlying assumption is one of the universe as fodder for the continued convenience of some humans. We refer to this phenomenon and the resulting set of living arrangements as “civilization.” It’s viewed as unimpeachably good by nearly all participants.
I’ve pasted below an essay I wrote for this space in October 2009, verbatim. I think it’s held up rather well, considering the radical changes in civilization and my own life during the intervening years. The current essay bears the same title as this essay from about six years ago.
As I indicated in a previous post, the word “resources” is problematic because it implies materials are placed on this planet for the use of humans. We see finite substances and the living planet as materials to be exploited for our comfort. Examples of intense anthropocentrism are so numerous in the English language it seems unfair to pick on this one word from among many. And, as with most other cases, we don’t even think about these examples, much less question them (cf. sustainability, civilization, economic growth). My only justifications for singling out “resources” are the preponderance with which the word appears in contemporary media, the uncritical acceptance of resources as divine gifts for Homo sapiens, and previous posts on a few of the other obvious examples.
I’ll start with definitions, straight from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Resource: 1 a: a source of supply or support : an available means –usually used in plural b: a natural source of wealth or revenue –often used in plural :c: a natural feature or phenomenon that enhances the quality of human life d: computable wealth –usually used in plural e: a source of information or expertise.
All these definitions imply an anthropogenic basis for resources, and c is particularly transparent on this point. Digging a little further, the etymology of “resource” brings us directly to lifelong bedfellows anthropocentrism and Christianity. “Resource” is derived from the Old French “resourdre” (literally, to rise again), which has its roots in the Latin “resurgere” (to rise from the dead; also see “resurrection”).
From this etymology, it’s a simple step back in time to Aristotle’s “final cause” (which followed his material cause, efficient cause, and formal cause). Aristotle posited that, ultimately, events occurred to serve life, particularly the life of humans. This anthropocentric take on causality grew directly from the philosophy of Aristotle’s teacher Plato, who focused his philosophy on separating humans from nature while popularizing the feel-good notion that humans have immortal souls. The idea that humans have souls, which was subsequently discredited by the (western) science that grew from humble Grecian roots, became the basis for Christianity, one of three Abrahamic religions that developed in the Mediterranean a few centuries after Plato learned from Socrates and then taught Aristotle.
Considering the history of western thought, it’s no surprise we view every element on Earth as feedstock for industrialization. The only question is when we exploit Earth’s bounty, not if. The logical progression, then, is to exploitation of humans to further feed the industrial machine.
Within the last few years, personnel departments at major institutions became departments of human resources. Thus, whereas these departments formerly dealt with persons, they now deal with resources. There’s a reason you feel like a cog in a grand imperial scheme: Not only are you are viewed as a cog by the machine, and also by those who run the machine, but any non-cog-like behavior on your part leads to rejection of you and your actions. Seems you’re either a tool of empire or you’re a saboteur (i.e., terrorist).
It’s time to invest in wooden shoes.
As if fifteen people are even willing to poke a stick in the eye of the corporations that run and ruin our lives. Why is that? Probably because we think we depend upon them, when in fact they depend upon us. And, to a certain extent — to the extent we allow — we do depend upon industrial culture for our lives. But only in the short term, and only as self-absorbed, comfortable individuals unwilling to make changes in our lives (even ones that are necessary to our own survival). Taking the longer, broader view, it is evident industrial culture is killing the living planet, and our own species. The cultural problem we face is not that we’re fish out of water. Rather, it’s that we’re fish in a river. We don’t even know there’s an ocean, much less a landbase.
Aye, there’s the rub. Evolution demands short-term thinking focused on individual survival. Most attempts to overcome our evolutionarily hardwired absorption with self are selected against. The Overman is dead, killed by a high-fat diet and unwillingness to exercise. Reflexively, we follow him into the grave.