Stan Rowe (1918-2004) was a Canadian scholar whose career meandered from forestry, to botany, and finally to ecological ethics — a new field of study in which he gained attention for his outside-the-box thinking. His book Earth Alive is a collection of essays that explore the importance of ecocentrism, a mode of thinking that embraces the entire planet, and is committed to its healing and wellbeing.
Ecocentrism is a healthy alternative to the worldview that’s killing the ecosystem — humanism. Almost everyone in the modern world suffers to some degree from morbid humanism, a belief that humans were created in the image of God, are the best and the greatest, and can do whatever they wish with the Earth, because God made it just for them. “Among infantile beliefs, the idea that Earth was made for the pleasure and profit of the human species ranks first.” It’s like worshipping sacred fish while rendering their pond uninhabitable via toxic pollution.
Rowe was careful to distinguish between biocentric (yuk!) and ecocentric (yum!). A biocentric view is limited to living organisms only. But life is far more than organisms. Organisms cannot survive without sunlight, air, water, and soil. Ecocentric embraces the whole enchilada. We need to care about everything. Rowe recommended that we call ourselves Earthlings, so that we could form an identity with this planet, the mother of our existence. We should think of ourselves as Earthlings first, and humans second.
In his college years, Rowe studied prairies, and they fascinated him. The wild prairies of
were essentially unchanged by the passage of thousands of years, while the lands of his European ancestors were a never-ending hell broth of raiding, raping, pillaging, and ecological destruction. During the ‘40s, his professor was horrified to watch the sacred prairies plowed out of existence and converted into cropland. A precious treasure was senselessly destroyed, and the health of the land was diminished with each pass of the tractor. Ecocentric Earthlings naturally harbor a deep and passionate contempt for agriculture. Nebraska
Agriculture was the most radical change in Earthling life since we learned to control fire, and it led to the emergence of cities and civilizations. Cities are absolutely unsustainable. The average adult spends 95 percent of his life indoors, and the new world of digital telecommunication isolates us even farther from the family of life. Eco-psychologists refer this alienation as EDD, Earth Deficiency Disease.
Cities are also crazy. Urban culture is a nightmare of unsustainable fantasies that are completely disconnected from ecological reality. “In short, Western culture — more and more city-based, further and further removed from any grounding in Earth-wisdom — systematically drives its citizens insane. A society that renders its citizens mad must itself be mad.”
Earthlings should regard nature as being sacred, so we will treat it with care and respect. Instead, we indulge in magical thinking about “sustainability” and “good stewardship.” But in the real world, we are heading for disaster because our God-word is “growth.” We will not protect what we do not love.
Ideally, everyone should live in wild places, surrounded by nature. But the herd is migrating to cities. “The city is an unhealthy place for those who want to come home at least once before they die.” Not surprisingly, soon after Rowe retired, he promptly abandoned the big city and moved to a remote and gorgeous hamlet, population: 650. He had a powerful love for the natural world, and he enjoyed walking. (“Our two best doctors are our legs.”)
Children are far more open to forming a bond with the natural world, if they are ever exposed to it. This bond is a normal and healthy Earthling experience, and it can last a lifetime. What is not normal is growing up in a humanist culture, where they unconsciously absorb the toxic worldview by osmosis. Humanist education is a central cause of the problem, because it devotes little or no attention to ecology or natural history. Illiterate people harm the planet far less than the well-educated. And multinational religions tend to direct our attention away from the living creation that surrounds us, and have us look inward, to contemplate other-worldly dimensions.
The humanist culture is extremely proud of the wonders of modern technology. Modern living is seen to be a great advancement over the primitive lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. But is it really? Not if our standards of judgment focus on sustainability — by far the best standard of excellence and high intelligence. Self-destructive cultures are for losers, despite their smart phones and big screen TVs.
Our pre-civilized ancestors had an ecocentric worldview. But modern Earthlings can’t acquire a healthier worldview by popping a pill, watching a PowerPoint presentation, or reading anthropology books. A good worldview is rooted in place, and consumer society resides in a placeless world, where every main street looks the same (McDonalds, Wal-Mart,
…). Healthy change will take time. Toyota
What can we do? Rowe concluded this book with A Manifesto for Earth, in which he describes the changes needed, none of which are quick and easy. Humanism simply has no long-term future, it’s a dead end. We need ecocentric spirituality, ecocentric education, and ecocentric living. We need to escape from our miserable boxes, race outdoors, and return home.
For most of us, our worldview is as invisible as the air we breathe. We accept it without question and rarely think about it. Our entire society is on the same channel, everywhere we go, which reinforces the misconception that our worldview is normal.
Green thinkers are searching for a new vision, but it’s really not a great hidden mystery. Rowe shouts the obvious: “Look! The new vision surrounds us in the trees and the flowers, in the clouds and the rivers, in the mountains and the sea…. The new vision is out there and always has been. It is the spring of inspiration, the source of whatever good has been discovered within the human mind.”
Rowe, Stan, Earth Alive — Essays on Ecology, NeWest Press,
, 2006. A number of Rowe’s essays can be accessed at: Edmonton, Alberta