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Anthropocentrism vs Ecocentrism

A few decades have passed since Deep Ecology was a lively topic among conservation-minded folks, but it does seem that many folks missed that message or came of age since those cultural influences, so perhaps a “refresher” is apt at this point in time.

Anthropocentrism is a word that defines itself, but the Wikipedia entry linked there offers a handy overview.  Essentially, we focus on ourselves.  Of course that is only natural – we live and perceive through our bodily senses, grounding us in perspectives unique to each one of us.

Peachyeung316, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pittigrilli, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But if our awareness of the world stops at ourselves and other humans, we miss enormous parts of what’s happening in the world.  Ecocentrism, another word that defines itself, contrasts with Anthropocentrism, for one thing, in recognizing that humans are embedded within ecosystems (and ecosystems are embedded within us).  That’s my own encapsulation and I agree with Wikipedia editors that their entry I’ve linked for the word needs work.  Probably requisite to ecocentrism is some apprehension of a systems perspective.  See Reductionism vs Holism.

Viniece Jennings, Jessica Yun, Lincoln Larson, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ecological economics followed Deep Ecology, emerging with the new millennium as an ongoing effort to describe and quantify the “ecosystem services” we humans receive from natural ecosystems.  By nature it is inherently anthropocentric in that we are asking, “what’s in it for us?”  Nevertheless, it is a decided evolution from the dominator paradigm summarized on Domination vs Collaboration that has emphasized hydraulic engineering as solution to our water resource needs.  See the corresponding section of Rainfall to Groundwater, Ecohydrological Economics.

It’s no secret that most people like to look at other human faces – ergo, Facebook.  That fascination with faces absolutely extends to animals with faces, but there’s a decided dropoff in extending the appreciation to living beings without faces, such as plants.  Sure, faces may be seen in the bilateral symmetry of some flowers – monkeyflowers, for example, although turning those Calflora examples into actual “faces” takes some imagination, exemplifying our bias toward faces.

What about animals and plants without faces?  Personally, as my digital (and pre-digital) photo albums attest, I LOVE looking at plants of all sorts, spanning scales from whole landscapes through microscopic tools.  But I’m keenly aware of being an oddball on that score.

Truth is, many of us are now actively engaged or reengaged with the smallest of animals without faces – the microbes involved with fermentation.  This might be for beverages – from the obvious alcoholic ones to non-, e.g., kefir, water kefir and kombucha.  I’ve recently resumed making water kefir, after a hiatus of more than a decade, reacquainting myself with the nuances of the second fermentation.  Back then I was also trying out natural fermentation of sauerkraut and various pickles – ‘sure made me appreciate the super-crisp results achieved by the best commercial sources of fresh (refrigerated) pickles.  The more adventurous among us employ microbes for yogurt and cheeses.

Gabriella Clare Marino, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And many of us flocked to sourdough during the pandemic.  As a fairly avid baker during my undergrad years, shortly into this millennium an elimination diet confirmed my sensitivity to gluten and all but gluten-free was eliminated from my diet.  

Then, in late 2019, I watched Michael Pollan’s video series, Cooked and was impressed by the episode on bread.  What had happened with this staple of human diets back to the advent of agriculture?  Why had so many people apparently succumbed to gluten sensitivity by the late 20th and early 21st century?  What had changed???

Well, the advent of commercial yeasts in the early 20th century coincided with the transformation of breadmaking and consumption.  Might the loss of symbiotic organisms present in traditional sourdough cultures have led to decreased gluten digestibility?

collaboracollaborateThat made sense to me and I resolved to try it.  Alas, right about the time I finally got motivated in 2020, the pandemic broke out and the best bread flour became harder to get than TP, then the summer heat made baking less attractive.  But by fall 2020 I was able to assemble the ingredients for getting my own starter going with local microbes and resuming bread baking, solely with native sourdough, including for sweet breads, like cinnamon rolls, etc  And guess what – no issues with the gluten like those I’d been experiencing before eliminating it.

This may seem a decided sidetrack from the topic at hand, but there are a couple key points from it to emphasize in a discussion of anthropocentrism.  First, the notion that commercial, packaged dry yeasts were some boon to civilization.  It is simultaneously anthropocentric, reductionistic and a symptom of a dominator perspective in that we assume that some organism we have so “cleverly” isolated from its natural environment and symbionts will perform more efficiently for us in isolation.  (Same for much of big pharma, BTW, in contrast with herbal medicines.) 

When you work with sourdough, there is no mistaking the lively contributions of the suite of microbes that I now can’t help but think of as my little “buddies” despite that I can’t see their “faces”.

Back during my 1970s baking in Davis, I did maintain a sourdough starter begun by my housemate in Berkeley, but only used it for certain recipes.  And here’s the thing – I recall dough kneading as an all-out athletic activity.  Especially when using a lot of whole grain flour, I clearly remember getting so sweaty kneading dough that I tended to get naked to do it, even outside of the hottest days.  (That was on the cusp of aerobics and suitable workout clothes emerging.)

But now, partly thanks to new approaches touted online – e.g., “no-knead” breads, reliant on the contributions of those lively microbial cultures – have made bread baking far less athletic.  I usually do at least some kneading (some recipes require mere stretching and folding), but space the kneading into intervals between which I let the sourdough microbes work the dough.  Each  time I return to it the evidence of their efforts is obvious and we’re all happy – at least they are until oven time.  (But I keep a culture of their relatives going so we collaborate to propagate their kind.)

The key point I”m trying to illustrate here is how much work I’ve saved myself by collaborating with the microbes to achieve our mutual content. And even though I have no idea what species inhabit my sourdough culture, I absolutely celebrate their diversity!

This same lesson applies to, is waiting to be learned through catchment/ watershed restoration.  California’s water resources management has long been characterized by the anthropocentric dominator approach emblematic of 20th century engineering projects designed to capture water where it’s most plentiful and move it to places of need.  But that is certainly the most costly approach – in dollars, as well as its suite of ongoing environmental impacts.

In catchment restoration we are leveraging the contributions of the restored ecosystems to achieve enhanced natural recharge and detention storage.  That is, we put in the effort to jump-start the ecological restoration and apply adaptive management over time, but reap the rewards of entire ecosystems managing our water resources to our (and their) advantage.

The anthropocentric paradigm in charge at the California Department of Water Resources would have you believe that sound planning for water resources relies on yet more engineering feats – witness the ongoing elevation of the various Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) proposals, and especially Flood-MAR.  They want to add more engineering to already over-engineered systems to capture flood waters and move them to point MAR projects.  At least that was the primary option proposed in the last California Water Plan.

In contrast, restored catchments can help alleviate the flooding in the first place – through detention storage (see the first slide on the R2G Front Page ) – while routing precipitation through vadose zones and bedrock aquifers that, in turn, feed the alluvial groundwater basins we’ve become increasingly reliant on to weather drought and megadrought.  And that can all be achieved through natural (green) infrastructure that grows and propagates itself, in contrast with the gray infrastructure that requires ongoing upkeep – costly to build and costly to maintain, again, along with the environmental costs.

Another case of anthropocentrism in California water policy is the 2020 Water Resilience Portfolio, which is essentially a laundry list of actions humans can take among ourselves, with basically nothing addressing our actual sources of water – and not for my lack of input.  The idea that the state thinks humans can achieve water resilience solely by working things out among ourselves, is truly scary in light of rapidly escalating climate change – especially when one understands that there really is much more that may be done if we leverage ecohydrological services and restore catchment functions. 

There is the section, Protect and Enhance Natural Systems, but there again, the actions are primarily human-dependent, like, we humans are so benevolent we’ll take some actions to help support ecosystems that are currently already covered by government regulations.  There is little recognition of how ecosystems can support us if we, in turn, support them.  

There is item “10. Reconnect aquatic habitat to help fish and wildlife endure drought and adapt to climate change”, where we find such actions as removing barriers, but, as I’ve noted elsewhere, that won’t help if the water isn’t there.  The foremost aim of Rainfall to Groundwater has always been to support aquatic habitat connectivity by augmenting baseflows – in other words enhancing groundwater input to streams.  I think I made that clear in my input to the process but by the time the draft was published it was clear my informed input had been ignored.

There is item “11. Support the expansion of wetlands to create habitat, filter runoff, buffer floods, and recharge groundwater” – the one place ecosystem services shows up.  But how do we expand wetlands without providing them more water???  It’s completely disconnected from enhancing the natural water sources that feed them.  

Here again, the emphasis is on sinks, over source, as I’ve observed elsewhere – see Stream Networks vs Watersheds/ Catchments and blog post #10. How Does Groundwater Get There?  Some Basics  – the focus is on the water we can see and capture on the surface.  This is the short-sighted folly of anthropocentrism – it’s not just about not caring for other species, it is partly about not recognizing how ecosystems, especially catchment functions can help support our human needs.

James Perry’s Feb. 20, 2022 comment on the blog post, Oaks As Threatened Catchment Keystones thanks me for my “altruism”.  OK, I’ll cop to that, but really, I view this more as pragmatism – especially in light of anthropogenic climate change impacts.  Trust functional ecosystems to carry out some of the tasks we currently pay through the nose to attempt to achieve through anthropocentric engineering and we will all win – humans and ecosystems – to the extent we can, given current climate change trajectories.