Anthropocentrism and the Making of Environmental Health

Authored by: Merrill Singer

Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138782877
eBook ISBN: 9781315768946
Adobe ISBN: 9781317667964


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There is embedded in English common law the dictum that “an Englishman’s home is his castle.” This legal principle, dating to the seventeenth century and the writings of the celebrated jurist Sir Edward Coke (Sheppard 2005), but echoing ideas from at least as far back as the Roman Empire, proposes that a man (and gender here is no accident) can do as he pleases within the confines of his own house. The linguist and progressive political analyst Noam Chomsky has raised some highly pertinent questions about ownership and behavior on an even grander scale by enquiring “who owns [castle] Earth [and who] owns the global atmosphere being polluted by the heat-trapping gases” (Chomsky 2013: para. 22). His query was informed by recognition that growing social inequalities have resulted in those most responsible for environmental disruption suffering the least consequences, and those least responsible enduring the gravest penalties. Social elites, those with the greatest wealth and the most power, Chomsky argues, act as if they are the titleholders of our planet and hence free to do as they please as if the whole planet was their rightful estate. As a result, history has witnessed a process of environmental takeover that “has proceeded acre by acre, island by island, region by region, and continent by continent, reaching its current global apogee with the final loss of wild places and the corollary sixth mass extinction underway” (Crist 2012: 149). Without diminishing the fundamental importance of Chomsky’s concern about environmentally mediated expression of social inequity, but with a focus on the broader issue of anthropocentrism in human life, this chapter addresses the question: do humans own the Earth and its global atmosphere? Our actions in the world, as scrutinized here, suggest that we think we are the proprietors of the planet and therefore are entitled to do what is in our immediate self-interest without too much regard for non-human Earthlings, less powerful human sectors, and the planet’s ecosystems. Yet whether we deny it, feel overwhelmed by the complexity of understanding it, or experience a sense of powerlessness to do something about it, as historian Tony Judt (2010: 1) bluntly states, the truth remains that there “is something profoundly wrong with the way we are living today.” Our current environmental problems are not really new, but reflect a long march—at an ever faster pace—toward grave environmental uncertainties and consequences. Of specific focus in this chapter, from the perspective of a critical environmentally-informed medical anthropology, is the issue of environmental health in both senses of the term: the health of the environment and human health as shaped by the environment (Kopnina and Keune 2013); and, especially, the interrelationship of these two core arenas of the anthropological project. This type of analysis requires a multidisciplinary approach that views health as the complex product of interacting social structures and activities and human and natural ecologies. Examination of these issues suggests a pathway for framing future work in the anthropological study of environmental health.

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