To foreclose on the possibility of ecological conversation, whether due to reticence in the presence of the mystery of the Other or simple denial of both mystery and Other, is to give up on the problem of nature's integrity and our responsibility. It is to forget that we ourselves stand within nature, bringing, like every creature, our own contributions to the ecology of the whole. Most distinctively, we bring the potentials of conscious understanding and the burden of moral responsibility. Can it be merely incidental that nature has begun to realize these potentials and to place this burden here, now, upon us?
Raymond Dasmann sees wilderness areas as a refuge for "that last wild thing, the free human spirit" (quoted in Nash 2000, p. 262). The phrase is striking in its truth. But one needs to add that the human spirit is not merely one wild thing among others. It is, or can become, the spirit of every wild thing. It is where the animating spirit of every wild thing can be known, where it can rise to consciousness, where its interior speaking can re-sound under conditions of full self-awareness.
This is true only because, while we live in our environment, we are not wholly of it. We can detach ourselves from our surroundings and view them objectively. This is not a bad thing. What is disastrous is our failure to crown this achievement with the selfless, loving conversation that it makes possible. Only in encountering an Other separate from myself can I learn to love. The chickadee does not love its environment because it is much more fully than we an expression of its environment.
The willfulness and waywardness our own sort of wildness that has enabled us to stand apart and "conquer" nature is also what enables us to give nature a voice. The miracle of selflessness through which a human being today can begin learning to "speak for the environment" a remarkable thing! is the other face of our power to destroy the environment. So we now find ourselves actors in a grave and compelling drama rooted in the conflicting tendencies of our own nature, with the earth itself hanging in the balance. Given the undeniable facts of the situation, it would be rash to deny that this drama both expresses and places at risk the telos of the entire evolution of earth. But to accept the role we have been thrust into, and to sense our nearly hopeless inadequacy, is at the same time to open ourselves to the wisdom that would speak through us.
We do as much damage by denying our profound responsibilities toward nature as by directly abusing them. If you charge me with anthropocentrism, I accept the label, though on my own terms. If there is one creature that may not healthily scorn anthropocentrism, surely it is anthropos. How should we act, if not from our own center and from the deepest truth of our own being? But it is exactly this truth that opens us to the Other. We are the place within nature where willing openness to the Other becomes the necessary foundation of our own life.
The classicist Bruno Snell somewhere remarked that to experience a rock anthropomorphically is also to experience ourselves petromorphically to discover what is rock-like within ourselves. It is the kind of discovery we have been making, aided by nature and the genius of language, for thousands of years. It is how we have come to know what we are and what we are is (to use some old language) a microcosm of the macrocosm. Historically, we have drawn our consciousness of ourselves from the surrounding world, which is also to say that this world has awakened, or begun to awaken, within us. (For an elaboration of this line of thought, see especially the work of British philologist and historian of consciousness Owen Barfield.)
In general, my observations of nature will prove valuable to the degree I can, for example, balance my tendency to experience the chickadee anthropomorphically with an ability to experience myself "chickamorphically." In the moment of true understanding, those two experiences become one, reflecting the fact that my own interior and the world's interior are, in the end, one interior.
The well-intentioned exhortation to replace anthropocentrism with biocentrism, if pushed very far, becomes a curious contradiction. It appeals to the uniquely human the detachment from our environment that allows us to try to see things from the Other's point of view in order to deny any special place for humans within nature. We are asked to make a philosophical and moral principle of the idea that we do not differ decisively from other orders of life but this formulation of principle is itself surely one decisive thing we cannot ask of those other orders.
There is no disgrace in referring to the "uniquely human." If we do not seek to understand every organism's unique way of being in the world, we exclude it from the ecological conversation. To exclude ourselves in this way reduces our words to gibberish, because we do not speak from our own center.
But nothing here implies that humans possess greater "moral worth" (whatever that might mean) than other living things. What distinguishes us is not our moral worth, but the fact that we bear the burden of moral responsibility. That this burden has risen to consciousness at one particular locus within nature is surely significant for the destiny of nature! When Jack Turner suggested that the last ten thousand years of human history may have been "simply evil," he ignored the worthy historical gift enabling him to pronounce such a judgment. How can we downplay our special gift of knowledge and responsibility without fatal consequences for the world?