The idea that humans should come first when it comes to our relationship with the natural world traces back to the roots of western culture. For example, in Genesis 1:26, God orders that mankind will “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” According to that train of thought, we are the stewards of the planet. The earth belongs to us. It is ours to till and to keep—and to exploit, if we wish. There is a name for this kind of thinking: it’s called anthropocentrism. Humans at the center.
As the field of environmental law has developed and expanded, anthropocentrism has remained at its core. Since the first case Earthjustice ever argued, Sierra Club v. Morton, the key issue has been whether lawyers have “standing” to represent earth’s threatened species and spaces. To have standing, Earthjustice must represent a human client that has suffered or will suffer an “injury in fact” because of pollution, species extinction, or any other threat to the planet’s wellbeing.
For a large number of environmentalists, anthropocentrism is a bad thing. Many believe that wilderness should be protected for its own sake, not because it benefits the human race. Although environmental lawyers have won many victories for the good of the planet, some believe that environmental law is problematic because it promotes anthropocentrism.
But perhaps there is a positive way to think about anthropocentrism, and by extension, environmental law. Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to put humans at the center—not because we are the most important, but because to control our environmental impact we have to focus on ourselves. If a sustainable human relationship with the planet can be achieved, it will have to come through human actions. We still have an obligation to be stewards: not only of the planet, but also of ourselves.
And of course, the key to limiting our impact is to regulate the activities that create that impact. And that is why we need environmental law.