What Is Anthropocentrism? Definition, Roots, and Environmental Implications

The idea of human superiority is destroying the environment. It may also help save it.

A human hand holding a globe
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Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans are the most significant or central entities on Earth. The word in English derives from two in Ancient Greek; anthrōpos is "human being" and kéntron is “center.” From an anthropocentric perspective, all beings and objects have merit only insofar as they contribute to human survival and pleasure.

As is true of small- and large-scale human greed, blind anthropocentrism has pushed climate change, ozone depletion, the destruction of the rainforest, the poisoning of water and air, the pace of species extinction, the abundance of wildfires, the decline of biodiversity, and many other environmental crises worldwide.

Some evidence suggests, however, that anthropocentrism isn’t all bad. Indeed, an inter-generational approach can produce ethically sound communication strategies that work to the environment’s advantage. Measures taken today to protect the interests and quality of life of people of tomorrow could benefit the environment now and in the future.

Anthropocentrism Basics

  • Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans are the most significant beings on Earth and that all other plants, animals, and objects are important only insofar as they support human survival or give humans pleasure.
  • Favoring members of one’s species is a tendency that’s common in the animal kingdom, and perhaps in the plant kingdom, as well. 
  • Anthropocentrism has caused a horrifying array of global environmental problems. Even so, when it inspires people to preserve and enrich the environment for the benefit of future humans, it can be a force for good.
  • Anthropomorphism (imagining animals, plants, and even objects as having human characteristics) is an offshoot of anthropocentrism. Its deft use can help organizations and activists create effective, pro-environment communications. Even so, it should probably be used with caution.

The Roots of Anthropocentrism

In his landmark 1859 book "On the Origin of Species," Charles Darwin claimed that, in its struggle for survival, every being on Earth considers itself and its offspring to be at the top of the chain of what’s immediately important.

Humans are animals, and since the mid-twentieth century, studies of animal altruism—personal sacrifices made by one animal for the benefit of others—suggest that many animals confer special status not only on themselves and their progeny but on members of their own species in general.

“Conspecifics” is the term scientists use for “members of the same species.” Among many examples of non-human animal altruism, mongooses bring food and water to elderly and sick conspecifics. Chimpanzees share food with conspecifics and with humans, their close genetic cousins. Vampire bats regurgitate blood to share meals with conspecifics who didn’t find food that day. 

Pair of Mongooses

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Many less intelligent animals also favor conspecifics. When starving, some amoebae (microscopic, single-celled animals) join with conspecifics into a multi-celled body more capable than they were as individuals of reproducing. 

At least one plant favors life with conspecifics. Plants of the Eupatorium adenophorum species (a flowering weed native to Mexico and Central America) prefer to grow next to conspecifics. All of this suggests a pattern: while humans are anthropocentric, E. adenophora are E. adenophorum-centric. Mongooses are mongoose-centric. Amoebas can be amoeba-centric. And so on.

As fundamental as “fill in the blank-centrism” may be throughout nature, the creation stories embedded in the texts of various religions may have amplified an innate human inclination into a problem for the planet.

Writing in the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Purdue University anthropologist Stacey Enslow noted that “Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all religions that are considered to have a strong anthropocentric view.”

From an environmental perspective, this religious amplification of anthropocentrism may be well and good—as long as humans remember that “dominion” implies both the right to exploit and the responsibility to protect and preserve.

Anthropocentrism Meets Environmentalism

Rachel Carson looking through a microscope
Rachel Carson looking through a microscope.

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In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book "Silent Spring" revealed how tireless efforts to subjugate nature for corporate and private gain were driving many plant and animal species toward extinction. The book so effectively shamed humans for being “at war with the environment” that it launched the modern environmental movement.

In invited testimony on June 4, 1963 to a Senate subcommittee, Carson deftly turned the eco-damaging anthropocentrism she’d documented into a pro-environment force. She urged the subcommittee to act not just out of concern for Earth but on behalf of the humans that rely on Earth’s bounty. 

“The contamination of the environment with harmful substances is one of the major problems of modern life. The world of air and water and soil supports not only the hundreds of thousands of species of animals and plants, it supports man himself. In the past we have often chosen to ignore this fact. Now we are receiving sharp reminders that our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves.”

With phrases like “bring hazard to ourselves,” Carson successfully turned anthropocentrism into a cudgel with which to battle the problems it had created.

"Green Marketing" Through Anthropomorphism

According to Merriam-Webster.com, anthropomorphism (from the ancient Greek anthrōpos  for "human being" and morphē  for “form") means “an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics.” 

In general, anthropomorphism can work hand in glove with anthropocentrism to create “green” marketing. Think of Smokey the Bear and his friendly warnings about forest fires. In 1944 the Ad Council had wagered that anthropomorphism would make the U.S. Forest Service’s message memorable. Seventy-seven years later, that bet is still paying out.

The "Bambi Effect"

A deer and rabbits in front of a projection of the movie Bambie

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Whether Walt Disney was an environmentalist or not, he was perhaps the most successful practitioner of anthropomorphism resulting in at least some environmentalist sentiment.

The original "Bambi" fable was written by Austrian author Felix Salten (pen name for the Viennese literary critic Siegmund Salzmann) and published as a novel in 1923. Today, Salten’s "Bambi" is widely cited as the first environmental novel. Even so, not all of the animals of Salten’s forest were cute. Indeed, they stalked and ate each other. 

Nearly 20 years later, Walt Disney’s adaptation of "Bambi" portrayed the young deer and all of his animal friends as unfailingly adorable. Some were possessed of long, uncannily human eyelashes. All held undying affection for each other. Only the never-seen character “Man” was heartless and capable of murder. Where the movie’s animals seemed human-like, Man was a nearly sub-human destroyer of innocence and gaiety. 

Unfounded rumors persist that Disney’s portrayal of Man was rooted in his loathing of hunters and hunting. Even if those rumors one day prove true, it’s probably a stretch to call Disney an environmental activist of any sort. Indeed, he may have taken anthropomorphism so far that he scrambled the intended take-home message of Salten’s novel. 

Environmentalism requires an understanding that much of the animal kingdom consists of the eaters and the eaten. When not enough eaters are around, populations of any “eaten” species can become too plentiful for the habitat to support.

Humans (“eaters”) have always hunted, and we’ve long eaten venison. In 1924, concerned about the overpopulation of deer in Wisconsin, the early environmentalist Aldo Leopold encouraged the state to reform hunting regulations. Where state laws limited hunters to shooting stags while sparing doe and young bucks, Leopold argued that hunters should spare the stags and shoot the doe and bucks, thereby quickly and humanely thinning herds. The legislators would do no such thing. One year after Bambi’s theatrical release, they may have feared the wrath of voters should they enact legislation that put real-life baby deer and their mommies in the crosshairs.

Modern Anthropomorphic Myth-Making

Meanwhile, anthropomorphism is alive and well and used by marketers working for organizations hoping to preserve environmental health and bounty. Their approach is well supported by research.

The Effect of Human Eyes

Publishing in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology, Chinese researchers reported that putting images of human-like eyes on “green” products led potential consumers to prefer them.  

A Mangrove and a Shopping Bag With Human Qualities

As described in the peer-reviewed journal DLSU Business & Economics Review, researchers at Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia ran two studies of the effects of anthropomorphism on consumer behavior.

The first study evaluated whether giving mangroves human features and attributes could aid movements to save the trees, and it involved the creation of four print ads. In two of those ads, text explained that 40% of the mangroves in Indonesia were dying as a result of human activities and that mangroves protect shoreline from tsunamis.

In each of the other two ads, a character named Uncle Mangrove made an appeal. In one, Uncle Mangrove was a tall, strong, burly, and kindhearted tree. In the other, he was crying and begging for help.

Study participants were more convinced by the two Uncle Mangrove ads than by the two ads with stark facts.

In the second study from Atma Jaya Catholic University, the researchers endowed an animated shopping bag with human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet. More than a plain shopping bag, the bag with human features successfully convinced participants that they should bring a bag when shopping so as not to rely on disposable plastic. 

Guilt Leads to Action

In the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability, scientists from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology reported on the results of three survey-based studies examining the association between anthropomorphism and positive environmental action.

Consistently, the researchers found that study participants who “view nature in anthropomorphic terms are more likely to feel guilty for environmental degradation, and they take more steps toward environmental action.”

The Downside to Anthropomorphism in Marketing

Close up of a cute raccoon face
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There can be drawbacks to using anthropomorphism to counteract the dire effects of anthropocentrism. As is widely noted in scientific literature, endowing one species in a region with human features can result in its rescue at the expense of less endearing but perhaps more ecologically important species. It might even divert resources from the region’s entire interplay of vulnerable natural resources. 

Sometimes the results of anthropomorphism are just plain disastrous. For example, in the 1970s a Japanese cartoon series featuring a lovable, thoroughly anthropomorphized raccoon named Rascal resulted in about 1,500 raccoons per month being imported to Japan for adoption as pets.

Real raccoons are not necessarily cute and cuddly. They can be vicious, and their teeth and claws are fearsome. As described in The Smithsonian, disenchanted families in Japan released their raccoons into the wild where they bred so successfully that the government had to institute an expensive, nationwide eradication program. It didn’t succeed. Raccoons now live in Japan as an invasive species, tearing apart people’s trash and damaging crops and temples.

The Ultimate Example of Anthropomorphism

The ultimate in anthropomorphism may be the idea of Earth’s systems together constituting a sentient being that maintains favorable conditions for life on Earth. The concept was devised in the 1970s by eccentric British chemist and climate scientist James Lovelock, who refined his ideas in collaboration with American microbiologist Lynn Margolis. They portrayed the sentient being as a mother figure and named her “Gaia” after the Ancient Greek deity who was the personification of Earth. 

Over the years, scientists in many disciplines have agreed with Lovelock and Margolis that Earth’s systems sometimes do a very good job of keeping each other in healthy balance. But sometimes the regulation job they do isn’t good at all. Meanwhile, no scientist has revealed definitive proof of a Gaian-like intelligence. By and large, the Gaia hypothesis is supported by non-scientists.

The apparent normalcy of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism suggests that loudly bemoaning humans’ tendency to value themselves highly and see themselves throughout creation is not an expedient way to rescue the environment from its current, human-caused state of peril. On the other hand, using anthropomorphism as a “green” tool against blind anthropocentrism might be.