Sunday, January 14, 2018

Protagoras and the Anthropocene: Can man still be the measure of all things?

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is famous for his saying that man is the measure of all things. Though we don't know much about Protagoras or his written work except for quotations appearing in other ancient works, the general view is that Protagoras was the father of moral relativism in philosophy.

Protagoras's complete statement has been translated as follows: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or "how"] they are, and of things that are not, that [or "how"] they are not." It is unlikely that Protagoras believed that physical truths about the natural world such as the freezing point of water depended on one's personal standpoint.

But under Protagoras's tutelage in matters of values, we are left only with the measuring instrument called "man" (or more inclusively "humans"). In the age of the Anthropocene—that still-not-official geologic age in which humans are designated as the most potent geologic force on the planet—those issues thought to relate solely to the lives of humans do NOT, it turns out, relate simply to humans.

While we may choose to celebrate the material progress of humankind, we do so heedless of the wider costs to the stability of the biosphere. Those who focus only on measures that exclusively relate to what we regard as human well-being miss the broader picture and mislead their audience. (They often say "the world" is getting better when they mean certain measures of human well-being are moving in a direction we regard as good.)

But, human civilization thrives under very specific environmental conditions, namely the ones experienced since the end of the last ice age. That age, the Holocene, has been marked by a moderately warm and stable climate which made possible agriculture and the concomitant rise of cities.

General advances for humans such as rising incomes (and thus consumption) and better access to health services are unalloyed positives only if the continuously degrading indices of biospheric stability are ignored. Two concepts, planetary boundaries and tipping points, inform us about the risks.

Planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre number nine and include such things as climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, and biodiversity, called "biosphere integrity." The Centre reports that humans have passed four of the nine boundaries: "climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen)."

The word "boundaries" implies that with the right actions we could cross back over them and thus return to a safe zone. (In practical terms this would mean moving back into a zone of lower risk.)

Tipping points, however, imply a journey to the land of no return. Researchers reporting on the planetary boundaries believe that in the areas of climate and biosphere integrity, the planet is in danger of moving toward a new irreversible state, "a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human well-being in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries."

I am reminded of the man falling from a 100-story building who, when asked at the 50th floor by someone near a window how he's doing, replies, "Fine so far." Tipping points seem unimportant or even nonexistent until you reach them. Conceivably, human well-being could on average continue to increase for many indicators for years to come, only to be dramatically reversed when planetary tipping points kick in.

The mathematical way of talking about this is that tipping points can represent a kind of step function or nonlinear response on a graph. Much of the sanguine talk of continued human progress is premised on the absence of sudden nonlinear turns or step functions in the graphs of the key indicators of planetary health. The data to date give us little reason to expect gradual change for all indicators or to believe that we can adapt successfully to all the changes we face if we don't alter our current course.

It is not surprising that humans look to themselves as arbiters of what's important in the life and processes of the biosphere. Humans, like every other species, seek their own survival and well-being first. But our overreliance on humans as the measure of all things is the very posture which has put us on the road to potentially catastrophic changes in climate and other planetary systems, changes that threaten our very survival.

The time has come to put away man as the measure of all things and look to much broader measures for an assessment of our well-being and the well-being of all those systems upon which ours depends.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


LΞΞ5K said...

Since the demise of I have looked in vain for an organization or publication that I could, as a lay person, use to stay informed about "continuously degrading indices," boundaries, and tipping points. Is Stockholm Resilience Centre that organization?

Shawn B said...


Agreed to all said in this essay, like 100%.

But how do we get to a different way of looking at the well-being of things?

Massive social change after a catastrophic environmental shock (that we mostly survive)? Through a science based culture? Or one based on a sort of environmental Religion?

I myself do not have an answer to my question. The collective “we” seem set on course towards a cliff and few are consciously aware of it. We have bet it all on a techno future with continued progress for all – humans.

With great irony, a few hours after I read your blog post, I found this article in my reading feeds from the Mises Institute dated 1/12/18.

“The Real Relationship Between Capitalism and the Environment “ …. “The data suggests that as capitalism advances, so does the quality of the physical environment.”

Maybe I will find the inner strength to read this ideologically driven (Austrian Economics I think) propaganda tomorrow. Or maybe not.

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. While I think the Stockholm Resilience Centre is a good place to see the consensus view of serious environmental scientists regarding major Earth systems, I believe the centre is actually far too sanguine about our situation. The biggest danger is that we've blown through several tipping points without realizing it and are now on our way to what Bill McKibben calls Eaarth, that is, a vastly altered habitat that differs significantly from the one humans have thrived in in the past.

What would it take to "get to a different way of looking at the well-being of things?" My view is that catastrophic environmental shocks (didn't we just have three in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico?!) will ultimately reshape our religious views. I equate religion and worldview. We are still working with "man's dominion over the Earth." We are still telling ourselves the story of the empty Earth which has to be subdued.

Moreover, if someone says, "I'm an economist." I take that as a statement about worldview and thus about religion. You can tell whether a field of study is a religion if you question its premises and the response you get is not careful consideration but an attempt to shout you down (without answering your critique), to demean you by saying you don't understand and finally to eject you from whatever cocktail party you managed to start this catfight in. Economists didn't invent the worldview we suffer under. But they take it as their job to defend it with self-referential and circular arguments based on models taken from 19th century physics. And, they are the pre-eminent policy advisors in every facet of modern life in government, business and civil society (nonprofits, etc.). They are the high priests of our age.

Michael Dowd said...

Excellent post, Kurt!

My last sermon is along similar lines, actually, highlighting the work of William Catton. Connie, my science writer and climate activist wife, just edited it and uploaded the video to YouTube, as she thinks it's my best sermon to-date.

"Not the Future We Ordered: Staying Sane in Crazy Times"

I'm claiming that anthropocentrism, or human-centeredness, be considered "idolatry," and that ecology must be the heart of theology. I begin the sermon with these two "scripture" readings:

“Human society is inextricably part of a global biotic community, and in that community human
dominance has had and is having self-destructive consequences.” ~ William R. Catton, Jr.

“The most difficult transition to make is from an anthropocentric to a bio-centric norm of progress. If there is to be any true progress, then the entire life community must progress. Any progress of the human at the expense of the larger life community must ultimately lead to a diminishment of human life itself.” ~ Thomas Berry

Keep up the great writing!

Jenny Kelly said...

Agreed & a Great post I must say.

Thanks for sharing... I sincerely hope to receive some more insights like these in the near future.