The Hydra just [yet] grew another head: Anthropocentrism

Posted on: April 1, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

The Hydra just grew [yet] another head: Anthropocentrism

Working on the Hydra concept has been a journey. I have been constantly challenged to expand and explore this image from the very beginning. What I present below is the latest version of the Hydra, and this post continues the discussion started here in a blog post titled “A Code of Ethics for Privileged Anti-Othering Persons: the humanitarian imperative and Hydra revisited.” As a final note I wrote,

“My students have suggested that the Hydra needs another head describing our species’ anthropocentric perspective and the consequent destructive ‘ecocidal’ relationship we have with the environment. We ‘other’ the very natural world that sustains us and this has led us to the brink of a massive climate disaster, which has already exasperated humanitarian crises across the globe, mostly in the majority world. This impact is an example of environmental racism in action, and as such merits our immediate attention. Adding ‘anthropocentrism’ as an additional head to the Hydra may be in order.”

Below I discuss this new head, anthropocentrism, but I also add comment about how unchecked capitalism and neoliberalism fuel the Hydra. If toxic othering is the driving process of all the heads, these two political and economic forces are the fuel.

Climate change is creating more work for humanitarians
The climate crisis facing humanity is real, immanent, and will continue to cause with increasing frequency natural disasters that will necessitate response from the humanitarian sector. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there are approximately 400 natural disasters each year, many of which are responded to by emergency relief organizations. There is ample data indicating that weather events are becoming more extreme due to climate change, and this means more events like the cyclones that hit Mozambique in 2019 and 2021.

The climate crisis chronically exasperates the perpetual blurring between aid and development work.  This point is made by Seck (2007) in this Human Development Report report “Fighting climate change:Human solidarity in a divided world.” He states,

“…the fact that humanitarian assistance is rooted in a shared belief that there is a moral imperative to assist people in times of stress makes it a highly reactive field. However, as a survey of World Bank task managers indicate, the best way to address the needs of the poor in natural disaster projects is to ensure that prevention and mitigation programmes are developed to guarantee that their homes did not fall down in the first place.”

He goes on further to say,

“…risk reduction has gained prominence and is increasingly seen…as a critical component of sustainable development.”

Anthropomorphism: a new head
The Hydra is driven by the human tendency to ‘other’, and all heads of the Hydra share essentially the same definition (see here for definitions of all previous seven heads). So here’s a critical Hydra theory (CHT) definition:

Anthropomorphism is an ideology of domination and subordination based on the assumption that humans are the apex species on Earth and the use of this assumption to legitimize or rationalize the human centered domination and exploitation of all life, both plant and animal.

For most of our existence on the planet humans have lived as just another species; part of the ecosystem in much the same manner as all other life forms. Beginning about 12,000 years ago we began the process of domesticating animals, first sheep and goats and soon after other species like cattle and horses. Then, about 10,000 years ago, humans began to domesticate grains, pulses, and, later, various tree varieties (e.g., olive). The purposeful genetic manipulation of plant and animal species in order to maximize their usefulness for humans, not coincidentally, happens about the same time we see religions getting more dominant and complex and the emergence of deities believed in and worshipped by people across the globe.

The Abrahamic religions emerged about 2000 years ago and now dominate much of the world, particularly in the West and the Middle East. A look at two of these religions illustrate how anthropocentric assumptions were woven into their dogma. We are told both in the Qur’an and the Holy Bible that God created the ‘heavens and the earth’. Here is Gensis 1:26,

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (emphasis added)

Anthropocentrism is part of what I have called the ‘mentality of exploitation’, a set of assumptions about our relationship with nature giving license to humans to act in a way that has now created increasing climate change, massive extinctions, and grotesque environmental degradation. Taming this head of the Hydra will mean confronting deeply entrenched theological and political/economic forces. No small task, that.

Cure the disease and treat the symptoms
One humanitarian told me that doing his job was like ‘putting a bandaid on a cancer victim’, highlighting the all too true trope of the need to ‘drain the swamp’ as opposed to merely swatting at infinite mosquitos. Bringing sandwiches to the gates of Auschwitz is how Bernard-Henri Levy put it. As Seck argues, and I agree, the humanitarian sector and indeed all of us must be both proactive and reactive. Though he is referring to only responses to climate change related ‘natural’ disasters, I believe this is exactly the stance that must be taken regarding all humanitarian responses. The rub is the age old tension between humanitarian action and humanitarian advocacy. Humanitarian action is framed as apolitical, neutral. Humanitarian advocacy at times must be overtly political, taking sides.

Our road ahead as 21st century humanitarians is fraught with such dilemmas, and we have no option but to dig in and openly address such issues. The words of Edward R. Murrow, an American journalist seem appropriate here. Indeed, “Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.”

Post script
The Hydra now has eight heads, each representing a unique privileging force. Are there more to come? Having used this model in discussions with wide ranging groups and individuals I have not had any omissions pointed out to me.  That said, what do you think?  If you have a comment on the Hydra model -including suggesting another head to add- email me with your ideas.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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