Humboldt State University

People on the Ground: Faculty Profiles

Sing Chew

"I'm more interested in talking about the unsustainability of sustainability."

Professor Sing Chew, a sociologist at Humboldt State, isn't much interested in what has become the familiar mainstream model for developing a sustainable society. Behaviors like recycling, riding a bicycle or switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs are all well and good, Chew says, but if sustainability is to be more than just a futile exercise in self congratulatory righteousness, human society will have to dig much deeper.

"Without dealing with some basic questions about ecological centeredness, or about ecocentric and anthropocentric approaches to life, the sustainability agenda will not be very successful," he says.

The ideas of anthropocentrism and ecocentrism are keys to Chew's views on sustainability and the environmental movement. Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans are atop a hierarchy of living things and hold dominion over all lesser living things. Anthropocentrism represents a systematic bias toward the non-human world and holds to the notion that humans are the primary concern of all existence. Ecocentrism, on the other hand, contends that humanity is not the central focus of existence, that all living things are of equal value and that humans are inescapably intertwined with the whole of nature.

"In order to get to real sustainability, I think the question has to be asked: are we going to be anthropocentric or shift our focus to ecocentrism? If we make that shift, then the whole discussion of sustainability will be very different," Chew says. "The wrong questions are being asked. We say: ‘we are running out of energy so let's find a different source.' But why did we run out of energy in the first place?"

Escaping unsustainability by shedding anthropocentrism—rather than adapting, finding alternatives or placing Band-Aids on the problem—is the key, Chew says. If humans simply adapt and, for example, find alternative sources of energy to replace oil, those sources will run dry in a few centuries and society will again be at the precipice of another crisis. This boom and bust cycle of unsustainable natural resource exploitation, which has played out for at least the last 5,000 years of human history, cannot be solved with better high-tech gadgetry or by recycling aluminum cans, Chew says. Instead, humans need to alter their perspectives and re-evaluate their place in the world. He tells the story of a former student who was able to do just that.

"One needs to bear witness to the devastation and then achieve certain realizations whether this is the path we want to follow. One of my former students was a logger who got injured and came to Humboldt State to get his degree," Chew remembers. "Before he was injured, one morning he went with his crew and they cut down six giant redwoods. And after the last one fell, he just stood there and suddenly he had a sort of epiphany and realized that he and his colleagues had wiped out thousands of years of life in only a few hours. He felt this tremendous sense of guilt and remorse. When he came to my class he was very much against exploiting the forest. The experience made him examine his role on earth and how he fit in."

So, do we all need to have a similar epiphany to shed our anthropocentrism and start moving toward real sustainability?

"Not necessarily," Chew says. "If we had a national or global debate about the long-term health of the environment, we could start looking at these ideas. The impending global ecological crisis will give us an opportunity to examine other ways to live that are ecocentric and sustainable. That is the conversation that needs to be happening right now."