Do you suffer from Anthropocentric Personality Disorder?

Antisocial personality disorder is generally defined as a condition in which the sufferer exhibits a repeated pattern of disregard for the rights, feelings, and well-being of others. Tell me that isn’t how most people regard the non-human world.

(Originally published June 4, 2014 on Beacon Reader) 

White Mountains from North Shore of Mono Lake

Mono Lake is drying up again. The unprecedented drought that’s settled in over the state of California has dried out the snowmelt that usually feeds the picturesque, unearthly lake east of Yosemite.

Because the lake has no outlet other than evaporation, its water gets saltier as the lake shrinks: there’s no way of flushing out the dissolved minerals. In the best of times, when the lake is at its ideal level with the water surface at or above 6,400 feet above sea level, Mono Lake is twice as salty as the ocean. Right now the lake’s surface stands at 6,380 feet and an inch or two, and its water is closer to three times as salty. That increased salinity threatens to undo the lake’s ecology, killing off the algae and brine flies that form the base of a food chain supporting millions of migratory birds.

As the result of decades of bitter court battles against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which diverts fresh water from the streams that feed the lake, 6,380 feet is a threshold level for the lake. With the lake above 6,380 feet, LADWP is allowed to take 16,000 acre-feet from Mono’s tributaries each year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre to a depth of a foot; 16,000 acre-feet per year is enough water to fill Pasadena’s Rose Bowl to the brim every six days.)

Once the lake drops below 6380 feet, which it likely will by the end of June or July, LADWP’s exports are cut to 4,500 acre-feet per year. That’s still a significant amount of water to be removing from a lake in the desert, but it’s a steep cut nonetheless. And as a result, Los Angeles residents eager to make sure they help preserve the amazing ecosystem at Mono Lake have drastically cut down on the amount of water they use.

Wait, no, they haven’t.

Don’t get me wrong: ecologically conscious Angelenos exist by the tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. That’s a lot of green-leaning people. But in a city of ten million, a hundred thousand people putting buckets under leaky taps to catch the water for reuse amount to a… well,  you know.

It’s not just Mono Lake, of course. The whole west is going dry, with California hardest hit. Los Angeles infamously gets water from the Owens Valley. It also gets a fair amount in typical years from the Colorado River and from Northern California, via the California Aqueduct. In other words, the city of Los Angeles has straws stuck into just about every major stream and a bunch of minor ones across the southwest, all of which are exceptionally dry this year.

I visit LA about twice a month, and here’s what I see when I go:

That’s a photo from 2006, but trust me: it’s easy to find it happening this week. After a year of increasingly urgent warnings from local water districts, the state’s governor, and federal scientists that there’s not enough water to go around.

Oh, people are doing their part in other ways. You’ll see little signs in restaurants saying that the servers will only bring a glass of water to people who ask for it. That does make a difference. If all of Los Angeles’ 10 million residents refused an eight-ounce glass of water each, the water saved would add up to 1.9 acre-feet. That’s something.

I’m picking on Los Angeles because it’s the largest city in the drought-stricken West, but people aren’t any better elsewhere in California. Even in the supposedly eco-conscious San Francisco Bay Area, the culture of the sodden lawn still reigns, and water use cutbacks are “voluntary” and mainly going unheeded. In less liberal environs like the state’s Central Valley, thought leaders — if I may use that term loosely — are actually calling for wildlife species to be allowed to go extinct so that industry can continue to use the state’s water.

If you knew someone who treated his family and friends the way Californians treat the ecosystems that give them water, you’d likely give that guy a wide berth. Taking resources from someone for your own benefit, and not changing your ways even as they languish and decline? On a personal level, that is generally considered the mark of a monster.

On the political or corporate management levels it’s standard operating procedure, and as a result the makers of the 2003 film The Corporation proposed that we regard corporations the way we’d regard individuals who acted the same way: as sociopaths. That term has been deprecated of late in favor of phrases like antisocial personality disorder, but the basics remain:

  • a pattern of behavior that fails to take the welfare of others into account or even deliberately disregards that welfare;
  • •a lack of either empathy for those affected by one’s actions or remorse for those effects;
  •  poor impulse control and failure to properly assess the risks of the impulsive behavior.

Treating people the way we treat the planet is considered a profound personality disorder.

And rightly so. Who’d want to be on the receiving end of the kind of treatment the non-human world gets dished out to it? Even just suggesting that the non-human world might be due a bit of concern and compassion can get you ridiculed in print, as witness the New York Times’ report on a recent controversy over negligient harm done to baby heron chicks in Oakland, California. Reporter Carol Pogash couldn’t just write about the heron chicks: she had make to unsubstantiated allegations that Oaklanders who cared about the birds didn’t care about homeless people. She did this not once but twice.

The inability to take part in a discussion without shifting everyone’s focus to one’s self is diagnostic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What do we call Pogash’s apparent inability to allow a discussion to proceed without making it focus on her species?

It’s a bigger issue than just individuals’ feelings about conserving water or helping urban wildlife. The conservation movement, which has always been opposed by those whose short-term profits might suffer if they can’t trample the natural world to their hearts’ content, is now being challenged by people calling themselves “new environmentalists,” who proclaim that conservation’s goal should be “Take Care Of People First.”

In other words, there’s a massive campaign to rewrite the goals of conservation away from protecting wildlife and their habitat, and in favor of terraforming the planet for humans’ maximum long-term comfort.

We should call out this point of view for what it is: a widespread personality disorder in which the sufferer is unable to empathize with the 99.9 percent of species in the world that aren’t human, feels wholly justified in any actions that benefit humans no matter the cost to those other species, is unlikely to feel remorse for the deleterious consequences of human actions on other species, and thus does not adequately assess the real-world risks of those actions.

Anthropocentric personality disorder hurts the planet. It hurts people who care about the planet. And it hurts the people who have it.

But there is help. If you think you might have anthropocentric personality disorder, just go outside and start paying attention.

One thought on “Do you suffer from Anthropocentric Personality Disorder?

  1. Rob Grigjanis

    she had make to unsubstantiated allegations that Oaklanders who cared about the birds didn’t care about homeless people.

    I got exactly the same reaction when talking to a colleague about the problem of birds flying into skyscrapers. As though one had to choose between the two. As though I had ever heard this person once mention the homeless people he passed every day on his way to work.

    And a fairly mild comment on some blog years ago about humans treating animals badly got an immediate accusation that I was a human-hater. Lucky guess (a joke, but getting less jokey as the years pass).