In this poignant and thoughtful essay at Emergence Magazine, Melanie Challenger considers deep questions about precisely how people differ from animals and how our humanity — this idea that our consciousness is superior to that of plants and animals — has allowed us to justify prioritizing our own well being and survival over all living things, to the detriment of the planet. But how has human exceptionalism affected the environment and the life within it? Challenger asks us to apply our vast human mental capacity to putting real thought and action into preserving a true legacy — a healthy, thriving environment for the good of future generations: “How can we escape a cycle in which we look out on nature, fear the realities we see, arm ourselves with a false narrative of our own superiority, and, in so doing, hobble our moral agency?”

In other words, we are protected against the worst of our cruelties, whereas other species can be exploited, killed, and their homes destroyed, because they are mere bodies, but we are beings.

Unsurprisingly, this belief system is toxic to the rest of life on our planet. If it’s only the human essence that truly matters, then it doesn’t matter that we—this special thinking animal—are killing and endangering the evolutionary pathways of hundreds of thousands of other species on our planet. Because if we tell ourselves that only our special human essence has value, then only we truly matter on this Earth. And by this logic, as long as we pursue human needs, we are doing good in the world, regardless of any wider destructive consequences. That is one hell of a bias.

Today our major societies continue to justify our damaging impacts on Earth and other life forms on this basis. When interrogated, however, the idea of human exceptionalism can be extraordinarily difficult to ground in reality. That is because, at its heart, it is a belief rather than a fact. It is a belief about the value and quality of humanity. It is a belief that human uniqueness allows us both to endure and to triumph. It is the idea to which we default when confronted by human activities that seem to run counter to our moral high ground. The most common form this idea takes is the argument that humans have a special kind of intelligence from which full moral worth and duties follow. But other common forms of exceptionalism rely on the soul or personhood or the idea of “dignity.” We rarely allow ourselves to consider how odd these moral convictions are. But when we dig into them, we soon realize we will have to meet with Death to truly understand them.