A portrait of the ecologist as an old misanthrope

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: "If you had a button in front of you that you could push and eliminate every person on earth, would you push it?" Our guest, an ecologist, posed this question recently to a dozen friends and colleagues sitting around a big table after a convivial dinner, good wine, and lively conversation.

"Would you?" I asked from across the table.

12monkeys300.jpg"Yes," he replied without hesitation and with a grim grin. "For all of the species we've driven to extinction."

"Who you calling 'we,' Kemosabe?" I tried to joke.

Some of us are more responsible for environmental destruction than others. And some people are victims not perpetrators.

"Human beings as a species," he said, his expression growing even more serious.

A pall descended over the table as he turned to each of us in turn and demanded an answer. "No," each of our other guests replied. We couldn't. Or wouldn't. Or didn't feel qualified to judge all of humanity.

"That's about average," he said with an air of self-satisfaction. "About one in ten people are willing," he said, whenever he asks the question, which he does frequently, he claimed. Never mind that, in this case anyway, he was the only one, the proof of his own hypothesis, as it were.

I have no doubt that our guest--a well-respected, influential scientist, with a long career behind him--occasionally finds like-minded dinner companions. A strong current of misanthropy flows through the veins of ecology and environmentalism, especially, it seems, among white men of a certain age.

I seriously doubt, however, that 10 percent of any demographic, including aging white guys, would favor genocide as an answer to the world's ecological crises.

It's no surprise that many environmentalists think that people are the problem, and that the big problem is too many people. But it is still shocking to see that for some environmentalists a love of other living beings goes hand in hand with a hatred for their fellow human beings.

This idea has been voiced publicly from time to time during epidemic disease outbreaks, disasters, and famines--dramatically fewer people would be better for the planet, goes this line of thinking. The idea has great currency in futuristic literature and film, including Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, where the cause of our disappearance is not specified; Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, where an eco-terrorist unleashes a genetically engineered epidemic that wipes out most humans, supposedly, in a sense, pressing the restart button for ecosystems on Earth; and the movie and current TV series "12 Monkeys."

It might be different if there were anything ironic about these anti-humanist narratives--as there was in A Modest Proposal, in which Jonathan Swift satirically suggested in 1729 that the Irish poor should sell their children as food for the rich, mockingly calling attention to the heartless attitudes of his times, which saw the rise of dispassionate, statistical, scientific arguments about human populations.

But our dinner guest was dead serious, as so many environmentalists tend to be when they talk like him. And on that chilling note, our dinner party was clearly over.

We dispersed into the night, with the sickening new knowledge that someone we might have considered a friend and ally would not flinch at declaring our lives meaningless, and the lives of people we know and love, near and far, and of people around the world we do not even know the first thing about, and have no right to judge.

With friends like this, who needs enemies? It's enough to make one reconsider being an environmentalist.

As troubling as our dinner guest remains, and it's been difficult to get the hard determination with which he stated his conviction out of my head, I'm not particularly worried about him. Fortunately there is no such button to push--though the potential threat of bioterrorism is no laughing matter.

I do worry a lot, however, about the misanthropy at the heart of some important and influential strands of environmentalism. It's a real dead end.

Still image from "12 Monkeys," Universal Pictures.

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