Sir David Attenborough has certainly stirred the pot with his recent name calling. Are humans but a mere “plague on the Earth” only to be controlled through authoritarian rule and human population control? He’s been resoundingly criticized by some conservatives, such as Wesley J. Smith, who calls Attenborough’s views anti-human radicalism and emblematic of the deep misanthropy movement often associated with modern environmentalism. According to Smith, “deep misanthropy has helped renew the Malthusian drive to radically depopulate the planet of people as a remedy for environmental ills and human deprivation.” Smith goes on to conclude that the ongoing convergence of radical Malthusianism with a “renewed advocacy for wealth distribution” is very dangerous with genocidal overtones.
While it may be difficult for many to reconcile these two vastly different world views, frankly I think there is an element of truth that runs through both.
The term “plague” has many meanings including virulent contagious febrile disease causing massive death; disastrous evil or affliction such as a calamity; or a destructively numerous influx such as a swarm of locust. I’ll give Sir David the benefit of the doubt and accept that he meant the kinder, gentler form of that term, something more akin to a short-horned grasshopper than a virulent pustule.
While humans and grasshoppers can have the same destructive force on the natural landscape and are subject to the same natural forces of biological carrying capacity, we are also vastly different in that, while driven by the same earthly impulses to selfishly consume, humans should be able to alter otherwise destructive tendencies through engaging in rational thought and making informed choices. Most of us too have the innate need and sense to store, conserve, and put aside resources for later use – so biologically I’d argue we’re more like squirrels than grasshoppers. Science too has given us the ability to greatly expand and modify the outer bounds of carrying capacity that controls most animal populations that overshoot the environment’s natural capacity to provide adequate food, water, and shelter. However, it is also our success as a species and our unbridled optimism in science, ingenuity, and innovation – which often extracate us from the same limits and harsh realities that control animal population growth – that may dangerously lull us into a false sense of invincability as a species.
So, while I agree with Smith that dehumanizing our humanity is dangerous and has the potential to lead some to believe that the only solution lies in authoritarianism and other sundry societal behaviors, I think Sir David is correct in reminding us of the darker side of human potential. I am in agreement with Sir David that human behaviour unchecked has the same potential destructive forces as a swarm of short-horned grasshoppers or worse. And if society in the face of serious environmental threats is unable to modify its course of action and either blindly or willfully ignores those threats, unyielding to impulses to consume regardles of consequence, then perhaps we are no different in effect than a plague, in which case we and our fellow non-human sojouners will reap the consequences.
However, as one who believes in the positive side of human potential, I also believe that humans have the capacity to recognize, understand and respond to environmental threats, whether acting out of a motivation for self preservation or otherwise. Just look at the U.S., and how we’ve led the world over the last 50 years in taking decisive action to conserve and protect our environment. While there is more to do, we have made significant strides in responding to the call to conserve and protect earth’s natural resources. And we have done so not through authoritarianism or egalitarian rule, but through informed and collective consent, freedom and liberty, human ingenuity, and the hand of market forces.
While Smith rightly points out the dangers of authoritarianism, whether it be robed in Green, Red or other color, to broadly castigate or prescribe evil motive to the entire environmental movement is itself flawed and innacurate, as the movement has at its core an element of conservatism, i.e., an impulse to preserve the earth and all that which makes it good. However, at the heart of the issue is not whether we achieve environmental protection, but the means by which we achieve it. Conservatives must persuasively make the case as to why conservatism is the better course not only for human existence but for a sustainable earth.