In the dark of night yesterday — OK, at 8:02 p.m. — Slate published a piece by Anne Applebaum that calls out the “anti-human prejudices of the climate change movement.” Specifically, she is worried that the news coming from Copenhagen is turning her nine-year-old son into a nihilist. Because her son used apocalyptic climate change as an excuse to not do his homework: “By the time I’m grown up, the polar ice caps will have melted and everyone will have drowned.”
Seems to me her son is creative, clever, and compassionate, not to mention keeping up on current events — all traits she might want to praise and encourage, instead of seizing on his “nihilism.” But anything to make a tired point, I suppose — and that’s exactly the problem with Applebaum’s piece.
This notion that environmentalists — and now, more specifically, climate-change activists — somehow hate humans is preposterous. It is stale. And in this essay, it is propped up by ridiculous examples.
To support her thesis, Applebaum — who notes that she supports renewable energy, a carbon tax, and a shift away from fossil fuels — calls upon three sources that are a complete sideshow relative to the current climate movement. Here’s a closer look.
1) A National Park Service ecologist who said, “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. … Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” Applebaum may well have uncovered this “radical statement” by Googling “anti-human environmentalist”; both words appear in the first paragraph of the source she links to, which dates from 1999. The original quote, in fact, dates from 1989. In the follow-up piece a decade later, the ecologist clarified his statement: “The point I was making [in the review] was that, from the standpoint of just about every other living thing on the planet, human beings are a plague. That’s still an accurate and safe assumption. Anything that reduces human populations or reduces their growth is a benefit to just about everything else on the planet. Whether that’s desirable for human beings is a completely different issue.” Emphasis added by me, because I want to make sure Applebaum sees the text she doesn’t seem to have bothered to read.
2) A People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder who allegedly declared that, “Humans have grown like a cancer. We’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth.” Really, you’re going to rely on PETA to make your point? A group that also recommended that fish be dubbed “sea kittens,” asked Ben & Jerry’s to start making ice cream with human breast milk, and imitated KKK members at a dog show? You’re going to quote Ingrid Newkirk, a woman whose will stipulates that her feet be made into umbrella stands? Here’s a little hint about PETA: They say and do things to get attention. And look, it worked again! Twice!
3) The U.K.’s Optimum Population Trust. To bolster her argument, Applebaum turns to a “mainstream” group that “campaigns against, well, human beings.” That’s vaguely true: The Trust works toward a gradual decrease in the world’s population through efforts to reduce teen pregnancy and provide global access to birth control. But calling this group a mainstream organization that somehow represents the opinions of the climate movement is like calling kettle corn a really interesting vegetable. And the Trust’s PopOffset calculator, cited by Applebaum, is a gimmick whose garish headline-grabbiness could give PETA a run for its money. That said, there are plenty of smart people who are concerned about the damage that our current booming population is doing to the planet — see Ellen Goodman’s column from last week on this very topic, George Monbiot’s from this fall, and our very own Ask Umbra‘s from earlier this year.
Satisfied with her evidence, Applebaum wanders into a litany of examples of the wonders of humanity: We invented electricity! We invented modern transportation and communication systems! We created the Internet! She seems to consider herself humanity’s cheerleader, positioning herself squarely opposite from all those Grinchy, human-hating climate activists who are teaching her child, and society at large, to give up. As if “they” think humans are as useless as yesterday’s news. As if “they” aren’t fighting desperately to ensure the survival of the very humans she claims they despise. As if “humans” are somehow a separate concept from the activists, and her, and me, and all of us.
To be honest, I understand what sparked her piece. I have a son myself. While he’s not old enough to be making up ways to get out of doing his homework, he will be before I know it. Do I want him to dwell on the end of civilization instead of math problems? Not particularly.
But do I think the fact that even young kids know something’s amiss is cause for alarm? No. I think it means the climate message is finally filtering down. And I hope it means we’re actually gearing up to do something about all this, to avoid the drowning-humanity fate that Applebaum’s son trotted out.
Above all else, I hope this “environmentalists hate people” saw, which must be as old and moth-eaten as Teddy Roosevelt’s union suit, gets packed away for good. Since we’re pulling quotes out of context to suit our needs, I’m going to turn to one from the late Thomas Berry. I think it starts to get at the root of the real concern, which is not that humans don’t belong on the planet, but that we should understand our place. “Any progress of the human at the expense of the larger life community must ultimately lead to a diminishment of human life itself,” Berry wrote. “A degraded habitat will produce degraded humans.”
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