As a number of people including yours truly have noted before, radical environmentalism is a secular religion, complete with its own zealots — and not all of them live in cabins in the woods. Some teach at universities.
Yes, I’m talking about Eric Pianka, University of Texas ecologist and Texas Distinguished Scientist of 2006, whose speech at the meeting of the Texas Academy of Science last month is making waves in the blogosphere. According to a report in the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, Pinka spoke enthusiastically of the (alleged) prospect of 90% of humanity being wiped out by a global epidemic, most probably of a mutated Ebola virus:
“Every one of you who gets to survive has to bury nine,” Eric Pianka cautioned students and guests at St. Edward’s University on Friday. Pianka’s words are part of what he calls his “doomsday talk” – a 45-minute presentation outlining humanity’s ecological misdeeds and Pianka’s predictions about how nature, or perhaps humans themselves, will exterminate all but a fraction of civilization.
Though his statements are admittedly bold, he’s not without abundant advocates. But what may set this revered biologist apart from other doomsday soothsayers is this: Humanity’s collapse is a notion he embraces.
Indeed, his words deal, very literally, on a life-and-death scale, yet he smiles and jokes candidly throughout the lecture. Disseminating a message many would call morbid, Pianka’s warnings are centered upon awareness rather than fear.
“This is really an exciting time,” he said Friday amid warnings of apocalypse, destruction and disease. Only minutes earlier he declared, “Death. This is what awaits us all. Death.” Reflecting on the so-called Ancient Chinese Curse, “May you live in interesting times,” he wore, surprisingly, a smile.
So what’s at the heart of Pianka’s claim?
6.5 billion humans is too many.
In his estimation, “We’ve grown fat, apathetic and miserable,” all the while leaving the planet parched.
A 90 percent reduction.
That’s 5.8 billion lives – lives he says are turning the planet into “fat, human biomass.” He points to an 85 percent swell in the population during the last 25 years and insists civilization is on the brink of its downfall – likely at the hand of widespread disease.
Pianka is now under fire from Forrest M. Mims III, Chairman of the Environmental Science Section of the Texas Academy of Science, who claims that Pianka used the Texas Academy meeting as a forum to advocate the painful death of over 5 billion people.
Pharyngula, the noted science blog, responds by shooting the messenger, pointing out that Mims is a well-known advocate of intelligent design and a disgruntled critic of the science establishment ever since Scientific American refused to hire him as its “Amateur Scientist” columnist because of his pro-ID views. Pointing to another account of the meeting and the speech, by Texas Lutheran University senior and biology major Brenna McConnell, Pharyngula’s PZ Myers says:
It mentions nothing of a plan to intentionally infect people with airborne ebola and kill a majority of the people on Earth.
But I don’t think Mims claims that Pianka advocated such a plan, either. He did express concern that “a Pianka-worshipping former student might someday become a professional biologist or physician with access to the most deadly strains of viruses and bacteria.” Well, when you think of the Unabomber, maybe the idea of an enviro-zealot turned bioterrorist isn’t all that farfetched.
In fact, McConnell’s account broadly confirms Mims’, and also shows what kind of mindset his ideas generate:
Dr. Pianka’s talk at the TAS meeting was mostly of the problems humans are causing as we rapidly proliferate around the globe. While what he had to say is way too vast to remember it all, moreover to relay it here in this blog, the bulk of his talk was that he’s waiting for the virus that will eventually arise and kill off 90% of human population. In fact, his hope, if you can call it that, is that the ebola virus which attacks humans currently (but only through blood transmission) will mutate with the ebola virus that attacks monkeys airborne to create an airborne ebola virus that attacks humans. He’s a radical thinker, that one! I mean, he’s basically advocating for the death of all but 10% of the current population! And at the risk of sounding just as radical, I think he’s right.
Humans are far too populous. We’ve used up our resources, and we’re destroying the Earth at an accelerated pace. The more technology we create, the more damage we’re capable of doing. … It’s the harsh reality that many people alive right now should be dead. And even harsher to think that the world would be better off with them dead too. My grandparents, who I love dearly and am so incredibly thankful to know, are honestly being kept alive only through the technology that we have created via medicine. The same goes for the millions of other old folk alive and kicking and will continue to do so for another 5-10 years, using up more resources. Or think of all the babies being born every hour with abnormalities that 50 years ago would have kept them from living. …
Dr. Pianka made a very profound comment during his presentation; he said that China has the right idea by limiting reproduction at 1. We’re past the point of replacement reproduction as a species. We’re too many for the number we’re at now! We need to decline in population. A virus is probably the fairest method of extermination (though still not completely fair, I admit) because it’s nondiscriminatory as to whom it targets. Rich, poor, black, white, brown, nice, mean, religious, agnostic – we’d all be targeted equally. The only difference is who can afford medicine and even then, if it’s a mutated virus that strikes fast, humans would have only the tiniest of a chance to find a cure in time so money wouldn’t matter.
Of course, in reality, a virus would be quite discriminatory: Ebola is an African virus. In a correspondence with Mims, Pianka has apparently asserted that it could migrate to Europe or the Americas by means of a single infected airplane passenger. (Methinks he’s seen the movie Outbreak a few too many times — rooting for the virus, no doubt.) But it’s virtually certain that quarantines and other preventive measures would be quickly imposed, and the damage in the West might well be contained while Africa turned into a mass grave. Furthermore, do Pianka and his followers really think the chances of infection and survival in an epidemic would have nothing to do with levels of sanitation, medical care, and other things related to wealth? (By the way, Pianka overstates the mortality rates from the virus — according to Emergency Medicine, fatality rates in Ebola epidemics have ranged from 53% to 88% — and does not seem to know that the infection rate for most airborne diseases is far below 100%.)
Pharyngula suggests that because Pianka received enthusiastic applause at the TAS meeting, his comments couldn’t have been as vile as Mims and other critics suggests. But the fact is that anti-humanism has long enjoyed a disturbing level of acceptance in the environmental church, including acceptance from scientists. In an article in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on October 22, 1989, reviewing Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature, David Graber, a research biologist with the National Park Service, wrote:
Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line — at about a billion years ago, maybe half that — we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.
It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.
(Note that Graber’s idea of rejoining nature entails going to a 500 million years BCE level of human culture. Charming.)
For other pearls of such wisdom, see this page.
This is evil stuff, and not very different from “classic” religious fanaticism in its hatred of human freedom and achievement, and its demand for absolute human submission to a greater power.
Pharyngula reports that the Texas Academy of Sciences has been receiving “death threats” over the Pianka speech, though the only email PZ Myers cites is a heated but non-violent condemnation which says (rightly) that the Academy is “diminished” by its association with Pianka’s views. Of course death threats, or threats of any kind, are wrong. But I think that environmentalists, and scientists, need to recognize that they are diminished and compromised by doomsaying and misanthropy.
Mistrust of “godless” science is already all too common in American society. People like Pianka and Graber only give further ammunition to the enemies of science.