In Defense of Humanity
Human beings are destroying the planet. Our history is largely one of war, genocide, domination, and hatred. We’re always coming up with new and inventive ways to exploit, or kill, animals, plants, and each other. Overall, we seem like a pretty sorry lot, don’t we? Sure, we’re intelligent, but what has that got us, besides being the smartest scum on the planet?
Today, these sorts of misanthropic musings are rampant. For example, in response to my calling a video of animal liberation activist Gary Yourofsky ‘anti-human’ (because he said that he hopes women (and men) who wear fur coats get raped), I received this endearing comment: “‘Anti-human’… big fucking LOL if by human you mean this despicable, sadomasochistic species which feeds off of the slavery, exploitation and rape of the entire ecosystem, I’d take that as a compliment.”
Hating humans seems to be in style with many environmentalists as well. In early 2013, BBC’s The Living Planet host David Attenborough drew criticism for remarking that humans are a “plague on the Earth.” If you have environmentalist friends on your social media stream, chances are that more than once you’ve seen that Matrix clip where Agent Smith likens humanity to a virus, along with comments like ‘so true lol.’
This cynical viewpoint seems to hold that not only do our failings eclipse and subsume our better qualities entirely, but that they prove there is something deeply and inherently wrong with who and what we are, with human nature at its core. That we don’t have a choice. While untrue, this belief has its roots deeply embedded in our culture, tracing at least as far back as the mythical garden of Eden.
When Eve took that infamous bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, it is said, she initiated original sin, a defect of character that was passed down through her to all humanity. It is an evil that lurks inside each of us, which we must atone for. Sigmund Freud’s concept of the ‘id’ provides a secular counterpart – a ravenous, aggressive animal each of us holds inside, precariously tucked away, waiting for the chance to tear its way out.
Today, the existence of these inner evils seems confirmed not only by our directly violent tendencies, but also by our ability and willingness to dominate, and potentially ultimately destroy, our environment. If this is who we are, maybe the misanthropes are right. The world, the universe, would be better off without us.
I don’t buy it. In order to believe this, firstly, we must minimize or ignore our species’ many unique and beautiful accomplishments. However, to better understand my optimism – my faith in, and defense of, humanity – it will be helpful to take a look at how we got to this point. What distinctly human characteristics have led to this ecocidal potency?
Animals populations tend to grow continuously until their environment can support no further growth. The idea that non-human animals reach equilibrium ‘naturally’ is false. They have it forced on them, in the same way we are having it forced on us, by external pressures that they are incapable of overcoming. Nature is never, and always, ‘in balance’.
In fact, all living organisms do this. At one point, scientists think, the atmosphere of the earth was mostly carbon dioxide and methane, until some microorganisms came along that had the unfortunate side effect of producing oxygen. They kept multiplying and eventually produced so much oxygen that they changed the atmosphere of the planet, and began to suffocate their fellow CO2 breathing compatriots. This seemingly suicidal strategy actually paved the way for something new – organisms that breathe oxygen, and release CO2. A balance was struck, and our ancestors were born.
The thing that bothers many misanthropes about humans, what makes us unique, is not just that we multiply too quickly and over-extend our environment. Again, all organisms do that. The problem is that we are just so damn good at it! We aren’t like lions who over hunt the local gazelle population, and then die in bouts of starvation because they made their local habitat inhabitable. We spread out. We diversify our resource streams and production techniques, then sell the results at Walmart for bargain prices. We use everything up. We’re just too flexible. Too smart.
‘Smart’ isn’t actually a descriptive enough term on its own. The fundamental separating difference between humans and other animals has to do with a particular kind of smarts called conceptual thought. Other animals can think, certainly feel, and can even arguably ‘reason’ in an extremely limited sense of that word, but conceptual thought is ours alone.
Conceptual thought is the ability to create symbols called ‘concepts’ that can represent ideas, characteristics, and relationships. Concepts, and relationships between them, can be continually nested within other concepts in a hierarchical structure. These structures are theoretically unlimited in scope, and can allow us to encompass complex ideas with a single word.
For example, take the concept of ‘apple’. We can identify apples based on certain defining characteristics that all apples share, like shape, taste… even DNA. From there, we know that apples, along with pears, strawberries, and many others, form the concept of ‘fruit’. Fruits, along with vegetables, grains, and meat belong to the concept ‘food’. Food, along with shelter, and clothing belong to the concept of life-sustaining necessities.
It is from this process that we are able to take the physiological realities of pain, death, and life, and nest them, along with other concepts, all the way up to the abstract principles of morality and justice. This is how we can conceive of, and in a sense contain, the entire cosmos inside of our few pounds of brain matter.
This faculty is the basis for almost every uniquely human ability: the creation of art, music, poetry, philosophy, scientific advancement – these better angels of our nature that must be downplayed or spin-doctored for the gloomy outlook of the human haters to make sense.
It would be folly to deny, however, that our extended cleverness at harnessing (some might say raping) our environment and planetary resources has a massive potential to cause us, and all other life on Earth, a lot of trouble. Just note the truths in the first paragraph of this article.
So why my optimism? Well, there’s another side to this story. Unlike the lions who over hunt gazelles, or the oxygen-exhaling micro-organisms of ancient earth, we realize what we are doing. The very existence of environmentalism and this particular strain of misanthropy prove that we realize it. The very same ability to conceptualize that has allowed us to overextend our environment to the extreme is also offering us something no other organism has – a choice. That’s what makes us remarkable, and beautiful, and worth saving.
We have the ability to understand an abstract concept called sustainability, and to compare our actions to it. We can alter what we are doing based not on a direct and immediate collapse of our environment, but on the anticipation of it. It would be like if the lions had the ability to call a pack meeting, and agree to hold off just a little bit on the gazelles, until the population begins to recover, and in the meantime hunt some smaller game. They can’t do that. We can.
This is our superpower. This is what makes us special.
Native tribes are said to have taken only what they needed, what they felt the land could replenish naturally. Romanticism or not, their example and cultural imagery suggest that we can consciously choose to strike this balance, even though we have the ability to outstrip it. The existence of that possibility, epitomized by our ancestral tribes, provides hope that this balance is possible for us in a way that it is possible for no other animal.
The fact that achieving this balance is difficult for us is understandable. It goes against that impulse every organism seems to share – to reproduce and utilize the environment to the maximum of their ability, until they use something too much and it’s absence curbs their numbers, or kills them off entirely. Historically, we have used our intelligence to amplify, rather than to curb, this impulse – but that isn’t the only option available to us.
Whether or not we will accomplish this before it’s too late is still up for debate, but we cannot resign ourselves to misanthropy. If we believe that humans cannot alter our course, then we won’t, and we probably might as well kill ourselves now, because the mass die off and environmental collapse will not be pretty.
Strategically, I think it makes sense to have hope – to keep pushing, keep trying, keep speaking and acting in a way that encourages the best possibilities of our nature. Just as easily as we can find a plethora of pointed lessons of just how badly we are screwing things up, we can find abundant examples of creative solutions being developed and implemented.
Things seem dire, I know. That’s good. That’s your survival mechanism kicking in and saying stop, think, and change course. We can do this.
The scariest part of a nightmare is the moment just before you wake up.