the New Misanthropy
The big question today is not whether humans will survive
the twenty-first century, but whether our faith in humanity will
Discussions about the future increasingly tend to focus on whether
humans will survive. According to green author and Gaia theorist
James Lovelock, 'before this century is over billions of us will
die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be kept
in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable' (1).
More and more books predict there will be an unavoidable global
catastrophe; there is James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency:
Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century,
Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive,
and Eugene Linden's The Winds of Change: Weather and the Destruction
of Civilisations. Kunstler's book warns that 'this is a much darker
time than 1938, the eve of World War II' (2). In the media there
are alarming stories about a mass 'die-off' in the near future and
of cities engulfed by rising oceans as a consequence of climate
Today we don't just have Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but an
entire cavalry regiment of doom-mongers. It is like a secular version
of St John's Revelations, except it is even worse - apparently there
is no future for humanity after this predicted apocalypse. Instead
of being redeemed, human beings will, it seems, disappear without
Anxieties about human survival are as old as human history itself.
Through catastrophes such as the Deluge or Sodom and Gomorrah, the
religious imagination fantasised about the end of the world. More
recently, apocalyptic ideas once rooted in magic and theology have
been recast as allegedly scientific statements about human destructiveness
and irresponsibility. Elbowing aside the mystical St John, Lovelock
poses as a prophet-scientist when he states: 'I take my profession
seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news….' (3) Today,
the future of the Earth is said to be jeopardised by human consumption,
technological development or by 'man playing God'. And instead of
original sin leading to the Fall of Man, we fear the degradation
of Nature by an apparently malevolent human species.
All of today's various doomsday scenarios - whether it's the millennium
bug, oil depletion, global warming, avian flu or the destruction
of biodiversity - emphasise human culpability. Their premise is
that the human species is essentially destructive and morally bankrupt.
'With breathtaking insolence', warns Lovelock in his book The Revenge
of Gaia, 'humans have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried
to keep oxygen at its proper level and burnt them'.
Human activity is continually blamed for threatening the Earth's
existence. Scare stories about the scale of human destruction appear
in the media and are promoted by advocacy groups and politicians.
For example, it was recently claimed that human activity has reduced
the number of birds and fish species by 35 per cent over the past
30 years. That story was circulated by the environmentalist news
service Planet Ark and picked up by the mainstream media, and widely
cited as evidence that human action causes ecological destruction.
Our engagement with nature is frequently described as 'ecocide',
the heedless and deliberate destruction of the environment. In short,
humanity's attempt to domesticate nature is discussed as something
akin to genocide or the Holocaust. The title of Franz Broswimmer's
polemic Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species
captures this sense of loathing towards humanity. According to Jared
Diamond, 'ecocide has now come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging
diseases as the threat to global civilisations' (4).
Increasingly, the term 'human impact' is associated with pollution,
wanton destruction and the stripping bare of the Earth's assets.
Former US vice president Al Gore is concerned that the 'power of
technologies now at our disposal vastly magnifies the impact each
individual can have on the natural world', causing a 'violent destructive
collision between our civilisation and the Earth' (5). Over the
past 400 years, the human impact on the world, which led to the
humanisation of nature, was celebrated by Western culture - these
days, human ingenuity is regarded ambiguously or even suspiciously.
Indeed, the very idea of civilisation is presented as a force for
ecological destruction. 'Civilisations have been destroying the
living systems of the Earth for at least 5,000 years', says one
misanthrophic account (6). According to some environmentalists,
humans are a 'foreign negative element', even a 'cancer on the environment'
(7). For radical environmentalists, the degradation of nature stems
from our species' belief in its unique qualities. Such a belief
- dubbed 'anthropocentrism' - is openly denounced for endangering
the planet. Human-centred ideology, which views nature from the
perspective of its utility for people, is said to be destroying
the environment. And this tendency to depict humans as parasites
on the planet is not confined to any small circle of cultural pessimists.
Michael Meacher, Britain's former minister for the environment,
has referred to humans as 'the virus' infecting the Earth's body.
Western culture's estrangement from its humanity
The rising popularity of a term like 'ecological footprint' shows
how much resonance the association of normal human activity with
destruction has today. This term, which implies that having an impact
on the environment is necessarily a bad thing, is rarely criticised
for its misanthropic assumptions. On TV and in film and popular
culture, the development of civilisation, and particularly the advance
of science and technology, is depicted as the source of environmental
destruction and social disintegration. The idea that civilisation
is responsible for the perils we face today depicts the human species
as the problem, rather than as the maker of solutions. And the most
striking manifestation of this anti-humanism is the belief that,
if the Earth is to survive, there will have to be a significant
reduction in the number of human beings.
The Malthusian objective of reducing populations is alive and kicking.
For deep ecologists, the issue is straightforward - their starting
point, as spelled out by leading ecologists Arne Naess and George
Sessions in 1984, is that a 'substantial reduction in human population
is needed for the flourishing of non-human life'. Numerous commentators
embrace these Malthusian sentiments. 'The current world population
of 6.5 billion has no hope whatsoever of sustaining itself at current
levels, and the fundamental conditions of life on Earth are about
to force the issue', warns Kunstler (8). The Australian academic
David McNight has tried to reconcile neo-Malthusianism with his
version of 'new humanism', arguing that 'creating a sustainable
society based on human values will necessitate stopping the growth
of human population and accepting limits on human material desire'
If anything, today's neo-Malthusian thinking is far more dismal
and misanthropic than the original thing. For all his intellectual
pessimism and lack of imagination, Thomas Malthus believed in humanity
far more than his contemporary followers do. He argued, in his book
On The Principle of Population, that although 'our future prospects
respecting the mitigation of the evils arising from the principle
of population may not be so bright as we could wish…they are
far from being entirely disheartening, and by no means preclude
that gradual and progressive improvement in human society, which
before the late wild speculations on this subject, was the object
of rational expectation' (10). Malthus' reservations about the human
potential were influenced by a hostility to the optimistic humanism
of his intellectual opponents, including Condorcet and Godwin. Nevertheless,
despite his pessimistic account of population growth, he said 'it
is hoped that the general result of the inquiry is not such as not
to make us give up the improvement of human society in despair'
Over the past two centuries, Malthus' followers often disparaged
people who came from the 'wrong classes' or the 'wrong races' -
but despite their prejudices they affirmed the special status of
the human species. In some instances, such as the eugenic movement,
rabid prejudice against so-called racial inferiors combined with
a belief in human progress (12). Today's neo-Malthusians share the
old prejudices, but in addition they harbour a powerful sense of
loathing against the human species itself.
It's worth recalling that Malthus justified ringing the alarm bells
about demographic growth on the basis that the human race lacked
the capacity and ingenuity to feed itself. Today, the anti-natalist
lobby decries the fact that humanity has become all too successful
at reproducing itself - and human ingenuity and development are
depicted as the greatest threat to the wellbeing of the planet.
The loss of faith in humanity is strikingly expressed in the stigma
attached to speciesism. Speciesism is the sin of elevating humanity
above other species. Those who invented this Orwellian-sounding
word think humans do not possess any morally unique qualities and
people are no better than other lifeforms. They argue that those
who claim a special or a higher status for humans are no better
than those who talk about racial or male superiority. Animal rights
activist Peter Singer defines speciesism as 'a prejudice or attitude
of bias towards the interests of members of one's own species and
against those of members of other species'. Although speciesism
has not yet entered the vernacular, the assumption that it is wrong
to prioritise humans over animals has become mainstream. Animal
experimentation is increasingly seen as a crime and the boundary
dividing humans from animals has become more and more porous. As
Josie Appleton has pointed out on spiked, many people take DNA as
'their measure of moral value' (13). And since studies indicate
that people share some 98.4 per cent of their DNA with chimpanzees,
they claim that as proof of moral equivalence between humans and
The new misanthropy
Our declining faith in humanity might be most clearly expressed
in apocalyptic thinking about the environment, but it pervades everyday
life. So it is frequently assumed that people have emotional deficits.
We are described as having addictive personalities, or we're seen
as 'damaged' or 'scarred for life'. Human relations come with health
warnings. We don't simply pollute the environment, it seems, but
also one another. We talk about 'toxic relationships', 'toxic parents'
and 'toxic families'. Indeed, scare stories about the risks of human
relationships are often very similar to discussions about the environment.
Susan Forward, author of Toxic Parents, compares the effects of
bad parenting to 'invisible weeds that invaded your life in ways
you never dreamed of'. Apparently parents emit poisonous substances
which contaminate their kids in much the same way that humans pollute
the environment. There is virtually a new genre of literature on
the apparently poisonous nature of human relationships. There are
books titled Toxic Bachelors, Toxic People: 10 Ways of Dealing with
People Who Make Your Life Miserable, Toxic Relationships And How
To Change Them, Toxic Friends, Toxic Coworkers: How To Deal With
Dysfunctional People On The Job and Toxic Stress - all of which
send the same misanthropic message about relationships as neo-Malthusians
spread about population and the environment. And the metaphor is
not confined to relationships. Public institutions also come with
the toxic-warning label; consider these book titles: Toxic Churches:
Restoration from Spiritual Abuse, Toxic Work, The Allure of Toxic
Leaders and Toxic Psychiatry.
This reinterpretation of human relations as toxic is driven by a
moralising impulse. Pollution traditionally involved an act of defilement
and desecration; in previous times, to pollute was to profane, to
stain, to sully, to corrupt. But when moral defilement is anticipated
and depicted as being normal, pollution becomes a routine form of
behaviour - with important implications for how we view humans.
Misanthropy has a profound influence on public policy and political
debate. Back in the Fifties sociological research found that there
was a clear correlation between how society viewed people and the
prevailing political attitudes. One study of individuals' views
of human nature suggested they were shaped by political attitudes
in general (14). So attitudes towards the democratic ideal of free
speech are directly influenced by whether we believe people are
capable of making an intelligent choice between competing views.
'The advocate of freedom of speech is likely to believe that most
men are not easily deceived, are not swayed by uncontrolled emotions,
and are capable of sound judgement', noted this 1950s study. This
implied a high level of faith in humanity. In contrast, 'the individual
with low faith in people tends to believe in suppression of weak,
deviant, or dangerous groups'. The study concluded that the 'individual's
view of human nature would appear to have significant implications
for the doctrine of political liberty' (15). People who viewed human
nature positively tended to be more tolerant towards free speech
and social experimentation. People who saw humans as being driven
by narrow self-interest, greed and other destructive passions were
inclined to support measures that curbed freedom.
Today, the growth of censorship, the criminalisation of thought
by the enactment of so-called hate crimes legislation and speech
codes, and the widespread frowning upon causing offence to individuals
and groups is underpinned by the idea that people cannot be trusted
to make up their minds about controversial subjects. Today's censorious
imperative is driven by a paternalistic and negative view of human
nature, and by a lack of faith in people's capacity to discriminate
between right and wrong.
Not since the Dark Ages has there been so much concern about the
malevolent passions that afflict humanity. Panics about Satanic
abuse have erupted on both sides of the Atlantic, and throughout
the Western world there is a morbid expectation that virtually every
home contains a potential abuser. Predatory monsters are seen everywhere.
People regard others with a suspicion that would have been rare
just a few decades ago. Parents wonder whether the daycare centre
workers looking after their children can be trusted; in schools,
children with bruises arouse teachers' suspicion about their parents'
behaviour, while parents wonder whether any physical contact between
their child and his or her teacher is permissible. In Britain, any
adult employee who might come into contact with children has to
undergo a police check, and sections of the child protection industry
believe this police vetting should be extended to the university
The obsession with abuse is not confined to relationships between
adults and children. All interactions that involve emotions, physicality
or sexuality are labelled as potentially abusive. 'Peer abuse' is
seen as one of the key problems of our time; others demand action
against 'elder abuse'; and for good measure alarms have been raised
about 'pet abuse' and 'chicken abuse'.
Renewing our faith in people
How we view humanity really matters. If we insist on seeing humans
as morally degraded parasites, then every significant technical
problem from the millennium bug to the avian flu will be feared
as a potential catastrophe beyond our control. Today's intellectual
pessimism and cultural disorientation distracts the human imagination
from confronting challenges that lie ahead. All the talk about human
survival expresses a crisis of belief in humanity - and that is
why the real question today is not whether humanity will survive
the twenty-first century, but whether our belief in humanity can
Despite Western culture's profound sense of estrangement from its
human sensibilities, individuals possess an unprecedented potential
for influencing the way they live their lives. It is only now that
significant sections of the public have real, meaningful choice
and control. We must reinvigorate the belief in autonomy and self-determination,
and recognise that we have moved from the Stone Age to a time when
people's transformative potential is a remarkable force.
We also know that history does not issue any guarantees. Purposeful
change is a risky enterprise. But whether we like it or not, taking
risks in order to transform our lives and ourselves is one of our
most distinct human qualities. That is why, instead of worrying
about our 'ecological footprint', we should take all the steps necessary
for moving towards a better future.
Misanthropy threatens to envelop us in a new Dark Age of prejudice
where we become scared of ourselves. In such conditions, we have
two choices: we can renounce the human qualities that have helped
to transform the world and resign ourselves to the culture of fatalism
that prevails; or we can do the opposite. Instead of abandoning
faith in humanity we can turn our creative energies towards taking
control of our futures. Instead of being preoccupied with 'what
will happen to us' we should search for answers to the question:
'What needs to be done to humanise the future?'
Human beings are not angels; on a bad day they are capable of evil
deeds. But the very fact that we can designate certain acts as evil
shows that we are capable of rectifying acts of injustice. And on
balance we aspire to do good. Contrary to the fantasies of romantic
primitivism, civilisation and development have made our species
more knowledgeable and sensitive about the workings of nature. The
aspiration to improve the conditions of life - the most basic motive
of people throughout the ages - is one that has driven humanity
from the Stone Age through to the twenty-first century.
If believing in the human potential is today labelled 'anthropocentrism'
and 'speciesism', then I wholeheartedly plead guilty to subscribing
to both of those views.
(1) James Lovelock 'The Earth Is About To Catch A Morbid Fever
That May Last As Long As 1000 Years', Independent, 16 January 2006
(2) James Howard Kunstler (2005) The Long Emergency; Surviving The
Converging Catastrophes Of The Twenty-First Century, Atlantic Books:
(3) James Lovelock 'The Earth Is About To Catch A Morbid Fever That
May Last As Long As 1000 Years', Independent, 16 January 2006
(4) Jared Diamond (2004) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail
or Survive, Allen Lane: London
(5) Al Gore, The time to act is now - The climate crisis and the
need for leadership, 5 March 2006
(6) Thomas Lough 'Energy, Agriculture, Patriarchy and Ecocide',
Human Ecology Review, vol.6, no.2 1999
(7) See Einarrson, N. (1993) 'All animals are equal but some are
cetaceans', in Milton, K. (1993) Environmentalism: The View from
Anthropology, Routledge: London
(8) Kuntsler, op.cit., p.61.
(9) McNight, D. (2005) Beyond Right And Left: New Politics And The
Culture Wars, (Allen & Unwin : Crows Nest), p.249.
(10) T.R.Malthus (undated) On The Principle of Population, vol.2
(Everyman's Library: London), p.261.
(12) For a discussion of different forms of Malthusianism see Frank
Furedi (1997) Population and Development; A Critical Introduction,
(13) See Josie Appleton, Speciesism; a beastly concept
(14) Morris Rosenberg 'Misanthropy and Political Ideology', American
Sociological Review, vol.21, no.6, 1956.
published on spiked, 18 April 2006