Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.
 
       
 

Confronting the New Misanthropy
The big question today is not whether humans will survive the twenty-first century, but whether our faith in humanity will survive it.

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 change.

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 a trace.

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' (9).

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' (11).

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 apes.

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 sector, too.

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 survive it.

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: London, p.61.

(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.

(11) ibid.p.262.

(12) For a discussion of different forms of Malthusianism see Frank Furedi (1997) Population and Development; A Critical Introduction, Polity Press.

(13) See Josie Appleton, Speciesism; a beastly concept

(14) Morris Rosenberg 'Misanthropy and Political Ideology', American Sociological Review, vol.21, no.6, 1956.

(15) Ibid.p.694

First published on spiked, 18 April 2006