Soundbite: Wild Idea

In a 1989 Los Angeles Times book review, National Park Service ecologist David M. Graber forcefully articulated the anti-humanism that informs much of the environmentalist movement. "Human happiness and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet," wrote Graber. "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."

Last fall, the United Nations released a report on world population growth that suggests Graber's dream virus may have come along in the form of AIDS. (See "Population Bomb," page 17.) Washington Editor Michael W. Lynch talked with Graber in December via telephone to find out what he thought about the U.N. data.

Q: Is AIDS the "right virus" for you?

A: I have no idea where AIDS is going to take us. 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.

Q: So from the point of view of the planet, AIDS is good?

A: It's a very complex issue because [AIDS] also fouls up the economies of countries. That, in turn, can have other kinds of ecological consequences. Broken economies can lead people to consume primary resources at a faster rate if distribution breaks down. It isn't just how many people you have on the planet. It's how many resources they use. For example, because we use far more resources, Americans are much more expensive to the planet than people in the Third World. Somebody dying in central Africa reduces the impact on Earth much less than somebody dying in the United States. It's not a simple question. I know you would like a simple answer, but I'm not going to give you one.

Q: So if AIDS were having the sort of effect in the First World that it's having in the Third, that would be a good thing?

A: It would be a good thing for other organisms. It certainly wouldn't be a good thing for people who were dying or their families. Ecology is a game where some win and some lose. Death is by far the crudest and cruelest solution to a problem of crowding.

Q: Why put humans on the same level as other organisms?

A: If we were to ask other organisms, they would say, "I've got a lousy deal here; those human beings are my plague." Human beings are unraveling the very stuff of nature with every passing day. From a human viewpoint, and given how we're heading, we need to ask: Do we want to live on a planet that looks like New Jersey or England, with no wild animals, no rainforests, no wildness?

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