Environmentalism and the Apocalypse

Loony prof wants talented tenth to inherit the earth


The most contentious recent battle between creationists and evolutionary biologists is not the debate about the newly discovered "missing link" between fish and land animals. Rather, it is a bizarre incident that involves predictions of doomsday and charges of encouraging terrorism. At bottom, this conflict is not about religion versus science but about the clash of two religions.

It started early in March when Eric Pianka, an ecologist at the University of Texas who was named Texas Distinguished Scientist of 2006, gave a speech at a meeting of the Texas Academy of Sciences, filled with dire warnings about the fate of humanity and the earth. About a month later, Forrest M. Mims III, chairman of the Environmental Science Section of the Texas Academy of Science, posted an article about the event in a Web magazine called The Citizen Scientist. He asserted that Pianka advocated the death of more than 5 billion people from a virus for the cause of saving the planet—to enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Mims's allegation, picked up by a local Texas newspaper, the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, caused quite a stir on the Internet and a flood of angry emails to the Texas Academy of Sciences and the University of Texas. Meanwhile, William Dembski, a philosophy professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading champion of intelligent design, proudly announced that he had alerted the Department of Homeland Security to a possible Pianka plot to infect people with a deadly virus.

Meanwhile, many scientists, academics, and liberal bloggers have rallied to the defense of Pianka, who, they say, was not advocating apocalypse but simply delivering a warning about the disastrous consequences of humanity's profligate ways. They see him as a victim of a smear by creationists (Mims is also an intelligent design proponent) who want to portray mainstream science as evil and by right-wingers who want to portray liberal academics as loony extremists.

But while Pianka's critics may be seriously biased and lacking in credibility, this does not quite get Pianka himself off the hook. No, there is no reason to believe that he advocated actively bringing about an epidemic that would kill billions of people. Rather, he asserts that because of overpopulation, we are on the brink of a major epidemic that will wipe out 80 to 90 percent of humanity. And he seems to regard this as a good thing.

Texas Lutheran University senior and biology major Brenna McConnell, who was present at Pianka's speech, corroborated this on her (now-deleted) blog, where she expressed agreement with Pianka: "He's a radical thinker, that one! I mean, he's basically advocating for the death of all but 10 percent of the current population! And at the risk of sounding just as radical, I think he's right."

And here is an excerpt from another recent Pianka speech, the transcript of which was made public by the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise:

"I think that right now has got to be just about the most interesting time ever and you get to see it, and, hopefully, a few are gonna live through it… Things are gonna get better after the collapse because we won't be able to decimate the earth so much. And, I actually think the world will be much better when there's only 10 or 20 percent of us left."

It would be tempting to dismiss Pianka as an isolated crank. Unfortunately, an apocalyptic, human-hating mentality is a strain that has long been present in environmentalism. In 1989, David Graber, a research biologist with the National Park Service, wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

"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."

Most Americans are environmentalists in the sense that they like clean air, clean water, and the preservation of wilderness areas. But for many, environmentalism has become a secular religion with its own fanatics. Some speak of nature's wrath in transparently religious terms. Vanity Fair essayist James Wolcott has rhapsodi zed on his website about the destructive power of hurricanes as payback for "the havoc mankind has wreaked upon nature," concluding, "The gods are not pleased."

It's quite true that mistrust of science is all too common in American society, and the flames of this hostility are fanned by the religious right. But we should also beware of zealots in scientific garb who can only give ammunition to the enemies of science and reason.