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The Long-time Threat of Antihumanism: An Interview with Robert Zubrin

Interview with Robert Zubrin on his book ‘Merchants of Despair’

The Mars Society

Brantly Millegan - published on 09/23/13

In his most recent book, ‘Merchants of Despair’, Zubrin tells the chilling story of antihumanism from Malthus and eugenicists to modern population controllers and environmentalists - and says the Catholic Church needs to be doing more to oppose it.

Dr. Robert Zubrin (Lakewood, CO) is president of Pioneer Astronautics and also president of the Mars Society. For many years he worked as a senior engineer for Lockheed Martin. He is best known for his work advocating for the manned exploration of Mars and is the author of the critically acclaimed nonfiction books The Case for Mars, Entering Space, Mars on Earth, Energy Victory; the science fiction novels The Holy Land and First Landing; and articles in Scientific American, The New Atlantis, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mechanical Engineering, and The American Enterprise.

I talked to him about his most recent book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books, 2012), which chronicles an intellectual thread of ‘antihumanism’ from Thomas Malthus in the 19th century, to eugenicists and Nazis in the early 20th century, and up to population controllers and environmentalists more recently.

In a few sentences, describe the thesis of your book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism.

The thesis of this book is that there are two opposing philosophies, which I call humanism and antihumanism, which differ on the basic question of whether the human race is basically a creative or destructive force. According to antihumanism, humans are destroyers, and therefore their numbers, activities, and liberties must be severely constrained, and someone must be empowered to do the constraining. This doctrine has therefore served as a pseudoscientific rationalization for tyranny and oppression for the past 200 years, ever since it was first formulated by Malthus. However if the opposite, humanist, outlook is embraced, that humans are not destroyers but creators – that we do not consume resources but rather create them – then the essential role of government must not be to suppress human life and liberty, but to protect them all costs.

You’re most well-known for your work advocating for the manned exploration of Mars (e.g., The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must). What inspired you to write a book on what you call “antihumanism”?

Earlier in my career I was a nuclear engineer, and encountered self-described “environmentalists” who were declaiming the evils of industrial society on the grounds that fossil fuels were smoking up the atmosphere and would someday run out. I would tell them that they should therefore support nuclear power, because it emitted no smoke and it would never run out, only to be answered in the most hysterical terms that was something they definitely didn’t want.

I wondered about this for a long time, until it became clear to me that the reason why they hated nuclear power so much (and hate is the correct word in this instance) was because it threatened to solve a problem they needed to have. They needed to have people believe that resources were finite in order to accept the imposition of limits.

Furthermore, the more I looked, the more I saw other examples of the same paradigm, with the same crowd proposing different versions of “lifeboat economics,” “global triage,” “limits to growth,” and so forth, with some prominent advocates going so far as to celebrate the cannibalism practiced by some athletes who were stranded by an airplane crash in the Andes as a useful paradigm for the rest of us to embrace. Then as I researched further, I found that these mental constructs were not original, but rather had been recurrent justifications advanced for repeated holocausts for the past two centuries, starting with the intentional imposition of policies leading to mass starvation in Ireland by Malthus’s own students. When, in 1941, Hitler said “the laws of existence require uninterrupted killing so that the better may live,” he was expressing this outlook precisely, even as he was demonstrating its horrific consequences. When, in 1968, Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich dismissed the potential of Green Revolution (in Third World agriculture) and said that “India must be one of those we let go down the drain,” he was expressing the same ideology.

When the antihuman movement today seeks to prevent the implementation of new technologies that could alleviate poverty, disease, and starvation – whether in form of vitally necessary new energy sources, methods of pest control, or agricultural technologies – , or tries to deny the poor the primary human joy of having children, they are acting with equal heartlessness. “Be hard, my heart,” they say, “there is only so much X (X = food, lebensraum, energy resources, carbon use allowances, etc.) to go around,” – even as they strive to block the development of alternatives to their harsh prescriptions.

As a person who believes strongly in the unlimited potential of liberty and technological creativity to advance the human condition, I find the idea of blocking invention in order to constrict human possibilities deeply repellant. That’s why I wrote a book to expose such ideology for what it is, what it has done, is doing, and threatens to do in the future.

In the battle against the advocates of antihumanism over the last century and a half that you chronicle in your book, what role has the Catholic Church played (positive or negative)?

I would say generally positive, but not as much as it should have been. As I discuss in my book, the Catholic Church certainly loudly protested the Irish genocide, and opposed parts of Hitler’s program, most notably that centered on euthanasia. It has also opposed parts of the current population control agenda supported by many of the world’s elites. However I think that the Church should have been, and should be, much more vigorous and systematic in opposing the antihumanist agenda across the board.

What are you own religious beliefs (if you are religious)?

I believe in Natural Law.

In the book, you denounce population control and argue that the more people we have the better off we are. Those concerned with overpopulation that I’ve read (Ehrlich, Club of Rome, etc.) argue that, while that principle might have held true for most of our history, humans have reached (or will soon reach) a population level and/or growth rate that is unsustainable given the earth’s finite resources. Do you really think there can never be too many humans, that our technology will always find a way to support our population? Or do you just think we haven’t reached the point of unsustainability yet, and/or that that point is so far off in the future that there’s no use worrying about it?

The fact that we are better off with more people is proven by history. As population has gone up, living standard have gone up, continuously. In 1800, when Malthus claimed that population increases faster that production, the world had a population of 1 billion people and an average income of $180 per year. Today we have 7 billion people and the average come is $9000 per year. Population has increased 7 times, but per capita income has increased fifty times, and total product has increased 350 times. So product is not only going up faster than population, it has been increasing in proportion to population cubed! That is how spectacularly wrong Malthus, Ehrlich, and the Club of Rome have been.

But where are all these new resources coming from? The answer is; from the same place that all the previous resources came from, which is not the Earth, but from human creative invention. Resources are created by people. Before the invention of fishing, the ocean was not a resource. Before the invention of agriculture, land was not a resource. Before the invention of the water wheel, water power was not a resource. Before the invention of smelting, iron ore was not a resource. Before the invention of oil drilling, petroleum was not a resource. Before the invention of nuclear power, uranium was not a resource. Silicon and aluminum are respectively the first and second most common elements in the Earth’s crust, yet both were unknown until the 19th Century, and not put to any significant use until the 20th. Today, however, they are mainstays of our civilization, along with numerous other substances, including gasoline, plastics, fiberglass, stainless steel, synthetic fabrics, and artificial fertilizers, to name just a few, that did not exist 150 years ago.

So resources are inventions, which are produced by inventors. The more people we have, the more inventors we have, and so the faster the rate of progress. Furthermore, the more people we have, the greater the division of labor, so the easier it is to produce anything, and the larger the market, which makes it easier to find investment to put new inventions into practice. But we live better today, not only because of all the people working, inventing, and buying alongside us today, but because of all those who labored in the past. Just consider where we would be today if Malthus had been more successful in having his ideas implemented as policy, so that there were half as many people around in the 1800s as there actually were. In that case, humanity would have used less coal, but there would have been half as many innovators. So you can give up Edison or Pasteur, take your pick.

As for the future, it’s looking good – so long as we reject the ideas of the antihumanists. Provided we reject the ideas of the antihumanists, we can understand that it is to our benefit that China is developing, so that the sons and daughter of Chinese peasants can become scientists and engineers, and contribute their talent to the advance of humanity, and the Chinese and others will understand that it is to their benefit that America prospers, so that we can continue to serve as a terrific engine for human progress. On the other hand, if the axioms of antihumanism are accepted, then we will try to suppress other nations from escaping from poverty, and they will try to destroy us, so that each may prevent the other from using too much.

Ideas have consequences. We can have an age of unprecedented human progress, or a century of war and genocide. Energy supplies will become unlimited once we develop fusion power, the achievement of economical spaceflight is within reach, and the universe is not only vast beyond comprehension, but expanding at the speed of light. So the idea that we are running out of resources is not only false (as it has repeatedly been shown to be), but nuts. It’s as nuts as Hitler’s idea that Germany did not have enough living space- and fully as dangerous. The threat to humanity does not come from lack of resources, but from people who wish to convince us that there are not enough resources.

Your chapter on global warming is particularly provocative. You say you agree the planet is warming and that humans may be responsible for at least some of it, but that you think global warming is a good thing, since more heat and CO2 helps plants to grow better. This is not a prominent position in the mainstream debate (at least that I’ve seen). How many other scientists also hold that position? Have you received pushback for having that position?

I haven’t taken a poll. But it’s simply a fact. Global warming lengthens the growing season and increases global rainfall, and increased CO2 levels accelerate plant growth. We have photos taken from orbit since 1958, and they show that plant growth rates on Earth have accelerated by 15% since that time, in near lockstep with atmospheric CO2 concentrations. And we know the relationship is causal, because the experiment has been repeated many times in the lab. So there is no question about it. We are making the Earth a more fertile planet. Yet the antihumanists wish to indict us for it.

There is a Chinese proverb: “Where there is a will to condemn, evidence is never lacking.” Those who wish to put humanity in chains choose to represent all human activity, no matter how positive, as evidence for the prosecution. If we were depleting global CO2 levels, and cooling the planet, thereby making it more sterile, they would have a much more plausible case. The fact that they wish to hold our quickening of the Earth against us, however, is evidence of their ill will, not of our wrongdoing.

One concern about global warming you don’t respond to in your book is that rising sea levels from the melting of polar ice caps will flood some coastal areas – which just happen to be where large numbers of people live. Is this a legitimate concern?

No. Sea levels have been rising at a rate of one inch per decade. That is not enough to matter, unless you extend the trend for 300 years, which would be as ridiculous as extending any other trend (for example the rate of growth of a puppy) for 300 years.  

In the book, you give the impression that parts of the modern environmental movement are an outgrowth of, or at least are closely linked to, eugenics, Nazism, etc., but you also allude to legitimate environmental concerns. Is there a right way and a wrong way to care for the environment, and, if so, how would you define that?

As I show in the book, Nazism, eugenics, population control, and the current “environmental” movement are all outgrowths of antihumanism, and share many ideological, historical, and personal connections. The problem with the self-described “environmentalist” movement today is that it is basically an antihuman movement that seeks to identify any human transgressions against the environment, whether real or imagined, as evidence for the prosecution.

What is needed instead is a real environmental movement that welcomes practical solutions to environmental problems for the benefit of humanity. I call that practical environmentalism, as opposed to antihuman, or ideological environmentalism. Practical environmentalists would welcome things like nuclear power, and genetically modified crops that are more bountiful, or produce their own fertilizer or pesticides, so as to reduce the need for spraying chemicals.

What can the average person do to combat antihumanism?

They can support policies of economic growth and technological progress. They can oppose antihuman initiatives and expose their ideological roots so that people can understand what they are dealing with.  They can also help teach others about the nature of the problem as a whole. In general, the problem there has been in opposing antihumanism is that the different groups under attack think that they are being attacked on unique grounds, and that attacks upon others are unrelated events, of no concern, or even possible advantage to them. Thus we have some nuclear power advocates endorsing global warming alarmism, because they think that will help make their case against fossil fuels, or parts of the natural gas industry endorsing the war on coal, in the process joining forces with those who would also put an end to fracking. So long as the forces favoring development allow themselves to be divided, they will continue to be defeated. We are all facing the same enemy, and need to unite if we are to defeat it.

Are there other resources (besides Merchants of Despair) you’d recommend for people to learn more about the various strands of antihumanism?

Yes. Here are a few. I identify many more in the bibliography of my book.

1. Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource (1981, 1986). This book refutes the fundamental idea of limited resources.

2. Mathew Connelly, Fatal Misconception (2008)

3. Steve Mosher, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits(2008). Mosher and Connelly are two excellent sources on the current population control movement.

4. Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus (1977). A very remarkable book, written from a left wing point of view. Yet as an expose of the eugenics movement it is unmatched.

5. Petr Beckmann, The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear(1977)

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