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Environmentalism and the apocalypse
By Cathy Young | April 17, 2006
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 e-mails 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
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
''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 rhapsodized 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.