BOOK REVIEW: ‘Merchants of Despair’

MERCHANTS OF DESPAIR: RADICAL ENVIRONMENTALISTS, CRIMINAL PSEUDO-SCIENTISTS, AND THE FATAL CULT OF ANTIHUMANISM
By Robert Zubrin
Encounter, $25.95, 318 pages

Here’s the big picture: A lot of people find they don’t need other people, in flat contradiction of Barbra Streisand’s famously cheerful apothegm. A lot of people, according to Robert Zubrin, so heartily dislike or despise people viewed as competing with them for use of the world’s resources that they consign them to degradation and worse.

That “anti-humanism” rages among humans and casts a long shadow on their welfare is a big thesis indeed, only one corner of which Mr. Zubrin undertakes to work. It’s a large enough corner all the same, and his work is so assiduous that particular modern movements - global warming, nuclear phobia and so on - take on a strange, even sinister quality - less to do with editorials and political strategies than with the whole idea of what we’re about on this planet of ours and what we might feel entitled to claim as our own.

There isn’t much of religion in “Merchants of Despair” (save the religion of environmentalism) which can make it hard to see whence comes the liberal double-down on human life. What changed? How? Why? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”? The creed of those Mr. Zubrin identifies as anti-humanist is made up, a function of pseudoscience and crackpottery of various descriptions, with some racism worthy of an overworked word thrown in for good measure.

Ironically, Mr. Zubrin (a nuclear engineer, science buff and contributor to the New Atlantis, a magazine of common sense concerning these issues) traces anti-humanism to the inkwell of the Rev. Thomas Malthus, ordained clergyman of the Church of England, who startled early-19th-century contemporaries with the news that population would soon outrun food supply. It clearly didn’t, but we can see where his gospel of exhaustion has led.

Malthus, it seems to me, meant less harm than Mr. Zubrin imputes to him as forebear of Paul Ehrlich, Paul Krugman, Al Gore, population controllers, nuclearphobes and various and assorted Nazis, just to cite some of the main bad guys. Parson Malthus sought moral restraints as preventive checks on human appetite. His supposed successors don’t mind bullying and pushing others around - for that matter killing them, yea, unto re-engineering the whole human race through eugenics.

Mr. Zubrin catches Mr. Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb” - according to which we should have all starved to death by now - acknowledging that forced sterilization amounted to coercion, but coercion “in a good cause.” A good cause as defined by Mr. Ehrlich and the like. The prevalence of good old moral relativism in the anti-human cause would be a fruitful line of inquiry for Mr. Zubrin in another book.

A profound contempt for the lower, less-educated orders does seep through the pronouncements of the anti-humanists, who remind me of the New York Times editorial page staff in their unchanging assumption that We Know It All, and You Don’t.

Moral and philosophical questions to the side, Mr. Zubrin leaves out little in his chart of the battlefield: biotechnology (he’s for it - all the way), nuclear power (bring it on), DDT (yes!), the global-warming lobby (booooo!). Possibly the strongest chapters in this Tomahawk missile of a book are those dealing with population control, meaning, of course, forced population control under color of making the world a more comfortable place for the controllers. China’s notorious one-child policy comes in, predictably, for a severe drubbing.

One thing we should note is that the connections between “anti-human” thought of one kind and another - global warming, population control, etc. - are not as readily identified as the author seems to believe. Is global-warming anxiety truly the first cousin of DDT phobia? Implying that it all goes back to Malthus really won’t do. What else is going on around this planet? Cannot we look more closely into the minds and hearts of people like Mr. Ehrlich and, not least, the people who spread their claptrap? Why so much political resistance to the idea that destruction of human life in the womb (aka abortion) serves a purpose so sacred it must be protected at all costs? Why the growing cult of euthanasia? Its precise degree of consanguinity with eugenics is … what?

That a civilizational crisis enshrouds us - a crisis of meaning, a crisis of purpose - is plain enough by now. The religious or, if you like, irreligious, nature of said crisis needs diagnosing and treating - as I indicated earlier. That’s in no way to impeach the signal work that Mr. Zubrin lays before us. If he isn’t long on diagnosis, he’s excellent on pathology, noting with due outrage the deadly outcomes of the human impulse to look down with contempt on fellow humans.

He shows us “how.” What we need look at with infinitely more attention - and pain - I think, is the fundamental human question: “Why?”

William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.

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