Misguided Misanthropy: Why the “Humans are the Virus” Mindset is Damaging to the Environmental Movement

We’ve all seen the tweets lately: “Humans are the real virus!” “The earth is healing in our absence” and so on. Their message is clear: humans are a plague on the earth and the current COVID-19 pandemic is a form of reckoning.

Not only are some of these tweets just plain wrong, but there’s a deep-seated misanthropy behind them that has no place in the environmental movement.

They’re misguided for the following reasons:

1. This is an ahistoric worldview. For tens of thousands of years, people have lived in balance with our natural environment. Even early agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry was minimally destructive on a global scale.

Our current problems—climate change, rampant deforestation, soil erosion, and species extinction—are recent inventions. They’ve arisen within the past several hundred years of colonial expansion and industrial capitalism, disproving the idea that environmental degradation is innate to human beings.

2. The burden of environmental destruction can’t be placed equally at the feet of all people. As a matter of fact, the wealthiest 10% of people contribute half of global greenhouse gas emissions!

We also know that countries like the USA, UK, Canada, and many European countries have been polluting for much longer than countries in the Global South. The first wave of industrial revolution happened in the second half of the 19th century in the Global North, but many countries in Africa and South America are still developing industry today. This is a massive disparity; to aim your ecological rage at the whole of humanity is not just heartless, it’s also misguided.

 3. Pitting people against nature is also a relatively recent construct. This idea of humans vs. nature, as opposed to humans in nature, might stem from Western dualism in philosophy, such as Cartesian mind/body duality. Early settlers to the “New World” viewed nature, or “wilderness,” as something to be conquered and tamed.

Even everyday language lends itself to segregating humans from nature; notice the awkwardly verbose gymnastics to attempt to paint humans and nature as not distinct, but parts of a whole. Surely there should be a more elegant and succinct way of portraying this concept than “humans in nature, not humans vs. nature!” The truth is, we’re a multicellular organism like so many others!

4. Decentering humanity can have dangerous implications. There is a startling implication behind blaming “humanity” for environmental destruction instead of certain systems, corporations, or governments: humans (or at least some humans) will need to die to solve these problems. This is an insidious line of thinking. Do all people need to die to “save the planet?” If not, who do we eliminate? Who gets to decide?

One insidious version of this is lifeboat ethics, coined by Southern Poverty Law Center-designated white supremacist Garrett Hardin. Since the planet isn’t capable of harboring everyone, we have to let others (often read: poor people) perish so we can flourish in the “developed” world. Supporting the death of humans as good for the environment can unintentionally feed into these narratives.

When you don’t consider the long history of pollution from wealthy nations, it’s easy to fall into that line of thinking from a surface-level analysis. Today, many developing countries (e.g. India, Brazil, Mexico) are increasing their greenhouse gas emissions. This is not be encouraged. However, dishonestly disregarding that historical trend and ignoring our polluted past is inequitable.

This is only a few steps from calling for genocide; we can do better. 

When your love for the planet leads to a deep disdain for humanity, you need to reassess why you’re an environmentalist in the first place. If you believe that the earth is better off without us, that includes you too! And if we’re all gone, there won’t be anyone around to appreciate an earth that’s whole and free of destruction.

So I say, embrace your love of humanity, fellow environmentalists. Let that love drive you to heal the earth, instead of the hate for other people. Ultimately, we have a world to win—one in which there’s enough room for all of us.

At least we got some good memes from these tweets!

 

About Connor Farnham

M.S. Environmental Policy Candidate '21 at BCEP. Environmental + economic justice and building resilience in the face of climate change. Perpetually worried about the future of coffee.