Acton Institute Powerblog

There are more environmentalist misanthropes than you think

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On April 3, I reported the story of Texas scientist Eric Pianka, who allegedly argued in a speech that the only hope for the planet was for a mutated Ebola virus to exterminate 90% of the human population. Forrest Mims, who attended the speech, broke the story. Over the next few weeks, there was a media firestorm over the incident, and Mims was accused of misrepresenting Pianka’s speech. As a result, I received several emails telling me that I should retract the story. I did not, and I have no plans on doing so. I remain convinced that Mims basically got the story right.

The problem was that Pianka had asked that video cameras be turned off during his speech, and partial transcripts released later failed to fully corraborate Mims’ account. But, as Mims’ pointed out, the transcript lacked precisely the part of the speech with the offensive comments. In any event, Mims’ claim had several other corroborating pieces of evidence, which James Redford discusses in a blog posted entitled, “Forrest Mims Did Not Misrepresent Eric Pianka.” Cathy Young’s piece in the Boston Globe focused the issue properly: the point was not that Pianka had called for the active extermination of 90% of the population. It’s that he thought such an extermination by natural causes (like the Ebola virus) would be a “good thing.”

This story became especially irritating because many bloggers were more interested in the views of Forrest Mims than of Eric Pianka. Perhaps more troubling is that many commentators insisted that a respected scientist would never say that he looked forward to the deaths of billions of human beings. As a result, these commentators assigned Mims’ account a prior probability of about 0. This meant that virtually no evidence would be enough to confirm that Pianka had said more or less what Mims reported.

But anyone who reads widely in the environmental literature knows that suggestions such as Pianka’s are not uncommon. In fact, the desire for mass human death follows logically from the anti-human beliefs of some radical environmentalists. Some are more consistent in their beliefs than others. But Pianka is by no means the only person to express such opinions. Back in November, 2005, I reported on some personal correspondence from a prominent scientist, who expressed some Piankish views. He complained about “the devastation humans are currently imposing upon our planet” and then added:

Still, adding over seventy million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!

Since I didn’t post the letter, however, I received several skeptical inquiries. So, in light of the recent events surrounding Pianka, I have decided to post a PDF of the letter. Anyone who looks at this letter will notice that it did not come from some obscure researcher, but from a scientist who for many years held a significant position. I do not post this for the purpose of harming the individual who sent this letter. Rather, I am posting it in hopes that more people will recognize that profound misanthropy is afoot in the academic and scientific community, most of it officially motivated by a desire to save the planet. It is naive to continue acting as if this type of death wish is reserved for isolated crackpots. On the contrary, it is well on its way to being respectable opinion in some quarters–held by the well educated and the otherwise civilized–just as eugenics was respectable a century ago.

Jay Richards


  • Ed Darrell

    Your lack of a sense of humor, or appropriate sense of horror at the disasters overpopulation threatens, does not justify your misreporting what Dr. Eric Pianka said.

    Pianka issued a warning, a clear warning to any and all of us who have been paying attention to environmental destruction over the past 50 years, that continued development threatens — not that word carefully, “threatens” — to unleash plagues on our population that will cause a population crash.

    Now, we can do several things to prevent such a human disaster. We could beef up our studies of wild viruses, such as the various ebolas, Marburg, HIV and influenza, and ramp up our capability to make vaccines and treat the ill. Generally, that would be one stop-gap.

    Or we could work to outlaw the destruction of wild animal populations for “bushmeat” — a work that would require that we seriously think through both how to deliver food from, say, Kansas to Congo, and that we seriously rethink unregulated development with wild abandon in natural areas such as Congo and the Amazon Basin.

    But the facts remain that these viruses have come out and hunted down humans by the millions in the past, in present memory (well, there are a few who remember the flu pandemic of 1918, and you could watch it on video if you were curious).

    But calling names of distinguished scientists who sound the alarms isn’t a good strategy. It’s not even polite. It’s not even accurate.

    Yes, you may take Forrest Mims’ word, and cobble together cultured quotes from three or four other people to make it appear Pianka was a wild-eyed maniac. But your insult to the several hundred other scientists at that meeting who confirm that Mims got it wrong is only that, an insult to the intelligence of your reader.

    You can laugh about epidemics all you want. But all the wishing in the world didn’t make HIV go away. Now we look back on those dark days when policy makers called names of medical experts who sounded the alarm, and we wonder how many we might have saved had we acted earlier.

    You know, it’s a popular cartoon image, but not even ostriches really put their heads in the sand to avoid facing reality. We should be at least as smart as ostriches.

    You owe it to your readers to study up on Dr. Pianka. Check out his books from the local university library. Call the man on the phone. See if you can find any inaccuracies in what he really said. It would be the wise, polite thing to do.

  • Jay Richards

    I have studied up on Pianka. He isn’t joking about the need for 90 percent of the human population to die for the sake of the environment. After his views came under attack in the media, he tried to backtrack, but the response from other approving fans (not just Mims) makes it clear what his views are. He even seems to have an Ebola fetish. He hasn’t called for the active eradication of the majority of the human race. But neither Mims nor I have accused him of that. Rather, he has expressed the opinion that it would be a good thing for 90% of the human population to die. Pianka is not alone in this opinion. The purpose of releasing the Burger letter was to rebut the false claim that the misanthropy Pianka displays is unique.

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  • Bongstar420

    I’m sure the “envrionment” cares about him. Some people have such distorted visions of what “value” is…eck

  • Bongstar420

    “Environmental” destruction will reduce the chances of “wild” virus types coming about. Disease which comes from our industry is what the man alludes to, and it is not the “environmental” destruction which is the cause but rather the high population densities and low total environmental control which increases the chances of things like bird flu. I am reading this from your post, not his work. I am not going to spend time looking at the mans work because I have an established proscription and he will not introduce me to any new concepts or information.