We’re in the Coronavirus Fight Together…Almost

As of Thursday, March 26, 2020, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. is nearing 70,000 and the global tally is approaching half a million. In an effort to stop the rapid increase in new cases and to keep hospitals within their capacities we have put much of our economic activity on pause. Twenty-two thousand people have died from COVID-19 already, the stock market has lost a third of its value, and unemployment claims have skyrocketed to record levels.

In response to the crisis, the world’s 7.8 billion people are united against a common foe like never before. We’re collaborating to manufacture medical equipment, to find therapeutic cocktails that can lessen victims’ suffering, and to create a vaccine. But if you’re under the impression that we have unanimity on the importance of stopping this virus’s spread, you’re wrong. In the midst of this deadly and economically-crippling struggle against the pathogen, some environmentalists are pleased.

Incendiary though that accusation may sound, one need only look to the philosophy of deep ecology to see that it is valid. Deep ecology—or as I sometimes call it, the nature-for-nature’s-sake view—holds that the preservation of wild nature provides the ultimate measure by which we should judge human behavior. The nature-for-nature’s-sake view is that humans have overstepped our just bounds and that we deserve only to be cut down. The deep ecologists see homo sapiens and our penchant for re-shaping our environment as a pox.

Most people are reluctant to make such categorical claims, preferring to espouse a “balanced” view, but they take for granted that when push comes to shove human beings will rally together. And yet push is coming to shove before our very eyes, and a non-trivial segment of the environmentalist movement literally is wishing us ill. Many who self-describe as environmentalists are people of goodwill, who genuinely want human beings to live happily; other environmentalists want the human population to be decimated. 

Jason Crawford, the founder of The Roots of Progress, describes this environmentalist rift as a bright line between people who want to save the planet for human beings and those who want to save the planet from human beings. 

The coronavirus puts the divide into sharp relief and puts a coda on decades of anti-human rhetoric.

The three examples below show that the nature-for-nature’s-sake ethical premise is a force that must be acknowledged and countered. In these most dire of times, the distinction is obvious, but when a return to normalcy does eventually come, we mustn’t forget that there are people within the environmentalist movement who would hasten our decline. 

  1. In 1989, environmentalist Bill McKibben authored a book entitled The End of Nature which details what he calls “environmental cataclysm.” In a review of The End of Nature for the LA Times, National Parks Service research biologist David Graber presented the thesis to the general public in words more poetically malevolent than McKibben’s own. In a concluding paragraph that anthropocentrists should ensure lives in infamy, Graber wrote:

“It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”

  1. In a 2013 interview with Radio Times, popular broadcaster Sir David Attenborough declared humanity a plague. Though stopping short of welcoming it, he blithely foretold of impending doom, expressing regret not for our fate, but for our impact:

“We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now,”

  1. And in the current coronavirus crisis, the echoes of the nature-for-nature’s-sake environmentalists are sounding again. On March 17, with COVID-19 ravaging Italy and picking up its pace in the U.S., Thomas Schulz, a San Francisco start-up founder, posted the following message on Twitter, garnering more than 290,000 digital nods of approval:

As champions of human flourishing, we wish to see the coronavirus stopped in its tracks. Most environmentalists do, too. But a lurking anti-human, nature-for-nature’s-sake segment within the environmentalist movement just might have found the virus they’ve been hoping for.

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