Fall 2012Vol. 7, No. 3

This article is from TOS Vol. 7, No. 3. The full contents of the issue are listed here.

Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism by Robert Zubrin

New York: Encounter Books, 2012. 328 pp. $25.95 (hardcover).

Merchants of Despair

Did you know that the U.S. government subsidizes forced sterilization of women throughout the Third World, and that both Republican and Democratic administrations have supported this policy? This is just one evil among many that Robert Zubrin documents in Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism.

Zubrin’s thesis is this: “Antihumanist” movements implicitly or explicitly hold that “humans are a cancer upon the Earth, a horde of vermin whose unconstrained aspirations and appetites are endangering the natural order” (p. 6). Among these movements are Malthusianism (population control), eugenics, and the campaigns against DDT, nuclear power, “global warming,” and genetically modified food.

Zubrin, a nuclear engineer and an amateur historian, writes in clear, nontechnical language—often eloquently, and sometimes passionately—and he has done his research: eighty of the book’s three hundred pages are devoted to references and notes.

For each movement, Zubrin provides a “focus section” in which he debunks propaganda by reference to facts. Population control and its sister movement, eugenics—which span the late 18th century to the present and across many countries—are Zubrin’s central focus in the book. He addresses these over the course of ten chapters, each devoted to a different era or country. He covers the other movements in separate chapters interspersed between the ten on population control and eugenics. This alternating back and forth between topics is jarring, but it aids Zubrin in showing how the various movements are interconnected historically and philosophically.

I’ll focus on Zubrin’s discussions of population control and eugenics because these movements are central to his argument and less familiar to most people. I’ll then touch on the other topics he covers.

Zubrin’s inquiry begins with Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), “the founding prophet of modern antihumanism” (p. 10): an Anglican priest, political economist, and professor at East India College in Hertfordshire, England. Malthus rejected the Enlightenment view “that human liberty, expanding knowledge, and technological progress could ultimately make possible a decent life for all mankind” (p. 10). In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), he maintained that population will always expand faster than resources; thus, population growth must be controlled, or everyone will starve. Zubrin considers the following quote to be Malthus’s recipe for population control:

We are bound in justice and honor to disclaim the right of the poor to support. . . . [We] should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate the specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. (p. 10)

Zubrin quite reasonably sees this as a call for society to effectively exterminate its weaker members.

During the Irish potato famine, management of that crisis was handed to a student of Malthus, Charles Trevelyan, who said, “Posterity will trace up to that Famine the commencement of a salutary revolution in the habits of a nation long singularly unfortunate, and will acknowledge that on this, as on many other occasions, Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil” (p. 15). According to Zubrin, “One million Irish were starved to death.” This in a country that was exporting food in record amounts.

Next, the book examines the work of Charles Darwin. Zubrin writes that “Darwin’s theory of victory through racial superiority—and of human progress being based on such triumphs of ‘higher races’ over ‘lower races’—did a perfect job of justifying brutal European imperial looting of the less developed world. It should be no surprise, then, that virtually instantly after the publication of his On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection (1859) Darwin became an international scientific superstar” (p. 30).

Zubrin tells us, “In his key work on human social development, The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin claims that the advances of various nations and races, and thus the triumphs of one over the other, are due to the inherited traits of their individual members” (p. 27). He quotes Darwin:

“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus, the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” (p. 32)

Eugenics, according to Dictionary.com, is “the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits.” Zubrin argues that Darwin’s ideas provided intellectual fodder for those who formed the eugenics movement shortly after publication of Descent, and he notes that Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, coined the term “eugenics” in 1883. Employing such data, Zubrin makes claims along the following lines.

Europeans always viewed death as an enemy to be overcome, not a beneficial force. By rejecting the truth that the advance of humanity is achieved through what people accomplish during life, in favor of evolution by elimination, Darwinism reversed this.

Instead of being evils, war, disease, and famine were now good and necessary. Without famine and disease, the unfit could not be culled. Without war, the superior could not rid the world of the inferior. Peace, plenty, care and compassion were interferences in the course of nature. All progress was based on death. (p. 33)

Whether Zubrin is generally fair to Darwin, I’ll leave to specialists in this area, which I am not. But that Darwin’s cousin coined the term “eugenics” is certainly no mark against Darwin.

Zubrin provides two separate chapters dealing with the spread of what he calls “Darwinism” and eugenics from Britain to Germany and the United States. The people attracted to eugenics in the United States were mostly social dilettantes of inherited wealth. For example, Mary Harriman, widow of railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman, funded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), which was based in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Zubrin makes some shocking claims, including that “the American Museum of Natural History [in NYC] was for six decades . . . a major center for promoting Darwinism and eugenics in the United States.”

The ERO also contributed to the cause of American racial purity by acting to suppress knowledge of the cure for pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease. . . . in 1914–1915, Dr. Joseph Goldberger . . . discovered that pellagra is caused by a shortage of niacin and can be cured by . . . a diet including meat and vegetables. Goldberger’s findings aroused the ire of the ERO whose party line was that pellagra . . . result[s] from inferior heredity. [Because of] massive statistical fraud [by the ERO] . . . it was not until the mid-1930s that Goldberger’s findings were accepted into American medical practice. During these two decades of delay, approximately 100,000 Americans died from pellagra. . . . (p. 51)

The final chapter on eugenics concerns the Holocaust, which, Zubrin argues, discredited the eugenics movement in the public mind. This, however, did not deter eugenics advocates of population control. After the war, many eugenicists switched from eugenic to Malthusian arguments for the same end: population control. In the United States, for instance, Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was active in the eugenics movement during the 1920s; in the 1950s, she supported population control on Malthusian grounds.

Zubrin provides four chapters on contemporary population control efforts—including horrific measures that European countries and the United States are taking with respect to Third World countries in the name of “zero growth,” and a section on China’s “one child” policy.

Zubrin argues that population control has been official U.S. foreign policy for decades. In support of this, he quotes, among others, President Lyndon Johnson: “Five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth” (p. 138). According to Zubrin, “When India suffered crop failures in 1966, the Johnson administration refused to provide famine relief unless India agreed to impose forced sterilization programs on its rural peasantry” (p. 83).

Zubrin also argues “[population control] programs are medically irresponsible and negligent.” In Africa “improper reuse of hypodermic needles without sterilization in population control clinics has contributed to the rapid spread of deadly infectious diseases, including AIDS” (p. 149).

For a taste of the other material addressed in this rich and rather controversial book, here are some snippets from Zubrin’s chapters on other antihumanist causes:

On DDT: “[T]he death toll in Africa alone from unnecessary malaria resulting from the restrictions on DDT has exceeded 100 million people” (p. 91).

On genetically modified food: “All forms of agriculture are unnatural. . . . [A]ll of our domesticated plant and animal allies are unnatural, intelligently contrived products of an age-old effort by many generations of people to improve upon what Nature had to offer.” And: “Bioengineering differs from the preceding methods in one important respect. Instead of attempting to exploit random mutations and gene transfers, it makes use of changes initiated by design—specifically designed, that is, to be safer and more nutritious than ‘natural’ varieties” (p. 180).

Bioengineers . . . will soon have a virus-immune cassava . . . but will the European Greens allow starving Africans to grow it? The question is not rhetorical. In 2001, Kenyan agronomist Dr. Florence Wambugu announced that she had bioengineered a virus-resistant sweet potato. In response, Green terrorists invaded her lab, destroying it, her records, and all of her test crops, thereby setting back her work for years. This was done despite the fact that the sweet potato was intended only for local consumption. Denouncing the attack, Wambugu said, ‘This is not a question of export to Europe or America. If they don’t want it, they don’t have to have it. . . . We are dying. So can we eat first?’. (p. 185)

Additionally, Zubrin reveals that a former Nazi SS officer, August Haussleiter, along with other ex-Nazis and pro-Nazi environmental groups, founded one of the ideological wellsprings of the modern anti-bioengineering movement—the Green Party—in 1980.

On nuclear energy: “[E]ach nuclear power plant, by replacing its equivalent in coal, is estimated to save hundreds of lives and cut emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants by millions of tons per year . . . [yet] the movement attacked a technology that released almost nothing, and in fact acted materially to eliminate existing pollution already tangibly affecting man and nature” (p. 120). And: “No construction permits for new reactors have been issued in the United States since 1979” (p. 121). [This last point has changed somewhat since the book’s publication.]

On “global warming”: Contrary to environmentalists, Zubrin holds that global warming is far from calamitous. Although he thinks global warming is real, he considers it to be of negligible effect; to the extent that it exists, he says, it is beneficial.

Readers of The Objective Standard are at least partially familiar with the movements discussed in Merchants of Despair, but by bringing them together in one book and covering their history, philosophy, interconnectedness, and horrific consequences, Zubrin provides a unique and valuable resource.

The Holocaust did happen. Population control efforts continue. The “natural food-only” movement is causing starvation and disease around the world as you read. We still suffer from the stoppage of nuclear power development. Millions of people have died from malaria and West Nile virus due to the ban on DDT. Antihumanists abound, and they are killing as efficiently as ever.

This book is an eye opener. I highly recommend it.