Losing Human Dignity: An Interview with Wesley J. Smith

Kathryn Jean Lopez
National Review
February 25, 2014
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Wesley J. Smith keeps his eyes on pernicious trends that degrade human dignity. Believing there is something exceptional about the human person and that we have a duty to protect and uphold that dignity, he writes a blog we host here on National Review Online, “Human Exceptionalism.” He’s also the author of a new e-book, The War on Humans, that makes the case that “anti-humanism has degraded environmentalist thinking and advocacy.” He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about The War on Humans.

 

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You write about The Day the Earth Stood Still. What does this story tell us about our changing culture?

WESLEY J. SMITH: Movies offer a pretty good gestalt of our popular culture. Old films can show us where we used to be as a society, while current offerings often cast an accurate light on contemporary culture.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is an excellent example of both phenomena. There have been two versions of the movie telling nearly identical stories: The space alien Klaatu comes to Earth as an emissary from a great interstellar space community, and complications ensue.

But there is a crucial and illuminating difference between Klaatu’s mission in each of the two films. In 1951, a time when there was growing fear of nuclear conflagration, Klaatu comes to save us from our warlike ways. In the 2008 remake, starring Hollywood A-lister Keanu Reeves, Klaatu arrives on earth to commit total genocide to “save the planet.” In other words, all humans must die that the earth — which is strongly implied to be a living entity — might live. There is even a Noah’s ark kind of scene in which animals are removed in space ships to be returned upon our annihilation.

I think the dramatic difference in Klaatu’s missions from 1951 and 2008 vividly illustrates the disturbing misanthropic shift in Western thinking that I describe in The War on Humans.

LOPEZ: Who would have humans live at the mercy of nature? To what extent is “environmental anti-humanism” an actual threat to anyone?

SMITH: I think it is an overstatement to say that radical environmentalists want us all “at the mercy of nature.” But the movement does promote explicitly anti-human ideas – they believe we are the “cancer” on the planet.

There is also an implicit anti-humanism in the policy agendas of much of the modern movement. Some of the prescriptions to fight global warming, for example, would fundamentally erode affluence in the developed world, and keep the developing world mired in continuing destitution by preventing those societies from fully modernizing and exploiting their own resources. For example, some fight electrifying the African continent until it could be done entirely with renewables — which is a long way off. This desire to stifle growth in the West and delay true prosperity from breaking out in the world’s poorest areas is both anti-human and a threat to our welfare and thriving.

LOPEZ: You write about people believing fungi and ants are equal to people, but surely this isn’t mainstream? Why should we be concerned about these ideas?

SMITH: You are referring to a relatively new advocacy meme in environmentalism known as “nature rights,” under which “nature” is granted the “right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate vital cycles.” In essence, that is a right to life for nature that must be given equal consideration to the rights and needs of humans.

Take a look at the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature, which states: “Mother Earth and all beings are entitled to all inherent rights recognized in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as may be made between organic and inorganic beings, origin, use to human beings, or any other state.” So, you and a fly — heck, an outcropping of granite — are equal.

And if there are “conflicts” among the organic and inorganic rights bearers, well, they must be resolved “in a way that maintains the integrity, balance and health of Mother Earth” — whatever that means. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has been pushing nature rights around the world, says that conflicts between nature and man must be decided in court. And since nature-rights laws permit everyone and anyone to sue to protect nature’s rights, you can bet such laws would keep a lot of attorneys very busy.

“Nature rights” are already here. They have been adopted into law by Ecuador and Bolivia. About 30 American municipalities, including Santa Monica, have enacted such laws. They are supported by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, and are even proposed for inclusion in an eventual international treaty to fight global warming. I’d say that is moving pretty fast into the mainstream!

And some of the world’s most prominent environmentalists make explicitly anti-human statements and propose policies that would harm human thriving. For example, Sir David Attenborough — he’s as establishment as it gets — has called humans a “plague on the planet.” He has applauded China’s “one child” policy, even though it has led to forced abortion and female infanticide. So have other mainstream global-warming fighters, as I illustrate in the book. The environmentalist rock star David Suzuki has called human beings “maggots” who crawl around “defecating all over the environment.” He made that statement a long time ago, but refused to recant in a recent interview, simply saying, “Humanity is humanity . . . I just wish they’d stop being so human!” Pay attention to what many of the leading environmentalists and global-warming fighters say and you will hear people described as cancer, viruses, AIDS, parasites, etc. It’s not healthy.

LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say green has gone brown?

SMITH: This is another way of saying “green is the new red.” When you mix the colors red and green, you get brown. That was my way of noting that environmentalists have allowed a completely unnecessary anti-free-market mentality to envelop the movement. And yet, ironically, the most polluting countries have been Communist, e.g., the Soviet Union and (still) China. It’s really quite amazing.

LOPEZ: Why does Earth Hour bother you? Turning out the lights now and again doesn’t hurt anyone.

SMITH: I always thought of it as a rather meaningless way of “doing something” without any actual sacrifice — and then patting ourselves on the back for “caring,” even though nothing was actually accomplished.

Then I read a commentary by Canadian columnist Ross McKitrick, who wrote that Earth Hour “celebrates ignorance, poverty, and backwardness” by “repudiating the greatest engine of liberation” of mankind, meaning electricity. I think he’s on to something. We need more electricity in the world, not less — particularly in the destitute areas of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa.

LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say that Switzerland is “off its rocker” when it comes to plants?

SMITH: Switzerland placed in its constitution a clause to guarantee that “account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms.” But nobody knew exactly what that meant. So, the Swiss government appointed members of the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to figure it all out.

Its report, The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants, determined that we cannot claim “absolute ownership” over plants and, moreover, that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” They even claimed that “decapitating” — their word, not mine — a wild flower is morally wrong.

Not coincidentally in my view, this is the same country that permits suicide clinics and outlaws the flushing of live goldfish down the toilet. When you reject the unique dignity of human beings, you go a little nuts.

LOPEZ: Does this thinking infect laws involving human life or our medical-ethical thinking and protocols?

SMITH: Absolutely. Most of my work heretofore has been to warn about how the mainstream view in bioethics supports a “quality of life” ethic in which some of us are seen to have greater value than others. This has led to proposals such as permitting the killing of profoundly disabled people like Terri Schiavo for their organs because they are not “persons.” The same arguments have been made in support of permitting “after-birth abortion” (infanticide) and rationing health care based on quality-of-life judgments.

Thus, I see a broad connection among issues as seemingly diverse as utilitarian bioethics, animal rights, and misanthropic environmentalism, because each, in its own way, flows out of an explicit rejection of the unique dignity of human life.

LOPEZ: Is it possible both for the West to use better stewardship of the earth while making sure the developing world has the electricity it needs?

SMITH: I certainly believe that is true. To criticize anti-humanism in environmental activism is not to reject the idea that we need to treat the environment in a responsible manner. But there’s a crucial change I see happening in environmentalism from times past. I believe we need to take human welfare into significant account while fashioning reasonable environmental regulations. But I worry that the human element receives too little concern within the contemporary movement.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to limit the harm we do and to remediate areas in which we have caused environmental harm. For example, companies allowed to extract oil from the Alberta tar sands are required to contribute significant funds to a remediation fund as part of their being granted permits to work the fields. That is as it should be. That allows us to extract the bounty of the earth, but in a way that also includes repairing damage that is done when the work is through.

But tellingly, the tar sands are Target No. 1 in modern environmentalism. They would deny us access to the great bounty to be derived from those resources. Some in what is known as the “ecocide” movement would even punish the tar-sands extraction as an international crime akin to genocide! There has already been a mock trial in the chambers of the Supreme Court of England that did just that.

LOPEZ: You express gratitude to the environmental movement for de-smogging Los Angeles and making “lakes habitable for fish and other wildlife again,” among other things. Is there good work that continues that you’re thankful for?

SMITH: Absolutely. We need the dynamic tension environmentalism provides as a check and balance. Indeed, I think the environmental movement offers a great service by keeping our collective eye on the ball when it comes to developing renewable sources of energy, maintaining ecosystems, protecting endangered species, improving energy efficiency, and the like.

But when it turns against human thriving, when it argues that humans are just another animal in the forest with no greater value than any other, it has the potential to cause great harm. Indeed, I think anti-humanism threatens to undermine public support for environmentalism. Turning environmentalism into a neo-earth religion, as some do, hurts the environmentalist cause. I mean, how many people are going to enthusiastically follow a movement that denigrates them as pathogens or elevates the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees over people?

LOPEZ: How do you define “human exceptionalism”?

SMITH: “Human exceptionalism” is a term I use to describe both sides of the unique nature of man. On one hand, we have unique value and only we should possess rights. But that isn’t the end of it.

Human exceptionalism also appeals to our unique capacity for moral agency: Only human beings have duties. We have duties to each other. We have duties to our posterity. We have duties to treat animals humanely. We have duties to treat the environment responsibly and to leave a verdant world to those who come after us. These flow from who we are.

If we recognize the exceptional nature of all human beings, we will understand that the world is not ours to turn into a cesspool. I mean, if being human isn’t what gives us the obligation to be environmentally responsible, what does?

LOPEZ: You’ve come to all of this human-dignity work as a man of the Left who worked with Ralph Nader. Where’s the common ground between the Left and the Right where policies can be supported that protect man and nature?

SMITH: I don’t think there should be a conflict between Left and Right on the goals that we seek to achieve. I believe in promoting human flourishing in the context of pursuing responsible environmental practices. There will always be debates on where to put the most emphasis. Some might want to give more leeway to enabling human activity, some to protecting the environment. There will always be differences that need to be worked through in a democratic fashion.

What I worry about is that the responsible environmentalism that has brought us so much benefit is being transformed into one that actually has the goal of throttling human prosperity and undermining the values of Western civilization. There is a growing tinge of authoritarianism in the movement, a growing Utopianism that I find dangerous, as I describe in the book.

LOPEZ: There’s a documentary version of your e-book. Are there things you just can’t say in text that the visual pulls off best?

SMITH: Sure. Visual images often have greater persuasive power than words alone. For example, I describe and quote from an article published in the New York Times that ridiculously advocated for “pea personhood.” The film — which was written and directed by my Discovery Institute colleague John West — also deals with advocacy for pea personhood using funny images of a pouting kid refusing to eat his peas, as well as wonderfully selected music, to mock the concept in a way that is both more entertaining and devastating than what I was able to present.

But I think it is important to state that the film and book are not identical. Each brings a somewhat different take to the same general subject, and in some areas explores different issues. They supplement and complement each other in a way that I think presents a more complete picture.