Drawing battle lines in "The War on Humans"

Grace Richardson
March 19, 2014
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A plague on earth. Fruit flies. Maggots. That is how radical environmentalism sees humanity itself, according to a new Discovery Institute documentary,The War on Humans.

Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith describes the growing influence of “anti-humanism” in a new digital book and documentary released on YouTube last month. The book and film ask what it means to be human and examines the implications of radical environmentalists’ claims that humans are no more special than animals or even plants.

The core idea of the anti-human position is that human beings, as just another species in the evolutionary process, have no unique dignity or special status on Earth. Princeton ethicist Peter Singer has argued, for example, that “speciesism” is “wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong.” The Nonhuman Rights Project is trying to get courts to declare animals “persons” who possess “such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty.” In a 2013 article, wildlife filmmaker David Attenborough said that human beings have stopped evolving and should be persuaded not to have large families. Radical movements, like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, argue that humans should voluntarily stop procreating for the sake of the Earth.

“If you really take them at their word, a farmer who tries to kill weeds…is committing a crime,” said John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. “The logic of what they’re saying is that humans shouldn’t exist.”

West and Smith are concerned that anti-humanism will harm those who need help most: those in poor countries. If a river has a right to run freely, then nature-rights regulation could trump the ability of thousands of people to benefit from hydroelectricity the river generates. Sound implausible? In 2012, New Zealand granted legal personhood to its Whanganui River. Smith asked, how are third-world countries to develop if nature must be considered every time people make a move?

Anti-human ideas that were on the fringe of academia 30 years ago are becoming more mainstream, Smith said. He cited the growing influence and acceptance of global warming, China’s one-child policy, and even rumors of environmental re-imagining of the Noah story in the upcoming Darren Aronofsky film. When Ecuador rewrote its constitution in 2008, it became the first country to recognize such nature rights. Bolivia and several municipalities around the United States, including Santa Monica, Calif., have also adopted nature rights.

To respond to all this, Smith said, society must restore its understanding of human exceptionalism, the belief that humans do have special dignity in the universe and therefore special responsibilities. Included is a moral obligation to care for the environment and for animals.

Denying human exceptionalism devalues humanity and leads to a breakdown of morality. The 2004 “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals displayed photos of animals in slaughterhouses next to photos of inmates in Auschwitz. “Any movement that can’t distinguish between the worst evils ever done to humankind and animal husbandry [has] lost the ability to talk about morality to anyone,” Smith said.

Radical environmentalists think that if humans “see ourselves as just part of nature, then we will be more gentle on the land and we will treat animals more humanely and so forth,” Smith observed in the film. “If we see ourselves as just another animal in the forest, that’s precisely how we’ll act.”