News Wednesday afternoon that an armed gunman had entered the cable TV headquarters of Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, Maryland and begun taking hostages alarmed people throughout the Washington, D.C. area and around the country. As law enforcement officials negotiated with the suspect, posts on social media outlets inevitably began arguing over the ideological motivations of the hostage-taker, James J. Lee. Conservatives were quick to point out the suspect’s radical environmentalist manifesto, while left-leaning sources disclaimed any connection. News a few hours later that the suspect had been shot and killed by police spawned a round of smug black humor, concluding that he had been successful in accomplishing one of his chief demands, a smaller world population.
The immediate verdict from the online world seems to be that Lee was simply insane, even as differently motivated voices tried to pin the source of his insanity on each other. If we take a step back, though, we can look at the demands he made — which law enforcement officials said “mirrored” those in his online manifesto — and see the wider context of Lee’s beliefs.
His focus on population control is clear from the beginning. Lee demands that the Discovery Channel and its affiliates must “Focus…on how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children since those new additions continue pollution and are pollution.” On the topic of immigration, he recommends that we “find solutions to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth that follows that” and in order to safeguard the future of wildlife, he writes that doing so “means stopping the human race from breeding any more disgusting human babies!”
While his rhetoric is crude and offensive, that doesn’t mean his ideas don’t have wider currency. From the time of Paul Ehrlich’s infamous 1968 manifesto The Population Bomb to the work of groups like Zero Population Growth (first re-branded as simply “ZPG” and currently known as “Population Connection”), the specter of unsupportable population growth has been one of the environmental movement’s greatest scare stories. It’s the kind of all-encompassing disaster that was supposed to be hard to ignore — even if you didn’t care about the environment, the pitch goes, you have to be worried about overpopulation! You don’t want millions of people to starve to death or see wars spawned by a fight over food and scarce natural resources, do you?
But how does a concern over famines and resources depletion translate into the vicious anti-human ideology of a James Lee? The answer is clear — combine one old theory about the inherent limitations of mankind with one new theory about the alienation of human beings from the rest of the natural world. Lee provides us with all of the leads we need when he demands that the Discovery Channel “develop shows that mention the Malthusian sciences.”
The Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is the godfather of all population scaremongers. Malthus was an Anglican clergyman and political philosopher whose ideas have influenced a wide range of scientists and thinkers through the centuries. His central insight, however, comes from his “Essay on the Principle of Population,” where he posits that times of prosperity encourage greater population growth, and that a larger population will inevitably resulting in less food and fewer resources for all, thus leading to widespread poverty and misery. Malthus’s anti-utopian outlook was based on deep skepticism of the ability of human beings to rise above their biological constraints and solve the problems posed by limited resources and an expanding population. It was Malthus’s fatalistic view of the world that would, unfortunately, inspire generations of scholars and eventually help give birth to the modern environmental movement itself.
Prior to the first Earth Day in 1970, Friends of the Earth and Ballantine Books co-published The Environmental Handbook: Prepared for the First National Environmental Teach-In, featuring essays from such acclaimed environmental thinkers as population alarmist Paul Ehrlich (three chapters) and the staff of the Berkeley Ecology Center, which advised that the most important environmental goal was to reduce world population by half. These secular saints from the dawn of environmentalism were also startlingly honest about how to accomplish this goal. Garrett Hardin, who at the time was a professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, gave one of his chapter sections the bracing title “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable.” In fact, the original Environmental Handbook is riddled with melodramatic claims about the evils of overpopulation and authoritarian recommendations for countering it.
Given this gold-star pedigree, it’s not difficult to imagine why a man with an unhealthy fixation on environmental propaganda would become obsessed with population control, even to the point of looking at a newborn baby and seeing nothing but the threat of future pollution. Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle — the inherently anti-human nature of environmental philosophy.
Lee, like many modern environmentalists, goes beyond the warnings of the founding generation of green thinkers when it comes to overpopulation. Many of the early activists merely made practical arguments about the kind of Malthusian misery that would be inflicted on the poor of the world if resources were stretched too thin by too many people. Since then, however, environmental awareness has been raised much higher, by writers who have argued that the planet itself is a living entity, an idea generally credited to ecologist James Lovelock and referred to as the “Gaia theory.” In this view of the world, all other species contribute to the creation of a harmonious, unified whole, with only the unsustainable burden of human civilization causing trouble.
These acolytes like to refer to human beings as a “plague” or a “disease” infecting the planet. For them, and by their own internal logic, no number of human beings is small enough. Saving the earth isn’t about providing clean air and water to our grandchildren, it’s about restoring an Eden-like state of earthly paradise. Only this time, human beings are both the Serpent and the original sinners.
No doubt environmental activist groups will deny any connection between the violent action of James J. Lee and their own work. And on the surface, that may appear to be so. But the flawed theories and anti-human prejudices of modern environmentalism’s founders cast a long shadow — and the unflinching misanthropy of the movement’s modern radicals continue to attract disaffected individuals looking for something to believe in. Lee’s willingness to endanger the lives of others is thankfully rare, but his conviction that “the planet does not need humans” is anything but.