Environmental activism sometimes straddles the line between heroism and atrocity. Did it cross the line when scientifically ignorant activists convinced scientifically ignorant Latin-American leaders to forgo chlorination of their water supplies in the midst of an enormous cholera epidemic? Did it cross the line when many of the same forces convinced African leaders to turn away donations of food crops that had been genetically engineered to thrive in the inhospitable African soil? Did it cross the line when eco-activists supported the international anti-vaccination movement in areas too poor to know any better?
We should not be overly worried about the simpletons who comprise the Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje (individualists with savage tendencies, ITS), the Mexican anarcho-fascist-eco-terrorist group that recently declared war on nanotechnology, information technology, and, uh, immigration. Their attempts to return mankind to its “Wild Nature” have played out through a couple of ineffective letter bombs (all sympathies to those injured) and an embarrassing attempt to take credit for an act of random violence. Though they have the potential to cause unwarranted, anthrax-style panic, these are people whose paranoia about mutating viruses has led them to the public health practices that brought us the black plague. I think we can take them.
Rather than getting too worked up over the destructive potential of people who can’t manage to kill with a bomb that goes off in the victim’s hands (effective thermo-chemistry is presumably against Nature, as well), we ought instead to reflect on the fact that it is often less extreme forms of ecological activism that cause the most harm. This can be direct harm, as when PETA repeatedly funded serial fire-bomber Rodney Coronado. It can also be indirect, as when the same group’s celebrity-friendly PR campaigns helped them slide past their misdeeds and continue to exert influence on the national scale. And then there’s that diabetes nonsense.
Let’s be explicit about the sheer level of insanity we are dealing with here. Sure, we can laugh at the “gray goo” fantasies, or at the idea that a couple of Mexican letter bombs will steer us off that imaginary course, but have a look at the following quote from Pentti Linkola, a Finnish author, environmental anarchist, and influential madman. This is his take on the perceived problem of over population:
What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.
Note that, from a purely utilitarian perspective, Linkola’s demented reasoning is totally sound. The issue is not that his derivations are illogical, but that his starting premise is idiotic: that it is better to spend our time on lifeboat triage than on lifeboat construction. He and his contemporaries are the standard-bearers for the anti-lifeboat movement, blowing up lifeboat factories and threatening those who try to improve their carrying capacity. Such thinking is common among extremists, where they end up taking actions that conveniently build toward precisely those imaginary crises that have come to give their lives purpose.
This is what is truly terrifying. The ITS is a band of dirt-worshipping Luddites who don’t even realize that nanotechnology is, like, the fifth most potentially apocalyptic area of modern research, at best. They are not our true concern.
There is, however, a sort of crackpot intellectualism to much of the movement that echoes the extremist premises without having the rigor to follow them to their logical conclusions. The main difference seems to be follow-through. Say what you like about Pentti Linkola, but he’s not dishonest. If you’ve ever wondered how presumably decent, caring people could come up with something like The Holocaust On Your Plate, it is in its essence the same sort of ideology that brought us the ITS themselves: the veneration of an idea to the extent that it comes to rival, or indeed eclipse, the importance of human life.
Ultimately, over-eager discussions about the ITS devalue real, worthwhile conversations — for instance the real possible dangers of nanotech research. If nanobots could hypothetically replicate themselves, it might indeed be wise to treat their development with the same healthy caution we use when monkeying with deadly viruses. Regulations keeping nano research behind similar sorts of hermetic barriers might be very wise. These sorts of valid speculative discussions are impossible, however, when the integrity of the whole endeavor is undermined by association with such utter, slack-jawed fools.