Human beings appear to be the problem. Human beings cause climate change, drive other species to extinction, turn the oceans to acid and fill them with plastic. Human beings build slaughterhouses, animal laboratories, and concentration camps. Human beings appear to be the common denominator in almost every atrocity.
It is no wonder that those concerned about other animals or the Earth itself have a tendency to be somewhat misanthropic. Misanthropy is commonplace even if often concealed as a tactical decision when interacting with others. But for many, the basic problem is that the human species is fundamentally flawed…and there is no fix for that. Even David Attenborough has referred to humans as “a plague on the Earth”. The commentary in radical circles is often quite similar.
And yet, the drift toward misanthropy is based on a very basic mistake. It is making a species level judgment based on a narrow sliver of individuals who are not in any way representative of the species as a whole. The vast majority of human beings who are currently alive are living in the midst of soul-crushing civilization. We are toothless and de-clawed tigers frantically pacing whereas most who have come before us lived in the world rather than this cage. To make any reliable judgment about the fundamental nature of humanity—suggesting that it’s incurably flawed or inherently destructive—based on this outlying historical moment is impossible. It is akin to visiting a fraternity house to gauge contemporary sexual mores.
In Wandering God, Morris Berman explains that one cost of civilization is that we lose trust in the world and in other human beings (56). This is a significant and underappreciated cost; it’s not quite tangible and so we seemingly forget to put it on the scale when calculating civilization’s toll. We ought to be able to trust other human beings and yet the keys in our pocket shows we can’t.
This misanthropy can have at least two distinct and destructive consequences. The first is a debilitating sense of hopelessness. And while it has been suggested that hopelessness can be an asset toward waging a fiercer fight it is more likely to produce a futile flailing of the limbs rather than any serious assault. It doesn’t help us avoid burnout but instead is the definition of burnout.
The second consequence is a temptation to implement highly repressive measures to contain the virus of humanity. In short, ecofascism (or perhaps plain old fascism). It is visible, for example, in the practice of evicting indigenous people from their land so that that land can be “preserved” as a park free from human habitation.
Fortunately, backing up and recognizing that most humans were never civilized subjects, were never harmed in that way, allows us to dismiss the misanthrope’s skewed view by correcting her sampling error. Berman again:
“Our experience of politics has been conditioned by aberrant circumstances. The state—an autonomous political unit having a hierarchical, centralized government capably of levying taxes, making war, and enforcing laws—has been with us for only about six thousand years. The majority of human political experience has been relatively (though not entirely) egalitarian” (2)
Mistrust of nature generally and of human beings specifically is a grave harm inflicted by civilization. Civilization suggests that human being are fundamentally flawed and too many people within radical circles are happy to accept that claim. I believe a fuller picture of human history provides ample grounds on which to defend ourselves and reject misanthropy.