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.
Interesting insights, but part of me thinks that the specter of misanthropy on the part of deep ecologists / primitivists is much exaggerated. I just don’t think it can be taken at face value. Human beings in our society tend to like being guilty on one level, which isn’t to say that there is any purpose of amendment. Look at the Dark Mountain people in Britain: they are total pessimists when it comes to the fate of humanity, yet they are still writing for professional publications, still doing interviews, still writing books to be sold. It’s all part of the shtick, really. Maybe they do believe in the long term that we are doomed, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t profiting from it in the short term. Doom can be good for business, or at least keep one afloat. I just think some of the misanthropy and self-loathing is part of the Game: like hating oneself for being overweight or for needing more money. I just don’t think misanthropy per se is a problem. Most of our problems are the result of an excessive love of humanity at the expense of plants and animals, which ironically ends up being akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.
Helpful insight Abe – thanks.
i would like to add that there is another strange aspect to misanthropy uttered by ciritques of civilization. so if the human mind, ratio, logic (whatever you call it) is not the highest authority in the world, if there is something else, call it nature, spirit(s), laws of nature, evolution, god, that has created us, how can humans then wish to eradicate themselves? being part of nature, not outside, or being part of some spiritual community with plants and animals and mountains, how can humans think about self-extinction? no plant, no animal does that. they just live with the flow, if there is a lot of nutrition around, they reproduce until there is less for all, then the numbers decreas. but there is no will to decrease the numbers. i think this is a very strange aspect to misanthropy which shows that even those people who want to have less influence on other beings still want to produce the effect by self-intitiative, that is they still influence other beings by their will.
but on the other hand i am not sure i can agree with your short text. there is too little information pointing at what you actually mean by humans not necessarily being “civilized”: maybe i got you wrong, because the text is so general. but i hear the classic anarchoprimitivist good-bad-dichotomy. there are few bad people with the bad seed of civilization inside an then there is the good side. so, but many thousands of years ago, all were “good” (maybe, i will come back to that in a bit). and at some point, because of necessity (climate change, ice age) or coincidence, the “bad” appeared in shape of agriculture, states, wars and so on. but the bad seed must have been there before, it just didn’t have a reason to germ.
and having a look at various anthropological literature, you will have to dismiss the idea of the noble savage. for “uncivilized” does not mean without brutality, inequality. it has been the case in some places, but wasn’t the general case (see ted kaczynskis critique of anarcho-primitivism) everywhere. i’m not saying that you can compare the brutality of today with the brutality of then. but i think its important to be fair, otherwise the argumentation has too much of advertisement.
i’m not a native english speaker so please have understanding for my formulations.
The brutality of modern civ. Has destroyed all the life supporting system’s on the planet. And we hate ourselves because we’re guests at Nero’s table. The apple’s been eaten, our eyes are open, you’re either a collaborator or liberator.