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Starving Irish beg for aid during the 19th century potato famine.

Book Review

The last time I traveled to England, our plane left Baltimore at dusk and jetted along the eastern seaboard in time for us to see one of America’s most populated stretches illuminate into a vast constellation of artificial light.

What I saw as a brilliant sign of human endeavor, however, could just as easily be viewed by a certain stripe of expert policymaker as indications of a menace that needs to be curtailed.

So says author Robert Zubrin, whose recent book Merchants of Despair chronicles what he calls the “anti-humanistic” efforts of such experts to preserve power, resources, the planet—what have you—at the expense of the lives, liberty and property of others.

First-World Guilt

The topic is certainly timely. At least in the First World, the notion that the fruits of progress also carry hidden (and guilt-inducing) dangers is now a staple of the internet. Debates on whether benign advances such as air conditioning should be eschewed or even outright banned are not just choking the blogosphere, they are actually being taken seriously.

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Zubrin’s work is timely, scary.

Zubrin, on the other hand, champions innovation as the best hope for improving humanity’s condition. And he pits this optimism against the fear-fueled policies of a succession of doomsayers—from Malthus to eugenicists to radical environmentalists—whose raging against perceived evils created by the natural growth of civilization only exacerbate the suffering they supposedly desire to ameliorate.

Not all of Zubrin’s criticisms hit the mark. For example, his characterization of nuclear power as a cheap and safe source of electricity that is wrongly maligned overlooks certain problems such as what to do with all that radioactive waste. And his touting of DDT as a risk-free pesticide fails to mention documented environmental dangers as well as a growing resistance to the chemical among some insects.

Scary Solution

Where Zubrin is clearest and most alarming, though, is in recounting the efforts of those who would protect humanity by curtailing the existence of human beings.

It’s a dark tale with many sub-themes: imperialism, racism, and most recently, radical environmentalism. But the over-arching motif remains this: self-anointed elites wielding population control as a tool to cull undesirables.

Sometimes this policy is aimed directly at the living, as it was when British authorities refused relief to the starving poor during the 19th century Irish potato famine. Most often it is directed at future generations, as when U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War made population control a condition for Third World governments to receive aid.

To this end, U.S. political clout was leveraged to force poorer nations to adopt contraception, mass sterilization, and abortion, supposedly to improve the lot of their peoples. In reality, First World operatives aimed to protect their own interests, from access to natural resources to safeguarding markets eyed by western corporations.

Taxing a Crisis

This mindset of oppressing the masses and restraining the common good for some nebulous, fear-fueled goal seems to have reach its zenith in the campaign against global warming. Zubrin describes how the prophets of climate change—driven by a cult-like zeal—seek to stave off doom by artificially driving up the price of energy through billions of dollars worth of taxes and fines.

Some of the money generated in this way would then be funneled to poorer countries, but not in order to expand their economies by increasing industry, as that might contribute to global warming. Quite the opposite, these nations would be encouraged to refrain from such activities.

“In other words,” writes Zubrin, the program would “transfer some of the take to Third World despots to pay them to keep their people poor.”

If this plan sounds less like brilliant problem-solving and more like thuggery, recall that in the modern era regimes run by experts have rarely guided the masses with cool equanimity. There are many reasons for this, the chief being that as leaders of various societies have turned increasingly to secular science as the foundation for knowledge, the more they’ve also disdained moral restrictions founded on the fear of God.

The Problem is You

Consequently, the struggle for the good of humanity has become based not so much on what is fair, but on what the experts can justify.

The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis understood this. He pilloried this mindset in his novel That Hideous Strength, about a scientific foundation attempting to propel humanity toward a higher level of existence by essentially embracing death.

As a senior member of the foundation explains to a newcomer:

“Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest—which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of.

Quite.”