Are humans inherently destructive?
Are we, as a species, some sort of cancer on the planet?
Are we “destined” to destroy the planet because we are “too smart” and “too successful”?
No. I reject this idea completely. Humans are not inherently destructive, and claims to the contrary represent intellectually lazy and culturally myopic thinking. Even more dangerously, these claims lead to the conclusion that nothing can be done to reserve the destructiveness of civilization. The claim that humans are a cancer is a cop-out.
It is clear that humans can be extremely destructive. But is is equally clear that, given the right social system, humans can live in balance for tens of thousands of years.
The Claim: “Humans Are a Cancer”
Back in July, we published an article entitled “Practical Sustainability: Lessons from African Indigenous Cultures.” The article contained an interview between Derrick Jensen and Dr. Helga Vierich.
Helga Vierich did her doctorate at University of Toronto, after three years of living with Bushmen in the Kalahari. Then she was hired as principal anthropological research scientist at a green revolution institute in West Africa. Subsequently she has been teaching at the University of Kentucky and the University of Alberta. Her website is anthroecology.wordpress.com.
Some readers responded to Dr. Vierich’s interview negatively, claiming that humans are inherently destructive and are a cancer on the planet. Here’s a representative comment from our YouTube channel:
“Dr. Vierich obviously observed and learned quite a bit from her experiences. But this idea that humans are some blessing on the Earth as engineers or anything else is ridiculous, and is nothing but anthropocentric fantasy. The FACT is that humans fit the medical definition of being a cancerous tumor on the Earth, growing out of control and consuming everything. Even the hunter-gatherers, who are the only humans who don’t destroy the natural world just by their way of life, are not necessary for any ecosystem. The comparison to wolves in Yellowstone is thus badly misplaced.”
The Reality: “Sustainability is an Adaptive Trait”
Dr. Vierich saw Hoffman’s comment, and responded (also on our YouTube channel). We want to publish her brilliant response in full here. She wrote:
“I’m sorry you see all human economies as equally bad for the planet. I would agree with you that the current industrial economy is “growing out of control and consuming everything”. But this is hardly a fitting description of the sustainable economies typical of tribal peoples like the hunter-gatherers, the long-fallow swidden forest gardening systems, and certainly does not apply to traditional nomadic herding societies either. Why would Pleistocene hunter-gatherers have adopted practices that caused the dramatic reshaping of the global bio-sphere in ways that so often caused extinctions and harmed species diversity?
Surely this would have been a short-lived mal-adaptive strategy? After all, why would the evolving human creature, unlike all others who have constructed ecological niches for themselves, do so in a destructive way? Every other keystone species and ecosystem engineering species creates positive effects on ecosystem diversity; many other creatures gain, after all, by evolving their specialized behavioral and dietary niches, even if they are not playing key roles. Why should humans be any different? Is this the human niche? To be a “plague” species?
The short answer to that is clear: No. If anything, the human way was the opposite: which is why hunting and gathering was a long-lived and highly successful adaptive strategy, and why even the inception of plant and animal domestication did not stray far from these fundamentals. Indeed, everywhere we see “development” proceeding in rural areas today, even vast “wild” forests, jungles, steppes, and savannas bursting with wildlife, it is safe to assume that virtually all these landscapes are – or were until recently- managed for hundreds, even thousands of years by foragers, subsistence farmers, and nomadic pastoralists.
Is it any wonder then, that all over the world indigenous people are rising up to defend the last of their landscapes and watersheds from dams, oil infrastructure, logging, mining, commercial agriculture, especially oil palm and soybeans, expanding into tropical forests today? Given the overwhelming military power deployed by such states, resistance has often proven futile; ecosystems go down like dominos. Civilization is clearly a cultural system capable of distortion by social stratification. By seizing control of resources, institutionalizing use of force and debt “within the law”, even a tiny minority can offload the costs and risks of unsound economic ventures unto the majority – who may be unaware, poor informed, or even lied to. So far, the main effect, of vesting political and economic power in tiny elites, is “legal” shielding of their own sources of income.
By developing narratives that stress their own superiority of blood, minds, and manners, over the “common people”, these authorities meanwhile create cults of national destiny, and patriotic fervor, which facilitate war, ecocide, and ethnocide. The narrative of domination over nature arises in parallel with ecocide. What we are seeing today is the finale act in long endgame called “civilization”, whereby all that had been sustained for over thousands of years of careful tending, by the remaining hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and nomadic herders in the world, is being destroyed by plows, mines, logging, and road-building.
Acceptance of what ALL the research reveals, about human evolution the impact of civilizations on ecosystems, need not descend to where the data does not follow: no, humans are not a “plague” species that always destroys ecosystems. This kind of hyperbole makes the unbearable merely incomprehensible.”
Humans Can Increase Biodiversity
Are humans really “not necessary for any ecosystem”? The question is more complicated than you might think. Any natural community is a dynamic, adaptive system, constantly in a state of change. But there have been countless examples of natural communities “regulated” or “managed” into a higher level of biodiversity and abundance through human interaction.
M. Kat Anderson is an Ethnobotanist, Anthropologist, and author of the excellent book “Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.”
As her book explains, her research has found that human interaction with the land can be highly beneficial for biodiversity or productivity of ecological communities. Here’s the book jacket description:
“John Muir was an early proponent of a view we still hold today—that much of California was pristine, untouched wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. But as this groundbreaking book demonstrates, what Muir was really seeing when he admired the grand vistas of Yosemite and the gold and purple flowers carpeting the Central Valley were the fertile gardens of the Sierra Miwok and Valley Yokuts Indians, modified and made productive by centuries of harvesting, tilling, sowing, pruning, and burning. Marvelously detailed and beautifully written, Tending the Wild is an unparalleled examination of Native American knowledge and uses of California’s natural resources that reshapes our understanding of native cultures and shows how we might begin to use their knowledge in our own conservation efforts.
M. Kat Anderson presents a wealth of information on native land management practices gleaned in part from interviews and correspondence with Native Americans who recall what their grandparents told them about how and when areas were burned, which plants were eaten and which were used for basketry, and how plants were tended. The complex picture that emerges from this and other historical source material dispels the hunter-gatherer stereotype long perpetuated in anthropological and historical literature. We come to see California’s indigenous people as active agents of environmental change and stewardship. Tending the Wild persuasively argues that this traditional ecological knowledge is essential if we are to successfully meet the challenge of living sustainably.”
In the book, Anderson writes:
“About halfway into the [seven] years of fieldwork, I began to ask native elders, ‘Why are many plants and animals disappearing?’ Their answers… always pinned the blame on the absence of human interaction with a plant or an animal… [N]ot only do plants benefit from human use, but some may actually depend on humans using them. Human tending of certain California native plants had been so repetitive and long-term that the plants might very well have become adapted to moderate human disturbance. The idea had a very practical corollary: the conservation of endangered species and the restoration of historic ecosystems might require the reintroduction of careful human stewardship rather than simple hands-off preservation. In other words, reestablishing the ecological associations between people and nature might be appropriate in certain areas.”
This is not cherry picking. In fact, similar relationships between human societies and nature can be found among many indigenous and subsistence people around the world. We do not claim that indigenous societies are “perfect” or that native peoples have never harmed the land. The truth is more nuanced.
The Problem is Civilization—Not Humans
The idea that humans are a cancer is a reductionist, simplistic, and biological essentialist position that is not supported by evidence. It is telling that this position is most commonly supported by people from inside settler-colonial culture; by civilized people.
What is certain is that civilization—the culture of empire—is not sustainable. Civilization has also worked to systematically destroy indigenous peoples and knowledge of how to live sustainably. This is a requirement for civilization, because when people have access to land and knowledge of how to live sustainably, they will refuse to be slaves, serfs, wage laborers, etc. They will prefer freedom.
Therefore, it is no surprise that it is the civilized who believe that destruction is inevitable. That this belief is so widespread is the result of civilized education systems and propaganda. It is only possible to believe that destruction is inevitable if you are raised from birth inside a destructive system. This mindset is what some indigenous people of Turtle Island have called “wétiko” sickness, which Lenape scholar and activist Jack D. Forbes describes (in his excellent book Columbus and Other Cannibals like this:
“Now, were Columbus and his fellow European exploiters simply “greedy” men whose “ethics”were such as to allow for mass slaughter and genocide? I shall argue that Columbus was a wétiko, that he was mentally ill or insane, the carrier of a terribly contagious psychological disease, the wétiko psychosis. The Native people he described were, on the other hand, sane people with a healthy state of mind. Sanity or healthy normality among humans and other living creatures involves a respect for other forms of life and other individuals, as I have described earlier. I believe that is the way people have lived (and should live). The wétiko psychosis, and the problems it creates, have inspired many resistance movements and efforts at reform or revolution… the wétiko [is] an insane person whose disease is extremely contagious.”
- Meet the villagers protecting biodiversity on the top of the world
- The deep human prehistory of global tropical forests and its relevance for modern conservation
- The Myth of the Virgin Rainforest
- Aboriginal hunting buffers climate-driven fire-size variability in Australia’s spinifex grasslands
Interview with Helga Vierich