San people starting a friction fire

Are Humans Inherently Destructive?

By Max Wilbert / Featured Image: San People in southern Africa making friction fire. Photo by Isewell, used under the CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

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. At Deep Green Resistance, we 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”

“Life is not a predatory jungle, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ as Westerners like to pretend, but is better understood as a symphony of mutual respect in which each player has a specific part to play. We must be in our proper place and we must play our role at the proper moment. So far as humans are concerned, because we came last, we are the ‘younger brothers’ of the other life-forms, and therefore have to learn everything from these other creatures. The real interest of old Indians would then be not to discover the abstract structure of physical reality, but rather to find the proper road down which, for the duration of a person’s life, that person is supposed to walk.” – Vine Deloria Jr.

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

Civilization is based on violence. Every bit of steel in these towers was ripped from a rainforest or a mountainside. Every ton of concrete was strip mined. Trace the origins of the material of civilization itself: what you will find is blood and devastated nature.

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.”

Further Reading

In the comment shared above, Dr. Vierich also shared four links for additional reading on this topic:
  1. Meet the villagers protecting biodiversity on the top of the world
  2. The deep human prehistory of global tropical forests and its relevance for modern conservation
  3. The Myth of the Virgin Rainforest
  4. Aboriginal hunting buffers climate-driven fire-size variability in Australia’s spinifex grasslands

Interview with Helga Vierich

Here’s the original interview with Helga Vierich. You can listen to more interviews our Resistance Radio archive.

8 thoughts on “Are Humans Inherently Destructive?”

  1. Thanks Max. This is well-rounded yet succinct essay which addresses one of the core assumptions that prevents people from acting on what they must instinctively know is true: that the world is being murdered and that we have a choice to accept it which emboldens the murderers, or defend those we love whatever it costs.

    I’m always baffled by the paralysis of human beings in this culture. As Derrick says, it’s not a failure of our species so much as a failure of imagination caused by those in power who have hijacked the narrative.

    Let’s keep fighting.

  2. The indigenous cultures that survived are the ones that didn’t do dumb things like destroying their environment.. Some anthropologists believe the many large animal species that no longer live in North America were hunted to extinction by humans — and that those humans subsequently starved to death, after destroying their food source. More recently, one of the tribes in what became the State of Colorado hunted bison by driving the entire herd off a cliff. They survived, but shouldn’t have. Likewise, it is widely speculated that the so-called Anasazi disappeared because their agricultural practices were ultimately self-destructive.
    The inherent problem with humanity is brain size, which inevitably gives rise to new ideas, some of which (like DDT, fossil fuels, thalidomide, etc.) are tried without thought to the long term and often tragic consequences.
    On balance, the world obviously would be better off without us. Our too-smart-for-their-own-good ancestors obviously were dominant over their hunter-gatherer rivals, or there wouldn’t be seven billion of the former today, versus a quarter-million or so of the latter.
    I have also long suspected that the reason SETI has yet to make contact with another “intelligent” (meaning high tech) race on another planet is that technology is inherently self-destructive, and that the window for making contact with other planets closes rapidly. (Despite our long history as a species, just two and a half centuries of heavy industry have brought us to the brink of extinction.)

  3. Less than 1% of the old growth Redwood forest remaining in Northern California. Raids on every single national park in the United States. Fracking throughout the US and Canada.
    Just the tip of the iceberg.
    Perhaps the human species isn’t a cancer. More like a terminal plague.
    Do the writers actually see how many people are TAKING from the planet without giving not one thing back.

  4. This was well written and I must say, I have felt for a number of years that humans are a cancer to Mother Earth… Now I believe that we mutated to a cancerous form as a result of greed and avarice.

  5. We’re the only culture that not only fails to live in balance with Nature, but takes pride in always demanding more for ourselves — which translates into more plunder, waste, and destruction for Earth.
    Allow me to suggest that civilization ‘s real freight train to hell may be even more specific than industrial man, and that the driving force behind humanity’s attack on the planet is and always has been America. Yes, all the colonial powers played a big role. But it was the U.S. that put it into high gear. What is “the American dream,” if not the consumerist frenzy that became the “growth” and “progress” disease that’s now literally sucking the air out of the global room? What is “American exceptionalism,” if not exceptional desire, destruction, and a race to planetary ruin, masquerading as “progress”?

  6. I am the one whose comments were mentioned in this essay. There are multiple basic misunderstandings of both my comments and my position, both by Dr. Helga Vierich and Max Wilbert.

    Fundamentally, my problem with Dr. Vierich’s interview is that she characterized the Bushmen in the Kalahari as some godsend to their region, improving on the natural ecosystem. The idea that humans can improve upon nature is anthropocentric self-worship with no basis in biocentric or ecological reality. Humans will never be smart enough, wise enough, or know enough to be able to improve upon nature. The best thing that humans can do regarding the natural world is to take just enough to survive with an ecologically-balanced population level while focusing their attention on expanding their consciousness instead of manipulating the natural world. The idea that humans can fix the mistakes that nature made or improve on the natural world is exactly the kind of egotistical hubris that leads to hideous things like genetic engineering.

    As to humans being a cancerous tumor on the Earth, I don’t claim that this is inherent. Instead, it’s solely due to choices that humans have made over millennia, starting at least as far back as the use of agriculture. If humans had focused on wisdom, empathy, and expanding their consciousness instead of ego, intellect, and materialism, they would be a shining light on Earth instead of the cancerous tumor that they are. All that said, it matters not one bit to the Earth and the non-humans on it why humans fit the medical definition of being a cancer; the only thing that matters to those entities is that we are one.

    Dr. Vierich’s reply to my comment on her interview begins by saying that I “see all human economies as equally bad for the planet.” I never said or implied anything like that. I was discussing humans as a whole, and I in fact stated that hunter-gatherers do not destroy life and ecosystems merely by their existence like agriculturalists do. I strongly advocate for returning to living as hunter-gatherers, though I view this as a very long-term goal by necessity (i.e., it’s simply not possible to achieve this in the near future) and probably am at odds with DGR in that way.

    I do strongly object to the idea that humans can increase biodiversity or have any positive impact on an ecosystem by manipulating it. The example given in Dr. Vierich’s interview was spreading seeds of native plants in order to increase the number of those plants. I asked the question whether anyone had analyzed what plants the artificially extra natives had replaced and correctly pointed out that additional plants of one species is not an “improvement” in the ecosystem just because those plants are desirable to humans. What about the plants that were replaced? What species to they benefit, and what harms were done to those species by changing the ecosystem?

    As to humans being necessary to any ecosystem, Mr. Wilbert’s rebuttal to my first comment merely claims that some humans have regulated or managed ecosystems into something better. In addition to what I wrote above regarding this type of claim, even if humans had improved certain ecosystems, that doesn’t make humans necessary for them. Predators are necessary to manage prey animals. Prey animals are necessary for the predators to eat and to manage the vegetation that the prey animals eat. Plants are necessary food and habitat for animals and to keep the soil alive and from eroding. Etc. Humans don’t fit into this type of scheme.

    The fact that humans as a whole fit the medical definition of being a cancerous tumor on the Earth is not an “idea” as Mr. Wilbert claims, but is instead a provable fact. Mr. Wilbert and Dr. Vierich point to hunter-gatherers as proof that humans are not a cancer, but this argument is ludicrous. Hunter-gatherers comprise less than 0.005% of the people on Earth. While hunting and gathering instead of agriculture is what we aspire to and respect, the facts are that hunter-gatherers do not even come close to representing the current human species and that it will be a very long time if ever for humans to return to living that way.

    I supplied an outline of my position regarding the proper role of humans on Earth to DGR via email, as there is no way to attach it here. Hopefully DGR will attach the outline somewhere on this page in order to clarify my positions. We are basically on the same side here, but I’d hate to see DGR slip into anthropocentrism and self-worship and advocate for human control of the Earth. Much better to focus on our minds, which is our strength and a much better role for humans in the grand scheme of things.

  7. Earth at this point in history has been damaged beyond salvage.
    As for hunting-gathering, with the increased overdevelopment rampant in America and other countries, we are losing our wildlife.
    Hunting is allowed in the states 2 weeks a year. Development kills far more wildlife than 2 weeks of hunting. Hunting is not an option as the deer have been slaughtered not by bullets but by cars.
    Farms are being razed and replaced with townhomes (commonly known as row homes). I see this all around me. So, we are now dependent on big business to provide our food supply.
    This has all been calculated to keep the human race dependent upon big business. And blindly Americans go to the polls and vote for the very people who will suppress them.

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