Reviewed 6/27/2012

Merchants of Despair, by Robert Zubrin

Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism
Robert Zubrin
New York: Encounter Books, April 2012




ISBN-13 978-1-59403-476-3
ISBN 1-59403-476-1 318pp. HC/BWI $25.95

Dr. Zubrin has done some good work toward furthering the exploration of space. In particular, the "Mars Direct" plan he developed and still promotes would be an excellent way to explore the Red Planet.

However, I cannot countenance his recently assumed position on climate change — indeed, on environmentalism in general. It seems he has followed the same wrong road taken by geologist Harrison Schmitt, the only professional scientist to visit the Moon.

So, fair warning: I intend to tear this book apart.

But first the good news. This book demonstrates a truly commendable scholarship. It is also extremely well written. The result is an eminently readable polemic of considerable power. Chapters 3 through 7, on the development of eugenics and its relation to Hitler's Third Reich, offer a concise and convincing exposition of the evils that arose during that period. This is a history which was largely new to me. The account is a disturbing one: its import is that radical eugenicists1 were able during most of the twentieth century to forcibly sterilize millions of women in third-world countries, obtaining the support of the leaders of those countries by financial means (by making loans contingent on approval of population-reduction policies.) Zubrin also states that the eugenicists had the support of U.S. government agencies, even including presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Dr. Zubrin is impassioned in his denunciation of these activities, and on the surface he builds a formidable case that they did take place. It would take a great deal of work on my part to rebut his research. He depends chiefly on Matthew Connelly's Fatal Misconception (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010) and Steven W. Mosher's Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits (Transaction Publishers, 2008). There is considerable support for the view that both these authors are zealots, but I reserve judgment on that until I can read their books.2

However, Dr. Zubrin oversteps the bounds of good journalistic practice when discussing Darwinism and, more importantly, in the later chapters. There, he allows his bone-deep hatred for any restrictions on progress to overwhelm his awareness of nuance. Quite simply, the situation is not as clear-cut, nor so dire, as he paints it to be. I will examine the extent of his misunderstanding in the page linked below.

But briefly, here is the crux of the matter. Dr. Zubrin claims that an "antihumanist cult" composed of Darwinists, eugenicists, and environmentalists has since before the start of the twentieth century, using various pretexts, conspired to impose on the poor of all nations (but especially on the underdeveloped world, the non-white populations of the planet) harshly autocratic rules that stifle progress and even threaten the existence of those disadvantaged peoples. He claims further that racism is a large part of the motivation for these measures.

Thus, according to his thesis, concern about the safety of nuclear power plants masks an attempt to restrict the supplies of energy available to the world; concern about pesticides represents an attempt to cull third-world populations by means of limiting food supplies and allowing insect-borne diseases to run rampant; and calls to reduce the rate at which industrial nations add to the atmosphere's burden of carbon dioxide hide a covert quest for tyrannical repression.

"Antihumanism has recently enormously expanded its influence by raising hysteria about global warming. This phenomenon, by lengthening the growing season and increasing rainfall and the availability of atmospheric carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, has actually significantly enhanced the abundance of nature, to the benefit of both agriculture and the wild biosphere alike. Nevertheless, according to antihumanism, punitive measures, especially harmful to the world's poor, are required to suppress mankind's activity and economic growth in order to deal with this putative threat. That antihumanism should propose such global oppression as a response to an improvement in the world's climate should not be surprising, since, as this book will show in horrifying detail, similar vicious antihuman solutions to fictitious problems have been repeatedly advocated and implemented by antihumanism's followers for two centuries—that is, since long before global warming was an issue at all."

– Page 2

Despite his exaggerated claims and his preference for slanted sources, Dr. Zubrin has compiled a very useful account of the eugenics movement. It should be read carefully, as much to detect the solid information within it as to debunk the dogma. His treatment of genetically modified organisms is also valuable. However, with respect to DDT, malaria, and Silent Spring he veers away from a factual treatment, and when he gets to the subject of climate change, he waves goodbye to objectivity altogether. Again and again he repeats disinformation and cites long-debunked sources in support of it.3 His distress at the prospect of measures to mitigate the effects of climate change drives him to the absurd position that any of them, no matter how mild, is a step toward a worldwide tyranny. Even the accepted fact that a carbon tax will make nuclear power, which he favors, more competitive with fossil fuels cannot overcome his apprehension. So I have mixed feelings about this book. A more balanced treatment of climate change would have gotten a rating of 4 or 4.5; but as it stands I must rate it only midway on the scale, in the fair category. Its chapters on eugenics are worth reading. Skip the rest of it. And it is not a keeper.

1 His roster of these radical eugenicists includes Margaret Sanger, the founder of what became the organization Planned Parenthood. In fact, Sanger supported negative eugenics (sterilizing the "unfit") and exclusionary immigration policies, but she opposed euthanasia and condemned Nazi Germany's genocidal pogroms.
2 He also cites Betsy Hartmann, a well-known reproductive rights activist, and takes pains to point out that she is a genuine liberal. From that I infer that Dr. Zubrin has gotten flack over Connelly and Mosher.
3 For example, he states on page 249 that "many climate scientists have presented data that calls into question much of the orthodoxy of the IPCC." His references for this claim: books by Christopher Booker, S. Fred Singer & Dennis Avery, Roy Spencer, Patrick Michaels, and Ian Plimer. (See note 74, page 304.).
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