Understanding the Green Menace: Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

A consensus of the world’s leading scientific bodies and governments has proved that our current way of life, in which individuals can produce, consume, and procreate as they choose, is unsustainable and self-destructive. We must, therefore give the government the power it needs to end the threat that we pose to ourselves.

This is, of course, the central narrative of the Green movement’s call for a ban (partial or total) on the lifeblood of industrial civilization, hydrocarbons, in the name of preventing global warming.

To many Americans, this narrative seems airtight. The “consensus” of “science” is portrayed as a virtually unanimous collection of ruthlessly objective minds all independently arriving at the same inexorable conclusion from the same unambiguous data.

But if they read Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin, they will not only learn some of the fallacies of the global warming narrative in particular, they will see that this exact narrative of a “scientific” claim that freedom is unsustainable has been used in the past to promote coercive population control and eugenics policies, killing millions and bringing misery to millions more.

They will also see that the “scientific consensuses” of the past–that the earth can only hold so many people, or that freedom of procreation leads to a disastrous design in the gene pool–were utter pseudo-science. And, most importantly, they will understand how this was possible: the “scientists” in question were steeped in and corrupted by a deeply false philosophy–the same philosophy underlying the Green movement today.


Pulling no punches, Zubrin calls this philosophy “anti-humanism.” Its “fundamental thesis” is “that human beings are pathogens whose activities need to be suppressed in order to protect a fixed ecological order with interests that stand above those of humanity.”

Every word of this characterization is crucial. “Pathogens” captures two crucial common philosophical views about human beings. One is the view that man is irrational and destructive by nature. The other is collectivism–individuals are defined by their membership in some collective order: the society, the race, the ecosystem, “with interests that stand above those of humanity.”

Thinkers of any field who internalize and maintain this view will invariably, when looking at human action, interpret any problem (real or not) as an inevitable consequence of leaving irrational individuals free, and have little moral hesitation in applying “solutions” that coercively punish these morally insignificant individuals “whose activities need to be suppressed.”

The story Zubrin tells bears this out.

The population control advocate, following the theories first popularized by Thomas Malthus, says that free individuals will inevitably procreate beyond their means, and so the government must decide who gets to have children and even who gets to live. The eugenicist, misapplying the theory of evolution by natural selection (which, tragically, Darwin himself did to some degree), says that free individuals will inevitably procreate to contaminate the quality of the gene pool, and therefore must be forcibly sterilized or, in the most consistent, Nazi interpretation, eliminated entirely.

The “environmentalist,” applying pseudo-scientific ideas of the ecosystem as a fragile stasis that man disrupts, rather than as a dynamic system of competition that he must strive to prevail in, says that free individuals will inevitably destroy their environment in their quest to improve it.

Theory and Practice

The book is an incredibly ambitious blend of theory and practice. Zubrin takes ideas from the minds of theoreticians (such as Thomas Malthus) to the policy recommendations of intellectuals to the brutal practice of politicians. We see how Thomas Mathus’s “scientific” idea that population, uncoerced, would rise disastrously was used by the British government to inflict unnecessary suffering during the Irish potato famine and later food shortages in India.

We see how coercive population control is shamefully present in America’s history, from bankroller John Rockefeller III to political advocate Adlai Stevenson to the incentives for forced sterilization in US foreign aid programs. Fundamentally, we see how easy it is, when the government declares itself the arbiter of science, for a false scientific theory to hold a deadly intellectual monopoly that can cow the public into submitting to atrocities.

Merchants of Despair is an inspiration for free-market energy advocates to better understand, expose, and counter the anti-human philosophical premises that have led to so much destruction. If the public understands that today’s “scientific” bullying is a repeat of a deadly pattern, a pattern driven by wrong ideas,  the view of the Green movement will change radically. And if we offer a positive alternative, one that exalts the capacity of the free, individual human mind to solve problems, we will succeed.

While Zubrin has done us an invaluable service in compiling this narrative, much more work is needed on the part of professionals in our field to perform a philosophical and historical evisceration of the anti-human Green movement. Zubrin is not a professional historian or philosopher (though he is highly knowledgeable about both fields) a fact that comes out in his exaggeration of certain thinkers’ views.

For instance, Zubrin portrays Thomas Malthus as an unapologetic advocate of population control, by using certain quotes taken out of context. For example, Malthus said, when discussing Ireland, “this population should be swept from the soil.” But the relevant part of the sentence in context is “this population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns.” While Malthus popularized the finite-resources premise behind population control, and should be held responsible accordingly, he himself resisted these implications of his ideas.

Zubrin makes a similar mistake in the portrayal of Charles Darwin as an advocate of eugenics. Darwin held certain false beliefs that partially inspired the eugenics movement, but he himself explicitly rejected eugenic measures.

But whatever the book’s flaws, the overall narrative is both valid and sorely needed in today’s culture. Zubrin has performed an invaluable service by providing the essential progression by which bad fundamental ideas shape science and policy, and I, for one, am inspired to continue the important work he has started. I hope many others are, too.

You can buy Merchants of Despair here. To hear my interview/discussion with Zubrin about the book on Power Hour, including some interesting disagreements, go here.