Are people good? Is humankind basically benign?
In our current belief system, which we might term liberal secular humanism, which has held sway in the West since the Second World War, and which promotes human progress and well-being, only one response is permitted: Yes, of course! Any suggestion that there might be something wrong with people as a whole, with Man as a species, is absolute anathema. But today, two circumstances come together to prompt me to pose the question once more.
The first is the ending, this week, of my 15 years as Environment Editor of The Independent. It has been a privilege beyond measure to work for so long for a wonderful newspaper which has put the environment at the heart of its view of the world. We are proud of all we have done about it, from raising the question, in 2000, of the mysterious disappearance of the house sparrow from London and other major cities – we offered a £5,000 prize for a proper scientific explanation, but the mystery remains – to devoting the whole of the front page, in 2011, to the then hardly recognised threat of neonicotinoid insecticides, now an obsession around the globe.
But there have been what you might call side effects. For if, over the past decade and a half, you have closely observed what is happening to the Earth, week in, week out, you may take a dark view of the future; and I do. The reason is that the Earth is under threat, as it has never been before, from the ever more oppressive scale of the human enterprise: from the activities of a world population which doubled from three to six billion in four short decades, between 1960 and 2000, and which, in the four decades to come, will probably increase by three billion more.
These activities are now wiping out ecosystems and species, across the world, at an ever increasing rate: the forests are chainsawed; the oceans are stripmined of their fish; the rivers, especially in the developing world, are ever more polluted; the farmland is rendered sterile of all but the monoculture crop by demented dosing with pesticides; the farmland insects and wild flowers and many of the birds have gone.
The vanishing species come from all locations and in all shapes and sizes: in South Africa last year, 668 rhinos were illegally killed for their horn, which has a soaring value in Asia because of the myth of its medicinal qualities, while in Britain in the next 10 years, the turtle dove, beloved bird, will go extinct. The trashing of the natural world is now a global phenomenon and, as the century progresses, it will combine and interact with another great human-caused threat, climate change, until the very viability of the biosphere, the thin envelope of life surrounding the Earth which supports us all, is put at risk.
People are doing this. Let’s be clear about it. It’s not some natural phenomenon, like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. It’s the actions of Homo sapiens. What we are witnessing is a fundamental clash between the species, and the planet on which he lives, which is going to worsen steadily, and the more closely you observe it – or at least, the more closely I have observed it, over the past 15 years – the more I have thought that there is something fundamentally wrong with Homo sapiens himself. Man seems to be Earth’s problem child. We humans have always thought ourselves different in kind from other creatures, principally for our use of language and our possession of consciousness, but there is another reason for our uniqueness, which is becoming ever clearer: we are the only species capable of destroying our own home. And it looks like we will.
This is my perception, as I lay down the reins of environmental reporting. However, there is an additional motive for my raising this issue today, and that is the approach of Easter. If you were brought up a Catholic (as I was), Easter has a resonance which remains even if you have long moved away from the faith (as I have). It is the principal feast of Christianity, of course, far more significant than the much more commercialised Christmas, and it is so pivotal because it concerns Christianity’s essence, which is redemption.
In the Christian view of the world, Man is fallen, yet because of Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross on Good Friday, Man is redeemed. You may think of the idea of The Fall as simply the story of Adam eating the forbidden fruit, but such a myth is not of itself what has gripped some of the most powerful minds in history. Rather, the idea of fallen Man gives potent expression to that prominent part of the human character which has been observed, down the ages, with horror: our terrible potential for destruction, for causing suffering to others and, indeed, now, for destroying our own home (all of which liberal secular humanism prefers not to look at). In the Christian world view, humankind is not basically benign. People are not good.
But they can be redeemed. That’s the point, the unique selling point, if you like, of Christianity; and tomorrow, Easter Sunday, is its celebration. And what ceasing to be Environment Editor of this newspaper in Easter week has put into my mind is just how many people I have also observed, over the past 15 years, fighting hard to save the natural world – because, in some way, these are the redeemers of humankind.
I still think Man will destroy the Earth. It is a pessimistic valedictory note I offer, for you cannot focus closely on what is happening and not be a pessimist. But there is more to Man, I do accept, than simply a destroyer, and the pessimism is not unmitigated: the chainsaws may outnumber them, and the chainsaws ultimately may win, but the green campaigners were there, and they fought.