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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.


1 Ed Reid { 05.11.12 at 10:00 am }

It is extremely important to discuss all of the aspects of the “Green Menace” to fully appreciate to dramatic adverse impacts it would impose on our current way of life. The combined impacts of no CO2 emissions, global veganism, population controls, income and wealth re-distribution plus global governance of the successful by the failed are difficult but essential to contemplate.

2 Gil { 05.11.12 at 11:50 am }

Uh huh. How is Malthusian necessarily bad when pointed there are times when population growth can outstrip food production growth? Or just because food production grew ahead of population today that doesn’t mean it keep growing ahead indefinitely? If you want to bring up Norman Borlaug and what he did then you probably forget he was a Malthusian in that he forewarned people not eat up the gain he created and presume someone else will automatically come along and save the day. After all, the “morality” of being anti-Malthusian is let people breed up and if something goes wrong let some die from malnutrition but that’s okay because they were dumb, weak people anyway, right?

Likewise with eugenic – people engage in eugenics all the time. Men and woman always discrimate for the highest quality partner they can afford to mate with so they can bear the healthiest children. By the same token, people prefer to raise their own genetic offspring instead of being noble and raise the anklebiters of an irresponsible couple. Like it or lump it, yes children are not clean slates and a lot of behaviour is innate and, yes, if a boy had a violent father he stand a high chance of being violent even he is raised by non-violent foster parents.

If anything Libertarians and Conservatives should out and about making large families while forcibly sterilising Liberals, Socialists and Greenies if they are to save Humanity.

3 Ray { 05.11.12 at 4:54 pm }

Consensus has nothing to do with science. It’s a term from politics. When you see “scientific consensus” you know it’s politics masquerading as science, i.e. pseudoscience. When I had physics courses in college the profesors did not tell us the scientific consensus is that Newton’s laws of motion are correct therefore we should believe the consensus. Instead we had physics labs where we would perform experiments to verify the laws of motion were correct. Beliefe in consensus is politics, not science.

4 Alex Epstein: Understanding the Green Menace: Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair | JunkScience.com { 05.12.12 at 11:06 pm }

[...] MasterResource Share this:PrintEmailMoreStumbleUponTwitterFacebookDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Climate Change, Economics, Environmentalism, Green hell, Overpopulation and tagged anti development, climate hysteria, greenie obstructionists, hatred of humans, irrational fears, misanthropy, weather superstition. Bookmark the permalink. ← Josh Bloom: Me-too? Says who? (Medical Progress Today) [...]

5 Ingvar Engelbrecht { 05.13.12 at 6:37 am }

Have just finished reading “Merchants of Despair”
Oh yes!
Quite a relevation!! We are in a war against freedom and democracy.
Also read the message at the link. “Pointman” is making a very valid point.


6 Dr. James H. Rust { 05.13.12 at 12:29 pm }

As a scientist, let us assume you have the choice to perform two experimets.
1. An experiment to definitively prove carbon dioxide from buring fossil fuels has insignificant influence on climate.
2. An experiment that definitively proves carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels causes uncontrollable global warming.

Experiment 1 will stop the assualt on using fossil fuels and allow the planet to exploit its vast fossil fuel resources. This insures prosperity for developed nations and helps developing nations rise from despair of poverty.

Experiment 2 provides the reason for all nations to immediately cease use of fossil fuels. Thus prosperous nations descend into poverty and the fate of poor nations is to live with permanent poverty.

I think climate alarmists (greens) would not want experiment 1 performed; and if a choice was available, insist on experiment 2 being performed. It appears scientists in government laboratories are not thinking about the possibilty of experiment 1. They are constantly searching for experiment 2.

James H. Rust

7 Intermittent Wind Cannot Replace Baseload Power | Earth's Energy { 05.13.12 at 11:11 pm }

[...] Powerful individuals in the big money green-industrial-political complex — better known as lefty-Luddite dieoff.orgiast greens — would like nothing better than to see 90% or more of the global human population simply [...]

8 Brain Food — Laissez Faire { 05.18.12 at 6:11 am }

[...] I recently finished a fantastic book that traces the origins of the Green movement, Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin. I had planned on writing a review of the book, but my friend Alex Epstein has beat me to it, allowing me to condense my comments to: What he said. [...]

9 Understanding the Green Menace: Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair – Center for Industrial Progress { 05.23.12 at 10:40 am }

[...] his latest Master Resource post, Alex Epstein reviews Robert Zubrin’s newest book, “Merchants of Despair: Radical [...]

10 drew { 05.24.12 at 4:15 am }


As I understand, a critical flaw in Malthusianism is that the assumptions of population growth outstripping food production for humans is based on the view of humans (much like animals) existing passively and at the mercy of their environment. On the contrary, the use of reason (man’s defining characteristic) manifested in scientific and technological advancement in food production, especially in the context of political-economic freedom, has resulted in vastly increased food supplies, relative to population.

You are correct that there is no deterministic pattern of increasing food production. But a private property and rights-respecting/protecting political-economic context, allowing minds to be free to create and produce and accumulate capital, has rendered being at the mercy of nature (i.e. large scale famines caused by weather or disease) almost moot.

Secondly, choosing a sexual partner based on personal preference is emphatically not eugenics. You can’t compare forced sterilization, or state mandated infantacide, with individual *choices* concerning parters or child-rearing.

11 Mark Plus { 06.24.12 at 8:16 pm }

Zubrin’s book needs a chapter on the Malthusian agenda of Austrian economists. Murray Rothbard writes the following in his book “The Ethics of Liberty”:

“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a
parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.”

Now, if Paul Ehrlich had argued for such a right, Zubrin would have latched onto it as further evidence of Ehrlich’s depravity.

And why would Rothbard try to defend such a controversial right? Did he know that the imposition of Austrian policies in the U.S. would cause famines? Farmers couldn’t get the loans they need now to go about their business because the money comes from fractional reserve banking, which Rothbard and other Austrian economists want to abolish. No loans means no crops means a collapse in food production, so you might have to starve your own children to death just so you can survive yourself.

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