‘Climate change denial is a mental disorder’

Ethan Greenhart, author of Can I Recycle My Granny?, scraps with spiked over the recession, breastfeeding and ‘anti-science speech crimes’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Ethan Greenhart will be known to readers of spiked as the author of the weekly column ‘Ask Ethan’, in which he answers your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century.

Now, his thoughts – on everything from wearing condoms to adopting African children – have been published by Hodder & Stoughton in Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas.

Ethan provokes controversy every time he puts finger to keyboard. He has been described as a ‘neglected moralist of our age’ in the Independent and as a ‘skidmark on the gusset of environmentalism’ in BBC Focus magazine.

Brendan O’Neill, the editor of spiked who first commissioned Ethan’s weekly column, talks to the man himself about why he wrote this book… and why the very future of humanity depends on the book making it on to Amazon’s bestsellers list.

Brendan O’Neill: Ethan, there’s a recession looming. People are worried about their jobs and homes. They’re fretting over the money in their bank accounts. Yet in your new book, you have a chapter on ‘mosquito rights’ and whether it is ethical to send bed nets to Africa! Doesn’t this show how petty environmentalism is, even how anti-human it is? You’re having a laugh, right?

Ethan Greenhart: I never have a laugh. And if you got as far as the chapter titled ‘Is it ethical to laugh?’ you would know that. Look, nothing better sums up the need for my brand of environmentalism – what I refer to in the book as my zero-carbon, no-driving, faeces-recycling lifestyle – than the current credit crunch. Who do you think brought about this recession? It wasn’t mosquitoes. They live admirably sustainable lives on the rumps of hippos and hyenas. It was human beings – overweight, overdressed, overrated human beings and their insatiable lust for new-fangled mod cons, like smoothie makers or life-support machines.

BON: You’re not seriously saying mosquitoes are ‘better’ than mankind. Any notion of ‘mosquito rights’ seems deeply misanthropic to me.

EG: Is this a set-up? Are you deliberately trying to embarrass me? I do not talk about ‘mosquito rights’ in my book. I talk about the rights of disease. I’m looking at the book right now. Page 197. It says: ‘Sign up to my new global network, People for the Ethical Treatment of Mosquitoes, and let us start waging a war in defence of the rights of disease and its winged, selfless incubators.’ Please get your facts straight. Who looks stupid now?

I’m not the only environmentalist who thinks diseases should be allowed to take their course. Denying Gaia’s right to send forth sickness to deal with her human flu is the eco-equivalent of tying up a child’s hands when he has an itch on his head. As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut said: ‘I think the Earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us. And it’s high time it did.’ And as I remind readers of my book, Earth First! – a campaign group so decent and honourable that even you cannot slag them off – has said that ‘if radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human population back to sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS’. Of course, Earth First! could not have foreseen that, through the imprisonment without trial of monkeys and the execution of thousands of animal-splattering experiments, mankind has managed to thwart the potential of HIV/AIDS, too, by making it a ‘manageable’ – read ‘defeated’ – disease.

BON: To avoid confusion, let me clarify something: are you saying people should be bumped off? Allowed to die? That things like the ‘credit crunch’ might be avoided by reducing the number of people? If you think humanity is a plague on the planet, as someone like John Gray at the LSE does, then there must be a cure of some kind… Tell me, what’s the cure for the human plague?

EG: No, no, no! You are not going to corner me into saying something scandalous! People try that all the time. They send me letters asking the most outrageous things, like ‘Is it ethical to murder my mother?’ or ‘Is it ethical to import apple-flavoured beer from Belgium?’, in the hope that I will say ‘yes’ and shame the environmentalist cause forever. No, I am not saying people should be killed off. Per se. I’m saying it would have been better if they had never existed. And it will be a glorious day when they no longer exist. The measures through which their non-existence might be brought about are far too complex to go into in a telephone interview.

My favourite book of the year – after my own, of course – is Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence by David Benatar. It’s truly the most justifiable, maybe the only justifiable waste of paper resources in recent years. Benatar explains very movingly that coming into existence ‘is always a serious harm’. I will never forget the bit where he argues: ‘By coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence.’ Have you ever heard anything so profound? And he’s a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. Are you going to have a pop at him, too?

So no, I am not saying people should be ‘killed off’. How vulgar! I’m simply saying that existence is itself a harmful category whereas non-existence necessarily reduces harm, both to the self and to the biosphere, and therefore non-existence as a goal should be elevated above the contemporary sanctification of existence, vis-à-vis the mindless celebration of human interests above the assurance of non-harm to diverse ecosystems.

BON: You sound like an eco-version of David Brent.

EG: Who?

BON: David Brent from The Office.

EG: What office?

BON: Look, isn’t the celebration of ethical non-existence really just an academic-clothed call for mass human sacrifice? In your book you say that you have always ‘craved non-existence, the most perfectly ethical way of being’. Are you going to commit suicide?

EG: Ha! You wish. I’m sure there are lots of ‘humanists’ out there – or what I prefer to call oil-funded denialists – who would Love It with a capital L if I committed suicide, taking with me my undeniable truths about the destructiveness of industrialisation, car-driving, formula milk and other assorted evils. But it’s not going to happen. You forget, Brendan, that just because I celebrate non-existence that does not mean I can no longer distinguish between the qualities of different forms of existence. And it just so happens – call it luck, call it genetics, call it yet another upside of having been breastfed until I was six-and-a-half years old – that right here and right now, my existence is supremely important. Far more important than yours, for example. Certainly more important than those whose value systems have been so distorted and distended by the tsunami of advertising that they think a literal tsunami in India is a price worth paying if it means they can take a cheap flight to Prague to drop their trousers in Wenceslas Square. My existence has some purpose: to proselytise about the benefits of non-existence.

BON: In other words, it is okay for you to carry on living quite comfortably, but not for the other six billion people who are just… what? Polluters? Destroyers? Parasites?

EG: I prefer ‘plague’. Or ‘plague of people’, to use John Gray’s phrase. Or, if I am in more intelligent company, I use James Lovelock’s term: ‘Disseminated Primatemaia.’ That has a certain poetry to it, don’t you think? Anyway, what do you mean ‘living quite comfortably’? Me?! On spiked’s wages? They really are a paragon of non-existence.

Look, if you had read my book in full, and I’m not convinced that you have, you would know that there’s nothing comfortable about my life. As Kermit the frog perspicaciously said in the 1970s: ‘It isn’t easy being green.’ It isn’t easy keeping one’s home entirely free from manmade toxins and one’s children entirely free from toxic ideas; it isn’t easy turning one’s faeces into humanure through a time-consuming process known as thermophilic composting; it isn’t easy being a Stage 10 vegan and never eating anything that once had a face, a pulse, a relationship with the sun that involved physical bending or an ability to flower. But such harsh living is necessary if we are to move humanity from its parasitical stage to its withering-away stage. I am going to put my neck on the line and say that there’s one glorious upside to the credit crunch: it will force people to live more simple lives.

BON: Ah yes, your infamous ‘praying for a recession’. In your book you argue that ‘the best thing that can happen to the planet is a recession, a big, beautiful, stock-crashing, Wall Street-burning, consumer-baiting, home-evicting, bank-busting recession’. You’re being silly, aren’t you? Or do you really not care what happens to people?

EG: It’s precisely because I care so much that I want a recession to bring people back to their senses. Would you like them to remain as brain-addled, fizzy-drink-fiddled prisoners in Mock Tudor homes with nothing but violent video games and internet porn to keep them occupied? Or would you rather that they became eco-aware, chaste, Fairtrade-approved, zero-carbon entities who might play a key role in leading us towards the unavoidable but glorious future of non-existence? I have an instinctive loathing of Shakespeare for the part he played in spreading the great Enlightenment lie that humans can master circumstance and fate… and also because of the insulting idea that 1,000 monkeys bashing on typewriters could never produce a Shakespearean sonnet. Yeah, because they have better things to do! But Shakespeare’s Hamlet was right. The question of our time, of all times, is ‘To be or not to be’. I’m on the side of the Not to be’s. And I’ll have you know that my call for a recession was supported by the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement – so there.

BON: Actually, it was the Optimum Population Trust. Its chairperson said of your desire for a ‘speedily contagious disease’ to reduce the human population by five billion: ‘What a marvellous piece of writing… I feel exactly the same as you!’ And through Jonathon Porritt, the OPT has links with the government. Maybe you’re not as radical as you think.

EG: Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, OPT – I get them mixed up.

BON: Leaving aside your seeming support for human hardship, I’d like to ask you about freedom and choice. I had to laugh when I read in your book that you and some friends have set up something called Bottlefeeders Anonymous, in order to rehabilitate women who ‘dare to bottlefeed – ie, abuse – their children’. A joke, I presume?

EG: This is the problem with rampant libertarians like you. You would have people running around doing whatever they like, including stuffing powdered milk produced in factories by peasants with dirty hands down their children’s necks. Would you also support mums injecting heroin into their baby’s veins, because…

BON: There is a big difference between formula milk and heroin…

EG: Is there? Really? Because from where I’m standing both look a lot like chemicalised substances, both tend to be used by the poorer uneducated sections of society, and both start off as powder and end up as a warm liquid that is injected into the body. You simply cannot ignore the evidence that shows beyond a doubt that breastmilk makes children healthier and more intelligent. On page 42 of my book I talk about my friend Magda Hartley of the University of Nutrition and Development PO Box 1482. Her ‘Study of the Impact of Breastfeeding on Personality, Friendliness and Nutloaf Appreciation’ demonstrates that people who were breastfed in childhood are more likely to live in cottages than tower blocks, to develop an appreciation for Radio 4 comedy, and to study a humanities-based topic at university rather than an engineering course or tourism and hotel management. How do you explain that?

BON: Er, I haven’t seen that particular study. Maybe it’s because middle-class mothers are more likely to breastfeed… and all those alleged ‘benefits’ that you mention sound like middle-class traits to me.

EG: Class! Ha! What is ‘class’ but an excuse for the dangerous dog-owning sections of society to continue littering the street with their grease-stained chip-wrappers and polluting the air with their car exhaust fumes and foul, racist language? Gaia recognises no class. For Her there is only one kind of human being: the dirty, disrupting kind. Well, and also a very small minority of fundamentally aware human beings, what my friend Paul Kingsnorth refers to as the ‘watchful ones among the slaves’.

BON: You’re not really interested in having a free debate, are you? In your book you describe climate change denial as a crime against humanity. You cite Mark Lynas’s suggestion that deniers should be punished in an ‘international criminal tribunal’. You even describe climate change denial as a mental disorder, and argue that ‘sufferers’ should be sectioned under mental health legislation. How can we debate the future of humanity in such a witch-hunting atmosphere?

EG: Debate! What is debate? What is truth? What is proof? What is your point? I’ll tell you what these things are: elitist, manmade, arrogant, oil-funded and Israeli-armed ideas designed to muddy the essential truth that humankind is BURNING the planet and… Hold on. Are you a climate change denier?

BON: Well, I don’t think that’s a legitimate label as it happens…


BON: I think that might be a little simplistic…

EG: Answer the question! Are you now or have you ever been a denier of climate change?

BON: I want a proper debate about humanity’s needs and desires.

EG: I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’ve been having a conversation with a denier, in flagrant contravention of my oath never to ‘speak to, publicise, assist or otherwise acknowledge the existence of the propagators of climate change denial and other speech crimes against science’. This interview is over.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Ethan Greenhart’s book, Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas, is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Ethan is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him {encode=”” title=”here”}. Read his earlier columns here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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