Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Planet Without People

The Wall Street Journal
June 20, 2008; Page W11

I confess to enjoying appalling movies. It takes a kind of reverse genius to make something like "Gigli" or "You Got Served." There was such possibility, then, when M. Night Shyamalan's horror film "The Happening" blew into box offices last week on a gale of critical denigration; "the worst film since 'Gigli,'" someone even called it.

But "The Happening" is no "Kangaroo Jack." It's appalling all right, not as entertainment but in the literal sense of genuine moral obscenity. Few major studio releases are so thoroughly pro-death, so deeply anti-human. We have arrived at a strange moment in American pop culture when movie-goers spend two hours in the theater being informed that we all deserve to die.

The "happening" is millions of men, women and children killing themselves, usually in creative ways, as when a zookeeper invites lions to chew off his limbs and a lady offs herself by French-kissing the toaster. The deaths, first believed to be terrorism, are actually acts of nature. Trees are releasing an airborne neurotoxin, as revenge against mankind for global warming, pollution and nuclear power. The genocide, we are told, is condign punishment for our ecological crimes.

The conceit extends a metaphor Al Gore proposed in his 2007 Nobel lecture: If "we have begun to wage war on the Earth itself," why wouldn't the Earth fight back? By the end of the film, the dwindling band of survivors -- whose more sensible response would have been to blanket the world's forests with Agent Orange -- repents, and is thus spared hideous death. In a recent interview, Mr. Shyamalan, best known for "The Sixth Sense" (1999), said that "The Happening" is intended to "wake everybody up" and "get back to the correct relationship with nature."

Obviously it isn't Hollywood's first environmental disaster flick. Think of 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow," where all it takes is the CO2-induced obliteration of the East Coast for Dennis Quaid to learn how to be a better dad. But catastrophic climate change in that movie was a simple plot device that could be replaced easily enough with, say, space aliens. "The Happening" is honest-to-Gaia green agitprop: Like the Lorax, Mr. Shyamalan is speaking for the trees.

Environmentalism's seam of misanthropy traces back to John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, and probably to Thoreau. We're just another species, the thinking goes, or would be had our iniquities not made us unworthy of a place in the ecosystem. The existence of Homo sapiens is an affliction and cause for profound shame.

Today the position persists along the fringes of the "deep ecology" movement, where adherents can still be found chanting, "Four legs good! Two legs bad!" But the message also has some mainstream appeal: A best-selling book last summer was "The World Without Us," in which science journalist Alan Weisman gleefully imagined how nature would respond if man abruptly went extinct and how great it would be for the planet. "The Happening" merely takes this misanthropy to its logical extreme.

Of course, most mainstream greens limit themselves to nagging on behalf of Mommy Nature. Yet amid the much ado about global warming, the people problem is asserting itself with a neo-Malthusian vengeance. Almost every element of modern life is reducible to carbon. Like it or not, a higher population leads inexorably to more anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ranks demographic proliferation as a "driver for emissions." British environmental minister Hilary Benn -- most recently spotted endorsing carbon rationing cards as a set of new sumptuary laws -- notes with approval that "family planning is the ultimate carbon offsetting scheme." Even though Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" has been defused again and again, Jeffrey Sachs, Jared Diamond, Bill McKibben and others have come to similar conclusions.

Since population control led to such PR disasters of the late 20th century as mass forced sterilizations under Indira Gandhi and China's one-child policy, it makes people queasy. Instead, the greens, when not plumping for massive carbon tax-and-regulation schemes, focus on behavioral alterations -- like taking public transit or installing the correct light bulbs. The weight given to consumer-driven change, however, means that the people problem can't help but seep out into the culture at large. Having kids is the most carbon-intensive choice most people will ever make.

Not surprisingly, more than a few of the recent handbooks for "green living" recommend thinking seriously about children. The Sierra Club says that the ideal number is two. Messrs. Weisman and McKibben say it's one. Mr. Shyamalan seems to think it's zero. It can't be long before we're being offered another helpful "tip": Kill yourself.

Mr. Rago is an editorial page writer for the Journal.

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