“Mr. Anderson …”: Agent Smith vs. common sense and the common good

The other day, after I posted a funny and pointed news article about how hybrid cars are apparently depleting the Earth of rare metals, used in the batteries and elsewhere, a Facebook friend noted what some call the Law of Unintended Consequences: basically that even our best-intended ideas usually go awry in some unforeseen way. I quipped back that Original Sin has a way of doing that and then, half joking (I very much doubt he’s a misanthrope), posted the following YouTube video as the sort of philosophy we must avoid:

Of course Agent Smith, the bad guy in the movie, is echoing thoughts held by many people, particularly population control freaks, eugenicists, transhumanists and those who hold to a certain misanthropic environmentalism. That last group is what inspired my joke. (N.B. I want to clearly differentiate here between misanthropic environmentalism, which is a stupid and evil thing, and concern for the environment generally, which is a good thing. Stewardship is a Christian virtue, and I’m all for prudent steps to conserve and preserve and develop the gifts of creation for the benefit of all today and in the future.)

The philosophy I’m talking about, like Agent Smith’s, sees the thriving of human life and the thriving of the natural world as irreconcilably opposed to each other. As I thought about it more, it struck me that this is profoundly self-defeating on its own terms. Man is merely a part of nature, this philosophy says, and yet man has the capacity to destroy nature. Therefore, man must be stopped from destroying nature – not only by curbing his appetites but by making less of him by various means.

But it’s a non-sequitur. If it is, at heart, man versus nature, why would man side with nature instead of himself? It is, in the first place, unnatural. And most of us value nature precisely because it is a good to us. The misanthropic environmentalist must reverse this, treating nature as a higher good than either individual human life or, when it comes to it, collective human life. Of course, hardly anyone of sound mind really does so: even the most staunch misanthropic environmentalist does not value nature
above his own life; he is not rushing to commit suicide.

But even ignoring the hypocrisy, how does it follow that nature is the greater good? If nature is so great, how can we, as part of nature, be so horrible? Conversely, if nature produced us as a terrible threat to itself, that doesn’t say much for nature, does it? Even if we off ourselves, won’t nature just screw it up again and evolve for itself some bigger, stronger, deadlier doomsday “virus” given a few million more years? Why is that worth preserving?

And who will care, with all the people gone? No doubt a natural reaction to my question will be that nature can survive without man, but man cannot survive without nature. But then we are back to valuing nature precisely because it is a good to man’s life. And imagine nature without man. Imagine the animals eating each other and multiplying and forests burning and regrowing and mountains rising and falling and ice caps melting and freezing and grasses growing on the silent plains. Except you cannot. You cannot imagine any of these things without mentally placing yourself as an observer. But in this conception no one at all exists who is capable of appreciating exactly the things poets, children, scientists, lovers and environmentalists alike value: its order, its complexity, its beauty. No child to delight in a butterfly. No astronomer to gaze at a nebula. No environmentalist to fight for an old growth forest so that his children may walk there someday. No young lad and lass holding hands on a bench watching the sun set.

What the heck is so great about that?