Speaking of Inconvenient Truths . . .

Tom Flynn

It’s probably old news by now, but as I write this, the one-man assault on Discovery Channel’s Maryland headquarters that ended in the killing by police of hostage-taker James Lee is literally yesterday’s news. It is a story rich in inconvenient truths, starting with the uncomfortable fact that Lee was apparently a Friend, or local member, of the Center for Inquiry in Washington, D.C. Here’s another: media accounts say Lee was inspired to ramp up his deep-ecology radicalism after viewing, yes, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, after which he decided that he wasn’t doing enough for the planet.

Lee had protested against the Discovery Channel (and its more than one hundred sister cable networks, including TLC) for airing shows that failed to support a strong environmental agenda. In a 1,149-word online manifesto, Lee embraced a radically antihuman environmental platform steeped in the logic and rhetoric of the deep-ecology movement, which views Homo sapiens as a cancerous scourge on the ecosystem. “Civilization must be exposed for the filth it is,” Lee’s manifesto declared. “Humans are the most destructive, filthy, pollutive creatures around and are wrecking what’s left of the planet with their false morals and breeding culture.”

Of course, Lee’s actions of September 1—barging into Discovery Channel headquarters with a gun and alleged explosive devices, taking hostages and threatening their lives—are inexcusable. If this violent and antisocial behavior casts further disrepute on the deep-ecology movement and its “People should all die off and give the rest of the biosphere a chance” agenda, that would strike me as only just.

But . . .

There are other inconvenient truths woven into this tragic story. Beneath the madness, beneath the terrorism, beneath the save-the-planet-kill-yourself apocalyptic, James Lee’s cautionary tale should remind us of those truths, however unintentionally.

Inconvenient Truth Number One

I don’t accept that humanity is a cancer on the planet—as a secular humanist, I attach a pretty high value to human beings—but there’s little room to deny that there are way too many of us and that we consume far too wantonly. The way most denizens of the developed world live today is unsustainable. If we don’t find ways for each individual to exist more gently—and to achieve smaller human populations in the future—then neither we nor the ecosystems we depend on stand much of a chance.

A deep ecologist would look at this fearsome state of affairs and say “I hope we damned piggy humans get what we have coming.” An environmentally responsible secular humanist says, “If we don’t reduce our footprint—and our numbers—in a humane and orderly way, nature will find an inhumane and disorderly way to do it for us.” Therein lies the difference between antihuman zealotry and a compassionate prudence that challenges us all to change if we desire future generations to savor lives worth living.

Today’s eco-predicament has many aspects, but scratch any of them deeply enough and you’ll find the population crisis underneath. Name an environmental dilemma that’s human-driven—climate change, freshwater depletion, nitrate accumulation, habitat loss, take your pick—there isn’t one that won’t get worse if human numbers continue to rise. There isn’t one whose toll would not be lessened if human numbers decline.

If James Lee’s story disgraces the deep-ecology movement, it’s vital that the discredit not extend to tarnish more responsible, positive green commitments, most especially the population-control movement.

Inconvenient Truth Number Two

I’m old enough to remember where I was when President John F. Kennedy was shot. I’m also old enough to remember when viewers could learn from The Learning Channel (now TLC), gain knowledge of cooking from Food Network, discover stuff on Discovery Channel, and encounter events that actually unfolded in the past on The History Channel (now simply History, denoting a concept with which many of its current programs are unacquainted). Award yourself bonus points if you also remember when Arts and Entertainment (now A&E) actually ran entertaining programs about the arts.

Standout scripted dramas aside, basic cable’s “narrowcasting” networks have spent the last decade or so racing one another toward the bottom. (Perhaps it took their minds off the inevitability of being acquired by either Discovery or its archrival A&E Television Networks.) And a dismaying amount of this programming has endorsed a mindlessly natalist agenda.

Cable viewers can choose among reality series set in ob-gyn wards and fertility clinics or shows devoted to problem deliveries and unorthodox birthing styles—there’s even one wholly focused on women who didn’t know they were pregnant until the onset of labor. (If you haven’t watched cable lately and think I’m kidding, it’s creatively titled I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. Grateful viewers can thank Discovery Health and TLC for bringing it to the screen.)

Worst of all, perhaps, is TLC’s trio of reality shows lionizing so-called megafamilies. Quints by Surprise celebrates a Baptist couple that refused selective reduction after fertility treatments resulted in a multiple pregnancy, “blessing” them with a clutch of six. Working our way up the fertility ladder, we come next to the recently (pardon the pun) reconceived Kate Plus Eight, whose dual foci seem to be a conviction that huge broods are cool and slack-jawed astonishment that a thirty-something mom (and Assemblies of God churchgoer) who bore eight children can look so good in skimpy sportswear. And we mustn’t overlook Nineteen Kids and Counting (formerly titled Eighteen Kids and Counting, and before that Seventeen Kids and Counting—say what you will about them, this show’s producers can count). This is the saga of the Duggars, a conservative Christian couple who soured on birth control and opted to let God decide how many children they should have. Perhaps Kate Gosselin and her much-despised ex-husband could have learned from the example of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who apparently love each other very much.

Inconvenient Truth Number Two is pretty simple. Far too much of today’s basic-cable programming is in thrall to a vapid natalism that, all too often, goes hand-in-hand with conservative Christianity. If it’s true that overpopulation underlies our most pressing environmental crises, programming that propagandizes for the lie that big families are great and colossal families are better lures us down the path toward suicide as a species. Not being a deep ecologist, I deplore that. It occurs to me that one needn’t be as troubled as James Lee in order to sense something horribly, grotesquely wrong here.

Humanity is not a cancer, but as individuals and as a species we must learn to live within our means—and the environment’s. If you’re a responsible green who wants to work toward the brightest possible human future, TLC and other cable channels that cheerlead for runaway childbirth are your enemy. That doesn’t justify taking hostages—nothing does, as if I need to say that. But TLC et al. surely merit fierce criticism for creating, airing, and ceaselessly rerunning programs whose agenda is, let’s not mince words, profoundly dangerous to human flourishing.

James Lee was mad to dream that his act of solo terrorism would make Discovery Channel and its sister networks refocus on program
s that stump for environmental responsibility. But perhaps condemnation by more responsible individuals, including secular humanists, can persuade these networks to quit encouraging us to kill ourselves off faster.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


It’s probably old news by now, but as I write this, the one-man assault on Discovery Channel’s Maryland headquarters that ended in the killing by police of hostage-taker James Lee is literally yesterday’s news. It is a story rich in inconvenient truths, starting with the uncomfortable fact that Lee was apparently a Friend, or local …

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