“Let the Human Species Die Out”—Colorado Students React to Environmentalist English Class

Benjamin Dancer believes “the most important issue we have to tackle as a species” is “the unintended consequences of continued population growth.” And that’s a lesson he taught to his English class at Jefferson County Open School, a public “option” school. (See update at end.)

Dancer selected for class the book The Sixth Extinction, a work by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert about the history of species extinction, as Colorado Public Radio (CPR) reported in an article and podcast by Jenny Brundin. (Brundin did not quote any critics of the course.)

Dancer also is the author of the novel Patriarch Run, which, Dancer advertises, environmentalist Paul Ehrlich praised on the grounds that “Dancer has illustrated that our greatest villain is overpopulation.” Notably, Ehrlich once wrongly predicted (among other things) that “carbon-dioxide climate-induced famines could kill as many as a billion people before the year 2020.”

Unsurprisingly, some of Dancer’s students picked up the apocalyptic, people-are-the-problem perspective of Dancer’s class. One student, effectively renewing Ehrlich’s old prediction, told CPR that “agriculture could be devastated by the end of the century,” something that “starts to look apocalyptic.” The student wants “to be in nature before it’s almost gone.” Another student said the main problem “is that there [are] just too many” people. Another predicted that we’re on track to “run ourselves into the ground and potentially destroy the earth” unless we reduce our “carbon footprint.”

Another student said we should “let the human species die out when it’s supposed to die” (CPR paraphrase) and “not try to escape to Mars” (direct quote).

Dancer’s teaching is oriented toward promoting student activism. CPR reports:

Dancer helped guide the students toward projects where they can make a difference: setting up sustainable food systems at school, or organizing a school-wide day of dialog on the unintended consequences of continued population growth.

What should taxpayers and other observers make of all of this? I have a number of questions and concerns.

For starters, is Dancer’s curriculum appropriate for English class? Call me a traditionalist, but I always thought the purpose of English class was to help students improve their English and engage with important works of literature, not to turn students into activist ideologues.

It can be perfectly reasonable to assign well-written nonfiction works in English class, especially different works with conflicting views. So I’m not against assigning The Sixth Extinction, but it seems odd to focus on one book in order to promote a particular point of view about population and climate change.

I do not know whether Dancer assigned other readings to his class—because he declined to answer my question about that. (The CPR story does not mention any other readings.)

Dancer also declined to say how the acquisition of the books was financed, how he used the text to help develop his students’ English skills, and how he’d respond to critics who might claim that the class amounted to indoctrination (as Complete Colorado described it).

Dancer suggested he wouldn’t answer such questions because I was not asking them in “good faith,” and answering them would deny his (and my) “humanity” by playing into “gotcha politics.” (We exchanged emails on December 18.) Obviously I dispute Dancer’s characterization of my questions. I’ll update this article with Dancer’s answers should he decide to provide them after all.

Dancer did offer insights into an aspect of his class that was not reflected by the CPR story:

The basic question the class pursued was: could liberty be the solution to many of the world’s problems and could the universal respect of human rights help to create a healthier world for people and the species on which we depend? The whole curriculum revolved around the concept of liberty.

Elsewhere, Dancer claims that population growth is a threat to personal freedom. Dancer did not respond to my further inquiry about how he related the concept of liberty to the class readings.

My other main concern, aside from the questionable appropriateness of the material for English class, is that Dancer’s presumptions are disputed (to put it mildly). It’s an open question how population levels will change over the next century; population is in decline in some regions.

More fundamentally, I reject the idea that population growth per se is a problem. Rather, the problems as I see them—regardless of population trends—come when institutions fail to protect (or when they outright assault) freedom of production in a context of property rights and rule of law. As examples, North Korea and Venezuela are impoverished hell-holes because of their socialist governments, not because of their population sizes.

Dancer thinks growing population necessarily leads to running “out of resources”; I counter that what matters is the human ability to technologically take advantage of new resources, which are practically unlimited. Consider, as examples, the expansion of known oil reserves, the potential of nuclear energy to produce unlimited electricity, and the vast resources bound up in the asteroid belt. I’ve seen no indication that Dancer has exposed his students to such complex discussions; rather, his presentation seems to have been one-sided.

Certainly if Dancer did not include additional readings with alternative points of view, he easily could have found such material. Here I’ll list just a few possibilities:

  • Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom offers a chapter specifically about species extinction. Bailey also writes on the issue for Reason magazine.
  • Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, although not specifically about species extinction, discusses the long history of environmentalist fearmongering. More fundamentally, Epstein discusses the “antihumanist” assumptions he sees as undergirding certain environmentalist claims about the natural world and people’s place in it. Regarding carbon emissions, Epstein argues that “the greenhouse effect of CO2 is . . . a logarithmically decreasing effect,” meaning that “the heating effect of each additional increment of CO2 is smaller and smaller” (a controversial claim, obviously). Epstein, whom I contacted about this story, offered any student in Dancer’s class a free copy of his book; interested students should contact Epstein at support[atsign]industrialprogress[dot]net.
  • Johan Norberg’s new book Progress contains a chapter on the environment.
  • Locally, energy scientist, political writer, and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin penned Merchants of Despair, a critique of “radical environmentalists” and “the fatal cult of antihumanism.” In an email, Zubrin referred to Dancer’s class as Malthusian “brainwashing.”
  • The Property and Environment Research Center has published many articles on endangered species and other issues from a free-market perspective.

Notably, in reply to a critical Tweet of mine about the class, Dancer said in email:

I’d listen hard if you thought the book I taught contained factual or logical errors. And it would be good to present students with as many sides to an issue as there are so they can learn to think critically and have the skills to seek the truth.

It is indeed good that, after the CPR article and the resulting concerns raised about the class, Dancer is soliciting alternative points of view.

To date at least, though, I think taxpayers and other observers may reasonably wonder whether Dancer has used his position as an English teacher to inappropriately proselytize his views concerning population and the environment.

December 19 Update: Alex Epstein has noted on Facebook that Dancer agreed to accept free copies of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels for himself and his twenty students. Although Epstein’s book does not specifically address species extinction, it does address some key moral issues as well as carbon emissions and related matters. Dancer deserves a lot of credit for taking Epstein up on his offer, and hopefully all parties—myself included—will come away from the exchange with some new intellectual avenues to explore.

Image: E. Palen


Diminishing Carbon Effects Widely Accepted

You said, “Regarding carbon emissions, Epstein argues that ‘the greenhouse effect of CO2 is . . . a logarithmically decreasing effect,’ meaning that ‘the heating effect of each additional increment of CO2 is smaller and smaller’ (a controversial claim, obviously).” Actually, that is totally uncontroversial. All climate scientists agree with it.

Many say that there is a positive feedback such that warming begets more warming. But diminishing effect of increased co2 is well known.

—Tony K.
December 20, 2016