Talk of the Devil

He's been called a prophet, eco-misanthrope and madman. He's had death threats and hatemail and sparked a media firestorm in the US for his controversial views on population control. Radical ecologist Dr Eric Pianka gives a glimpse of a nightmare world

By Anneli Rufus

A plague might do it.

A plague, or a nuclear war. Or a global famine of astounding proportions - though it's hard to imagine through the corn-oil sheen and cappuccino steam of an era in which the obese now outnumber the undernourished.

University of Texas zoologist Eric Pianka holds with the plague. When the "great collapse" - as he calls it - comes to kill off most of humanity, leaving scant survivors to scrape by with pocketknives on a newly dark Earth, he thinks microbes will be why. Not HIV, which kills too slowly to become a pandemic. Not even Ebola, which in its current form, Ebola zaire, requires human-to-human contact and, ironically enough, kills too quickly. But the virus might get clever, mutate someday and go airborne. Then we'd see sci-fi and horror films coming true -right before gouts of blood blurred our vision and our corpses joined the billions clogging what once were dancefloors and motorways.

Somehow -- either in hunger or pain or a blinding flash -- we're pretty much doomed to near-extinction: a fate we've preordained for ourselves by blitzing fellow species and natural habitats and having way too many babies, says Pianka, who looks like Father Christmas, but wearing a Western shirt with a pen in its pocket.

'We bred our brains out, and now we're going to pay for it,' he declared in a speech at the Texas Academy of Science earlier this year.

It was a speech that would hurl Pianka into the klieg lights of controversy as everyone from talk-show hosts to clergy to furious colleagues came to dub him "Dr Death" and "Dr Doom" and "the genocide scientist".

He prefers to call himself the Lizard Man. A career spanning more than forty years - ten of them spent as a desert hermit, 'at one with the bushfly,' he says, and with nematodes and skinks - has honed Pianka's reputation as one of the world's top reptile experts. He has several species named after him, from Ctenotus piankai to Skrjabinodon piankai to Oochoristica piankai, and he has published over a hundred scientific papers. Now living in the oak-studded Texas Hill Country with a herd of bison - the biggest is called Lucifer - this conservation biologist pleads with his neighbours to keep their pet cats from chasing lizards, and he believes that zoo animals might as well be dead.

'We've grown fat and apathetic and miserable,' Pianka told the Academy crowd, which comprised some 400 of his fellow scientists. Many nodded, laughed sardonically and clapped as he spoke. 'We're sucking everything we can out of mother Earth and turning it into fat human bio-mass.'

Yet we're still hungry, said the professor. At least we act as if we are.

'Every one of us is guilty -- everything we do, every breath you take, every time you flush the toilet, every time you drive your car, every time you buy anything.' Homo sapiens means wise man in Latin, but 'we're not,' Pianka charged on that March day. 'I'd say we're dumb' for laying concrete and stripping mountains in the name of what he calls anthropocentrism.

Discussing extinction vortices and polluted water that feminises male fish, he displayed schematic maps revealing former forests reduced first to checkerboards and then to white zones dotted with the occasional tree. Animal populations, he said, naturally decrease after surpassing a sustainable number. He displayed a graph charting such declines among various birds, insects and fish.

But birds, insects and fish aren't clever enough to create air-conditioned skyscrapers, factory-produced food and vaccines. 'One species,' Pianka intoned, 'thinks it can violate the rules of the natural world - and that it can grow indefinitely.' With the crowd in the palm of his hand, Pianka zeroed in on our future. Despite what critics would later say, he wasn't glad to go all Cassandra. He didn't grin.

'Death by a lethal pandemic seems a likely prospect,' he said. 'The microbes are going to take over. They're going to control us again as they have in the past.'

Cowled corpses like cordwood, dancers dropping dead: to us it's all just lute-soundtracked scenes from The Seventh Seal and The Decameron -- but the Black Death felled two-thirds of Europe in the mid-14th century, and downed another 75 million in Asia and the Middle East. Pianka wants us to picture it happening here and now -- at the hypermarché, at the rave. For real, as Americans say.

'Humans must experience a big collapse,' he told the rapt scientists. 'And you are going to become a hunter-gatherer. We're going to have a lot of dead people. Every one of you that is lucky enough to survive gets to bury nine.' Reboot what you learned in Scouts or Guides, stock up on Swiss Army knives and string.

'I actually think the world will be much better off when only 10 or 20 percent of us are left,' he mused. 'It would give wildlife a chance to recover.'

He displayed a picture of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He flashed another, of a neo-Grim Reaper in a hipster hood, its eyes voracious.

Pianka wasn't grinning, but the Reaper was.

He got a standing ovation. Later that day, the Academy awarded him a plaque naming him the Distinguished Texas Scientist of 2006. Within days, detractors descended. They accused Pianka of not merely predicting oblivion but cheering it. Some even said he was engineering it. 'Doomsday Glee,' hissed 'Dr Death and the Religion of Genocide,' trumpeted 'Scientists cheer holocaust wish: Texas academy honors professor who wants 90 per cent of human race exterminated by Ebola,' reported 'Humanity's collapse is a notion he embraces,' buzzed the Seguin, Texas Gazette-Enterprise. Grilling Pianka on national TV, a CBS interviewer demanded, 'Do you hate people?'

'No, I don't,' he rejoindered with a wry if weary look. But no matter. Death threats poured into Pianka's office on the Austin campus. One sender vowed to start the extinction process right away by slaying the professor's family. Someone -- a fellow academic, cyber-rumor had it -- reported Pianka to the US Department of Homeland Security, alleging that he belonged to a shadowy clique secretly cooking up germ-warfare plots. This led to Pianka's being questioned by the FBI.

The threats grew so many and so vicious that for several days he turned off his phone and ignored his emails. The university assigned him a press officer. Not that he needs one. Pianka is not a man who avoids either expressing or defending himself. On national TV, he said his words had been 'abused and twisted by fools'. He said those fools had focused on his speech's last ten minutes, the Ebola part, ignoring the parts about his despair for 'the vanishing book of life ... this greatest book of all time,' and his simple, scientific yearning to give wild creatures a chance.

'Earth cannot support 6.5 billion people,' he says now. 'For all of them to live the lifestyle we enjoy would require several Earths. There are way too many of us.'

The klieg lights have dimmed a bit. A new school year has started at the university, amid whose sun-baked plazas and tile-roofed halls Pianka is a popular teacher. In a course evaluation last year, one student gushed, 'PIANKA IS GOD'. That irked the professor's Christian critics. Debates have been raging in the States lately between Darwinists and advocates of Intelligent Design, aka ID -- a theory that life on Earth and human supremacy are the products not of natural selection but of an omniscient planner, a deity. Pianka's anti-evolution rivals stoked the firestorm over his speech.

'What the ID proponents wanted was for people to see me as a monster,' he says now. 'Of course I value human life as much as anybody. However, as our numbers skyrocket and those of wild animals plummet, the relative values shift in favour of the animals.'

It's so tempting to portray a reptile expert as cold-blooded and beady-eyed. Snakes, after all, abandon their own eggs. But Pianka nurses a cowboy-hatted Western-casual wit, as warm and dark as a Texas summer night: he has already composed his own obituary, on view at his faculty website along with running-bison videos. And unlike your local krait, he loves his family.

Well, yes: this solitary chess-player who says that 'sex must be separated from reproduction' and devotes himself to zero-population-growth is a dad.

'I have the legal limit, two,' he says in self-defense. 'Remember, I married in the mid-1960s, when there were only half as many people on this Earth.' Point taken. The human population surpassed sustainability in the Eighties, he says: 'Also, I waited until I was 32.5 years old to have my two kids.' He's gotten into hot water for praising China's one-child policy and for daring to speculate on who should and shouldn't have kids: 'Educated people tend to have fewer children than uneducated people.' As a result, he has written, 'those who don't have any conscience about the Earth are going to inherit the planet, because those who don't care are leaving more progeny than those who do care ... and IQs are falling for the same reasons, too.' Planet of the Dopes? 'It boils down to the choice between quality versus quantity,' he muses now. 'Humans are being selected to become uncaring humanoids. We are becoming subhumans.'

If he blamed the world's woes solely on America or the wealthy West, he'd be a darling of academia and the international press. But that's a bandwagon he won't board. Exploiting nature is a human trait, he insists, and it doesn't matter whether those humans wear penis-gourds or Prada.

'The 'noble savage' is a complete myth,' he contends. 'Just look at what happened to tortoises and flightless birds worldwide when humans reached their islands. Humans are clearly eating their way through everything edible on this Earth. For the first time in history, a product of natural selection has been able to say to itself: 'Aha, natural selection, I see you' - but we seem to be helpless when it comes to controlling it and our preprogrammed urges to reproduce.' He points to overpopulated, Third World-poor Madagascar, where a highly endangered land tortoise is 'commonly used for turtle soup' by hungry locals who can't afford PETA mouse pads.

For refusing to let any member of our species off the hook, Pianka insists that he's just egalitarian. Critics call him elitist, a eugenicist, a misanthrope. Similar charges are flung at Finland's Pentti Linkola, a radical ecologist and author who takes such a hardline view of humanity that, while some hail him as a prophet, others -- even many Greens -- call him an eco-fascist. Linkola hails major wars, even nuclear ones, as efficient population-slashers. And he has written that if he could press a button to kill himself along with millions of others, he wouldn't hesitate. Living in the remote countryside, a Luddite who shuns all modern technology, for decades he used a horse-drawn cart to help sell fish he caught. Recently retired, he receives a pension. Neo-Nazi websites praise him for advocating a cruel-to-be-kind police state and a two-child policy, and he compares the Earth's eco-system to a sinking ship bearing 100 passengers with a lifeboat that can only hold ten. 'Those who hate life,' Linkola has written to illustrate this metaphor, 'try to pull more people on board and drown everybody. Those who love and respect life use axes to chop off the extra hands hanging onto the gunwale.'

By comparison, Pianka is a fluffy bunny. When the CBS interviewer accused him of dwelling outside the realm of 'normal people', then barked at him, 'People are good. Children are good', Pianka invoked his own two young granddaughters: Given the fragile state of the future, 'I'm worried about them.' He's creating a college fund for them. He wants them to survive the great collapse. But will they? Who will?

'Well, it certainly won't be the weak or the meek, will it?' the professor snorts. 'I am egalitarian, but nature is red in tooth and claw.'

He thinks often about that final scramble. He scorns those who don't. He had some pragmatic advice for his audience at the Academy.

'The first thing you should do when you go home tonight is get a real tarp,' he told them as his speech drew to a close. 'Don't get one of those crummy plastic ones; they deteriorate too fast. Start packing it with the absolute necessities you must have to stay alive. These would include things like needles and thread, a blanket, some sharp knives, pliers and wire, water containers, some string, rope, and twine.... Wrap them up and figure out how you can carry it on your own two shoulders because you are not going to be able to take public transport or drive your car when the time comes. And then you want to get as far away as you can from any other human beings because they will take your stuff away from you. Try to snare a rabbit, if there is still a rabbit out there to catch. And when you get that rabbit, skin it and tan its hide.

'Soon you'll be wearing it,' he said.