The world we’ve gotten used to and thought of as normal now turns out to be an aberration—a bubble world based upon the ever-accelerating depletion of non-renewable resources. Fossil energy has fueled an industrial revolution as well as an agricultural revolution, which has doubled the population in less than a human lifetime, making the world unendurably crowded with resource- and energy-hungry humans. With peak oil, mass extinctions, ecological degradation (including the depletion of topsoil and growing scarcity of potable water), along with peak everything else–future prospects have been starting to look rather unpromising lately. But it gets worse. What started off as the greenhouse effect morphed into something called global warming, and it looked like it might get a bit warm for future generations. Then we started hearing about climate change, and with this slightly altered terminology the projections for change grew more severe and were expected to arrive a little sooner than formerly believed. As more climate science came online, the modifiers took on a more ominous tone, as in “climate chaos” and “climate emergency”—which again meant it was coming sooner and was going to be more extreme than we’d thought only yesterday.
Now, in 2013, we have scientific projections from reliable data that make near-term human extinction look like a real possibility. Guy McPherson’s website, Nature Bats Last, has become a home for some of the direst of runaway climate predictions, and here the phrase near-term-extinction has become so common as to be referred to by acronym: NTE. From the comment section of this blog, it is clear there is a group of the faithful who follow the science behind near-term extinction, and who try, in this forum, to come to terms with its implications. One such follower has written a very long piece on this subject called “The Irreconcilable Acceptance of Near-Term Extinction,” which attempts to address what it means to accept that your species is doomed to fail with finality, and very probably within your own lifetime. I was a sympathetic reader of this piece to begin with, as it seemed uncommonly thoughtful, and dared to broach a vitally important but taboo subject. As I made my way through this piece I was ready to object to various points along the way, but now I feel much more inclined to cover territory that was never addressed in this exhaustive feat of introspection. If near-term extinction is as real a possibility as it now seems, then there is much that needs to be confronted around this issue, and that is what I will attempt in what follows.
First let me say that I accept near-term human extinction as a real possibility, but not as a foregone conclusion. Methane release from melting Arctic ice, along with a number of other such runaway feedback loops, show every prospect of pushing climate regimes beyond the point of no return, and whatever the exact specifications of the new normal, they would not be friendly to life, human or otherwise. The science and the modeling techniques for all these doomsday projections seem sound, so far as a non-expert can tell. But, at the same time, science, along with its models and assumptions, has been known to be wrong in the past, and sometimes wrong in a very big way. So, for me, that means giving provisional credence to NTE science, but I’m not yet ready to bet the farm on what is still just speculation. Toward the end of his very long piece, author Daniel Drumright admits that he is not quite there, either. He’s convinced intellectually, but not emotionally, so he claims he will give it another couple years before he commits all the way. And here we come to some very fine points as regards attitudes, along with the words we use to describe them.
When someone gives up before they have actually been defeated, we call it capitulation. The word surrender tends to connote that defeat is the fact, and surrender its acceptance on the part of the defeated. And that raises the question: at what point, short of the absence of all living humans on Earth, can extinction be considered a “fact?” At what point does something become so obviously inevitable as to be considered a “fact” in the making? When, in other words, does all resistance become futile? The answers to these questions can be highly subjective and personal, but for my own part, I’m not quite ready to capitulate.
Why not? Well, even apart from a certain stubborn contentiousness of character, it seems to me there are solid logical reasons not to cave in prematurely. In all the best stories, the tide turns for the good guys just when their defeat seems guaranteed. In The Lord of the Rings, the narrator reflects several times upon the unfortunate circumstance of being born into times of trouble, and how there is nothing for it but to do your very best for as long as you have life. Against all odds, a certain modest Hobbit does the best he can, and the dark powers are forced to retreat from the world—at least for a time. Likewise, in Avatar, things are looking pretty grim for the good guys when Eywa abandons her supposed neutrality and comes to their aid. In fact, something of the kind is my own best hope for planet Earth, but with a twist, at least in terms of who are the “good guys,” and who, or what, we should be rooting for.
If we think of near term extinction as some kind of battle, how do we frame the nature of the combat, and how do we characterize the opposing sides? Is it man against Nature? Is it man against himself? Or is the human just a hapless pawn in a chess game run by forces much larger than himself? I’ve seen our climate catastrophe framed in all these ways, and I find a grain of truth in each, but no whole, clear picture emerges from any of these frames. Borrowing from each of these perspectives, I would say that what we are really looking at here is: humans, under the spell of the culture of civilization, pitted against Nature, the Earth, and the Community of Life. Within this framing, it is not Homo sapiens, as a species, who is contending with Gaia, Natural Law, and all the other species, but only those humans under the influence of civilization. Globally, that may be most humans, but not all, and this is a distinction I must insist upon. It is not our species that is fatally flawed, but our culture.
It is crucial to fully comprehend this distinction when it comes to choosing sides. And I’ll say right here that if I believed we were fatally flawed at the species level I would be very much in favor of our extinction—and the sooner the better. I can say this because I am not at heart an anthropocentrist; instead, my primary identity is as an Earthling and as a member of the Community of Life. In other words, I want to see the whole show go on—the one that started 3.8 billion years ago, when Life first emerged on this planet. Anyone who has an inkling of how synergistic and interdependent the whole Gaian system is must realize that if the Earth goes down, humans go down with it. There is no way we can survive as a species without our life support system, and that system includes millions of other life forms—including the 80% of our innards that is bacterial. At this point in our dubious career, we are causing the extinction of our fellow species at the rate of at least two hundred a day. With ocean acidification and runaway climate chaos, especially after tipping points and thresholds have been breached, and irreversible regime changes have kicked in, the biotic collapse will be general. And if it comes to that, it will have been the handiwork of one particular culture within one particular species. These are my people, and this is my culture, but this is not who I am rooting for. I am not at all interested in saving civilization; civilization is the problem. It is the entire Project of Life that has my deepest loyalty.
A human die-back is inevitable; a human die-off may or may not be. We have temporarily expanded the carrying capacity of the planet by mining non-renewable resources, and especially fossil fuels. At the moment, we are almost literally “eating oil.” For now, we are able to support a very unfavorable energy return on investment (EROI), of something like ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of energy in the form of food. Without fossil energy, the whole house of cards collapses, and we’re already past peak oil. So, again, we have to ask ourselves, what does “victory” actually look like? Is our ultimate aim to keep the present system going until it falls of its own weight, and no worries about anything or anyone but ourselves—we of the privileged few? This seems to be the game we’re playing now, but it is not a good long-term strategy for human survival, because you can’t take out your life support systems and expect to thrive–and continued climate disruption promises systems collapse and mass extinctions.
We seem to be stuck in what anthropologist Ronald Wright calls a progress trap, and the damnable thing about it is, there seems no way out of this maze. Our system, our way of life, our lives themselves, all seem to depend upon doing more of the same, even while we observe that what we are doing is killing us. That is a trap indeed. For a time, my own best hope was for a permanent global power failure that would immediately shut down industrial civilization, and save us from ourselves. Then it was pointed out to me that there are globally over four hundred nuclear power plants whose spent fuel rods depend upon electrically delivered water to keep them cool, and from spreading radiation around the globe. Backup generators might buy a few days, but then what? So, I’m no longer hoping for that particular Deus ex machina to come to our aid, but I’m still very much in favor of some sort of intervention—perhaps famine and plague—that will monkeywrench the Death Machine, and give the Earth a new lease on Life.
And here I want to directly confront the contentious issue of our loyalties, and with what or whom we take sides in this life-and-death struggle that faces us. The vast majority of civilized humans believe civilization to be a good thing, and see it as something to be protected, nurtured, and preserved. I strongly disagree with this point of view. To me, that is like saying you want to save the patient and the cancer, too. The culture of civilization is, and always has been, a culture of empire, and empire is built upon theft, deception and deadly violence. Even a casual reading of our history confirms this. And consider exactly what it is that is poisoning us, our planet, and our atmosphere: it’s all that stuff we have helped ourselves to from beneath the Earth’s surface, all of it contaminated with poisons, and not least the fossil fuels. No other culture could or would condone such wanton recklessness, but our culture authorizes and validates taking all from the Earth that can be taken. Some would blame our economic system for encouraging our rush toward entropy; others would pin the blame on oil company executives; neither would be wrong. But both our economic system and our corrupt executive class are products of this culture, and it is this culture that gives them their marching orders and its blessing. For those who believe that civilization is all about libraries and air conditioning and symphony orchestras, it will come as a shock to discover that what civilization really is, is a program whose effect is to devour the Earth. It is precisely for this, and its violence against all life forms, that I hold civilization accountable for our present sorry state of affairs. So: just as you can’t save both the patient and the cancer, neither can you save civilization and the world, too. You have to choose one or the other, and the wrong choice will be fatal.
Absurdly enough, the days of civilization are numbered anyway, no matter whether it succeeds in devouring the world, or if it falls short. If it succeeds, there will be no humans left to carry out its directives, and it will die content in its accomplishment of entropic equilibrium. If enough humans somehow manage to break its spell and come to understand how they’ve been manipulated into this untenable situation of collapse by the very institution that seemed to represent their best interests, then this instigator of dark deeds might just die from disuse. And in any case, civilizations of empire inevitably fade when the booty they depend upon grows too scarce, or hard to come by, to be worth the effort–and that day will soon be upon us.
If we decide that our loyalty belongs to Life rather than to the culture of civilization, what exactly do we mean by Life? Is the human pitted against all the other species of Earth in a zero-sum game of winner take all? No, it’s not us or them, no matter all the stories we’ve heard about the fierce competition for survival. It is either us and them, or it is death all around. Our supposed separation from Nature and the Community of Life has been a fiction all along. We are not separate at all; we are One; and we only succeed as part of the larger Community.
When things fall apart, clarity will be hard to come by. Knowing, or believing, that this day is coming soon, it seems wise to work on clarity now. When the unraveling begins, and we are plunged into chaos, we won’t be in a position to know how far things might go. It could be the beginning of human extinction, or it could be the correction to our numbers made inevitable by our so drastically exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. Cheap available energy, in the form of oil, created a bubble economy and a bubble population to match. That bubble has got to burst, and there is no way around it. Since we seem collectively incapable of downsizing our own population, Nature will be doing it for us, and it is bound to be traumatic. People we love and care about are going to die prematurely of natural causes (as may we ourselves), but natural causes born of an unnatural condition, a one-time-only aberration in biological history. It seems counter-intuitive, unnatural even, to be cheering on a human die-back, and wishing for it to arrive soon. Thinking in terms of all those who are alive today—all 7+ billion of us—such thoughts seem callous and cruel. But if we are thinking beyond our most immediate circle of significant others, and take into consideration the fate of the species, the sooner this correction comes, the better for them (and for all of Life.) Leaving them a less damaged planet, with its life support systems reasonably intact and functional, would give future humans, and all Life, much better odds of survival. Knowing this to be true, how far are we willing to go to preserve our present way of life, recognizing that it can’t last, anyway, and that the more we consume, pollute, and destroy, the less likely there will be a human future here?
What does the human family owe itself at the species level? Are continuity and longevity something to be sought for the species as a whole, and is this something for which each human generation bears responsibility? All the other animals on Earth manage to address this issue by way of instinct. They take care of their young, perform their ecosystem functions, and the species seems to take care of itself. As the oddball cultural animal, our instincts seem to have been overridden and overwritten by the memes and imperatives of our culture—a culture that has inverted the natural order of things. According to our myths, the individual is more important than the group, and one particular species is elevated above all others; indeed, that species is elevated above Nature herself. Only under such a topsy-turvy worldview could this putative Master Species claim all the world for itself, for as long as it lasts, then, with a ruined Earth, declare the game over.
Our way of life, and its supporting myths, seems to suppose that we have arrived at the pinnacle and end point toward which this 3.8 billion year experiment with Life and evolution has always been headed. That is the underlying implication. But is the deepest Meaning of life on Earth really only about us making payments on our standardized boxes in the suburbs, with both parents holding down unfulfilling jobs so that we can drive our air-conditioned SUVs to middle school soccer games, stopping along the way at our favorite fast foods franchise, finally to end our day collapsed in the blue glare of Fox News? Was it for this that we took this country away from the Indians, and turned it into freeways, parking lots, suburban malls and inner city ghettos? Are we dismantling the Earth, ecosystem by ecosystem, species by species, for no better reason than to make bankers, corporate executives, and hedge fund managers filthy rich? Are our excesses of appetite, all at the expense of a living planet, really the ultimate significance of Life on Earth? That seems to be our story—the one we are living in and doing our utmost to make real.
If the human species goes down, as in near term extinction, and we take out the Community of Life and the animate Earth along with us, it won’t be our extinction itself that would leave me inconsolable. Extinctions happen; species fail. Were I able to see with the long eye of the Life Force, what I would find irreconcilable is the incommensurability between the ongoing promise of Life’s self-renewal and the paltry, self-serving species that brought it all down.
Gary Gripp lives, hikes, and writes in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, where he also served for many years as a wilderness ranger—the dream job he worked up to after serving a five year apprenticeship teaching university English.