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.
Thanks Gary for your insights into our perilous situation. I have to agree with your dire assessment of the harm we are inflicting on each other and all life on Earth. With you, I also think our chances of coming out of our tailspin towards extinction are very slim. My own response to this reality is to continue to seek greater spiritual maturity, and cultivate a loving heart in the face of whatever disasters may unfold. Hopefully those of us who are pursuing spiritual growth are separating ourselves more and more from the negative effects proceeding from the world around us. To continue to try to do the best one can to be a presence for love, goodness, and peace needs to be continued in spite of any accounting of results in the outer world or others. The ancient understanding of karma yoga urges us to serve the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in spite of whatever may arise outwardly as a result. Our reward will always be the inner knowing that we have served That which deserves our efforts beyond all secular rewards or punishments. The world is dying for lack of love. Let us at least follow that Path as our loving protest and refutation of the unfolding karmic nemesis taking place all around us.
When we entered on the path to becoming more than just another animal we became involved in a process that presented us with some new and difficult challenges. Our emerging intelligence and the powers it conferred on us represented great possibilities, and at the same time unprecedented dangers. Our intelligence was the liberated Genie who promised us unlimited gifts of a material nature, but did not deliver the one thing needed in the face of such a boon — wisdom and control. We were too intoxicated by the pleasure and excitement of our new powers to discern the danger inherent in their unbridled use and enjoyment. The now familiar patterns of addiction took hold on us, clouding our consciousness, and putting to sleep any sense of caution regarding our newfound successes. Only rare individuals among us tried to warn us of our danger, but their counsels were brushed aside. Sometimes these wisdom bearers among us were even banished or killed for troubling our revels in our new status as lords of nature. The poet Ovid was one of these warning voices long ago in Classical Greece:
No one tore the ground with plowshares
Or parceled out the land
Or swept the sea with dipping oars —
The shore was the world’s end.
Clever human nature, victim of your inventions,
Why cordon cities with towered walls?
Why arm for war?
Ovid, Amores, Book 3
When oil was discovered and liberated from its long slumber in the depths of Earth, the ultimate energy fix, the methamphetamine of the Industrial Age quickly became an out of control addiction that may well signal the end of Humanity’s wild ride on Earth. Our immature abuse of the gifts we were given may have driven us unwittingly to consume the ultimate overdose, ending forever our collective lives and the bright possibilities that might have been if we had honored wisdom and love above the transient satisfactions of pleasure and selfish power.
Thank you very much, Gary Gripp, for this very well reasoned and well written argument for waking up from our [Western] cultural trance of empire in time to prevent our own extinction and that of our entire life support system, which is the trajectory we are now on – as long as we live by the dictates of civilization. I appreciate very much all the refined distinctions you make in this article and hope that many people read and contemplate it. And thanks to Carolyn Baker, too, for publishing it. We may not make it as a planet and a species through this self-created crisis, but I believe that if we achieve and maintain the clarity that Mr. Gripp describes, we will all be better off through whatever occurs.
Suzanne — Thanks for your intelligent comments. I like to point out that it is not just Western Empire that has brought us to this sorry pass. The story of empire goes back as far as history reaches. We in the West are just the latest chapter in this saga of domination, pillage, and destruction. Our failure to awaken to and follow spiritual principles extends to regions all over the globe, and throughout history. What needs to be fixed is deeper than the particular flaws of one group.
Correction: Ovid was a Roman, born 43 BC. But his poem fits the tragedy of ancient Greece, and all “civilized empires” before and since.
Thank you Mike and Suzanne for commenting on my essay, and thank you, Carolyn, for publishing it.
Have you been reading A Short History of Progress Mike? [I think so] it is a fine book and should be set high school or 1st year text.
Of late it seems the great unravelling is changing up a gear. I(n the west, that is. It feels like the worst we predicted is happening. No slow decline it seems. Rather a series of hard lurches.
Bookend Ovid with Shelley. both concern the same thing=
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
In the big picture, it may be true that the sole purpose of humanity was to serve like giant earthworms, digging far deeper into the earth to extract compounds within and spread them around the surface, creating new opportunities for innovative lifeforms yet to evolve. And perhaps our spirits are genuinely interwoven in the smallest solitary being, our one living planet, to such an extent that we will exist until the sun fades.
But I’m not yet ready to give up on my species. Knowing all we do about the way things work and the implications of our wasteful lifestyles, how do we inspire and empower each other to live up to our highest ideals?
Thanks Vernon. You may also want to see my article on “Preparing For Near-Term Extinction” on this website.
You’re citing fiction stories to bolster your case that we might pull out of this at the last minute? Not encouraging.
Please read my article on the Sixth Great Extinction (https://carolynbaker.net/2012/12/05/the-sixth-extinction-beyond-transition-the-long-emergency-and-the-great-turning-by-carolyn-baker/) and follow the links to the hard science cited there. In addition, you will be hard pressed to argue with the incredibly well documented presentation by Guy McPherson at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFY31MIubG4. So much for your version of “fiction.”
“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.”
I was with you until you said this. This is how serial killers and psychopaths think.
One of my co-workers said the next occurence of genocide was going to be perpetrated by eco-fascists, and I thought he was being ridiculous, but the more I read articles like this, the more I think maybe he’s on to something.
Equating humans with cancer is a dangerous rhetorical gambit. Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish, but I’m sensitive to that kind of talk.
I have no doubt that humans are in the process of destroying this planet.
Just be careful what kind of philosophical stance you take on this subject, though. It’s a very slippery slope.
You are equating “civilization” with civility. I’m not. I am referring to industrial civilization and a way of life based on power and control that has raped and pillaged the earth, sucked up nearly all of its resources, and nearly succeeded in turning us all into soul-less monsters. That is the opposite of civiliity, compassion, caring, cooperation, and the best of our humanity. Humans cannot be compared with cancer, but as a result of the paradigm of industrial civilization, they have created many cancers on the planet. My work is about assisting all of us in forsaking the old paradigm and embracing a new one that is characterized by all of the positive qualities I have just mentioned.
It looks like Nicole Foss has just linked directly to this article in her latest TAE post with this comment:
“Apocalyptic predictions of near term human extinction (hyperlinked to this article)have been made by some commentators, and drastic ‘solutions’ proposed as a result. I would regard such predictions as unlikely, disempowering and dangerous, in the sense that they could, when fear is in the ascendancy anyway, provoke a disproportionate fear response that could in itself be very destructive. When people become collectively fearful, they tend to over-react as a crowd, potentially causing more damage through that over-reaction than might have been caused by the circumstance itself. Fear can be exploited to provide a political mandate for extremists who would then be able to wreak havoc on the fabric of society. Fear needs no encouragement at such times. It will get more than enough traction, and do more than enough damage, all by itself. Actively undermining it is a better approach, as may keep more people in a constructive headspace.”
Well…IMO Gary is on the mark. I didn’t find this “unlikely, disempowering and dangerous”…I find under the growing impact of The 6th Mass Extinction, NTHE is a given for the “civilised” (ie for homo colossus, aka homo economicus)and the sooner we drop our “civilised human” exceptionalism the better.
Here’s the post:
I have never felt so emotionally and spiritually empowered as when I surrendered to the reality of NTE. Why? Because it affirmed that I can go full speed ahead into the work I came here to do without reservation. Those of us raised in industrial civilization have enormous life lessons to learn about what power is and what it isn’t, and one of the biggest lessons is that surrender is not giving up, but rather, stepping into a kind of power that is foreign to the death machine and far beyond it.