What’s Next — Evolution or Extinction?


(Poster by sorah42/funnie.st)

Our friends at the Doomstead Diner (they frequently repost Daily Impact essays) have caused a bit of an uproar among doomers — their term for people who believe the crash of industrial society is imminent — by conducting a poll on whether and when all humanity will be extinguished by the collapse. The Human Extinction Survey immediately revealed strong differences and strong feelings among the doomers surveyed. Just a few years ago it was controversial in the extreme to raise the prospect of collapse; now the idea is moving to the mainstream but wait, extinction? Yikes.

Questions determine their answers. While I am interested in this topic and wanted to participate, I found the survey questions didn’t offer the choices I would make in discussing it. So instead of selecting from the offered alternatives, I offered the following:

I’m not sure I believe in the extinction of people. Civilizations, yes, and this industrial one is surely doomed. But people endure. The Anasazi (Chaco People) are still with us, as the Navajo (Dine). We still have Aztecs and Mayans, although their civilizations crashed. Hell, I even have dinosaurs running around in my yard, we call them chickens now. Soak a cow with broad spectrum antibiotics, spray a field with pesticides, bomb a battlefield till the rubble bounces — there are always survivors.

I agree that a near-extinction event is in the offing. When it will happen and how many people it will leave behind are, it seems to me,  both unknown and unknowable, so I don’t concern myself with marking my calendar or setting my alarm clock. What makes sense to me is to do everything I can to maximize my family’s chances of getting through to the other side, and then we’ll see what we see.

It has been my observation during 30 years or so of reporting on the environment that industrial humans have always underestimated two things: the harm they are doing to the natural web of life; and the power of the natural world to heal itself when the harm is stopped.

It bears remembering, I think, that the world’s best scientists have been pretty consistently wrong in their appraisals of climate change. Not, of course, on the questions of whether it’s happening or whether humans caused it, those have been answered beyond any reasonable doubt. But they have been wrong about the speed of its onset and its severity in the short term. This is not meant as a criticism of scientists, it is only to observe that no one is ever going to be completely right in predicting the behavior of a system as enormous and complex as the global climate. So it seems appropriate to me to listen with respect to the arguments of those who now predict imminent extinction, as I hope they will respect this layman’s response: It ain’t necessarily so.

All my life I’ve made a distinction between the Utopians the the Pragmatists. Utopians put great effort into designing the world as it should be and then trying to herd the rest of us into it. Whether they design a best-of-all-possible world, or a dystopian world, same process. Pragmatists try to fix what they can reach, wherever they find themselves, and do not concern themselves with picturing how the world would look with everything fixed (or broken). They know it is beyond them. Count me a pragmatist.

We all know that each of us is going to die — when, where and how, we cannot know. Yet the inevitability of death does not deter us from finding meaning and fulfillment in the time we have. Nor does our lack of knowledge prevent us from trying to ensure a decent afterlife, whether through religious zeal or cryogenics or something else. Even if we are convinced we are all going to die together, say on an August afternoon in 2019, we are still obliged, it seems to me, to live until then according to our values.

It has never been up to us to decide whether our lives are meaningful, or worthy. Life is its own meaning. Our duty is to see it through as well as we can.


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23 Responses to What’s Next — Evolution or Extinction?

  1. Tom says:

    Good points Mr. Lewis and i’m glad you brought this up.

    i’m a firm believer that humanity is on the same level as cancer to the planet, that we’ve already done and continue to do more and more harm to the environment because of the way we live on the planet – all take and no give. We don’t care, as a species, about anything environmental and have turned the atmosphere, the oceans and any land mass we inhabit into dumps, especially for the corporations, which continue to mine the planet for the finite resources that used to be abundant – including fresh water at this point.

    After over 200 years of this (industrial) lifestyle, we’ve gone and screwed up the chemical balance needed to support plant life – there’s too much ozone, nitrogen, methane and other toxic gases floating around in the atmosphere.

    The predictable and constrained temperature ranges that used to allow for crop growth are now gone, thanks to the melting Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica (just to name the biggies). The jet streams are meandering now, when they used to be much more stable; the Atlantic Meridional circulation (the Gulf stream) has slowed down due to all the fresh water being added from the above sources; the Atlantic now has a large moving and growing dead zone, where they were once confined to the Gulf of Mexico (as if that wasn’t bad enough). So growing crops is becoming ever more problematic all over the world and food shortages are already happening, just not HERE yet.

    Now we’ve gone and poisoned both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean with oil, plastic nanoparticles, debris (see Pacific gyre for clarification), Fukushima radiation and other poisons that are by-products of modern human life to the point that marine life is dying before our eyes.

    i don’t know who is going to survive without food from the ocean or plants on land.

    Oh, there’s lots more. Sea level rise is going to take us completely by surprise. Not that we don’t know it’s happening, we just don’t think it will happen very quickly and so we don’t prepare. We haven’t even begun to experience the heat that all the CO2 we’ve put into the atmosphere guarantees.

    Volcanoes and earthquakes are ramping up, more than likely due to the fact that all that melting ice contained enormous amounts of mass and the crust has to readjust to the differences as it melts away.

    Methane release continues to increase every time it’s measured, and it’s coming from more and more places – not just the Arctic Ocean, we’re talking boreal forests, permafrost areas, tundras, and large land masses like Siberia are pluming the stuff, sometimes from giant blow-hole craters suddenly erupting from the pressure being release as the gases explode into the atmosphere.

    There’s lots more (soil depletion, human population overshoot, the worlds nuclear reactors all going Fuk once the electrical grid fails for good, and more) but i think you get the picture by now. We’ve made it impossible for plants and animals we rely on for food to live here and we’ll be following them out. We, the so-called “wise ape” have ruined our habitat and it will get continuously worse as the years go on.

    The politicians are doing their best to ruin life by paying no heed to the scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, poets and anyone with any concern for the environment. The economists have seen to it that the insolvent banks are kept alive like the zombies they are, but it won’t last because none of the causes of the financial meltdown have been corrected and the rest of the world has their own currency and economic troubles – and they’re all connected. It just takes one to knock all the other dominoes down.

    i don’t see humanity making it past about 2030, because everything we need to sustain our species will be gone. Granted nobody knows exactly when, but we do know it will happen, so the timeline is kind of irrelevant. i share your pragmatic, let’s do all we can to change things attitude and work to do this in my own life, but the momentum of our species, going in the wrong direction for so long, will dictate that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, mistakes and all, until we can’t.

    Thanks again for your voice Mr. Lewis.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      [Tom wrote:

      i’m a firm believer that humanity is on the same level as cancer to the planet, that we’ve already done and continue to do more and more harm to the environment because of the way we live on the planet – all take and no give. We don’t care, as a species, about anything environmental and have turned the atmosphere, the oceans and any land mass we inhabit into dumps…]

      Many of us humans DID care about the environment in the way we lived. Many traditional and premodern peoples followed sustainable ways of life which sometimes enabled them to thrive for millennia. I don’t think they could have lasted that long if they did not care about their environment. The trouble began with that part of humanity living in the far-Western regions of the Eurasian continent in the 17th century; first the Spanish and Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British spread their sorry stuff all around. The rest was history.

      It would be interesting to ask why this happened. One major reason could be THE LOSS OF RELIGIOUS FAITH. During the late 15th century a very interesting and influential intellectual/religious movement arose in Europe, termed by some the neoplatonic-magical-spiritualist movement, the members of which often among other things endorsed the idea of God being present in all creation (now THAT’s a very ecological way of thinking) and championed more egalitarian forms of social organization. These ideas were all viewed as highly threatening by the church, the major source of power at that time. (If God were everywhere and all men were equal, why would we need a church, and what would become of its hold on the reins of power?) Thus the church accordingly countered them with the idea of God as strictly beyond this world, and persecuted mercilessly all those suspected of endorsing the said ideas — hence the terrible witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the end the church had a field day, but something happened.

      What happened was that, if God is supposed to be strictly beyond this world, it becomes difficult to see what reason there is to believe He exists in the first place, since there’s nothing you can point to as evidence of His existence, He being strictly beyond this world. THIS, I believe, is actually the real reason why the West slowly and eventually left the Christian religion behind. Descartes tried desperately in his MEDITATIONS to come up with sound arguments demonstrating God’s existence. Hume shot his arguments down. Later Kant went a step further and argued that what we see around us is to a great extent what we WANT to see; we impose our ideas and beliefs on the world. Fine, so now there’s no room left for any God or for any nonarbitrary standard of moral goodness. (Kant actually didn’t intend his arguments to lead to such conclusions, but others after him saw where the arguments led.) You believe what you want, I believe what I want. Human existence is vain and meaningless.

      The logical conclusion: let material goods and their consumption henceforth constitute the only valid objects of all human effort; all else is folly and vanity. Welcome to the modern world and its sorry baggage of endless woes.

      • Philip says:

        @Someone in Asia,

        Loss of religious faith.

        Yup, that’s the ticket. We’ve arrived at this point all due to loss of religion that brought so much goodness to life (and how many people do you know that would say our industrial civilization has brought so many wonderful things to our life while they are physically glued to those damn phones). All our current problems can be laid at the feet of our not excepting religion into our lives.

        Sure, this homophobic, misogynistic, pedophilic, sex obsessed, baby obsessed, controlling, money grubbing, hypocritical, self-centered, self-righteous, pretentious, arrogant, mind numbing bunch who sent out their followers on those dam crusades (without any aid from our military industrial complex) to rape, pillage, murder and destroy whatever lies in their path all in the name of love of God, a need to convert and bring the truth to those damn infidels were only interested in bringing a respect and love for the natural world.

        Critical thinking anyone or flatlander extraordinaire? You choose.

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          To Philip:

          I’m talking about religion in the deeper sense as a metaphysical anchor for our values. (Perhaps we should use the term ‘spirituality’ instead?) Understood in this way it need not entail any of the negativities associated with traditional religion which you’ve enumerated. You can be entirely religious without giving up any of your critical faculties. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was a deeply religious person in the sense in which I understood the term, yet knew enough science to attempt an alternative to Einstein’s theories.

    • Daniel Reich says:

      I’ve done the research. Spent countless hours connecting the dots.You are spot on in your assessment of the situation. I find myself coming back here and to the diner just to relieve that sense of loneliness that comes from knowing what the majority refuses to know.I don’t usually leave comments.I just read and take solace in the fact that others share my grief.Thanks for being out there. You too Mr. Lewis.

    • Denis Frith says:

      Thank you, Tom, for that very sound comment on many aspects of what society has done wrong. However, I would add one other aspect which just exacerbates the problem people will have to cope with in the future. Technological systems have irreversibly used up limited natural resources to construct, operate and maintain the systems that supply society with most of the goods and services they are now dependent on. This infrastructure is irrevocably aging ad its demise is certain. Current society wants more than food, water and shelter. How will they cope with loss of electricity, sanitation and means of transportation and communication?

  2. Ccrai Moodie says:

    I have my doubts about the integrity of the science faculty, ever since the monied interests got their dirty little paws on them. These days its all about grants either from government or corporations. How can one be truly objective when profits are the only driving force.

    • Philip says:

      Now come on Moodie it’s unfair to lay all the fault at the feet of the scientists (and the current funding system) without looking at how we as whole work and how civilizations have always worked due to our damn inability to really stop being so quick to dismiss that there’s a problem approaching yet to continue to rationalize it away.

      As long as it’s not happening to you, it’s not happening and even if happened to you once it’s over you breath a sigh of relief and go right back to way things were. Just look at NYC after Sandy. Building, building, building and return right back to those water front homes (Fire Island, Long Island, Brooklyn, etc., etc.) which we the people will have to foot the bill for when the next crisis hits. Hey, didn’t that fat turd from NJ say we are stronger than the storm.

      The voices who want to change are drowned out by the huger sounds coming from the larger crowd demanding the return to normalcy.

      I don’t dismiss that the scientists are cowards and not reporting how dire and catastrophe the data really is indicating the situation really is. I don’t dismiss that money has a huge impact on what gets reported, but, let’s be honest and courageous how many people do you know (and have kids or money) are willing to be truthful regarding the devastation their actions have resulted in AND won’t change a thing about their life.

      Do you really expect scientists to have any more ability to buck the system and risk feeding their offspring? Would you?

      And so what if you buck the system? The system (and I mean any system) is working to protect itself. So you tell the truth. Most people wouldn’t believe you and would work to the best of their ability (Koch brothers anyone?) to contain and get everyone else to come after you with torches and pitchforks. We don’t need much prodding to believe the words of someone who promises morning in America (or the world) instead of heeding the information that tells us our way of life is going to bring us all down.

      And, I’m not someone who just sits at a computer writing and spouting words of wisdom. Grab of copy of “Escape from Suburbia” and watch. Almost a decade later and I’ve completely thrown the towel in. I realized that all my efforts were fruitless as all my new neighbors from Poland (who moved in as my old neighbors breathed their last) are breeding and consuming in the land where the streets are paved with gold with no interest or regard for the future their well loved offspring will be facing.

      There will always (and I mean always) be an Iago lurking somewhere in the background. Only they fade into the background until all the damage is done. Even if someone were to tell us of their machinations we’d doubt what they’ve done unless we were to witness their dire deeds. The story of Casandra is timeless.

      • Denis Frith says:

        Philip, I share your concern with what has gone wrong and the profound lack of understanding in society. The need for society to power down as the services they have become dependent on irrevocably decline is the prognosis. Growth of the
        Earth’s Lodgers’ Activity Management (ELAM) movement amongst the young can provide a dose of reality that will help.

  3. Surly1 says:

    Tom, you make a good point above: “Humans have always underestimated two things: the harm they are doing to the natural web of life; and the power of the natural world to heal itself when the harm is stopped.” From the early returns (256 respondents as of this morning), most people seem to agree that a huge population knockdown event is in the offing. Whether Homo sapiens goes extinct or not, or in what time frame is a matter of widely divergent opinion. Total extinction may be unlikely; knockdown seems inevitable.

    The response to RE’s gonzo survey has been successful beyond his wildest dreams. He thought maybe a dozen would respond.

    For me, the best way to look at the survey is as a snapshot, a moment in time reflecting the opinions of a self-selected group. The anecdotals may tell us a little something about the belief systems of those who inhabit blogs like ours.

    As RE has said, “The entire readership base of collapse blogs is miniscule… I think you are talking 25,000 people max globally who read these blogs with any regularity. So 250 would be 1% of that group. That is a decent sample size for such a small group.

    “Nielsen runs 20,000 Nielsen Boxes on TVs in a country with more than 300M people. They are sampling far less than 1% to derive their statistics.”

    Perhaps some higher level parsing of the data will yield some insights… At worst, we’ll know something about what a cross section of self selected participants thinks of likely outcomes to problems we collectively face. And maybe next time we construct a survey with better questions with more nuanced answers!

    Anyone interested in the survey can find it here:

  4. John House says:


    As a medical doctor, I’ve studied many years of biology. My understanding of extinction is that when there are no more breeding pairs of a species, then that species is extinct. While chickens are descended from dinosaurs, the dinosaurs themselves are still extinct. We homo sapiens evolved from earlier versions of humans, but those earlier versions are now extinct. As the title of your piece indicates, perhaps you are saying that our descendants will evolve, while homo sapiens will go extinct.

    Somewhere around 96% of all species that have ever existed on this planet are now extinct. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that humans will go extinct, the same that virtually all others have done. The question, as you point out, is when and how.

    One of the crucial factors missed by so many who are collapse-aware, aka “doomers”, is that when industrial civilization falls, large swaths of the planet, if not all, will become uninhabitable. There are more than 440 nuclear power reactors on Earth (not counting those used for war purposes). They require constant electrical input to prevent their overheating and “melting down”. Even ones that have been shut down still require electrical input to power the cooling pumps to prevent the nuclear waste from burning and spewing radioactive waste into the atmosphere. To my knowledge, no one has yet come up with a solution for disposing of nuclear waste that is long term, safe, and requires no energy to maintain it (not to mention replacement parts).

    I have heard it argued that species around Chernobyl have mutated and continued to survive, so therefore we can survive nuclear plant meltdown. However, it’s important to consider that enormous amounts of resources and energy were put into containing the radioactive fallout of Chernobyl. There are some who have suggested that the fall of the Soviet Union was triggered by the efforts to contain Chernobyl. If it had not been contained, we would not be seeing any surviving advanced species in that area.

    The oceans are dying as we speak, the climate is changing much more rapidly than any of the official predictions, the economy is teetering on the brink, our “leaders” seem hell-bent on taking us to nuclear war, resources are being depleted daily, and our population continues to expand. Collapse of all sorts and flavors is headed our way; but our extinction event will be the meltdown of the world’s nuclear reactors.

  5. witsendnj says:

    While I agree with John about the definition of extinction – the dinosaurs *are* extinct – I cannot see how rendering large areas of land uninhabitable via nuclear meltdown will lead to total extinction of the human race. The major problem I see is lack of food and water, from a variety of anthropic sources, but more generally human overshoot. There might be some pockets of people that survive after the resource wars, for a while, but they will be living like the current documentary, Mad Max, or worse. So to me, it doesn’t really matter how soon we go extinct, because I wouldn’t want to live in such a world. It’s not going to be a few friendly folks happily practicing permaculture in peace and harmony. I recommend it in 3D.

  6. James Eberle says:

    Good points about climate change and the resilience of life. Climate change is entirely dependent upon changes in what is known as “the heat budget” of the atmosphere. What early modelers of change failed to consider was the short term effects of sulfate aerosols and other particulates on screening out incoming solar radiation, in effect masking global warming in the short term. The masking effect by particulates has been confirmed by the global drop in the pan evaporation rate. Despite this, anthropogenic warming is still occurring.

    Concerning the resilience of life, consider that after the great Cretaceous extinction 65 million years ago, it took 10-20 million years for natural selection to restore an assemblage of mega-fauna that could rival that which existed just prior to this great extinction event.

    • Philip says:

      Every time I read or hear the word “resilience” I want to scream. I get the impression that the word means something different for everyone. I think many people believe the earth will recover in a time frame that will allow their offspring to thrive (although how is beyond me). They seem to lack the understanding that we’re heading for something more akin to what you’ve posted. It will take millions of years for this “resiliency” to kick in.

      I’m in agreement with what Tom posted above.

      What is happening in real time seems to be off the radar of the majority of the population of the planet. We’re an infinitesimal group of people who are going to be caught up in the tsunami of those around us.

      I remember reading and watching documentaries (like that Earth 2100 ABC doc) that gave us the impression we wouldn’t be where we are now until much later in the century.

      People don’t get it. They thought that rain would be the answer to the drought in Texas and now they are screaming for the rain to stop. They don’t get this flux in weather is what is going to be happening in oscillating cycles. Even if Tom thinks he’s going to be okay in VA the reality is he probably won’t be if Climate Change continues on the road it’s been traveling.

      By the way here’s two links that may be of interest to people:



  7. gwb says:

    Meanwhile, back in the shale oil patch, the slo-mo collapse keeps lumbering along (Bloomberg):


  8. Craig Moodie. says:


    It is not only the science profession that I am targetting as being corrupt. Name me one sphere in the USA that has not been captured by monied interests.
    Let me cite a few examples;
    1)Government- Only someone living outside of the US can see the ludicrous use of lobbying as being nothing other than legal bribery. How is it made legal? By none
    other than another wonderfully honest bunch of folks at the dept of justice
    2) Name me one serious conviction the SEC has made since Madoff. Pray tell how Jon Corzine is not behind bars and still a player. Has Wall st.suddenly gained a conscience.
    3)How can stock buy backs by corporations be considered legal, when it is just a ruse to line the pockets of CEO’s at the expense of shareholders.
    4) The approval of GMO’s is another sick example of monied interests holding sway over real science.

    Universities,hospitals, municipalities,corporations,regulators. Any dept you wish to name they are all corrupt what would make science any different/

    • Philip says:


      If what I wrote wasn’t clear from my response to you above, I agree with every single thing you wrote.

      However, my main point is that these situations are happening due to us. We are the driving factor behind it all. When I hear those complain about those damn corporations they seem to be oblivious to the fact that human beings (well probably less like me) are running these entities.

      It’s no different to the dilemmas and difficulties I’ve experienced when trying to create and intentional community. The main problem is us. That is why according to Liam of Communities Magazine 9 of 10 ICs fail.

      I’ve been involved with a support group (for people who are dealing with these issues) recently, but I feel as out of place as I do in the greater world. Most of the people are only just coming to a place I’ve been at years ago. Instead of them trying to extract information out of me that could save them years of effort they show no interest and would rather recreate the wheel as if it’s going to come out different this time by force of will.

  9. Parenthetically Tom, there is a Field for Open Responses in the Survey where you could have dropped your opinion. None of the questions are required.to be answered.

    I still haven’t received much in the way of suggestions for better questions that could have been asked either. Just a lot of criticism of the ones that were asked.


    • Tom Lewis says:

      RE, I did in fact submit my thoughts to your survey, before I posted them here in a slightly expanded form. My point about your questions was not that they were wrong, or needed to be improved, but that they were framed in a context that differs from the way I think about the issue. In explaining that difference, I meant no criticism whatsoever, and I am sorry you took it that way.

      • No worries TL. I never get offended, it’s the INTERNET! I’ve been moderating Forums and having arguments on the net since BEFORE AOL. I enjoy the sparring that goes on. Most of the time anyhow. LOL.


  10. Denis Frith says:

    I have over fifty years experience as a physical scientist. I am familiar with many of the advances in understanding in a range of fields in recent times. However, I am now appalled at the lack of understanding of the fundamental principles that have always (and always will) governed what happens in materialistic operations, natural or industrial. Time irreversibly passes, energy irreversibly flows while in some cases material is transformed to waste (hydrocarbons to greenhouse gases is the classic example). In addition, the systems irrevocable age due to the action of friction. Energy flow does positive work but this is always accompanied by friction doing negative work. Many scientists take these fundamental principle into account but society at large does not understand or take into account the impact that these principles.

  11. Rodster says:

    “The world’s best scientists have been pretty consistently wrong in their appraisals of climate change. They have been wrong about the speed of its onset and its severity in the short term.”

    Hmm, tend to agree with that. Alton Rd in Miami Beach, FL is at the point now with regards to sea level rise that, that area already is experiencing street flooding not from heavy rains but from “high tides along with onshore winds”. It’s not uncommon to witness sea water bubbling up from the sewers which threatens the fresh water supply.

    Residents of that area have been finding the need for alternative parking to keep their vehicles from street flooding.

    It’s not just the Alton Rd area being affected by sea level rise but other low lying areas in Miami that are being threatened already by sea level rise. The State Gov has issued a mandate that now State or Local City official is allowed to mention Global Warming or Climate Change.

    India is currently experiencing prolonged droughts with high record temperatures (47c) and streets where the asphalt is melting.

  12. Rodster says:

    Typo, should have read:

    The State Gov has issued a mandate that now State or Local City official “ARE NOT” allowed to mention Global Warming or Climate Change.