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.