— by Geoff Olson —
Eschatology | eskəˈtäləjē |
noun: the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.
“Bring out your dead!” a man yells from a horse-drawn cart full of bodies in the medieval comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A villager, carrying an old man over his shoulder, approaches the cart. “I’m not dead yet,” the old man weakly protests. The cart driver is reluctant to accept a carcass showing signs of life, but after a few coins change hands, he strikes the old man over the head and pitches him onto the heap of bodies.
“Near-term human extinction” nets 33,000 hits on Google. It’s a meme that leaves me feeling like the medieval geezer in the Python skit: stubbornly resistant to its message of impending termination.
Many respectable climate scientists insist humanity has crossed several irreversible climate thresholds. Some also say the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is erring on the side of caution with overly optimistic projections concerning global warming. To avoid being alarmist, the IPCC has refrained from factoring in feedback effects such as methyl hydrate release from the oceans and the loss of heat reflectivity from shrinking Arctic ice.
Jem Bendell was a professor of sustainability leadership and founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria, in the UK. Earlier this year, he published dire warnings on his blog after an academic journal refused to publish it. “The evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war,” he warns. Bendell calls for “deep adaptation,” a sort of global Marshall Plan to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.
This November, an estimated six thousand members of the “The Extinction Rebellion Group” blocked five bridges in London, protesting inaction on climate change. The more fatalistic of the climate Cassandras insist that it’s too little too late. “We’re doomed,” says Mayer Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist and fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute. “I’m not going to write anymore because there’s nothing more that can be said,” he told The Guardian.
Guy McPherson, an emeritus professor who taught natural resources, ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, coined “near-term human extinction” back in 2007. For over a decade he has been archiving increasingly dire climate change reports and commentary on his website “Earth Bats Last.” McPherson, who projects the end of our species by 2030 from cascading climate-related disasters, posted a suicide notice for readers on the front page of his site. “I’m not advocating for or against suicide,” he avers.
Really? Suicide is a viable option?
There are now Facebook support groups for people grieving humanity’s last few years. Experts less pessimistic than Bendell, McPherson, and others have drawn attention to some terrifying recent findings in climatology and other sciences. Paleontologists say we are presiding over Earth’s sixth great extinction. As a species, we are hardly free from biological limits: any population of organisms that grows exponentially (the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050) faces resource limitations at some point. It’s an iron law in biology, as reliable as mitosis.
“Things don’t look good” is the understatement of the Anthropocene age. However, believing in near-term human extinction is like interpreting the partial and probability-based climate projections as a secular Book of Revelation. But if we are free to anticipate the human-extinction threat of climate change, we are also free to anticipate lesser scenarios at the other end of the climate projections – even if the latter still involves increasing wildfire, hurricanes, sea level rise, species loss and massive dislocations of human populations.
The probability of human extinction (a “known unknown”) is one thing. Its subjective dimension is another: could climatology morph into a form of eschatology? What if near-term human extinction is mainstreamed as a widespread cultural belief? Christian fundamentalists would presumably welcome the End Times, while New Agers retreat into superstitions of cosmic deliverance. Secular humanists, for their part, would be comforted by impending nonexistence. Nihilism on steroids.
The climate Cassandras are already making for some strange bedfellows. In August, the Trump administration chose to freeze fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. Presumably a rationale was embedded in comprehensive environmental impact statement by the National Highway and Safety Administration. The NHSA combed climate science literature to cite a possible global five degree celsius temperature increase by 2100.
You see the problem. The possibility of near-term human extinction does not threaten the power elite. If anything, it could be quite convenient to them. For the rest of us, why struggle for corporate regulations, renewable technologies, or any form of social justice for that matter? If we’re cooked, we might as well ditch the vegan diet, pile on the frequent flyer points and go party in a Hummer. If extinction is in the cards, isn’t it better to fulfill our daily social commitments as best we can rather than live a life of despairing, paralyzed awareness?
As professor McPherson writes, “I have sacrificed my paid position as a tenured full professor at a major university, the attendant privilege, the associated easy money, and virtually every relationship in my life in the pursuit of rational scholarship.” I have no doubt about the man’s sincerity and his commitment to rationality, but the biologist’s own bio brings the words of Friedrich Nietzsche to mind: stare into the abyss long enough and the abyss stares back.
Scientists say that a volcanic eruption blocked out the sun for 18 months in the year 536 AD, triggering a full century of crop failures and famine across Europe. The early medieval era made for a miserable stretch of existence. Yet humanity struggled through.
There is a possibility that our species will survive a climate catastrophe already in the works, one different in both degree and kind from its medieval precursor. For me to believe otherwise is too despairing a prospect (your mileage may vary, as they say in auto ads).
Capitalism’s model of infinite growth is already coming up against the real-world restraints of a finite planet. Yet, until I see undeniable evidence that the human experiment is over and done with, I will insist on exclaiming, like the old geezer in Monty Python’s absurdist take on the Dark Ages, “I’m not dead yet!”
image © Kiosea39