Near-Term Human Extinction (or: is there really any point to anything anymore?)
Not too long ago, due to a near-lethal combination of boredom and morbid interest, I capitulated to some weapons-grade clickbait from Vice.com: an article entitled Some Credible Scientists Believe Humanity Is Verrrrrry Close to Destruction: Oh well, we’ve had a good run,” written by Nathan Curry. Now, as someone who takes humanity’s responsibility to future (and current) generations very seriously, I don’t usually bother with this sort of fashionably ironic defeatism – or Vice in general – but a link about halfway down the page caught my eye. I’m intrigued by other people’s varied reactions to the unfolding climate crisis, and this long essay, entitled “The Irreconcilable Acceptance of Near-Term Extinction,” grabbed my attention in a major way. I decided to read it all the way through, and I’m very glad that I did.
At 11,000 words, this essay could easily have been the undergraduate dissertation of the edgiest young adult alive, but no – it was written by one Daniel A. Drumwright, who styles himself as a ‘lifelong radical environmentalist, who has followed climate science for the last twenty-four years, and has been a ‘feral collapse theorist’ for the last twelve years.”
Okay. So not an edgy young adult. From the available information, he is most likely in the baby boomer generation. Crucially, if we are to take his words at face value, he is also substantially more aware of the precarious state of the Earth’s natural systems than most people. So if he believes that there’s no chance of averting the climate crisis, we have to assume that he’s his reasons, and it isn’t just a wild guess.
Drumwright begins by stating that, in his final analysis, humanity has now crossed numerous irreversible climatic thresholds, and in so doing, we have brought the extinction of all life, including all humans, into clear view. Drumwright’s further belief is that this will be a ‘near-term’ event – that this will happen in the lifetimes of all but the oldest and most infirm. His essay makes no attempt to persuade the reader of this (“…this essay is not intended to be informative, but rather entirely commiserative”), but in any case, this is not the most interesting part of the essay, regardless of where you stand on that issue. What is most interesting is the psychological reaction of the author to his own bleak conclusion. It is this reaction, rather than the belief in near-term extinction, that I will be addressing in this article.
The world according to Daniel A. Drumwright
Despite the length of Drumwright’s essay, his conclusion is really rather simple: since human beings no longer have any real agency in addressing the problem of our own extinction, any and all morality becomes null and void and all pre-existing values become meaningless:
What else is NTE other than the final acceptance of the consequences of our species’ fundamental inability to live in balance with our environment? The answer to virtually every question we are ever going to ask, from here on out — post acceptance — can’t honestly be anything other than: ‘It no longer matters.’”
Despite the author’s repeated assertions of intellectual superiority, his conclusion is tantamount to throwing your hands up in the air and shouting “screw it – I quit!” It seems obvious to me that this is an emotional, not a rational conclusion. I sympathise – climate activism can be thankless, particularly if you have been doing it for decades and seen little in the way of results. I have written before on the subject of rational responses to climate fatalism, and Drumwright’s response is the one of three that’s akin to stealing from a dying family member because they’ll be dead soon anyway. It is a particularly extreme form of ethical nihilism. One wonders whether, when the author’s tantrum has run its course, he might reconsider. I certainly hope so.
As well as being unethical, his argument is also plainly nonsensical, because it is based on the idea that something only has value if it will be around forever. Drumwright mourns the imminent loss of all life, but wrongly attributes meaninglessness to that which still exists in the meantime. It’s like going off and committing suicide because you’ve just learned of the inevitable heat death of the universe, because, as he puts it, What difference exists between a known end, and its ending, but time?” It is hard to take such a thought seriously.
Drumwright, from the outset, takes pains to be seen above all as an intelligent, rational person, but does not manage to mask his pain, his guilt, his hopelessness and his alienation despite his best efforts. As a cerebral type, the author is almost certainly the type to talk the ear off a psychologist rather than cry (I recognise it because I, too, have this tendency). The rambling, overly-long nature of the essay strikes me as the attempt of someone with quite a severe case of alexithymia (the chronic inability to identify one’s own emotions) to express and process his difficult emotional reality. The essay is, quite simply, a cry for help. Tellingly, Drumwright mentions the word ‘suicide’ no fewer than fifteen times, and this is exemplified in the following statement:
“As breeding, consuming, polluting animals on a planet choking to death from our affluence, wouldn’t it be considered the highest display of human consciousness, to wilfully end our self-destructive lives as a testament to the highest level of anthropocentric conscientiousness?”
This particular type of burnout reminds me of Ryszard Kapuscinki’s assertion that “when man meets an obstacle that he can’t destroy, he destroys himself instead.” Drumwright admits that he is privileged; one wonders whether, being someone who has been generally able to get whatever he wants in life, his inability to move the mountain of climate change has attacked his ego in a way that he is unable to manage. Trapped in the conclusion that he is utterly powerless, he feels he would rather die than live with the knowledge of what he sees as his own personal failure. Drumwright repeatedly speaks of suicide as a way of taking back control from a universe that will not follow his orders. Tellingly, the very last sentence in his essay is this:
“I am going out on my terms, no one else’s.”
The extreme conclusion of Drumwright’s essay is, at its core, the expression of a very extreme personal attitude to life: that if he can’t have it all, he won’t have any of it. In my view, this is quite plainly the product of an overly privileged life. I pity the author, but I am furious at him too. This kind of thinking is contagious, because if I’ve learned anything from the last five years of politics, it’s that most people prefer to hear a simple idea than the truth, because truth is far too complex. Sadly, the climate crisis is extraordinarily complex, from both a practical and ethical standpoint, and the draw of ethical nihilism may prove quite potent to those who prefer simplicity.
If only it ended there. But no – Drumwright goes further than this. Not content to take out his frustration on himself, he’d quite like to take it out on the rest of us, too. This is where my sympathy for him quite dramatically ends.
Having decided that he will commit suicide as soon as things get tough, and having thrown selflessness out at quite an early point for reasons not entirely explained, Drumwright’s manifesto for living out the remainder of his life reads as follows:
“I have finally left my past moral imperatives to wither in the solar winds, and have now come down on the side of ethical hedonism as being the only way I can truly be present with [Near-Term Extinction]…so, all things considered, I would suggest we start making plans to sell off everything we have while we still can, and roam this world and experience the natural wonder it still possesses, while our existing civility and privilege still affords us this last opportunity.”
The cult of travel is a powerful motivating force amongst affluent baby boomers. For this group, unfettered travel (by aeroplane, naturally) has become a symbol for the highest mode of living…selfishly, of course. Making sure that the species of the Earth suffer as little as possible before they go; enjoying the company of others; helping the less fortunate: these are for penniless losers. Drumwright speaks of experiencing the natural wonder that the world still possesses, but does so in the detached, compassionless manner of the cultural tourist. Having lost his moral compass in the face of adversity, Drumwright wishes to maximise his personal gain whilst becoming wilfully blind to any ill that he might cause to anyone else. His earlier proclamations of “anthopocentric conscientiousness” are exposed as phony, or at the very least something for other people to aspire to. One wonders how true his claim of lifelong environmental campaigning, or any of his claims of formerly living a good life, are at this point.
This conclusion is about as far from intellectual as one could possibly get – it’s the angsty teenager, smashing a handful of daffodils against a bus stop because he hates his parents; it’s the guy who switches on all the lights on Earth day, just for the pure spite of it. This is not a rational or adult way to behave in the world.
So, having laid out Drumwright’s ‘solution’ to Near-Term Extinction as the selfish, immoral and nihilistic mess that it is, are there any alternatives? I think yes.
The next section relates to a hypothetical scenario in which Near-Term Extinction is a certainty, as Drumwright asserts. I myself do not ascribe to this view, although I admit that it is at least a possibility.
How to live well in a dying world
First of all, let me reiterate – as if it were necessary – that the finite nature of all things does not invalidate their worth. The irreducible value of some the most beautiful species on Earth is made all the more starkly apparent when one realises how short their lifespans are – mere days, in some cases. It could be argued, in fact, that our lives hold more meaning because they end. Death might be the great equaliser, but all the but the most stubborn nihilists would agree that a life-well lived is worth more than a life of pain, suffering and selfishness, even after both individuals are dead.
So, let’s say we have ten years left to live. Ten years before all rainforests, ice caps and oceanic ecosystems are gone. Ten years before your life, and the lives of everyone you love, are snuffed out of existence. Ten years before all the artwork ever produced is burnt up in a wildfire, or destroyed by inundation or civil strife. But in those ten years, all those things still exist.
In my view, this punishing deadline makes every single one of these things unthinkably more valuable for the time that they are still around. More than this: every happy moment, every meaningful exchange, every breathtaking vista of wilderness becomes infinitely precious. To destroy anything of value in these last ten years, or to bring pain or suffering instead of love and comfort, would be many times worse than doing so when the end is not in sight. Under such dire conditions, I prefer to follow the advice of Jem Bendell in creating a ‘lesser dystopia’ than to create a worse one, just because a dystopia of one sort or another is the only remaining possibility.
It’s just a hunch, but if I were a betting man I’d put money on Drumwright still being alive and kicking. So to Drumwright, or anyone who agrees with him, I have the following advice:
Take a look around you. Drink in all the beauty and meaning that still exists in this tortured world of ours. Protect it, fight for it, and above all love it. Do so because it won’t be here forever, not in spite of it. Make every day another chance to feel your profound connection to the planet that birthed you. Mourn it if you must, even if it hurts, but don’t abandon it while it still lives.
Do this, Daniel, and trust me – you won’t want to take your life. You’ll want to cherish every moment of it, however much time you might have left.