Monthly Archives: July 2019

Reflections on the (Real Possibility) of the End of the World

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010.jpg

Combating the fire on the Deepwater Horizon.

Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the recent UN report on the destruction of the ecosystem, and Jared Diamond’s and Bill McKibbon’s worries about whether the human race we will survive our current crises. I began these discussions about the end of life on earth like this:

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the end of the world. No, not the “Jesus is coming back” end of the world—which is obviously nonsense—but the end of human life brought about human activity. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, “an epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” (Wikipedia)

I would now like to offer my own brief reflections on how we should respond to the ecological crisis. (For the moment I’ll ignore other existential risks like nuclear war, pandemics, asteroids, etc.) My initial response is “if the world is going to end, there is little I can do about it and if not’s going to end then I’m wasting my time worrying about it.” 

Of course, this assumes a (somewhat) fatalistic perspective. The earth and the life on it aren’t predetermined to end or not end. Its fate depends on the choices we make. So we can, collectively, do something about it. Will we? I don’t know. That depends largely on whether we can solve the problem of collective action. In the interim, I’m left where I began, doing what little I can to call attention to these issues while, at the same time, trying to enjoy my life and help those within my sphere of influence, primarily my family. 

I admit to having often wondered if, on balance, it would be better if humanity went extinct. (I’ve written on this topic many times.) An honest look at human history as well as the state of the world today reveals that it is regularly a terrible place. Yet there is something sad about it all just vanishing. After all, given long enough, maybe we can transform ourselves and bring about a heaven on earth. 

Yet I often feel that I live like those musicians who played on as the Titanic sank. I eat, read, write, watch TV, exercise, and enjoy my family all the while knowing that my life and perhaps all life will soon end. It just seems pointless to worry about things over which I have little control. What can I do about the fact that families are being separated at the US border and children placed in filthy camps; that radical economic inequality is a paradigm of injustice; that the environment and ecosystem are being poisoned, that tyrants continue to oppress, and so much more that makes a mockery of what human life should be? 

In the meantime, I try to love my family, stay healthy, enjoy the beauty that surrounds me, and do what little I can—like write this blog post. That may not be much, but for now, it’s the best I can do. Then again, maybe such acceptance and resignation is simply laziness or cowardice. In the end, I just don’t know the best way to live. 

And the meaning of life, if it has any, definitely remains beyond my comprehension. I wish I understood more, but I do not. I long ago resigned myself to my ignorance about the big questions, never wanting to claim to know what other ignorant people are so sure of.

So here’s to hoping that we, or our posthuman ancestors, somehow survive … and flourish. 

(Below are two brief TED talks on the subject and then two longer detailed ones about the multitude of environmental and ecological catastrophes that seemingly await us.)


The Basics of Bill McKibben’s, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”

Bill McKibben in 2016

In my last post, I discussed some of the key themes in Jared Diamond’s new book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis.  Today I’d like to do the same for Bill McKibben new book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

McKibbon worries, among other things, that: 1) the world’s oceans will warm sufficiently in the next 100 years to stop oxygen production and undermine the food chain resulting in mass human starvation; 2) melting permafrost will release microbes and viruses; 3) melting ice sheets melt will trigger earthquakes; 4) the added weight of seawater will bend the Earth’s crust; 5) rising carbon dioxide levels will affect human cognitive ability;  and more. Science provides evidence for all of these worries.

Consider just the food supply; we all need to eat after all. The grains which supply most of the world’s calories—rice, corn, wheat—are all under stress from heat and drought. As the planet warms the pressure on these basic crops will intensify. And, needless to say, food shortages are connected to chaos and violence. Moreover, even if food remains plentiful, transportation of that food is also susceptible to threats from climate change, like flooding and drought. Furthermore, there are concerns about the nutritional value of crops grown in high carbon dioxide environments. And while bees die, pests are thriving on our hotter planet. (McKibbon backs up all these claims with scientific evidence.)

Consider too that rising ocean levels will lead to an unimaginable refugee crisis as various areas of earth become uninhabitable. The median estimate, from the International Organization for Migration, is that we may see two hundred million climate refugees by 2050. And, in the not too distant future, New York, Boston, and Miami will feel the effects of climate change too. Moreover, a team of economists predicted a 12 percent risk that global warming could reduce global economic output by 50 percent by 2100. So the climate crisis will eventually affect us all.

I will reflect on our catastrophic global problems in my next post.

The Basics of Jared Diamond’s, “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis”.

Jared diamond.jpg

Jared Diamond

[This post continues the discussion from the previous one.]

In the Intelligencer interviewed Jared Diamond about his new book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. Diamond’s book, “addresses itself to a world very obviously in crisis, and tries to lift some lessons for what to do about it from the distant past.”

[For the uninitiated, Diamond’s works include: The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991), a work of evolutionary psychology; Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), which offered a three-word explanation for how the West rose to the status of global empire; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition (2005), a series of case studies about how environmental challenge led ancient civilizations to fall into disarray; The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (2012), which asked what we can learn from traditional societies; and now Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019), where he highlights what we can learn from societies that have faced upheaval but still endured.]

While Diamond tries to show us a path through our current crisis he is not pollyannish. In answer to the question “How likely do you think that … the whole network of civilization would collapse?” Diamond replies:

I would estimate the chances are about 49 percent that the world as we know it will collapse by about 2050. I’ll be dead by then but my kids will be, what? Sixty-three years old in 2050. So this is a subject of much practical interest to me. At the rate we’re going now, resources that are essential for complex societies are being managed unsustainably. Fisheries around the world, most fisheries are being managed unsustainably, and they’re getting depleted. Farms around the world, most farms are being managed unsustainably. Soil, topsoil around the world. Fresh water around the world is being managed unsustainably. With all these things, at the rate we’re going now, we can carry on with our present unsustainable use for a few decades, and by around 2050 we won’t be able to continue it any longer. Which means that by 2050 either we’ve figured out a sustainable course, or it’ll be too late.

As for a sustainable course through our current crisis, Diamond states that we must: 1) acknowledge the crisis; 2) accept responsibility for the crisis; and 3) deal with the crisis through a combination of individual, corporate, and governmental action.

Now there are many threats to humanity but Diamond doesn’t believe in ranking them. It’s like a marriage in which you have to get many things right for a successful marriage—money, children, sex, in-laws, etc. So we can’t prioritize:

We have to avoid a nuclear holocaust. If we have a nuclear holocaust, we’re finished, even if we solve climate change. We have to solve climate change because if we don’t solve climate change but we deal with a nuclear holocaust, we’re finished. If we solve climate change and don’t have a nuclear holocaust but we continue with unsustainable resource use, we’re finished. And if we deal with the nuclear problem and climate change and sustainable use, but we maintain or increase inequality around the world, we’re finished. So, we can’t prioritize … We got to solve all four of those problems.

A particular problem for the United States in this regard is its misguided belief in its own exceptionalism. This precludes it learning from other countries how to better deal with, for example, health care, education, or climate change. Yet Diamond states unequivocally that “the idea that the United States is exceptional … is nonsense.” Diamond concludes that while it will take international cooperation to solve our most pressing problems he is unsure of whether or not we’ll succeed.

I will continue my discussion of catastrophic global problems in my next post.

Are We Heading Toward Environmental Catastrophe?

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010.jpg

The fire on the Deepwater Horizon.

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the end of the world. No, not the “Jesus is coming back” end of the world—which is obviously nonsense—but the end of human life brought about human activity. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, “an epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” (Wikipedia)

Let me begin with a brief summary of a recent article on this topic. In a Washington Post op-ed, “Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the coming catastrophe,” the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker notes that

A new United Nations report projecting the extinction of one-eighth of all animal and plant species should rattle the cages of any remaining skeptics regarding climate change and the central role humans have played in Earth’s accelerating destruction … 
Finding out that 1 million species face extinction without radical corrective changes in human behavior is akin to finding out you have a fatal disease. One day you have a thousand problems; the next, you have just one. Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the catastrophic potential posed by climate change and the decimating effects of careless consumerism around the globe.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse — generally considered to be conquest, war, famine and death — weren’t far off the mark. Today, we might revise the New Testament version to include plastics, emissions, deforestation and Homo sapiens.

Describing the UN report, which was the result of a three-year study by hundreds of scientists from around the world, Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as chair of the panel, wrote in a statement that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” As Parker highlights:

The report makes the essential connection to human wellness, as opposed to merely caring about the horrors endured by sea creatures dying with their stomachs packed with plastic or Arctic animals starving to death as the ground melts beneath their feet. If something hurts economies and schoolchildren, we eventually get around to paying attention. 

(A recently reviewed a book which goes into existential crisis. And I will continue my discussion of catastrophic global problems in my next post.)

Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?

The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge in Buryatia.

In my last post on outgrowing my childhood religious beliefs, I said this:

Some ideas are mostly self-evident and others just aren’t available to you…. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun…and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead…or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two.

This claim elicited the following slightly edited comment from Professor Darrell Arnold.  

This issue of trying to believe things is interesting. We have all kind of beliefs. I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. (Professor Arnold is right about this.)

Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory, require an education. Yet because the evidence is quite straightforward, they generate consensus once someone has learned the methods of research in these areas and how correctly examine the evidence.

Then there are the metaphysical beliefs such as those you mention (as well as beliefs about ethics or aesthetics.) When it comes to metaphysics it’s difficult to know what counts as good evidence.

But what is apparent is the degree to which people rationalize their religious beliefs. To really believe in God, the father almighty, that a man walked on water or rose from the dead or that the spirit of the universe is contained in a wafer — that takes some hard-core suspension of disbelief and (a lot of) rationalization. It’s both frightening and fascinating that we are so ready to do this for views that we have been told are sacrosanct.

As evidence for such far-fetched beliefs, people often appeal to “inner experience” as evidence. Yet there is no clear analysis of what type of inner experience would be adequate for forming a belief in miracles, the resurrection of the dead or that some god is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Clearly, as Hume pointed out, there is always a more plausible account for a miracle than that the miracle actually happened. And it’s easy to argue that finite beings can’t experience the infinite. 

Yet there is no argument or evidence that would suffice, for the adamant believers, to falsify their beliefs. They believe because they want to and the evidence presented for these beliefs is disingenuous—usually, it is based on religious experience. Those who have had such experiences then accept, normally whole cloth, the group of beliefs that their particular religion are supposed to believe. The religious experience, of course, doesn’t justify those beliefs.

One of the most interesting things about religious views is the set of social conventions and institutions set up to try to guarantee their unquestioning acceptance. Another is the certainty many believers claim to have despite a clear lack of evidence for their views.

Those in religious institutions, of course, have material interests in maintaining those institutions. But much of the rationale behind the dogmatist’s effort to ensure they never doubt is the deep insecurity of the dogmatists themselves. When the reasons for belief are so poor, believers take comfort knowing that others remain convinced of the ideas.

In any case, fear and intimidation are cornerstones of religious education. In standard Christian and Muslim traditions, children are taught they will be eternally punished if they have false beliefs, and that they should never question tradition and the authority of their religious institutions. So not only must believers engage in difficult mental gymnastics to try to sound rational to themselves but those who oversee the institutions must work hard to try to ensure that believer never begin to doubt. 

To reiterate, some ideas are self-evident. We don’t have to work hard to believe that it’s raining when it’s raining or that we’re hungry when we’re hungry. Other ideas require hard work and continual suspension of disbelief.

The paradox is that the more difficult religious ideas are often held with the greatest certainty. But believing in them requires continual effort which raises questions about what existential and social functions such ideas play. Why are they thought so important that billions of people suspend rational thinking and accept them? And why do institutions work so diligently to try to ensure that believers don’t dare question them?