Why i think we’re all doomed and my response to it.
OK, frivolous title for a serious subject. I often assert that i believe we are one of the final generations of the species, and that Homo sapiens will soon become extinct, without explaining why. Hence this blog post.
In detail, my belief is as follows: Sometime in the very near future, by which i mean a couple of generations, our species will have become extinct, and that it is unlikely that enough will be done to prevent this. I’m aware that it’s long been popularly believed that the world is about to end and i’m open to the possibility that i’ve done this. Moreover, i realise that in a sense, the belief that human beings are about to disappear without trace is an unusual belief for a Christian. Nonetheless, it is what i believe.
I have several reasons for thinking this is so, and i’m going to present two of them in detail. I’m not going to mention climate change as one of them because i don’t want to engage with that argument. Nor will i be talking about the question of overpopulation. Even so, there is an interesting tangential argument about high population which is relevant. It’s known as the “Doomsday Argument”:
There are said to have been somewhere near 80 thousand million humans on this planet. The human population at most times since the Mount Toba eruption during the last ice age has been increasing, and though there are some drops due to the Four Horsemen the general trend is not only upwards but exponentially so: population is currently doubling about every three decades. I was born at a time when the world population was less than half its current size and if growth continues in this way, children born in 2042 will be born into a world whose population is about twice as big as now.
If the lifetime of this species (and any predecessors able to conceive of something like the idea of the end of the world) is finite and population increases over most of its history, and if we can consider ourselves to have been born at a random point in that history, the probability that we have been born near the end is higher than at other times simply because there are more people now than ever before. Therefore, it is more likely than ever before that we are about to become extinct, and with each passing generation the probability increases. Therefore, there is not only a relatively high risk that we are the last generation, but our children are even more likely to be it, and so on, as long as the population is rising.
Although i thought of this independently, this is quite a well-known argument for imminent human extinction. An important implication for a parent is that one’s children should be prepared for difficult circumstances to a greater degree than usual.
Another reason is the increasing complexity of the infrastructure. As technology changes, we become more dependent on a system which involves enough people to have sufficient skills to keep it going, and for there to be sufficient material resources to enable this. This has in fact been the case for a very long time, but it is also a trend which increases with the rate of technological change. This also involves increasing risk. A Specific example is our reliance on distant sources of energy such as power stations and oil and coal deposits, which depend on complex systems to continue functioning. Another instance is the dependence of telecommunications on a physical infrastructure such as mobile ‘phone networks, cable-based internet and, again, reliable sources of power. Today, ordinary utilities and the likes of essential drug supplies depend on all of that working well. The more complex this system becomes, the harder it is to guarantee its maintenance. That maintenance also depends on a high level of education, and there needs to be a high level of practical skill to keep it going. If it fails, which is again increasingly likely as time goes by, people will need to be creative, flexible and resourceful.
Other arguments for our extinction in the near future include reduction in biodiversity, the existence of the ability to produce weapons of mass destruction, reliance on scarce physical resources and conversion of those resources into a form which makes them difficult or impossible to recover, the evolution of new pathogens and the appearance of new diseases. Each one of these reasons may be wrong, but taken together there are so many of them that the probability of at least one of them happening is high. It also seems that, just as the Doomsday Argument is that probability of human extinction increases with population, a similar argument could be made that the more long-term risks emerge the longer the species survives, meaning that the risk of our extinction rises in any case.
It’s for these reasons that i believe it’s likely that we are about to die out. I also think that attempts to prevent this, where a risk is apparently identifiable, are not significant: not enough people are doing enough, and there are unknown risks about which we can clearly do nothing. Therefore, i think it’s almost certain we will soon die out.
The question is, how to respond to this, and this is where i make two different kinds of response. One is internal: i think this is effectively a bereavement and that thinking of it in those terms explains quite a lot of how people behave. Deep down, many people have a hunch that we haven’t got long to go. They therefore respond as if they’re grieving, which i’ve possibly over-enthusiastically seen as a five-stage process involving denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I would like to reach the stage of acceptance and stay there. Some suggested manifestations of each stage might be:
Denial: I would say climate change denial here but i don’t want to annoy anyone. Therefore, i’m going to give the example of a general unwillingness of people to face the prospect of changing their own approach to how they live in a manner which is beneficial to themselves. Sorry to be vague.
Anger: The Occupy movement, demonstrations and non-violent direct action.
Bargaining: The Transitions movement, which inspired me to write this entry in the first place.
Depression: I don’t really need to justify this i think.
Acceptance: This is a stage which is quite unstable, not one which makes one superior but, i hope, one which i’ve reached. Note that it is beyond depression. I am not claiming that this is a depressing prospect, simply an inevitable one.
Note also that this doesn’t mean i will forget about the whole project of attempting to alleviate whatever the oncoming disaster is. I try to act in such a way that if all people acted similarly they would be able to prevent our extinction.
My other response is to ensure that children are able to remain resourceful, inspired and engaged with the world in such a way that they can benefit from any situation the world throws at them. I am trying to provide opportunities that maximise self-sufficiency and a general rather than a specific level of competence. This belief is a major motivation for me making the children aware of their choice with respect to their upbringing. Also, as many children as possible need this flexibility, which is not currently being provided by schools.
Hence this is a big reason, behind it all, to see schools as inadvisable and hazardous to the long-term survival of the species.