Do Humans Deserve to Survive?
“The world still sings. But the warnings are wise. We have lost much, and we’re risking much more. Some risks, we see coming. But there are also certainties hurtling our way that we fail to notice. The dinosaurs failed to anticipate the meteoroid that extinguished them. But dinosaurs didn’t create their own calamity. Many others don’t deserve the calamity that we’re creating.” - Carl Safina, The View From Lazy Point
Decades of fighting the wholesale destruction of the wild, witnessing the displacement of wild communities, seeing the war on wild beings continue, failing to stop fragile ecological niches from being crossed and decimated by access roads and channels, and this is how it feels: exhausting.
I’m sure the earth is all too familiar.
We see the studies and reports. They never improve. Previous assessments (already bleak) for the impact of climate instability on wildlife put 7% of mammals and 4% of birds in the “heavily impacted” range. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just updated that analysis to move nearly half of all mammals and a quarter of all threatened bird species into that category. That doesn’t include the quarter of all the world’s mammals that currently are threatened with extinction from habitat loss and poaching. That doesn’t include the 90% of the Great Barrier Reef suffering from coral bleaching.
This list literally does not end.
“One in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken.” That is the summation of the threat that a group of ecologists, biologists, and economists (of all people) came to after a meeting this month at the Vatican (of all places). There are models: attempts to quantify what can only be considered a catastrophic turn of events in the timeline of the Earth. There are campaigns: attempts to tap into some deeply buried empathy on the part of the civilized by reminding us that statistics mean rhinos, elephants, gibbons, black-footed ferrets, and polar bears.
They aren’t dying: civilization is killing them. We are killing them.
As industrialization crossed a new threshold, into a world where carbon dioxide has moved above 400 parts-per-million, seemingly “permanently”, we are killing ourselves as well. The UK based NGO, Global Challenges Foundation, found that with current scenarios, “the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.” Not to be outdone, professional doomsayer Guy McPherson believes there won’t be a human left on earth by mid-2026.
Like everyone else worn out by having to find a morsel of empathy, even just enough to try to leverage sympathy amongst other civilized humans to even want to care about imminent catastrophe, even likely to directly impact our own lives: there’s a breaking point. We’re left wondering if we deserve to survive the extinction event that we’ve started and continue amplifying? Didn’t we do this to ourselves? Wouldn’t the earth be better off without us?
At times, you get so deep in it that for a moment you actually feel just a fraction of this loss. In those moments, you can almost celebrate the notion of human extinction. Or at least hope that an asteroid hits the planet, setting off a chain of reactions faster and greater than anything civilization and its unfortunate human creators would shoulder. Realistically, that’s an escape, arguably one we truly don’t deserve.
But this is the problem with that question: it’s really fucking stupid.
It’s a pointless question that turns a real crisis situation into an existential dilemma. This is the kind of philosophical quandary that got us into this mess in the first place. The ability to disengage from reality and deflect the consequences of our actions happens because we aren’t grounded. We aren’t feeling this loss. We aren’t seeing it.
To a great degree, we can’t. Our brains evolved for life in nomadic hunter-gatherer camps. We evolved to know relatively local populations in great and intimate detail. Our impact, prior to being scaled irreparably through technology, was largely negligible on a global scale. Our ability and reach outgrew our evolutionary capacity to understand and control it. This is the tragedy of history.
But it is the underlying basis for our reality and the wild communities of this earth are dying as a result.
We are dying. But this is a biological consequence, not a moralistic one. The probability of human extinction isn’t payback. The earth isn’t vengeful. A destabilized climate creates dozens of potential scenarios where the earth simply becomes uninhabitable for humans.
That is a possibility.
In terms of certainty, we have a little more clarity, as biologist Carl Safina points out:
“The current concentration [of carbon dioxide] is higher than it’s been for several million years; it’s rising one hundred times faster than at any time in the past 650,000 years. The planet has survived much higher greenhouse gas concentrations; civilization hasn’t.”
To treat this as an existential threat, a crisis of faith, is seeking absolution. It’s looking for an easy way out.
That is luxury we surely don’t deserve. And for two reasons: the first being that humans didn’t create this mess, not as a whole at least. Civilization is a historical epoch. Settled societies, built around granaries and agriculture, begin to spot the earth barely more than 12,000 years ago. The cities that served as the foundation for the globalized civilization that we’ve inherited are roughly half as old. Civilizations start locally and spread by force.
It is clear that civilization is a human issue, but against the backdrop of millions of years where humans lived in egalitarian bands, our shared lineage of primal anarchy, it is also clear that most of us are captives of this beast, not the engineers. Nearly all humans alive don’t get to really reap the benefits of an extinction-causing glut of material and economic or spiritual bounty. As many examples as we have of humans actively destroying this earth, there are infinite counter-examples of how humans have lived with and within its wild communities. If we want to say humans deserve extinction, we doom the struggling nomadic foragers and semi-sedentary gardeners for the same mess they are actively resisting. If we’re talking about what is deserved and what isn’t, I’d definitely say we don’t have the right to give up on their behalf.
The second reason is that whatever conclusion we reach doesn’t matter. At all.
The problem with such a grandiose question as the fate of an entire species is that it’s unable to recognize the delusion of control we believe we have. Granted, we have militarized our ambitions. There are plots to eliminate mosquitoes now that echo the campaigns that wiped bison, wolves, and passenger pigeons out of the United States as surely as many native populations. If we doom ourselves, it will be incidentally: nuclear power, catastrophic shifts in a survivable climate, or a wholesale dependence upon a climate suitable for agriculture (a luxury we surely will lose).
Unless there’s a particularly sinister plot to create a gas that will target and finalize humanity, our discussions on the merits of human survival are pointless. Either extinction will take us or it won’t. Whichever way that unfolds, it will be our fault, but it won’t be our choice (outside of the individual level).
The arrogance of this kind of question is blind hubris: the same thing that got us in our predicament. And it’s the same arrogance that will keep us blind to seeing outside of it.
This is what we know: the earth is changing.
The stability that made settlements and agriculture possible is fading, quickly. We know that politicians and priests, in every single instance of civilizations collapsing prior, could never reconcile their vision with reality. Borders increasingly become death traps. Nationalism and xenophobia increasingly become distractions. This is exactly what we face now. Our situation absolutely has precedents. What has changed is the scale.
That is what must be accounted for. Attempts to correct the course are futile. And worse, they’re pathetic. More optimistic figures for human extinction tend to range in hundreds of years instead of decades. Are we really this resolved to defend our children’s executioner, in the event that we ourselves are spared? If we recognize that we can’t look to political, corporate and religious figures to see the wailing within the walls, then it is vital to recognize that their entire political system can’t save us. Civilization won’t save us. Agriculture won’t save us.
We are heading into unchartered territory. But there is a precedent here as well. We have survived ice ages. We have survived massive shifts in climate. Deserved or not, humans are pretty damn adaptable. Our ancestors survived the last ice age the same way coyotes did: embracing a fission-fissure society, based around mobility, shifted from being largely hunter-scavengers to hunter-gatherers. Mobility, adaptability, resilience; the things that made us egalitarian are the things that saw us through unthinkable periods of flux. I tend to think this isn’t a coincidence.
All of those aspects are still within us. They still shape the way we see, think, feel and interact with the world. History, the time since civilization, is a glaring contradiction to that reality, but, in the end, that matters little. There will be no cosmic justice.
History, all of the supposed achievements of civilization, abandoned skyscrapers and power plants that will stand as tombstones to an era of unnatural and unthinkable cruelty, will become its own dustbin. There is some reassurance in that, but there is no comfort. There are predictions for how our path unfolds, but there is no crystal ball. There is no one pulling strings.
There are certainties, possibilities and probabilities. A certainty is that things will get worse. A probability is that life will be better off because of it. Most likely, that won’t be immediately clear. Our survival, like the survival of half of all existing mammals and a quarter of existing birds, is a possibility.
It may not be a choice, but fighting for that possibility is.
It’s understandable to want to give in. It’s comforting to think that we might be powerful enough to wish punishment on ourselves. That penance is on our terms. But it’s an exercise in futility. A luxury we can no longer afford. If we want to resist the worst-case scenario, then we’re better off starting with the right questions. Instead of pontificating the merit of human existence, we should recognize that our own survival is intertwined with the fate of all other life. Our struggle is inseparable from theirs.
Our lives are inseparable from theirs.
The question should be: when will we start acting like it?
For more of this discussion, check out Black and Green Review.
 Carl Safina, The View From Lazy Point. New York: Picador, 2011. Pgs 2-3.
 Safina, 2011. Pg 71.