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We Broke the World

Facing the fact of extinction

Take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Really go look. Observe closely the skin over the cheekbones, the chin, the lips, the cunning little teeth. See the ears and nose, the smooth forehead, the hair and eyebrows. Admire what an intelligent beast you are!

Consider those intelligent beast eyes looking back at you: the tear ducts and the sclera, the delicate fringe of lash, the striated iris’s ring around the empty pupil, that aperture through which the light reflecting off the mirror enters, striking the retina, to be transformed into the image of yourself you’re now watching, an illusion your brain has put together from nerve impulses, a representation of reality unfolding, with a slight delay, after reality itself. If your brain is working within the usual parameters and you haven’t recently taken any psychoactive drugs, though, you won’t generally perceive any temporal gap. How could you? It is your perception itself that lags. You are not looking at “yourself,” not really, but rather at a construct rendered in your mind. For most practical purposes, however, this epistemological gap between reality and perception is only a problem for scientists and philosophers. You know you exist, and unless you’re high, that’s usually good enough.

Now let’s try something. Stare into your pupil. Hang out there a minute. Let yourself get lost in that seemingly bottomless black void.

Now: imagine you don’t exist.

Like a soap bubble popping.

Fog dissipating in morning light.

Gone! Imagine it!

Yet there you are. The implacable fact of your ongoing experience makes this little thought experiment nearly impossible. No doubt you could imagine your own death, your own funeral, perhaps your own conception, and most definitely other scenes, other times and places, in which you are not present. Easily done, and daily, yet to imagine your non-existence as such—indeed to imagine the non-existence of anything, rather than merely the thing’s absence from a situation that need not include it—is one of those mind-bending puzzles, like Zeno’s arrow, that survive from the earliest days of philosophical thought. We are biased to believe in being, especially our own, and have a very difficult time conceiving of non-being, not least because we can only understand non-being in terms of being. One cannot visualize or conceptualize nothing except as a thing or some thing’s absence. And so just as we are phenomenologically and cognitively biased toward presentism, which comprises both a strong belief that the future will be much like the present and a tendency to forget how different the past was, so are we biased toward what we might awkwardly call “presence-ism,” which is to say, a belief that whatever exists is and was and will keep on being.

This fundamental cognitive bias against thinking non-existence makes certain problems challenging for us to comprehend. One such problem is the idea of extinction. It’s highly unlikely that more than a few people, for example, are aware in a vivid, day-to-day way that enormous reptilian monsters once roamed the land we inhabit, though every schoolchild has been apprised of this awesome fact. Even fewer people, perhaps no one at all, walk around grieving Ainsworth’s salamander, the Alvord cutthroat trout, the blue pike, the California grizzly bear, the Carolina parakeet, the Cascade Mountain wolf, the deepwater cisco, the dusky seaside sparrow, the Eastern elk, the Eastern cougar, the eelgrass limpet, Goff’s pocket gopher, the green-blossom pearly mussel, the heath hen, the New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse, the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, the passenger pigeon, the Rocky Mountain locust, the silver trout, the Southern California kit fox, the Xerces blue butterfly, or the umbilicate pebblesnail, just a few of the North American species that have gone extinct due to human activity since the late nineteenth century. It takes a strenuous act of imagination to envision the massed herds and flocks of wild animals that once thundered over land now paved with highways and box store parking lots, dotted with cellphone towers, and crisscrossed by diesel-chugging tractor trailers and buses and SUVs.

And while many people are conceptually aware that we are currently living through a global mass extinction event, who, if called upon to testify to that fact, could offer compelling witness? Most of us live in a world bereft of wildness except for the occasional visit to government-protected land. “Nature” for most Americans means mostly pests—weeds, deer, Canada geese, squirrels, mosquitos, roaches, rats, mice, bats, the occasional possum—plus perhaps wildflowers in spring, the birds that grace our feeders, and charismatic megafauna captured in documentaries. Our bias toward presence inclines us to “normalize” (as they say) whatever is around us, thus leading us to the mistaken impression that the so-called “Sixth Extinction” we are living through is happening somewhere else, in the Great Barrier Reef or the jungles of Costa Rica. Our presence-ism and presentism obscure from us the horrifying truth that mass extinction is happening all around us and has been happening all around us: our world is a graveyard, and we Homo sapiens are the blight that has made it so.

Gone to Earth

Thus we come to the draft of the “Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,” released on May 6, 2019, which managed to break through the spring’s stupefying buzz of daily news about trade war with China, tensions with Iran, presidential corruption, and the ongoing constitutional crisis with some fairly dire announcements:

Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’;
Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’

Current global response insufficient;
‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature; Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good

Most comprehensive assessment of its kind;
1,000,000 species threatened with extinction

The next day it was back to Trump’s taxes, jittery markets, and another school shooting, but for a moment at least, the whirling kinetoscope of our collective acid trip into hell focused briefly on the fact that the planet we live on is dying.

A caveat, for accuracy: the planet itself is not actually dying, only that thin layer of surface life we call “nature” upon which our species depends. As the draft summary reports: “Humanity is a dominant global influence on life on earth, and has caused natural terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems to decline. . . . Global indicators of ecosystem extent and condition have shown a decrease by an average of 47 per cent of their estimated natural baselines, with many continuing to decline by at least 4 per cent per decade.” Elsewhere the summary reports that “the global rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating,” and that “of an estimated 8 million animal and plant species . . . around 1 million are threatened with extinction.” Hammering the point home, the summary tells us that “the rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years is unprecedented in human history.” There is much we could say about the troubled racist, gendered, and imperialist history of the concept of “nature” that the IPBES relies upon, but that history seems overshadowed by what the IPBES is telling us about the present.

Overall, the IPBES summary tells the policymakers for whom it was written that the destruction human beings have caused their environment is enormous and increasing at an accelerating rate with no end in sight absent “transformative change,” which it defines as “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.” The question of how such “transformative change” might be brought about is addressed by the report’s writers as a technical question, and the report concludes with several pages of bullet points offering “approaches for sustainability” such as “conserving, effectively managing and sustainably using terrestrial landscapes” and “improving the sustainability of economic and financial systems.”

An infographic intended for government officials explains how to use “Multi Actor Governance Interventions” as “Levers” to exploit “Leverage Points” to influence “Values and Behaviors. ” A sense of despair settles in.
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

To wit: “Transformative change is facilitated by innovative governance approaches that incorporate existing approaches such as integrative, inclusive, informed and adaptive governance. . . . The synthesis of evidence for key constituents of pathways to sustainability suggests a group of five overarching types of management interventions, or levers, and eight leverage points for transformative change.” The writers even include a helpful diagram (see left).

The report asserts: “Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts.” All we need to do is “unleash values and action,” “reduce inequalities,” and “practice justice,” and everything will be okay.

Humbled by the Void

The IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body with 132 member states, based in Bonn, Germany, established in 2012 “to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development.” It emerged out of the United Nations Environmental Program, in collaboration with other UN agencies, and like the better-known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, with which the IPBES may be compared, it is a complex, international bureaucratic agency that works to aggregate, assess, and summarize scientific research, in this case on the subject of biodiversity, which it then presents to “policymakers” alongside recommendations for action. The IPBES does not support primary scientific research; rather, the experts who work for the platform bring together existing research in a clear format directed toward those who might draft government policies. [1]

The sheer fact of such a body, staffed by scientist-administrators like founding chair Dr. Zakri Abdul Hamid, former science advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia—scientist-administrators who have spent their careers ascending the heights of academia, government, and NGOs—seriously proposing “transformative change” tantamount to a global revolution must bring any reflective reader up short. As with similarly dire reports from similarly august bodies such as the IPCC, the World Bank, and Lloyd’s of London, the disjunct between speaker and message is difficult to make sense of. These are fundamentally conservative actors in fundamentally conservative institutions deeply committed to status quo structures of power saying, in brief, “We broke the world,” and calling for an immediate, abrupt global social upheaval that would make every other revolutionary moment in human history—the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War II, China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution—seem minor by contrast. And not only does the fact of such respectable professionals making such a wild call for revolution astonish and confound, but the idea that such servants of modern institutional life might be able to imagine, much less promote, the revolution in “technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values” they call for suggests an absurdity almost depraved. It is easier to imagine the Pope being a secret Satanist than to imagine the administrators and academics of the IPBES tearing up their CVs and joining Earth First!

Most of us are going to go on about our business within the structural and conceptual constraints of the societies in which we live, even as those societies are threatened with existential collapse, even if we happen to know it.

But this is only an extreme version of the dilemma we all face. The only hope for human civilization lies in a radical, abrupt, and probably violent transformation of that very civilization. Failing this, we all face—all humanity—within our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children—a catastrophic collapse of the biosphere upon which human life depends. This collapse is deeply entangled with but not the same as the ongoing transformation in the global climate system. Climate change is third on the IPBES’s list of the five major direct drivers of biodiversity collapse, having less impact than both changes in land and sea use and the direct exploitation of organisms. And this climate transformation is going to further exacerbate ecological collapse while also bringing to bear immense and widespread pressure on worldwide agriculture and infrastructure.

Yet our bias toward presence and the present makes all of this alarming talk, however emotionally provocative, seem nonetheless always a touch fantastic. Like the academics of the IPBES, most of us are going to go on about our business within the structural and conceptual constraints of the societies in which we live, even as those societies are threatened with existential collapse, even if we happen to know it. The leap to radical resistance or radical disengagement is too great for most of us to make.

We live uneasily the only way we know how, ever more anxious that the earth under our feet is turning to quicksand, while a fierce wind howls at the horizon. Hauling oneself out of one’s elemental presence-ism and presentism is nearly impossible: all the institutions, structures, and systems we live within are predicated on the indefinite persistence of the present. These are the structures and systems and institutions that give our choices meaning, connect us with each other, allow us to see our lives not as transient, atomistic accidents but as coherent, organic parts of a greater whole. Yet as the world changes around us, we are increasingly aware that something is wrong: the future isn’t what it used to be, and the temporal stability we depend on to give our present reality the illusion of persistence seems less and less reliable. We begin to wonder whether thinking fifty, thirty, twenty, or even five years into the future makes any sense, since the global transformation that seems to be steadily approaching—whether for good or for ill, through revolution or through collapse—will overturn everything we hold dear. We find ourselves existentially threatened by ecological collapse and climate change not only in the material sense that it will lead to vast human suffering and billions of deaths but also in a philosophical or psychological sense, in that the promise of imminent catastrophe—or revolution—threatens to make our present day-to-day life meaningless.

Doomsday Parade

In his book Death and the Afterlife, philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that the meaningfulness of our actions today depends on a robust faith in the near-term persistence of human life after our own death. While no one is terribly bothered by the fact that the increasing luminosity of the sun will cause the oceans to evaporate in a billion years or so, Scheffler argues persuasively that most of us would be deeply upset if we were to find out that all human life was fated to end thirty years after our own deaths. The reason for this, Scheffler argues, is that our projects, investments, commitments, goals, and values are to a significant degree dependent on a belief in the continuation of human life. Without the belief in future generations who might build on our work, benefit from it, celebrate it, or remember it, that work itself loses much of its meaning. Scheffler uses the example of cancer research: Why devote yourself to cancer research if you know for a fact that humanity is soon going to be wiped out by an asteroid? Other examples abound: Why have a child? Why write books? Why work for labor rights or racial justice? Why do anything?

Scheffler’s point is not that one should resort to nihilism in the face of human extinction, only that many people would because of the rarely considered fact that most of our actions today only make sense if we believe there will be humans tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, to the point that we are, on some level, more committed to the idea of collective human survival than we are to our own. This commitment might seem to fly in the face of our presence-ism and presentism, but I would argue that it is on the contrary yet more evidence of our bias toward what exists now—which is to say, human beings and a human present. Our presence-ism and presentism at once feed and feed upon our faith in the persistence of human beings on earth.

It should be pointed out that neither the IPBES nor mainstream science supports the conclusion that we face near-term human extinction as a result of ecological collapse or global warming. The business-as-usual scenarios established by the IPBES and IPCC predict a hellish and chaotic future that will with high probability destabilize modern human civilization and likely lead to immense human suffering and death. Significant uncertainty surrounds even these scenarios, however, since contemporary scientists don’t have a good idea of what happens on short time scales with shocks to the global ecosystem as powerful as those we have triggered. Observed changes regularly exceed those predicted by current models: for instance, a recent study reported Arctic permafrost melting “exceeding modeled future thaw depths for 2090 under IPCC RCP 4.5,” that is, seventy years earlier than expected. [2]

The paleoclimate record can show us what happens in general when the global climate and environment undergoes abrupt transformation, which is often mass extinction, but the record lacks the precision to tell us exactly how abrupt. As geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes in her book Timefulness, discussing the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period when the earth was up to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than today and which provides the nearest geological analogue to the climate we might eventually expect from global warming: “The sedimentary record of the PETM, with a resolution no better than a few millennia, does not allow us to distinguish between an essentially instantaneous release of carbon from a belching ocean and a longer-term (1,000-year) combustion of coal or peat.” Looking at observed changes in the earth’s geological record gives us only a fuzzy picture of how and how fast the earth’s biosphere and climate undergo rapid transformation. Climatic and geological changes like those which caused the End-Permian extinction, to take another example, including the release of enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, could have taken thousands of years, or they could have happened much more quickly, perhaps over centuries or even decades. The End-Permian saw up to 96 percent of marine life and up to 70 percent of terrestrial life on earth wiped out. It is thus conceivable that devastating the biosphere as we have and dumping as much carbon into the atmosphere as we have could initiate strong enough positive feedbacks to rapidly heat the earth beyond the point where it could sustain human life within a century or two, but the science is not yet telling us that we’re all going to die from climate change in the near term. [3]

Such caveats offer little comfort. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decided in 2019 to keep their well-known “Doomsday Clock” at two minutes to midnight, signifying that in their view we are as near to global annihilation as we have been since they started using the clock in 1947. According to the Bulletin’s statement:

Humanity now faces two simultaneous existential threats, either of which would be cause for extreme concern and immediate attention. These major threats—nuclear weapons and climate change—were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger.

The Bulletin’s invocation of information warfare helps us put the sober assessments of bodies like the IPBES and IPPC in context: as informative as their policy recommendations might be, such recommendations are only as good as the decision-makers who might choose to adopt them, the systems of governance that would implement them, and the international legal systems that would regulate them. Frankly, if preserving the future of humanity and the “nature” upon which it relies depends on the kleptocrats, sociopaths, and malignant narcissists who now run the world, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we’re all totally fucked.

The only hope for human civilization lies in a radical, abrupt, and probably violent transformation of that very civilization.

Not quite as condemned as the unlucky soul from Scheffler’s thought experiment, we are in an unenviable position nevertheless, wherein we must come to terms with the real possibility of human extinction (whether from nuclear war, rapidly accelerating global warming, ecological collapse, or, most likely, several catastrophes at once feeding into and amplifying each other), the strong probability of civilization as we know it coming to an end amidst widespread death and suffering, and the brute fact of an ongoing ecological disaster that is destroying the natural world humans evolved to thrive in. Our biases toward presence and the present make these realities hard to see and harder to internalize, but for many, the dim awareness of humanity’s existential precariousness is increasingly a source of anxiety, fear, and despair.

Darkness and Cold

Perhaps the most important philosophical question we face today is how to commit to some notion of human flourishing in the face of such an existential threat. The answers to this question must of necessity be open and multiple, yet one step seems absolutely necessary before even beginning to explore such answers: loosening our grip on what we are, on what is, and on the present—a task that demands recognizing what we have lost. Until we begin to process the loss of a robust and meaning-rich natural world to which humans were intimately connected and in which humans played an organic role, until we do the work of mourning necessary to make sense of the changes we have wrought and are still living through, until we commit to experiencing and articulating the grief we anticipate from the nigh-inevitable breakdown of civilization as we know it, we’ll remain trapped in reactive cycles of rage, depression, bargaining, and denial. But our limiting and increasingly dangerous bias toward presence and the present is just that, a bias, and like other biases, it can be managed, worked against, and minimized. Which is, perhaps, a source of hope, for if we are serious about thinking human survival into the radically new future—whether the future holds imminent revolution or, more likely, a decades-long collapse—we must accept the coming catastrophe and all it means.

So take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Really go look. Observe closely the skull beneath the skin, the sockets in which your limpid eyeballs rest, the fine lines of your neck and clavicles. Imagine your flesh rotting away, your cheeks sinking, your lips peeling back from your teeth.

Focus on the empty sockets looking back at you: the nothing from which you came, the nothing to which you will return. Meditate on the fact that everything and everyone you love will die and pass into dust. Remind yourself of how much and how many already have. Say their names. Remember.

Now practice saying goodbye.

[1] How such assessments are created is the topic of a fascinating recent book from Michael Oppenheimer, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, and others, Discerning Experts: The Practices of Scientific Assessment for Environmental Policy.

[2] Farquharson, L. M., Romanovsky, V. E., Cable, W. L., Walker, D. A., Kokelj, S. V., & Nicolsky, D. ( 2019). ”Climate change drives widespread and rapid thermokarst development in very cold permafrost in the Canadian High Arctic.” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 46, no. 12.

[3] On the other hand, a recent paper modeling cloud burn-off at 1200ppm CO2 predicts the possibility of more than 12°C warming in about a hundred years, which would certainly pose real challenges to human survival. See Schneider, T., Kaul, C. M., and Pressel, K. G., (2019). “Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming,” Nature Geoscience 12, 163–167.