Was Near-Term Extinction Unavoidable?

Guy McPherson

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“It is not at all clear that humanity can be saved (or, for that matter, is worth saving). Evolution drives us to breed, drives to procreate, and drives us to accumulate material possessions. Evolution always pushes us towards the brink, and culture piles on, hurling us into the abyss. Nietzsche was correct about our virtual lack of free will; and, as British philosopher John Gray points out in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, free will is an illusion. It’s not merely the foam on the beer: it’s the last bubble of foam, the one that just popped. It’s no surprise, then, that we are sleep-walking into the future, or that the future is a lethal cliff.”—Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Before and after.

Before and after.

“The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.”—John Gray, from The Human: Disseminated Primatemaia

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”—William Shakespeare, from “Hamlet”

Guy McPherson

SAN ANTONIO Belize—(Weekly Hubris)—September 2018—It is not at all clear that humanity can be saved (or, for that matter, is worth saving). Evolution drives us to breed, drives to procreate, and drives us to accumulate material possessions. Evolution always pushes us towards the brink, and culture piles on, hurling us into the abyss. Nietzsche was correct about our virtual lack of free will; and, as British philosopher John Gray points out in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, free will is an illusion. It’s not merely the foam on the beer: it’s the last bubble of foam, the one that just popped. It’s no surprise, then, that we are sleep-walking into the future, or that the future is a lethal cliff.

Collectively, several authors from the Enlightenment illustrate the capacity for, and importance of, Reason. Reason is the basis for understanding the material world. As such, it serves as the foundation upon which conservation biology can be understood and practiced. We can willingly conserve Nature and its parts only through description and understanding rooted in reality. Mysticism has proven an insufficient foundation for conserving nature. Ultimately, it has proven inadequate for saving humanity as well. Reason has similarly failed us, thus leaving us with no time and no other options. In this essay, I demonstrate links between Reason and conservation biology to illustrate the process by which our demise as a species was ensured long ago. In short, we were doomed by our narrowly clinical application of Reason.

Reason arose in Greece about 25 centuries ago and is perhaps best known from Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Plato (c. 428-348 BC) uses the conversations of Socrates to pose and explore questions in considerable detail. Although many of the issues and associated conversations seem unsophisticated to contemporary readers, these initial attempts to employ logic to study the natural world and the role of humans in it are remarkable precisely because they were the unprecedented. The contributions of ancient Greece to the material worldview that characterizes modernity cannot be overstated; that so many of the contributions came from ancient Athens, a city that never exceeded 250,000 residents in size, is simply astonishing.

Although the ancient Greeks laid the foundation for modernity, few bricks were added to the structure for nearly two millennia. During the early 17th century, the empiricist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the deconstructionist René Descartes (1596-1650) ushered in the Enlightenment, thereby triggering a flurry of construction to the edifice of knowledge. Almost overnight, it became clear that the world was a material one that could be observed and quantified by all who dared think and observe. Nature obeyed rules, and humans were big-brained animals capable of discovering and describing those rules.

Along the way, the Enlightenment eroded the role of authority as a source of knowledge. In the wake of Giordano Bruno’s heinous execution by the Catholic Church, Bacon recanted earlier statements in which he denied the Ptolemaic view that Earth was the center of the universe. But the erosion of authority that began as a trickle quickly became a flood, and the Church was increasingly and wisely marginalized as a source of knowledge. 

David Hume (1711-1776), in his initial written piece of philosophy, presented a compelling case against miracles, hence against religion: “Of Miracles” was published in 1748 as an essay in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understandings. (Hume became particularly well known for proposing that what “is” does not indicate what “ought” to be.)

Shortly before Charles Darwin formalized the theory of evolution by natural selection in the Origin of Species (1859), Schopenhauer (1788-1860) used Plato-like dialogue to question the basis of religion (“Religion: A Dialogue”) and Max Stirner declared the death of God in his 1845 book, The Ego and Its Own. The interrelated waves of history worked together to dismantle superstition.

Notably influenced by Schopenhauer, and writing shortly after publication of Darwin’s dangerous idea, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) vociferously spread the word about God’s death (probably without awareness of Stirner’s work) while predicting that Reason would overwhelm worldviews based on mysticism (while proclaiming science to be a lie; as with other humans, Nietzsche’s writings contained many contradictions).

Nietzsche expressed his views on Christianity early and often in his writings, most popularly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I prefer The Antichrist because it represents Nietzsche’s views on God particularly clearly and vehemently (and perhaps also because this work was intended to be shockingly blasphemous).

With respect to the rise of Reason, Nietzsche was an optimist. As S. Jonathan Singer  concludes in his 2001 book, The Splendid Feast of Reason, it appears unlikely that more than ten percent of people are capable of employing reason as a basis for how they live. Singer likely did not know that he was echoing Schopenhauer, although Schopenhauer’s use of dialogue in his essay clearly indicates he knew he was echoing Plato in reaching the same conclusion.

Going back to the initial murmurings of Reason indicates that Science and Philosophy were together born in ancient Athens. Most contemporary philosophers claim the twins’ father was Thales of Miletus (a city in Asia Minor, now Turkey), largely based on two events: Thales was the first to calculate the height of Egypt’s pyramids (which he did before traveling to Greece by measuring the length of the pyramids’ shadows) and, even more notably, the first to predict a solar eclipse (in 585 BC). Inseparable and indistinguishable for nearly two millennia, Science and Philosophy were viewed as one and the same discipline. Little evidence remains of Thales, and the majority of his ideas were ultimately buried beneath the landslide of Hellenic reason capped by Socrates and Plato. Philosophical advances continued to pile up, but Alfred North Whitehead famously described two millennia of these developments as mere footnotes to Plato.

Despite minor quibbles, Science and Philosophy remained close for several centuries before they were irrevocably forced apart during, ironically, the Enlightenment. Although most educated people could distinguish between the twins by the mid-1600s, when intellectual and political battles produced notable differences in the siblings, they remained friends for another three centuries, until the biblical root of all evil came between them.

If Reason arose in Athens, passion for the natural world was born in Asia; specifically, Lao-Tzu’s masterful book of poetry, Tao Te Ching, was written approximately coincident with the development of pre-Socratic philosophy in Greece (the birth year of Lao-Tzu, who perhaps represented a single person, is traditionally is accepted as 570 BC, 15 years after Thales predicted a solar eclipse).

Whereas Platonists are often blamed for divorcing humanity from the natural world, Eastern thought has maintained a tight connection between humans and their environment and has exalted nature in the process (China’s relatively recent embrace of free-market capitalism has produced the expected deterioration of that country’s environment). Tao Te Ching is the most famous example in the Western world, but Lao-Tzu was merely reflecting his culture. Further, cursory inspection of virtually any of the major Eastern religions reveals strong links between nature and humanity. Meanwhile, the technocratic application of Reason has led us to the Sixth Mass Extinction, as clearly exhibited in the wake of the Second World War.

By 1945, Bertrand Russell introduced his comprehensive History of Western Philosophy by dividing knowledge into three categories: science, representing the known universe; theology, representing dogma (which I would not call “knowledge”); and philosophy, representing the “No Man’s Land” between the two.

Russell concluded that philosophy, like science, relies on reason and that, like theology, it consists of speculations beyond definitive knowledge. Scientific advances resulting from the Enlightenment reduced philosophy to such a narrow domain that it “suffered more from modernity than any other field of human endeavor,” according to Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book, The Human Condition. The post-Aristotle shift from deduction to induction contributed to, or perhaps was merely symptomatic of, philosophy’s demise and the coincident rise of science.

In the wake of World War Two, and five years after Russell’s capacious historical account acknowledged and contributed to the chasm between science and philosophy, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation that created the National Science Foundation of the United States (NSF). This new and influential organization swung the axe that finally consigned Science and Philosophy to separate existences. The NSF was created in 1950 and became a dominant influence—perhaps the dominant influence, by 1955—on the nature and conduct of science. Confined to separate quarters, Science and Philosophy barely speak to each other in the 21st century. Casual observers cannot now discern their early consanguinity; on today’s college campuses, the compartmentalization of the disciplines is the order of the day. 

The marginalization of philosophy has coincided with the rise of “big science.” John Gray goes so far as to write in his excellent short book, Straw Dogs, “philosophy is a subject without a subject matter.”

Well, perhaps. I tend to think of philosophy in much the same way that I think about science and art: it’s personal. Paul Feyerabend’s extreme post-modernist perspective notwithstanding, science has rules, more or less. And science is a way of understanding the universe. In sharp contrast to the societal expectation of science as a never-ending font of technology, science is, instead, a journey of curiosity accompanied by unbridled creativity. So, too, are art and philosophy. Although science often produces knowledge that is more repeatable and reliable than the “products” of the other two endeavors, it’s not at all clear that the outcomes of either are much used by, or useful to, the typical person. On the other hand, many people use technology—the perceived point of science—as a tool to assault the natural world while temporarily satisfying our insatiable urge to divorce ourselves from physical reality.

Thus have we arrived to the point at which most Doctors of Philosophy have no philosophy at all. Asking a contemporary scientist with a PhD (i.e., a Doctor of Philosophy) about philosophy typically draws a blank stare or, occasionally, an inquisitive gaze. Philosophy is rarely taught in science classes at any level of education, including the “doctoral.” Across campus, a dose of science is taught in the Philosophy Department, but practicing scientists are rarely involved in the conversation. This result comes as no surprise when viewed through the lens of history. My periodic gazes through this dark lens lead me to conclude that contemporary events are the direct result of historical missteps too numerous to track. 

Note: The before/after images of Himalayan glaciers derive from Tracking the Himalaya’s Melting Glaciers.”

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Guy McPherson

About Guy McPherson

Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 14 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-host his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes.
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14 Responses to Was Near-Term Extinction Unavoidable?

  1. Georg Schiller says:

    I wonder if the pareto principle that in any given social structure a minority (20%) is responsible for 80% of creation, money, power and exploitation. Given that modernity allows massive exploitation, the destruction of the world is of no surprise, what do you think Guy?

  2. William Harris says:

    Love your work. I praise it to others. That said, when watching your lectures in my mind I often say that you talk too much. I know, another paradox. Your well read background represents failed humanity. With extinction so near a different perspective would be welcome. You try by saying, “Only love remains.” In a few years for humans only emptiness remains. That should have been the base for philosophical speculation.

    Once again, Guy, thank you for speaking out, for giving a few of us something to think about.

  3. charles peden says:

    Dear Guy:

    You must be one of the most well read “guys” around. With that in mind you seem to be the sort of fellow who asks “why?” but still demands the scientific rigor. Your journey is a great story in itself. To bad that there will not be anyone to tell it to.

    sincerely,

    charles peden

  4. jef says:

    I have always questioned free will as I have rarely seen it functioning. IMHO an individual needs to have critical thinking abilities and all of the relevant information in order to engage in free will. These conditions are so rare as to be a non-factor in the average human.

    The opposite seems to be the rule where individuals seek the information that supports their preferred narrative in order to rationalize their behavior. This is what passes as free will and people become quite defensive about it. Fortunately for them the system is happy to give them the false happy information they want in order for them to form their “free will” behavior. Science consistently gets in the way of that and is therefor discarded … as if we can disregard the laws of physics. It got so bad there for a while that flat earth theory made a comeback…seriously!

    Bottom line, free will is a luxury that few can afford and therefor we are all doomed to participate in the collective suicide bombing of the planet, (I used to say collective suicide but it is not suicide, we are taking everything and everyone else out with us so it is collective suicide bombing).

    Cheers Guy!

    Jef

  5. Guy McPherson says:

    Thanks for your informed and informative comments. Georg, I suspect this version of civilization has allowed far fewer than 20% of the population to exert control. William, I talk too much and I still have so much to say! Jef, I concur about the omnicide, and it saddens me.

  6. Gerald Maples says:

    Your work and words are stunning. The subject matter is hard and requires courage and thought to absorb but it is incredibly enriching and has allowed me to focus on each and every day. A sunrise has never been so beautiful and the stars have never been so fascinating. That has become a true treasure. Thank you.

  7. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, Gerald. Comments such as yours sustain me.

  8. dunstan smith says:

    Thank you Guy. Like Gerald your work has given the opportunity to spread more love and joy in my everyday life. I heard you were coming back to the states? Any chance you’ll end up in NH? Thank you again for taking a stand and continuing to share your message.

  9. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, dunstan. If civilization holds until my partner can sell her property in western Belize, we will move to New York, an hour or so north of the City. If that happens, New Hampshire isn’t far away.

  10. colinc says:

    Great essay, Guy, almost certainly one of your best. However, I s’pose I should apologize for being a bit late to this party and confess that I haven’t read more than a few of your musings over the past 4-5 yrs. (I’ve watched less than a handful of your videos, too.) Nonetheless, I’m delighted to see you continuing to exhibit a high level of perceptivity and perspicacity not to mention your usual command of language. Niceties aside, I feel compelled to note a couple excerpts from your essay.

    With respect to the rise of Reason, Nietzsche was an optimist. As S. Jonathan Singer concludes in his 2001 book, The Splendid Feast of Reason, it appears unlikely that more than ten percent of people are capable of employing reason as a basis for how they live.

    I must disagree with Singer (and you?) as my observations of the inconsistencies most individuals (or groups) exhibit indicate far less than “ten percent of people” have EVER employed ANY degree of Reason to any of their beliefs (“thinking” D.N.E. in most people) or actions. The minuscule few who have ever accidentally employed Reason have only done so erratically, sporadically and subjectively and, frequently, erroneously.

    Casual observers cannot now discern their early consanguinity; on today’s college campuses, the compartmentalization of the disciplines is the order of the day.

    While true, not just for “casual observers,” the “compartmentalization of the disciplines” is NOT a “bug,” it’s a feature. It is a reductionist approach that virtually guarantees that Reason can not, will not, EVER be used by the masses. This conditioning (aka, programming) of the masses ensures their mindless obedience and the “eternal” persistence of the “gravy cart” held by the manipulating class which, in turn, ensures ever more billions of dollars/pounds/euros/yen/yuan/rubles/etc. pilfered by them, not to mention the growth in power and control of the hordes. As we both know, there is only one way this tragi-comedy ends and it isn’t going to be fun or pretty. As always, good luck to you in your endeavors, particularly the relo to NY (kinda’ funny, that) and I hope you “enjoy” your front-row seat to the coming “Greatest Show on Earth” as much, or more, than I.

    Colin

  11. Gilbert says:

    Hi Guy,
    As always, after reading your work or watching a video, I am relaxed and calmed knowing there are still some people that think. That there are people who are capable of original thought. Thank you for Being.

  12. Guy McPherson says:

    Colin, I love discovering I’m not the most pessimistic person in the room, virtual or otherwise. Thanks to you and Gilbert for the (reasonable?) accolades.

  13. Norman says:

    As always, Guy, an interesting article. There is a whole another area of “knowledge” as well, that plays a part in many of the decisions that people make day in and day out, and that is the question of “what is good? and what is bad?'” I used to think that this might even be a scientific question since humans have a particular path of development, and perhaps that which most closely conformed to that path might provide a systemic basis for what is “good.” I am now disavowed of that notion due to the inherent ambiguity of the question. Even on a rudimentary basis, one can look at John Stuart Mill’s “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” However this approach, even though not given to any particular conclusion, makes one incredibly large assumption: that we are talking about the “good” of people. And in Western civilization, good for people is further translated to mean “good for individuals.” Our current predicament clearly shows that the concentration on individuals leads to eventual doom for the species. So the question remains, “good for what?” Good for the individual, good for society, good for the species, good for life on the planet? Or some balance… On a theoretical basis, I think there is an objective answer to the question from the human perspective, and may be discoverable in some sense. For instance, if you were to take very one off the planet out into space with the foreknowledge that no one would know what person, role, occupation, sex, etc, etc they would be when they came back to Earth, and further that this group out in space would determine the cultural rules of society in some fashion, we could come up with what is the most fair, and possibly what is good, as a consequence. One could even extend the thought experiment to include people from different time periods. Perhaps there are experiments that elucidate what we would do in this situation, and determine a standard for fairness that would take into account of the individual, society and the species. To this extent what is “good” may be discoverable. Now I am aware that Nietzsche says that philosophy is just a clever rationalization for whatever it is that the philosopher emotionally felt anyway, but no one said the quest for an objective basis of what is good would be easy.

    I think this type of “knowledge” is particularly germane today as we face our group demise. I believe that this demise will take some time (6 months to 20 years, say), and that we will face questions that pit what’s good for individuals against what is good for society against what is good for our species. Forethought in this area may have some influence in an area that will probably have very strong strains of tribalism. The absence of forethought in this area will doom the remaining individuals to decisions based solely on tribalism. As far as my reading is concerned, only Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth even approaches these questions.

    In some nascent form we already have a “science of what is good.” We have research in what’s best for raising babies, what’s the best way to learn, what’s the best nutrition, etc. These are all keyed off of our development as a living being. Concepts of god are merely primitive attempts to perform the thought experiment discussed above, as god represents everyone being sent to space to figure out what’s good and the bible is sort of a “report” of the results of that experiment. Surely we can do better than that.

  14. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, Norman, for your thoughtful comment. Quoting Mills on the greatest good brings to mind a line I’ve seen attributed to unnamed mathematics books: In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. I’d love the get a few pragmatist philosophers to discuss the issue of “good” from various perspectives. We seem to think we know what it is. I’m not so sure.

    Tribalism was the only human way for most of our time on Earth. Expanding beyond the tribe has clearly produced horrors beyond my imagination. There’s no going back, and the path forward is fraught with moral danger.

    I don’t have answers. Most days, I’m lucky to come up with a coherent question. Thank you for your incisive pondering.

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