Killing while Dying

If you’ve been reading my columns in this space, then you know I write about unspeakably terrible topics. Primarily, I write about extinction. Extinction is the death of the last individual of a species. Writing about such a dire subject isn’t a lot of fun. I cannot imagine that reading my articles is much fun, either. On occasion, I try to squeeze a smile out of my readers, with varying degrees of success. I hope I’ll never be found guilty of causing people to die from laughter. I could not tolerate that kind of guilt.—Dr. Guy McPherson

Planetary Hospice

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Pages from the notebooks of Edward Abbey. (Photo: University of Arizona Special Collections.)
Pages from the notebooks of Edward Abbey. (Photo: University of Arizona Special Collections.)

“In our weird taboo-ridden cult-obsessed hypersensitive creed-crazy culture, anyone who attempts to examine tough social questions in a logical, analytic, empiric manner, must learn to expect a blizzard of rhetorical abuse from all sides.”Edward Abbey 

“When comedians get the laughs, they’re said to be ‘killing’; when the room’s silent, they’re ‘dying.’ Things being what they are today, given The Sixth Extinction, we’re all dying, even when we’re killing.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Guy McPherson

BELLOWS FALLS Vermont—(Hubris)—March 2024—If you’ve been reading my columns in this space, then you know I write about unspeakably terrible topics. Primarily, I write about extinction. Extinction is the death of the last individual of a species. Writing about such a dire subject isn’t a lot of fun. I cannot imagine that reading my articles is much fun, either.

On occasion, I try to squeeze a smile out of my readers, with varying degrees of success. I hope I’ll never be found guilty of causing people to die from laughter. I could not tolerate that kind of guilt.

For over two decades, I taught courses at various colleges and universities. During this time, I was actually praised for my sense of humor. This is easy to imagine, if you’ve spent any time in a college classroom: most instructors and professors are many steps removed from hilarity.

My first professorial posting was at Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas, which was founded in 1876 in a remote area south of Bryan, Texas, and accessible primarily by train. The conductor would yell, “All aboard for the college station!” A year later, the town of College Station was awarded its name by the US Postal Service based on the station located slightly west of the campus.

When I showed up there in August 2008, I was assigned the role of co-teaching a class of about 400 students. The 9:00 a.m. section had about 150 students, and the 2:00 p.m. section about 250 students. Campus culture was such that the early morning section of the class filled with students sporting copies of the daily campus newspaper. If students tired of the instructor captivating in the first few minutes of class, then that teacher was facing the back of 150 copies of “The Battalion.” (Today, the “paper” is virtual, and has a Facebook page.)

Front page of “The Battalion,” February 17, 2022. (Photo: Bill Oliver.) 
Front page of “The Battalion,” February 17, 2022. (Photo: Bill Oliver.)

My co-teacher taught the first and last quarters of the course; I taught “the middle half.” My colleague had no sense of humor. Students filled my office from the first day my co-instructor taught his share of the course until his final day of teaching. They begged me to relieve my colleague of his duties.

I was therefore put in the awkward position of explaining to the students that I simply could not replace my colleague, as much as they would prefer otherwise. I could not explain to my colleague how terrible he was (although I’m sure he knew). Instead, I completed my duties in teaching this course, and others. I longingly looked forward to moving on to a tenure-track position at the University of Arizona. When I arrived at my new campus in Tucson, I was already well-versed in stand-up . . . tragedy. And tragedy, to my way of thinking, always comprises equal parts humor and sadness.

During my 20 years at Arizona, I would explain to students that there are really more than enough people in the world. “Birth,” I would explain, “is a sexually transmitted disease that has proven fatal in every case.” I could have used the more accurate “condition” instead of “disease,” but I preferred to shock the students into understanding our shared planetary plight.

Obviously, I failed at my (self-assigned) task of encouraging Homo sapiens to stop reproducing. Earth’s human population has nearly doubled since I arrived in Tucson on 1 May 1989. In my defense, I “walked my talk” in contributing zero new humans over the course of my 64 (and counting) years on Earth. I suspect there would be far fewer people on Earth had I been able to get my message (“Stop! Go back!”) to the first billion humans, but they were determined to create battalions and battalions and battalions.

I would love to include additional humorous asides in this short essay. Alas, although I was frequently referred to as the funniest instructor on campus—I was a funny Guy—I was better suited to spontaneous humor than to telling canned jokes. In addition, I rarely remembered my humorous anecdotes a day later, much less many years after the fact.

An example is telling. After my life on campus came to a close, I became a well-known public speaker. I delivered presentations on four continents, and additional, scheduled presentations were interrupted before I had an opportunity to begin in Africa and Asia. 

After one of these talks, I attended a gathering at the home of my host. Among the guests were several people who had heard me speak earlier in the day. One such guest handed me a little dispenser of dental floss, which elicited from me a confused look. “Why?” I asked. My interlocutor explained that I had told a story about environmental activist Edward Abbey, who, many years earlier, had responded to his physician’s giving him a short-term, terminal diagnosis with, “I guess I won’t have to floss my teeth anymore.” A few hours after my presentation, I no longer recalled the story I’d told.

Thereafter, I began regularly to use the common expression: “I don’t recall what I had for breakfast.”

I have solved this particular problem, however: I no longer eat breakfast. I still floss my teeth at the end of the day, though. My memory is fading fast, but I still have all my own teeth!

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

Dr. 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 16 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-hosts 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. Visit McPherson’s Author Page at (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • ML Johnston

    I wish you very Happy Birthday festivities This weekend.

    Thank you for your courage to present the works/science of others. Others will not.

    Vermont is quite beautiful.

    I’m in NM and once visited your place in Cliff.

    Thank you again,

    ML Johnston

  • James Arthur Eberle

    Hello Dr. McPherson. I have a story. It’s a story about you, me, and Michael Mann. Several years ago I was watching one of your YouTube videos where you painted a rather grim portrait of not only the future of Homo Sapiens, but even the future of all multicellular life on Earth. Though you supported your assertion with peer reviewed research, I found the thought of very near-term human extinction, before 2030, as horrifying and irresponsible. I became very angry at the conclusion of the video.

    Sometime later, I was watching a YouTube video of a Michael Mann interview. Michael Mann brought up your name and was bashing your assessment of Earth’s future climate and the fate of humankind. My reaction was “You go Dr. Mann! Destroy that doomer McPherson!”

    Fast forward a few more years. I did extensive research about anthropogenic global warming, include the impact of myriad amplyfying feedbacks: a Blue Ocean Event with the loss of albedo and billions of tons of methane and CO2 being released from melting permafrost and methane clathrates; collapse of the AMOC; ocean acidification and it’s impact on this critical carbon sink; collapse of the Amazon rain forest and it’s conversion from a carbon sink to a carbon source; aerosol masking and the quick atmospheric response to it’s removal; the climate of the Eemian interglacial, which was the last fully bookended interglacial 125,000 years ago; Jevon’s paradox; ecological overshoot; and finally, the insidious implications of the time lag between rising CO2 concentrations and temperature equilibrium.

    Recently, I again saw Michael Mann being interviewed. He expressed the view that if atmospheric CO2 concentrations stopped rising that Earth’s average temperature would almost immediately stop rising. I was livid! I was screaming at the TV! He is a climate scientist for damn sake! Does he not realize how many tipping points have already been crossed? If we could magically stabilize the anthropogenic contribution of atmospheric CO2 at 423ppm, where it roughly stands now, we still have at least 50 years of warming in the pipeline. By this time billions of tons annually of NON-ANTHROPOGENIC climate changing gases will be added to the atmosphere in a self-reinforcing amplyfying feedback that will take centuries to reach equilibrium. This will mean at least an end-Permian level extinction event. Following the “Great Dying” it took 30 million years for natural selection to restore an assemblage of megafauna that could rival the late Permian megafauna.

    My thinking has come a long way Dr. McPherson. First, raging at you, then raging at Dr. Mann once I was more fully educated. I still don’t understand what Michael Mann is trying to hide; what are his motivations. I still think that you underestimate the resiliency and inertia of Earth systems somewhat, meaning, I think, or at least hope, that your timeline if off. This is a very interdisciplinary subject, and unfortunately, my nearly daily study of the subject moves me closer and closer to your timeline. I really hope that we are both wrong.

  • Eguru B-H

    Mr. Eberle, I am Dr. McPherson’s editor here, and I do appreciate your reading “Hubris” and writing in. I do, despite your waiting till the end of your letter to include a sort of/kind of apologia. You could have done better!
    I am long accustomed to reader-responses such as your when it comes to Guy’s long, selfless work, which has elicited so much angry verbiage over the long years. I am glad to see that you seem to have seen the light, though that admission comes late, and grudgingly, at the end of your long “story.”
    Guy’s heard that story innumerable times before. He is owed so many abject apologies, really, as opposed to further mansplaining. But men seem compelled “to mansplain the messenger” to death.
    Editing Guy, as I do every month, I am always, always reminded of Isaiah (though I cannot be accused of being any sort of believer) and the voice crying in the wilderness: “…every mountain and hill brought low;/The crooked places shall be made [b]straight/And the rough places smooth…And all flesh shall see it together/The voice said, “Cry out!”/And he said, “What shall I cry?”/“All flesh is grass,/And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field./The grass withers, the flower fades…Surely the people are grass.”
    Well, I might add, the word of Guy McPherson stands forever. Or at least till the last ear goes deaf, which will be soon, Mr. Eberle, very soon.
    In the interim, we all need to make amends and love one another. Those “efforts” at doing any better (Ukraine, Gaza, Alabama) aren’t going well at all, but perhaps the writing on our shared wall will become much clearer, and we will all be able to read it, before the end.
    I’m sure Guy will respond more generously than I.
    E B-Herring, Publishing-Editor, “Hubris”