On the possibility of human extinction

I’ve been contemplating the question of how I might present a brief introduction on what, as a critique on our system of social organization, is really a rather large topic: vegetarian ecofeminism. I’m due to present this at a scholarly conference in September, so it’s not too early to begin thinking about it.

In the abstract, among other things, I say “that our relations of domination among humans are inseparable from our domination of the environment and of non-human animals.” And, as written, I think the abstract illustrates that there are a lot of handles on this topic.[1] So the obvious question is, which one shall I use?

Or maybe, I could just begin with the question of human extinction. This has been making its way into mainstream media recently and there’s been some scholarly work done on it but when I first heard about it, I was a Ph.D. student at California Institute of Integral Studies. I asked one of my professors in private about the possibility that humans could go extinct, she nodded, said yes, and the expression on her face made it very clear to me she wasn’t joking. At the time, finding something in print on the matter was rather more difficult.

The first I saw stemmed from a notorious interview that an Australian microbiologist, Frank Fenner, gave to the Australian newspaper,[2] and got picked up by a physics web site[3] and by the Daily Mail.[4] As sources go, this isn’t terribly promising stuff. Even the original article noted that Fenner’s colleagues were rather less pessimistic.

And that, of course, is a part of the problem: As Clint Eastwood might put it, do you feel lucky? We’ll get back to this question of luck and I promise that, even with a .44 Magnum pointed at his head, the “punk” that Eastwood’s character, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, was addressing[5] faced better odds than we do.

Since that Frank Fenner interview, given in 2010,[6] I’ve started to find a bit more.[7] I’m still not seeing precise scenarios but one piece of the argument for human extinction simply boils down to sustainability. Things can’t continue as they are, so something has to change.

Which leads to the other piece of the argument. We see no sign that humans are responding to the need for that change anywhere near adequately. To put that another way, we are failing to adapt to a changing environment. Which is a pretty classic way of saying we’re going extinct.

But then there are all those Mad Max movies I never watched with post-apocalyptic scenarios in which a fraction of the human race survives in something even more of a dog-eat-dog social scenario than we already have. This is scary stuff. More seriously, then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in a 2014 report documenting Pentagon preparations that climate change “will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”[8] Maybe all that happens before we get to the Mad Max scenario.

But even all this assumes that the earth or even a tiny fraction of the earth’s surface remains habitable. Here’s the problem: We don’t know that that will be the case. From a systems perspective, climate change means that the stabilizing feedbacks in the present ecosystem are overwhelmed by self-reinforcing feedbacks as we reach a “tipping point.” As we pass that “tipping point,” the old system is replaced with something different as those self-reinforcing feedbacks may now become stabilizing feedbacks in the new system. And we don’t know what that something new and different will be.

Which is where that Dirty Harry question comes in. Are you feeling lucky? There are a lot more potential systems that won’t support human life than potential systems that will. Which is why we might not survive at all. Not any of us, not anywhere on earth.

Now all of this is a bit oversimplistic. We don’t know, really, how far we have to go before we hit that tipping point. We don’t know even that there’s only one tipping point or, if there are indeed several tipping points, that it’s valid to treat several tipping points as a single one.

But it’s fairly safe to say that we as a species should be thinking about how we reached this dilemma and what we’re going to do about it. A large part of the answer to this lies in how our attitude toward our environment changed. We’ve become a lot more comfortable than we used to be. As technology has developed, we’ve come to dominate (temporarily) an ecosystem that once upon a time, we had no choice but to adapt to and thus live in harmony with.[9] As we got to be more comfortable—the Paleolithic was pretty brutal—our population began to grow, we claimed territory for settled agriculture, and we developed an authoritarian hierarchical system of social organization.[10] And we got into a cycle where we needed ever more land and resources to support an ever-growing population, which is to say that human society became exploitative and unsustainable not only of natural resources but of human beings.[11]

Perhaps most destructively of all, our livestock practices not only exploit animals who suffer greatly, but contribute substantially to climate change and water pollution[12] and consume vast quantities of energy, land, and feed to produce, in terms of a ratio of inputs to outputs, minuscule amounts of food when compared with the same ratio for plant-based foods.[13] And we do this even as people go hungry not only in the developing world,[14] but even in the allegedly richest country in the world.[15]

That technology, however, while perhaps making some individual activities more efficient or more powerful has never reduced our species’ overall ecological footprint. Some even think that technology solves individual problems by creating more dangerous ones down the road.[16] At the very least,

history shows that technological progress has always contributed to the scope and intensity of human impact on the environment. Besides that, the rebound effect or the Jevons Paradox is often likely to cancel positive effects of technical progress — from the steam engine and coal in 19th century England, to the automotive and information technology sectors in more recent times (Luzzati and Franco 2005).[17]

Meanwhile, in the social sphere, in which I include the political and economic spheres, we continue to be bedeviled by all manner of bigotry, bias, and discrimination which function to 1) divide the colonized non-elite against each other, 2) divert attention from the elite and their oppression of the colonized non-elite, 3) undermine a unified challenge to the elite,[18] 4) further impoverish the poor and deny them any significant opportunity for social mobility,[19] and 5) damage not only incarcerated individuals but their families and communities,[20] with 6) a criminal injustice system that is especially unjust toward the poor.[21] Claims of progress on race must be tempered when we confront the criminal injustice system and police shootings, both of which disproportionately affect Black men.[22] Angela Davis links slavery and lynchings to the death penalty.[23]

Claims of progress on gender must be tempered when we confront pay discrepancies, rape culture, and a persistent effort to deprive women of access to abortion, which is to say that in our society we continue to seek control of women’s bodies and specifically their reproductive capacities. Which resembles how we treat animals:

Cows are forcibly and repeatedly impregnated so that their bodies will produce the milk intended to sustain their calves. People then steal both the milk and the calves. . . . Rape puts into action the idea that women and children are objects that can be used for pleasure without regard for their own wishes or subjective experiences.”[24]

So we’re dominating each other horribly, we’re dominating animals horribly, and we’re dominating the environment horribly, and the recognition of a relationship between these aspects of domination forms the core of vegetarian ecofeminism. How’s that working out? It looks like with a strong possibility of our own extinction. If we have any sense, we might want to make a change in that.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “I will be presenting on vegetarian ecofeminism at the Human Science Institute conference this September,” I Am My Cat’s Human, July 6, 2016, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=326
  2. [2]Cheryl Jones, “Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans,” Australian, June 16, 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/frank-fenner-sees-no-hope-for-humans/story-e6frgcjx-1225880091722
  3. [3]Lin Edwards, “Humans will be extinct in 100 years says eminent scientist,” Phys.org, June 23, 2010, http://phys.org/news196489543.html
  4. [4]Niall Firth, “Human race ‘will be extinct within 100 years’, claims leading scientist,” Daily Mail, June 18, 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1287643/Human-race-extinct-100-years-population-explosion.html
  5. [5]The full quotation is from the movie Dirty Harry (1971) and is uttered by the character, Harry Callahan:

    Uh uh. I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

    Internet Movie Database, “Dirty Harry (1971) quotes,” n.d. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066999/quotes

  6. [6]Cheryl Jones, “Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans,” Australian, June 16, 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/frank-fenner-sees-no-hope-for-humans/story-e6frgcjx-1225880091722
  7. [7]Joel Achenbach, “Scientists: Human activity has pushed Earth beyond 4 of 9 ‘planetary boundaries’,” Chicago Tribune, January 15, 2015, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-climate-change-science-planetary-boundaries-20150115-story.html; Nathan Curry, “Humanity Is Getting Verrrrrrry Close to Extinction,” Vice, August 21, 2015, http://www.vice.com/read/near-term-extinctionists-believe-the-world-is-going-to-end-very-soon; Deutschewelle, “Mankind must change ways to survive, report says,” May 8, 2012, http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15935446,00.html; John Feffer, “Earth: Game Over?” Truthout, April 27, 2014, http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/23335-earth-game-over; Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175785/tomgram%3A_dahr_jamail%2C_the_climate_change_scorecard/; Rob Jordan and Amy Goldberg, “Populations of early human settlers grew like an ‘invasive species,’ Stanford researchers find,” Stanford University, April 5, 2016, http://news.stanford.edu/news/2016/april/south-america-earlyhumans-040516.html; Nika Knight, “Humans an Invasive Species Heading for a ‘Crash,’ Study Says,” Common Dreams, April 8, 2016, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/04/08/humans-invasive-species-heading-crash-study-says; Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” Guardian, January 15, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/15/rate-of-environmental-degradation-puts-life-on-earth-at-risk-say-scientists
  8. [8]Chuck Hagel, quoted in Laura Barron-Lopez, “Pentagon: Climate change a national security threat,” Hill, October 13, 2014, http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/220575-pentagon-unveils-plan-to-fight-climate-change
  9. [9]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  10. [10]William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008).
  11. [11]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).
  12. [12]Livestock Environment and Development Initiative, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006).
  13. [13]David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of meat-based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, no. 3 (2003), http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full
  14. [14]George Kent, Ending Hunger Worldwide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011).
  15. [15]Democracy Now!, “As Lawmakers Target Food Stamp Funding, New Report Finds 1 in 6 in U.S. Are Going Hungry,” May 30, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/5/30/as_lawmakers_target_food_stamp_funding; Amy Goldstein, “Hunger a growing problem in America, USDA reports,” Washington Post, November 17, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/16/AR2009111601598.html
  16. [16]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964).
  17. [17]Igor Matutinovié, “An Institutional Approach to Sustainability: Historical Interplay of Worldviews, Institutions and Technology,” Journal of Economic Issues 41, no. 4 (December 2007): 1110.
  18. [18]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,'” March 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2012/03/15/we-need-know-how-it-works; Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).
  19. [19]Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Owl, 2001); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Thomas Shapiro, ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005).
  20. [20]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011).
  21. [21]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004); Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  22. [22]Daniel Denvir, “Criminalizing the hustle: Policing poor people’s survival strategies from Eric Garner to Alton Sterling,” Salon, July 8, 2016, http://www.salon.com/2016/07/08/criminalizing_the_hustle_policing_poor_peoples_survival_strategies_from_erin_garner_to_alton_sterling/; Jack Hitt, “Police Shootings Won’t Stop Unless We Also Stop Shaking Down Black People,” Mother Jones, September/October, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/07/police-shootings-traffic-stops-excessive-fines; Emma Pettit, “‘One Trigger Finger for Whites and Another for Blacks’: What the Research Says,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 8, 2016, http://chronicle.com/article/One-Trigger-Finger-for-Whites/237057
  23. [23]Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories, 2005).
  24. [24]pattrice jones, “Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the ALF,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 140.

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