By Robert J. Burrowes
If you hadn’t previously heard the expression ‘near term human extinction’, you have now. And you will get used to hearing it soon unless you insulate yourself from reality with greater effectiveness than you are doing by reading this article.
The expression ‘near term human extinction’ is relatively new in the scientific literature but, unlike other truths that have been successfully suppressed by national elites and their corporate media, this one will keep filtering out until you start to hear the expression routinely. Why? Because this truth is simply too big to suppress permanently and the planetary environment delivers its feedback directly to us in the form of catastrophic environmental events, climatic and otherwise, whether or not these are reported by the corporate media.
It is now widely accepted that we are living through the sixth mass extinction in planetary history. The last one occurred 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs vanished. We are now losing biodiversity at a rate similar to that time. But this mass extinction is driven by us. And we will be one of the casualties. The only real debate is when. And this debate is predicated on the unstated and highly problematic assumption that we can continue to avoid nuclear war.
So what does the expression ‘near term human extinction’ mean? In essence, according to those scientists who use the term, it means that human beings will be extinct by about 2030. For a summary of the evidence of this, with many references, listen to the lecture by Professor Guy McPherson on ‘Climate Collapse and Near Term Human Extinction’ Why 2030? Because, according to McPherson, the ‘perfect storm’ of environmental assaults that we are now inflicting on the Earth, including the 28 self-reinforcing climate feedback loops that have already been triggered, is so far beyond the Earth’s capacity to absorb, that there will be an ongoing succession of terminal breakdowns of key ecological systems and processes – that is, habitat loss – over the next decade that it will precipitate the demise of homo sapiens sapiens.
Now, it should be pointed out, many scientists disagree with this timeframe. For example, science journalist Scott K. Johnson endeavours to explain ‘How Guy McPherson gets it wrong’. And, just recently, Dr Piers J Sellers, acting director of earth science at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, stated that ‘It is almost certain that we will see a rise of two degrees Celsius before 2100, and a three-degree rise or higher is a possibility. The impacts over such a short period would be huge. The longer we put off corrective action, the more disruptive the outcome is likely to be.’ See ‘Wobbling on Climate Change’.
But even if Johnson and Sellers are right, and McPherson is wrong about the timeframe, there are still many scientists who are keen to point out that we are ongoingly breaching ‘tipping points’ that make human survival increasingly problematic. In 2009, for example, Johan Rockström, James Hansen and colleagues explained that three of nine interlinked planetary boundaries – in relation to climate, biodiversity loss and biogeochemical cycles – had already been overstepped. See ‘A safe operating space for humanity’.
And, in 2012, Prof Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the UK’s premier climate modelling institution, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warned that emissions are now out of control and we are heading for a world that is 6 degrees hotter; he pointed out that even the International Energy Agency, and conservative organisations like it, are warning that we are on track for a 4 degree increase (on the pre-industrial level) by 2040. He also accused too many climate scientists of keeping quiet about the unrealistic assessments put out by governments. See ‘What They Won’t Tell You About Climate Catastrophe’.
And what these assessments do not necessarily take into account is the synergistic impact of our combined assaults on the environment including those unrelated to the climate. These include the devastating assaults on the environment through military violence (often leaving vast areas uninhabitable), rainforest destruction, industrial farming, mining, commercial fishing and the spreading radioactive contamination from Fukushima. We are also systematically destroying the limited supply of fresh water on the planet which means that water scarcity is becoming a frequent reality for many people and the collapse of hydrological systems is now expected by 2020. Human activity drives 200 species of life (birds, animals, fish, insects) to extinction each day and 80% of the world’s forests and over 90% of the large fish in the ocean are already gone. Despite this readily available information, governments continue to prioritise spending $US2,000,000,000 each day on military violence, the sole purpose of which is to terrorise and kill fellow human beings.
The point is simply this: you are welcome to analyse the scientific evidence for yourself and make your own assessment of the timeframe and the degree of severity of the threat. Perhaps human extinction will not occur until next century. But whether we define ‘near term’ as 2030, 2040 or even next century, human extinction is now a distinct possibility. And after 200,000 years of our species, calling this ‘near term’ seems reasonable.
So is near term human extinction inevitable?
In my view, human extinction is the most likely outcome. But not simply because we are inflicting too many insults on the planetary environment. Extinction is inevitable because of human fear and, specifically, unconscious fear: The fear in ourselves and others that is not experienced consciously but which often drives three capacities that are vitally important in any context: the focus of our attention, our capacity to adequately analyse the evidence (if we get our attention focused on it) and our behaviour in response to this analysis. For example, if you do not know that your fear is making you screen out unpalatable information, then you won’t even notice that you have turned your attention elsewhere and have now forgotten what you just read. Or your fear might prevent you adequately analysing the evidence and/or responding intelligently to it. See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
So, if you are one of the people still reading this article, you are probably less frightened than most people. The others gave up before they got to this paragraph. So let me now tell you the primary problem with the fear. It distorts the mental focus, capacity for analysis and the behaviour of national elites, that is, corporate owners and their political, military, media, bureaucratic, academic and judicial lackeys. In essence, corporate profits cannot be maximised in a world where environmental constraints are taken into account, either through sensible consideration or legal requirement, so fear will drive dysfunctional corporate activity irrespective of its environmental cost. And corporate executives will ensure that their political and other lackeys do not get in their way because the fear that drives profit maximizing behaviour is deep-seated and far outweighs any fears in relation to the environment. For a fuller explanation of this point, see ‘Love Denied: The Psychology of Materialism, Violence and War’.
This is why lobbying elites to change their behaviour in the direction of environmental sustainability (or peace and justice, for that matter) is a complete waste of time. It is their fear that locks them into what they focus on, what they are ‘thinking’ and what they are doing, and arguments, no matter how sensible or evidential, cannot work.
In essence then, it is fear that drives dysfunctional environmental behaviours. And, history tells us, fear will prevent us taking sufficient action in time.
So is there any point doing anything given that we are dead on track for near term human extinction?
Well, if you are like me, you are one of those people who does not intend to go down without a fight. A big fight! So you might consider joining those of us participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’: a fifteen year strategy to address all of our environmental challenges systematically in a way that undermines the elite fear that would destroy us all. You might also like to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
The Flame Tree Project was inspired by that great environmentalist, Mohandas K. Gandhi, who identified the environmental crisis nearly one hundred years ago and, having done so, subsequently lived his own life in extraordinary simplicity and self-reliance, symbolised by his daily spinning of khadi: ‘Earth provides enough for every person’s need but not for every person’s greed.’
Extinction might be howling outside our door but, if you have the courage, you can still fight. There is no downside in trying. But we need to fight strategically so that we defeat elite fear. How long do you want to wait before joining the fight?