Monday, June 23, 2014

We’re All Going to Die!

Having ended my review of Vitruvius with a link to Guy McPherson’s Climate-change summary and update, where he explains his Near-Term Extinction (NTE) idea, it seems worthwhile to explore the matter more fully lest my readers conclude that I’m endorsing this particular brand of doomerism.  For those who learned about NTE and now find themselves filled with any sort of strong emotional reaction, read this.
Feel better?

I’m not going to discuss the merits of one case against the other, as I don’t have the time, inclination, or expertise to follow up on all the claims and references. I don’t know if McPherson is right or wrong or partially both right and wrong. In fact, despite inflammatory rhetoric and cherry-picked and debatable ‘facts’ on both sides, nobody knows the fate of the world for the next week, much less the next few decades. I rather hope he’s completely wrong, but the scenarios he lays out seem at least somewhat plausible. Instead of assessing whether or not we should believe in NTE, I want explore how it can be a useful idea irrespective of whether or not it’s true, how just considering it improves your humanity, and how people come to consider ideas dangerous.

Our present society seems obsessed with knowing only one story, or rather, determining the One True Story, which, as John Michael Greer points out in one of his early blog posts, is a deadly mistake. There may well be some sort of absolute truth to things, but we’ll never know it with any kind of absolute certainty. Science doesn’t work that way, but proceeds by induction, with each new measurement having the potential to reverse long established principles. As a consequence, science can never be completed. The data can never be fully collected; experiments are never finished and scientific knowledge never finally settled. Having only one hypothesis invites confirmation bias. Commitment to only one possible future leaves you vulnerable to the near certainty that you’ll get the future you don’t expect.

Human extinction as an abstract concept is easy enough; all species, as far as we know, go extinct. But it’s different to imagine witnessing the extinction and being part of it. Apocalypse stories are as old as history, likely because our species has lived through a few major global catastrophes, such as post-ice-age flooding with rising sea levels and some serious volcanic eruptions, but we did survive and there are always survivors in our narratives. Even in the event of all-out nuclear war or a comet impact we imagine people living as long as necessary in underground bunkers. NTE adds a new story, one where not only do we have complete die-off, but it happens in our lifetime, and it’s our fault.

John Michael Greer dismisses NTE (as he must to fit his own story) as another example of apocalyptic narrative like every other failed prediction before it. As he sees it, NTE is an excuse to give up and do nothing, mocking McPherson as peddling “dispairoin” in contrast to McPherson’s detraction of his critics’ “hopium” peddling. As much as Greer’s ideas have and continue to influence my own, far more than McPherson ever could, it seems disingenuous to take the possibility of NTE off the table. The failure of apocalyptic fantasies to manifest does not preclude their possibilities, though they may remain next to nil. Greer seems committed to assuming all ideas reduce to their underlying narratives, which is of course true, but the question remains if the narratives accurately describe reality or not. The answer to that question can only be ascertained after the fact, and by then we will have deluded ourselves into thinking that the narratives were obvious, or else (as Nassim Taleb points out) will have constructed new stories so that we can think that they were obvious. Yet, if NTE is true, then no one will be left to speculate about it.

Memento mori, Latin for “remember death”, was a phrase whispered in the ear of a conquering Roman general to remind him that for all his present glory, he too will die, and thus should retain some measure of humility. And so must we all. The importance of the contemplation of our mortality is currently quite unpopular in modern industrial societies. The delusion of immortality, once recognized as a common youthful mistake, now feeds the imaginations of wishful technologists who dream of robot bodies housing their uploaded minds in a synthetic utopia, ironically unaware that their fantasies differ in no appreciable way from the fundamentalist Christian rapture or the salvation of humanity by beneficent aliens. Those technologists with less implausible dreams than an immanent super-AI that solves all our problems are working on things like treating aging as a disease, or nanotech that repairs our cells like so many miniature surgeons. These approaches make quite a few spurious assumptions, like using machine metaphors for organisms, or thinking robots small enough to pass through cell membranes can’t possibly do something unexpectedly harmful. Besides, the ability to imagine something does not mean that it exists, or can exist, or should exist. Even if the technology to accomplish these feats were not about to become economically infeasible in short order, or if they could be free of the unforeseen, and often horrific, consequences that accompany almost all of our technological “advances”, there is no reason at all to think that an end to death would be a desirable state of affairs.

Death gives life meaning, and without it we would cease to be human. The problems resulting from overpopulation are already scheduled to result in huge complications and likely mass die-off. Evolution proceeds by the death of older generations freeing up resources for the younger ones; science (and culture generally) proceeds in the same way. As Max Plank said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The end of death, even were it possible, would mean the end of meaningful life and the end of any sense of progress, however dubious that concept may be. Thus, those who seek physical immortality are profoundly anti-human, and anti-life. “Afterlife” and “after-death” are, after all, semantically identical; life and death are sides of a coin. To oppose one is to oppose the other.

The contemplation of mortality, however, enriches life by forcing decisions and value judgments about what to do with the time we have. Far too many humans waste precious years doing (and not doing) things they will regret on their deathbeds. The cultural fantasy of perpetual youth reinforces the problem and yields middle-aged adults unprepared for the right-side of the curve of a lifetime, with the attending psychological crises now common phenomena.  Greer and others, such as Jared Diamond, have argued that the same process plays out in civilizations that fail to consider that their lifetimes mirror those of individuals.

Meditations upon corpses are an integral part of traditional Buddhist practice; the idea there being to provoke disgust with physicality and thus motivate striving for the alleged permanence of nirvana, with the resulting acceptance of mortality from this seen as side-effect. The philosophical obsession with the impermanence of material forms has a long history in the West as well, starting with Buddha’s contemporary Pythagoras (and likely before him), on through Platonism and Neoplatonism and eventually Christianity. Western philosophy contrasts the physical world with the spiritual world, a dualistic system of binaries including evil-changing-multiplicity versus good-unchanging-unity. These types of worldview seem to be born of harsh times, when escape from the toils of physical life becomes the only reasonable concept of salvation. There is reason to believe that it was not always this way, and that the emerging religious sensibility of our age is reversing the metaphors. Greer refers to this fear of physical life as “biophobia”, a world-hating anti-cosmic ideology characterized by escapist afterlife fantasies and a denigration of matter that contaminates the thinking even of some modern non-religious people with obsessive concern about sterile environments and ‘pure’ substances. It remains to be seen if the relative comfort of modern life that possibly gives rise to the non-biophobic, life-affirming, world-loving attitudes will survive the crushing depression that the age of limits is set to impose.

And yet, the concept of NTE adds something new. It’s not hard to imagine your own death, or even some far-off abstract extinction of all life on Earth by the Sun’s red-giant phase enveloping the Earth’s orbit, but the death of our entire species within our lifetimes seems unprecedented. The worst visions of environmentalists, involving things like the cutting down of the last tree or the melting of all ice, rarely assert human extinction, and if they do it’s imagined as a problem our grandchildren or more distant descendants might face. Seriously thinking about personally witnessing a good part of our species’ extinction (up until your own time comes) lends a visceral urgency to the meditation, something not dealt with in religion or philosophy thus far.  By considering the possibility of NTE, even those self-interested people who consider it okay to sacrifice future generations for a few more years of opulent industrial lifestyles (a position fairly characterized as evil) must conclude that they too have skin in the game.

As an idea, NTE therefore has the potential to increase empathy, though not necessarily. McPherson certainly thinks that it does, as he advocates that we collectively go through a grieving process and treat the living creatures of Earth, including ourselves, as if in hospice. He recommends that people adopt a simple environmentally-friendly lifestyle and try to be kind and generous with each other, because no one is going to survive and the best we can do is minimize suffering as we go down. Initially, he thought (along the lines of Derrick Jensen’sEndgame”) that bringing down industrial civilization within a couple years could conceivably slow down the positive feedback loops enough to allow some species, maybe even some of us, to survive. But recently he’s considered the potential impacts of the 400+ nuclear reactors which must be continually fueled with electricity lest they go into meltdown, and also of global dimming – the phenomenon of air pollution actually lowering the atmospheric temperature by a couple degrees that was discovered when airline traffic was grounded for a few days after the events of September 11, 2001. So it appears that the sudden collapse of industrial civilization would result in NTE by different means.

Greer critiques NTE by suggesting that believing there is no hope will lead people to give up, do nothing, and continue to live their current lifestyles, even though this is neither what McPherson advocates nor how he lives. In fact, the lifestyles of Greer and McPherson are rather similar, with the exception that Greer refuses to drive or fly and insists that McPherson’s continued flights around the country to give presentations demonstrate bad faith on the part of the environmental movement. This is because Greer believes in Gandhi’s admonishment to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” – an idea that radical environmentalists like McPherson and Jensen explicitly reject by framing environmentalist action not as a popularity contest to win minds, but as a war to be won by force, political or otherwise. McPherson argues (correctly) that the planes will fly whether or not he is in them, nor should he to be viewed as a role model. Although McPherson believes humans are finished, he still associates with radical environmentalism in a bid to spare some fraction of other species.

For his part, Greer also recommends a grieving process, but for industrial civilization rather than humanity. Both men anticipate huge effects from both peak oil and global warming including the end of industrial civilization and massive die-off of humans and many other species; their predictions differ only in magnitude rather than kind. Greer’s rejection of NTE appears to be based solely upon its similarity to other apocalyptic narratives, despite these almost never involving total extinction and ignoring the geological fact that extinction-level events can and do happen, as well as the assumption that people will respond to NTE by not changing anything. However, people who accept NTE do not seem to be continuing life as usual, but making radical changes, sometimes going off-grid, taking up organic gardening, and caring for each other in a more profound way than they did before, all of which I presume Greer would find agreeable.

Of course, it’s conceivable that some people may do nothing, or worse, go on a hedonistic polluting binge having given up all hope for the future, but we should not judge ideas by how a psychopathic minority might react to them. If a majority were to respond in this manner, it would be fair to say that NTE is a dangerous idea. But then, the belief in progress that got us into this mess in the first place is then definitely a more dangerous idea. But can an idea really be dangerous? From the perspective of an industrialist, if everyone went back to living off the land and quit their jobs, industry would be ruined, and therefore voluntary simplicity would be a dangerous idea. Creationists think evolution is a dangerous idea, and evolutionists think likewise about creationism. It would seem that “dangerous idea” is more of a rhetorical label for a personally disagreeable position than an objectively discernible notion.

Perhaps a better criterion can be derived if we require that “dangerous” involves some substantial risk to society. Creationism and evolution then can’t really be dangerous, as someone’s ideas about these things have no consequence upon anything in their life or those of anyone else. Even telling captive school children that Jesus rode dinosaurs or that the god of monotheism doesn’t exist can’t be considered serious harm in any real sense, as other ideas can readily compete with them. These are merely ideas, we would say, leading to no appreciable harm. It may, in fact, be more harmful (but only on a mental level) to remain sheltered from a wide range of competing ideas, which would inhibit the mechanism of memetic cultural evolution, lead to shallow belief systems, and undermine the basic project of philosophy.

The idea that owning people as property is morally acceptable is now widely considered an evil and dangerous idea. Yet slavers argued for a long time that abolition was a dangerous idea threatening the economy and social order of the day. Some people may consider the argument that the abolition of slavery had more to do with the industrial revolution than the progression of moral conscience a dangerous idea, as it’s then easy to imagine slavery returning as industrialism runs out of fuel. Regardless of its implications, if true, it would be a costly mistake to ignore it, especially for those at risk of enslavement (which is highly doubtful to fall along racial lines). So even in this case, the dangerousness of the ideas is relative to the moral reasoning of individuals.

Heresy as a taboo has been with us as long as monotheism. Ancient pagan thought and philosophy, being naturally diverse, used the term to mean simply “choice”, “opinion”, or “school of thought” and it was the task of educators to provide numerous ‘heresies’ for consideration and debate. Monotheism turned the word into the pejorative we know today. Thus, we can now have scientific heresies, with certain ideas considered too dangerous for research due to political correctness or for their potential consequences. Steven Pinker wrote an essay called “In Defense of Dangerous Ideas” as the preface to the collection of such ideas in “What Is Your Dangerous Idea?”. Pinker’s essay is worth reading, as he covers the topic more thoroughly than I can here. Although his concern is with scientific inquiries that violate social taboos, such as racial and gender differences, rather than the more obviously harmful ideas of weapons research or things like the insertion of “terminator” genes into food crops.  The very concept of dangerous ideas is thus fraught with complications and looks like a philosophical quagmire.

Which gets us back to NTE. From Greer’s perspective, NTE is a dangerous idea because it has the potential to lead to inaction when he believes certain actions will be helpful in cushioning the coming crises. From McPherson’s perspective, Greer’s theory of catabolic collapse is a dangerous idea because it gives people false hope when he thinks their time would be better spent psychologically preparing themselves for the inevitable extinction. From the perspectives of peak oil and climate change denialists, both Greer and McPherson are spreading dangerous ideas that threaten the economy and the social order of our day. Who is right and who is wrong? Does it matter?    

I contend that it doesn’t matter who is correct about these differing predictions. Failure to consider any one of them leaves us less capable of recognizing the signs of whichever one does eventually develop. There are always many possible worlds with many alternatives, and the ones that history will finally settle on can’t be known until after they occur. Having multiple stories keeps us flexible. The rhetorical hammer of ‘dangerous ideas’ is itself a dangerous idea used to shut down consideration of different theories.

The one thing we can be certain of is that we are all going to die. (Contrary to the aphorism, taxes are not certain.) Whether we all die collectively in a mass extinction is uncertain, but taking the possibility off the table is a mistake, as is regarding it as a forgone conclusion. We live in a world composed of ever-changing probabilities of various degrees, making convictions of certainty a terrible vice.

This discussion of dangerous ideas developed from my reading of Peter J. Carroll’s latest book which concludes with a grimoire for obtaining alien knowledge that poses inherent dangers to our sanity. This struck me as interesting, as I had not before considered any ideas to be actually dangerous. Therefore, although I’ve merely touched upon it thus far, for my next post I will write more explicitly about magick as I review Carroll’s “The EPOCH”.

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