We Are the Threat: Reflections on Near-Term Human Extinction

Figure 1. A “sign o’ the times” offers terror-relieving propaganda during Hawaii’s recent missile alert scare.1 

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.2 – H. P. Lovecraft

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.3 – Aldo Leopold

Section I: Content Warning, Mortality Salience, and Irruptions of Extinction Awareness

This essay explores an unsettling topic: the probability of near-term human extinction.

Before I continue with this exploration, let me issue two caveats. First, in writing this essay I am thinking through, grappling with, and attempting to synthesize an enormous and diverse volume of information. This is an important exercise for me as I prepare to embark on writing a dissertation informed by this content. So, although I have full confidence in the analysis and theorizing that follows, this essay is an incipient, not a final, representation of my thoughts on this issue.

Despite my thinking’s nascent state, I am sharing this essay because – given what I take to be the urgency of this matter – I want to offer something like a preview and a guide for those readers who may wish to pursue their own independent research regarding this topic.

This leads me to the second caveat. I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that the reader should carefully consider the gravity of joining me on this journey. If you are in a fragile state of mind, or if you wish not to enter into a fragile state of mind, you might want to stop reading now. This is a sincere warning: what follows not only has the potential to induce existential crisis, but I am intentionally presenting it for the express purpose of inducing existential crisis. Caveat lector!

Still here? Very well then. Let me begin with a concrete example that, I argue, is representative of the kind of awareness that will soon begin imposing itself more and more frequently on more and more persons. Last month, in Hawaii, there was a ballistic missile alert issued via cell phone by the Emergency Alert System. The warning appeared on smartphone screens as follows:


Figure 2. Emergency alerts sent to smartphones during the Hawaii missile scare.4 

Now, as it turned out, there was no ballistic missile inbound for Hawaii. Nevertheless, the emergency alert was not retracted until 38 minutes after it had been issued. Following this event, both the initial alarm and the delayed retraction were explained away by state officials as having resulted from simple human error. That explanation is comically unconvincing, to be sure, but speculating about what may lie behind it is not within the purview of this essay. All that matters, for our purposes, is that this event did occur.

What this warning produced for 38 minutes in the people of Hawaii can be described as mass panic. But, more specifically, this panic – which drove at least one family to hide their children in a sewer – was a simultaneous and widespread manifestation of mortality salience, or the heightened, self-conscious recognition that death is inevitable.5 The experience of mortality salience is a uniquely and fundamentally human phenomenon because, “[since] we humans are aware that we exist, we also know that someday we will not exist.”6 For more than half an hour, Hawaiians thought that “someday” was right now.

This event is of critical importance because, normally – as anthropologist Ernest Becker’s pathbreaking work on death denial shows – thoughts about our own mortality are screened out of our conscious awareness.7 Inspired by Becker’s insight, social psychologist Sheldon Solomon and others have developed terror management theory, which posits that the typical human response to mortality salience, or death reminders, is defensive in nature. That is, in the face of death humans will draw upon their shared cultural resources – religious, philosophical, ideological, etc. – and their personal sense of self-esteem to manage their terror by convincing themselves of their literal and/or symbolic immortality. In other words, to shield ourselves from “the uniquely human fear of inevitable death,” we convince ourselves that we are “significant contributors to a permanent world.”8 We will live on, we assure ourselves, through any combination of our accomplishments, our children, the collective continuation of our society, reincarnation, ascension to heaven, and innumerable other supposed sources of literal or symbolic immortality. Indeed, most human activities – both personal and cultural – are, at their roots, undertaken in pursuit of such immortality projects. Each of us vaingloriously thinks of him- or herself as a miniature Ozymandias or Cleopatra.

So, even though “everybody’s got a bomb” and “we could all die any day” – as the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonagenarian former Secretary of Defense, and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize recipients are desperately trying to remind us – we pacify ourselves with delusions of immortality.9 But these rationalizations tend to successfully assuage humans’ fears of death only “in the absence of looming danger.”10 Indeed, it’s fairly easy to be comforted by beliefs in one’s literal or symbolic immortality when one is relatively safe and healthy. But it’s comparatively difficult to talk yourself out of acknowledging your mortality when the cold hand of death grips your shoulder – when, for example, you are told by a credible source that a ballistic missile is about to annihilate the entire island on which you are inescapably standing.

So the Hawaiian missile scare, I want to say, is representative of a new class of phenomena that are becoming increasingly prevalent in our world – irruptions of extinction awareness. In provoking extremely high levels of mortality salience in those affected by these irruptions, or intrusions into conscious awareness, these events will bore like termites through the various defenses described above until wholesale failure of those defenses occurs. As a result, death terror will become unmanageable, and panic will ensue. Importantly, these events need not actually come to pass – the ballistic missiles need not detonate, nor even be launched – to produce these effects; all that matters is that these events are perceived as being imminently probable.

Thanks mainly to the rapid (instantaneous) dissemination of the alert from an authoritative and consensus-generating source – coupled with the background fear of nuclear war stemming from the escalating tensions between the unstable leaders of the United States and North Korea – the Hawaiian missile scare produced just this result, i.e., terror of death, in those subjected to it. Indeed, if this example strikes in your heart an unpleasantly familiar pang, it’s probably because you have already experienced such an event at least once before: the attacks on September 11th, 2001, irrupted in millions of people precisely this same kind of terror – so much terror, in fact, that the American government lied its way into a never-ending war on it.


Figure 3. The events of September 11, 2001, arranged into a news narrative, as they unfolded live on television.

Now, even if we accept my cursory description of the phenomenology of these events, why do I make the strong and perhaps outrageous seeming claim that they are indicators of near-term human extinction? Here we must make recourse to and then build backwards from an application of first principles; particularly, principles of ecology. In other words, we must come to see how fundamental ecological principles operating on the global human population render near-term human extinction an ecological, or even a thermodynamic, certainty.

Once this truth is grasped, it becomes obvious that although the particular instantiations of these irruptions can and will vary, sometimes chaotically (consider the recently popularized black swan theory), their general appearance as antecedents to a foregone conclusion – extinction – is as definite as a pressure drop heralding the onset of a storm.11 Put differently, the specific ways in which these irruptions will arrive are more or less undetermined, but that they will arrive is certain. Therefore, as a class of phenomena, events that produce irruptions of extinction awareness ought to be thought of as portents, omens, foreshadows, or harbingers of extinction. By learning to read and prognosticate about these signs, we can come to see – as the people of Kiribati already have – that we are living through a chronicle of an extinction foretold.12 

Before continuing, let me qualify a bit some of what I have just said. By “near-term,” I mean quite possibly within my lifetime (I am 29 years old) and even more probably within the 21st century in general. By “extinction,” I mean to evoke the simplest sense of that word – complete disappearance of humans from existence – but, more accurately, I mean something like “sudden, drastic reduction or even total eradication of human population concomitant with the collapse of complex advanced industrial society.” I mean “ecological” in the standard – if rarely truly applied to humans – sense of that word, and I mention thermodynamics because of the centrality of energy, specifically fossil fuels, to the causality of near-term human extinction.

Finally, I ask the intrepid reader to open his or her mind and, at the risk of becoming unmoored, receive what follows with maximal charity. What I am about to discuss will likely challenge many of your core beliefs and assumptions about yourself and the world. These notions will have to be washed away, for, in the words of Murray Bookchin, “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.”13 And contemplating death, or extinction, is about as visionary as thinking gets.

Relatedly, keep in mind Walter Benjamin’s haunting description of how, just as we humans witness history in hindsight as “a chain of events… piling wreckage upon wreckage,” so, too, are we irresistibly propelled “into the future to which [our] backs are turned.”14 In other words, we contemporary humans normally relate to time not much differently than did the ancient Greeks, who experienced “the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.”15 Our lot, it seems, is perpetually to take ourselves by surprise.


Figure 4. Paul Klee, Angelus Novus. Used by Walter Benjamin to illustrate his philosophy of history.16

However, we humans also have tremendous powers of foresight. Indeed, foresight is the complement to memory. For, as psychologist Donna Addis and her colleagues have shown, there are in humans “striking similarities between remembering the past and imagining or simulating the future, including… a common brain network [that] underlies both memory and imagination.”17 In other words, many of the same brain regions are “commonly engaged by past and future event construction.”18 This should not surprise anyone who has ever dreamed.

Thus one way we can use our powers of foresight, as Jürgen Habermas has said, is to “try and imagine our current situation as the past present for a future historian.”19 In this way and others, we can glance over our shoulders at the future that lies behind and yet ahead of us. Indeed, that is how some perspicacious observers – like Michael Moore and, yes, me – were able to predict with clarity the election of American fascist Donald Trump. But, importantly, all humans do or can have access to this power of perception, for “[we are] human; nothing human is alien to [us].”20 

So, please: remain humble about what you think you know, and become comfortable with the possibility that you may be capable of knowing more than you think.

Section II: The Case – Population Overshoot

With that ground-clearing complete, and in the interests of time and space, let me summarize and comment on what I take to be the most clear-eyed account of humans’ precarious position in the world. I am referring to sociologist William R. Catton, Jr.’s convincing claim, in his astounding 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, that misuse of fossil fuels has enabled the human population to overshoot (i.e., surpass) the carrying capacity (i.e., “the maximum population of a species which a given habitat can indefinitely support”) of the entire planet Earth such that a species-wide crash, or die-off, is inevitable and imminent.21 

The details are daunting, but the premise is simple. Throughout human evolutionary history, the human population has increased over time as humans have gained access, primarily through migration and technological innovation, to ever greater amounts of resources. Here we can point, as Catton does, to major developments like the use of fire, the invention of spears and other primitive weapons, horticulture, bronze metallurgy, agriculture, iron tools, firearms, industrialization (i.e., fossil fueled machinery), electrification, and antibiotics. These and other enantiodromic ‘advances’ allowed for the global human population to balloon from an estimated 3 million persons 35,000 years ago to an estimated 7.6 billion persons alive today – an increase of over 250,000%.

As quick as this increase is from a geological perspective, it becomes even more striking when we consider that the bulk of human population growth has occurred in just the last 200 years: since the year 1800, global population has increased from an estimated 969 million to the aforementioned 7.6 billion.22 This kind of precipitous growth represents another, different meaning of the word irruption, in the sense of a bloom, or “the rapid exponential increase of a population after it suddenly gains access to an abundance of the resources it requires.”23 

However, Catton’s claims do not amount to a mere neo-Malthusian lament about runaway human population growth. (Though Catton, as a part of his broader argument, does offer a compelling rehabilitation of Malthus’s basic thesis.)24 What matters from an ecological perspective is that the rapid growth of human population from the Industrial Revolution onward has been almost wholly dependent upon the consumption of energy from fossil fuels. Though we in the year 2018 take this fact completely for granted, as Catton explains,

The breakthrough we call industrialism was fundamentally unlike earlier [such breakthroughs in human evolutionary history.] It did not just take over for human use another portion of the web that had previously supported other forms of life. Instead, it went underground to extract carrying capacity supplements from a finite and depletable fund – a fund that was created and buried by nature, scores of millions of years before man came along. The drawdown [i.e., extraction] method that we call industrialism relied for its increase of opportunities upon the use of resources that are not renewed in an annual cycle of organic growth. To expect to “do it again” is to expect to find other exhaustible resources each time we use up a batch of them… In short, industrial life depends on a perpetual hunt for required substances… Now we rely, as members of industrial societies, upon [substances] with renewal times that may be thousands or even millions of times longer than a human lifespan. Their renewal is by geological processes; present stocks of them were put in place by operation of those processes over immensely long stretches of earth history. Mankind cannot realistically hope to assume management of prehistoric events, or to replenish the ores and fuels now being extracted so ravenously. Instead, we must face the fact that, after ten millenia of progress, Homo sapiens is “back at square one.” Industrialization committed us to living again, massively, as hunters and gatherers of substances which only nature can provide, and which occur only in limited quantity.25

It is this fundamental, immutable fact about fossil fuels – i.e., that they are finite – that has allowed humans to overshoot the carrying capacity of Earth. For, tragically, we humans have mistaken the energy afforded us by fossil fuels as permanently rather than temporarily available. This error has prevented us from preparing for what is colloquially referred to as ‘peak oil’ – even now, over thirty-five years after the publication of Limits to Growth, and over ten years after engineer-physicist Robert L. Hirsch’s U.S. Department of Energy report warned of the “unprecedented risk management problem” associated with the impending “peaking of world oil production.”26

In Catton’s estimation, this species-wide mistake springs from a species-wide source. Indeed, he argues that Homo sapiens, in becoming so utterly dependent on fossil fuels, functionally evolved into a new species: Homo colossus.

What most distinguishes Homo colossus from Homo sapiens, as the former’s name implies, is its expansiveness: whereas Homo sapiens can be thought of in ways similar to its evolutionary forebears, i.e., “as a naked ape,” Homo colossus redefines the human creature as “a man-tool system.”27 This means that Homo colossus is “a human being equipped with tools or apparatus that greatly enlarge the resource demands and environmental impact of that organism.” In other words, the boundaries of the human organism – regardless of whether or not we consciously realize it – have expanded beyond the “skin-encapsulated ego” of Homo sapiens to the “prosthetic god” of Homo colossus.28 

So, conceptually speaking, Homo colossus reintegrates into our understanding of the human organism what had previously, and erroneously, been treated as the dismissible externalities of human resource consumption in our industrialized world. As a result, we can see how humanity might soon become extinct, just as it nearly became during the Paleolithic era when the global population was reduced by natural disaster to about 1,000 reproductive adults. We can also see, using the Gaia hypothesis or Earth system science, how the activities of a single species can alter the biogeochemistry of the entire planet – just as the lowly cyanobacteria did during the Great Oxygenation Event a few billion years ago, and just as we humans are today doing with carbon dioxide and other fossil fuel emissions.29 In this fashion, then, and equipped with the concept of Homo colossus, the consequences of fossil fuel use can be incorporated into an ecological analysis of humanity tout court.

This new, properly ecological perspective on humanity shows us that Homo colossus is, in fact, a detritovore. A detritovore is “an organism that subsists by consuming detritus,” or waste products.30 (Conventional examples of detritovores include algae, fungi, worms, potato bugs, and fiddler crabs.) But if we recognize that what Homo colossus consumes, above all else, is fossil fuels – for example, via foodstuffs that exist and can only exist in adequate quantities through the use of fossil fueled technologies, like industrial agriculture, and supply chains that require vast fleets of fossil fueled vehicles, etc. – then we can clearly see that humans, too, have become detritovores. Accordingly, “industrial human communities are ‘detritovorous’ insofar as they depend on massive consumption of the transformed organic remains from the Carboniferous period known as fossil fuels.”31 That is, instead of feces, our detritus sources are lumps and puddles of fossilized corpses. These long dead organisms, when they were living, obtained their own energy either directly or indirectly from photosynthesis. Thus, in consuming fossil fuels, we human colossuses claw beneath the soil, reach back in time, and devour the ancient, unshining Sun.

Our quasi-speciation into the detritovore Homo colossus produced one obvious outcome that I have already mentioned above: irruption, or rapid, drastic population growth. But this irruption, like all such irruptions, has now placed us in a precarious position – one with a predictably terminal conclusion. In other words, in forgetting or never truly comprehending that fossil fuels are a finite resource, we humans have grown our population far beyond a level that could be sustained by organic processes alone, in the absence of fossil fuels – an absence that will inevitably, and shortly, come to pass. According to Catton’s straightforward calculations, even the 1980 global human population, lacking fossil fuels, would require for its maintenance – to say nothing of growth – organic renewable resources “equivalent to ten Earths.”32 With a projected human population of 10 billion by the year 2050 (assuming the continuation of current growth trends that, in fact, will not and cannot hold), this disconnect will become even more insurmountably wide.

Once we exhaust our supply of detritus (fossil fuels), we will suffer the same fate as all ‘successful’ detritovores: crash, or “the more or less precipitate decline in numbers that follows when a population has exceeded the carrying capacity of its habitat.”33 This is a common phenomenon in nature, as Catton vividly illustrates in the case of the reindeer population on St. Matthew Island. Or, consider the ubiquitous example of algae:

When nutrients from decaying autumn leaves on land are carried by runoff from melting snows into a pond, their consumption by algae in the pond may be checked until springtime by the low winter temperatures that keep the algae from growing. When warm weather arrives, the inflow of nutrients may already be largely complete for the year. The algal population, unable to plan ahead, explodes in the halcyon days of spring in an irruption or bloom that soon exhausts the finite legacy of the sustenance materials. This algal Age of Exuberance lasts only a few weeks. Long before the seasonal cycle can bring in more detritus, there is a massive die-off of these innocently incautious and exuberant organisms.34

If, through analogical reasoning based on universal ecological principles, we soberly compare the example of an algae population unrestrainedly consuming dead leaves in a pond with the human population unrestrainedly consuming fossil fuels on planet Earth, we must admit that Homo colossus, like pond scum, is not excepted from “the basic principle: die-off is the sequel to overshoot.”35 Hence, we humans are nearing the end of our “necessarily self-terminating way of life.”36 Indeed, our collective species’ diagnosis is isomorphic with the individual diagnosis of a terminally ill cancer patient; it is not a question of if we will expire, but when. When will the lights go out? In the meantime, we must grieve quickly for ourselves – Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s work on the stages of grief can help – and move with all deliberate speed and by any means necessary toward making arrangements for those few children, born posthumously, who may remain once we are gone.37


Figure 5. Images of a mural, by Italian street artist Blu, depicting the human situation circa 2015.38 

Now, I can already hear the counterarguments seeking to deny this basic ecological reality in which humans are embedded. Catton anticipated them, too, and he spends a significant portion of his book proleptically deflating them. Most notably, Catton dismantles a kind of technocentrism that he calls “cargoism,” or the “faith that technological progress will stave off major institutional change even in a post-exuberant world.”39 Cargoism, as an ideology or worldview, falsely justifies a sort of human exceptionalism from the operation of ecological principles. As such, cargoism is one of the primary terror-relieving mechanisms by which humans convince themselves that they are or can be somehow exempted from the Earth’s sixth great extinction event – an event that they have caused and that is presently unfolding all around them.40 

Cargoism, then, covers everything from the seemingly reasonable belief that solar panels and other forms of renewable energy can replace fossil fuels (they can’t – as Moriarty & Honnery point out, “an energy source can be renewable without being ecologically sustainable”) to the utter fantasy that terraforming or some other as-yet-uninvented but surely energy-intensive technology can slow, stop, or even undo the ecological devastation that our fossil fueled species has wreaked upon Earth.41 Such fantasizing underlies, for instance, the puerile varieties of ‘transhumanism,’ ‘posthumanity,’ or ‘the singularity’; the laughably inadequate Paris Climate accord; the wasteful and egotistical space adventures of robber baron Elon Musk; and the vapid, virtue-signaling histrionics continually performed by the sadistically ignorant elites of the extraction economy at events like last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos. For what these fantasies, like all fantasies, do above all else is shield from our conscious awareness the reality of their own fictitiousness.

The human penchant for fantasy suggests another major factor for why Overshoot, despite its powerful message – epidemiologist Harold B. Weiss in 2009 said that Overshoot “ranks as one of the most important books ever written, period” – has not attracted more scholarly interest, to say nothing of mainstream attention or acceptance.42 Overshoot contains dangerous knowledge; it is a real life Necronomicon or Tome of Eternal Darkness.43 To read it and related texts is to arrive at a crossroads. The path of truth leads to an irrevocable puncturing of the fantasies that underlie human terror management strategies. The path of fantasy, which is the more common choice, ignores or denies truth and leads deeper into delusion. Aldous Huxley well understood this dilemma:

Suddenly to realize that one is sitting, damned, among the other damned – it is a most disquieting experience; so disquieting that most of us react to it by immediately plunging more deeply into our particular damnation in the hope, generally realized, that we may be able, at least for a time, to stifle our revolutionary knowledge.44

Insofar as Catton’s “revolutionary” book itself represents an irruption of extinction awareness, then, it – for the same reasons of terror management described above – unsurprisingly has been disregarded by most people, including academics.

Let me now make two final notes for this section. First, we should not mistake Catton’s analysis for indictment. As a brute fact, the current human situation cannot be pinned on any one person or group of people. And, much to my dismay, overshoot cannot be wholly blamed on capitalism, either. Indeed, although “growth for the sake of growth” is both capitalism’s prime directive as well as “the ideology of the cancer cell,” any non-ecological system of social organization – including non-ecological socialism, communism, or anarchism – would almost certainly have led to the same outcome of population overshoot, albeit perhaps not quite as quickly.45  

After all, Julian Jaynes reminds us, “language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication.”46 So, since the very word ‘ecology’ did not even emerge until the late 19th century and did not become popularized until the 1960s, most humans literally could not have seen the sword of Damocles they were collectively positioning their progeny beaneath.47 Thus we should concur with Catton that overshoot is humanity’s “fate.” For, as sociologist C. Wright Mills explains, fate “is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.”48 This notion of fate as a failure of coordination provides one explanation for why, as Joseph Tainter shows in The Collapse of Complex Societies, civilizations throughout history have regularly fallen.49 Indeed, when we recognize that even now, in the age of the Internet, humans are beset by seemingly intractable collective action problems, we have to admit that our history as it actually unfolded never afforded us an opportunity to avert our upcoming rendezvous with destiny. Hence we must forgive ourselves, for we knew not what we did.50

Truly, human population overshoot stemming from fossil fuel exuberance may well represent our species’ encounter with the Fermi paradox and the hypothesized Great Filter that accompanies it. “The Fermi paradox,” writes philosopher Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, “refers to the question mark that hovers over the data point that we have seen no signs of extraterrestrial life.”51 In other words, given the vastness of the universe – and the high probability that many Earth-like planets, some significantly older than our own Earth, circle the billions of Sun-like stars scattered throughout the universe – why have we not met, or been met by, extraterrestrial organisms? In Enrico Fermi’s words, “Where is everybody?”52 

The most widely accepted answer to Fermi’s question is that all forms of intelligent extraterrestrial life have been destroyed, or have destroyed themselves, prior to the point at which they might have been able to contact us or, conversely, that we might have been able to detect them. The implication, then, is that “there must be (at least) one Great Filter – an evolutionary step that is extremely improbable – somewhere on the line between Earth−like planet and colonizing−in−detectable−ways civilization.”53 Now, there are reasons to believe that humans have already passed the Great Filter – we have come a long, dangerous way from our unicellular forbears – but we cannot know for sure. Thus, “if the Great Filter isn’t in [humanity’s] past, we must fear it in our (near) future.”54 Indeed, risk analyst Jason Matheny, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity group within the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, suggests that “humanity could be extinguished as soon as this century by succumbing to near-term extinction risks.” These risks include, among many others, “nuclear detonations… or volcanic eruptions [that] could generate enough atmospheric debris to terminate food production” and “greenhouse gas emissions [that] could trigger a positive feedback loop, causing a radical change in climate.”55 

Figure 6. “Qualitative categories of risk. Global catastrophic risks are in the upper right part of the diagram. Existential risks form an especially severe subset of these.”56 (From Bostrom & Cirkovic, Global Existential Risks.)

Matheny’s concerns about the probability of multiple overlapping extinction factors brings me to the second note. That is, we should keep in mind that what I have earlier described in summarizing Catton’s work touches only on what we might call the thermodynamic reality of our predicament vis-à-vis fossil fuels. This means that, though I have gestured toward them, I have not fully incorporated into my present case for near-term human extinction other interrelated contemporaneous “global catastrophic risks,” “existential risks,” or “converging catastrophes.”57 

One person who has made an attempt to integrate these many threats is cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees, cofounder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. Rees’s conclusion, in his 2003 book Our Final Hour, is that “the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of [the twenty-first century.]”58 Rees’s grim prognosis has been echoed more recently by scholars as diverse as the 15,000 signatories to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ “Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” linguist Noam Chomsky, cliodynamics specialist Peter Turchin, and futures & peace studies pioneer Johan Galtung – the latter of whom accurately predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union and, 18 years ago, predicted “the fall of the U.S. empire” by 2020.59 

Though I lack the space and time here to make as comprehensive a case as Rees’s and others’, before moving on I would like to briefly mention what I see as the most significant risks attending our population overshoot. These risks include (1) accelerating anthropogenic climate breakdown (itself, in all its variegated forms, a function of fossil fuel consumption); (2) the staggering loss of global biodiversity (reflective of our position in the Anthropocene extinction); (3) the rise of what political theorist Sheldon Wolin calls ‘inverted totalitarianism,’ or increasingly inequitable, extractionist, and repressive corporatocratic neoliberal or neofascist regimes (which, as the folks of Rojava have shown, can perhaps be resisted best through principles of social ecology and practices of libertarian municipalism); and, of course, (4) nuclear weapons of the kind that so terrorized the minds of Hawaiians on January 13th (and about which Donald Trump – a “dangerous, mentally unstable, sociopathic, abusive, pathological narcissist,” according to 27 leading psychiatrists and mental health experts exercising their civic ‘duty to warn’ in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump – wonders: “if [the United States] has them, why can’t we use them?”)60 

It is to the reminders of these terrors – intrusions into consciousness of extinction awareness, or irruptions of irruption – that I wish now to return.

Section III: Some Philosophical Implications of The Case

If we accept the case as I have just briefly presented it – and it’s worth noting that Catton’s argument was convincing enough to persuade Stewart Udall, former U.S. Congressman from Arizona and Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, to pen Overshoot’s foreword – then my argument from this premise is as follows: what persons are perceiving, however vaguely or precognitively, when they experience irruptions of extinction awareness is precisely the unfolding crash stemming from human population overshoot. In other words, these persons are suddenly, horrifyingly, and ineffably experiencing themselves in relation to the hyperobject to end all hyperobjects – extinction.61 Thus they are peering behind “the veil of our reality,” glimpsing the “terrifying vistas” alluded to by Lovecraft, and feeling their own “frightful position therein.”62 And, like dogs barking before an earthquake, these persons understandably panic in the face of this incomprehensible and ineluctable doom.63

After all, panic “happens when the confidence of society’s members in each other breaks down… and gives way to an ‘every man for himself’ type of scrambling… this can arise from (1) general perception of severe and immediate danger, coupled with (2) belief that the opportunities for escape are limited, (3) belief that these opportunities are diminishing, and (4) an absence of adequate communication about the danger.”64 These conditions well match those that arise during events that produce irruptions of extinction awareness. Therefore, as we approach extinction these conditions – which call to mind Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes, or Thucydides’s disturbing account of plague-ridden Athens – will eventually, in a vast, cacophonous crescendo, engulf every human community on Earth.65 Thus, as philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe contends, existential dread will become the universal tragedy of our species’ overdeveloped consciousness – and first to be struck by this malady will be those of us who hear and “see too much for sanity.”66 

Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to expect that  once it is seen by every person that the entirety of planet Earth is in the same existentially vulnerable position as Hawaii had been in during those 38 minutes  pandemonium unlike any experienced in human history will reign. For, in Black Mirror-like fashion, the Internet- and smartphone-powered “piecing together of dissociated knowledge” could very well weave for us a fluctuating but mutually constitutive and undeniable tapestry of terror. As Nietzsche says, “the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of this thing” – in this case, the more complete will be our conception of ecocide.67 Thus humanity will belatedly and in unison realize with Manhattan Project physicist Robert Oppenheimer that, together, we colossuses “have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”68

So, then, paraphrasing Albert Camus, there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is extinction.69 But what do we do about it? One possibility is to work backwards from our conclusion about extinction’s inevitability to reinterpret in that light the events of today. This might seem to suggest, as paleontologist Michael Novacek puts it, that “the overarching recognition that we live in a world already radically transformed by human activity must frame our strategies for effecting maintenance or recovery of our vital ecosystems.”70 But, though I agree with Novacek that “the current biodiversity crisis has one obvious biotic cause: ourselves,” I do not share even his tepid optimism that “the source of the trauma also has the presumed capacity to mitigate its own deleterious impact.”71 To be blunt, it seems to me that such mitigation would require us to make unprecedented changes on an infeasible scale within an impossible time frame. Can’t we find some humility here at the end?

My pessimism about mitigation notwithstanding, if any members of our species are to have any hope of surviving our self-inflicted extinction event, we must indeed resolve our ongoing failure to recognize that we are in it. We should, then, devote all our efforts to facilitating what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls “the climate swerve,” or “our evolving awareness of our predicament.”72 To that end, I propose, following Catton, that we can gain a far more adequate understanding of our world if we shift – in the manner described most famously by Thomas Kuhn, and more recently in a spirit of inquiry similar to my own by Grant Maxwell – from a pre-ecological paradigm to an ecological paradigm.73 In so doing, we can come to see how historical and current events – like Trump’s ‘election’ and swift normalization, the water crisis nearing Day Zero in Cape Town, the American opioid epidemic, the famine-genocide in Yemen, and the abrupt loss of Arctic sea ice – can be read with foresight as the kinds of omens or signs I mentioned above.74 

But not only can an ecological paradigm help us demystify much of the suffering that has accompanied our pre-ecological ignorance, it can also – more significantly for our future – empower us to take the steps that we must take in order for some small number of us to perhaps survive our current predicament. For, as Plotinus writes, “the knowledge of future things is, in a word, identical with that of the present.”75 Thus there is “profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation” in what we now call the Anthropocene.76 Indeed, the peril of seven and a half billion Wile E. Coyotes looking down all at once – yikes!


Figure 7. Détournement of the iconic Las Vegas welcome sign.77 

To be sure, “misperception is the problem to be overcome by a paradigm shift, and only a paradigm shift can overcome it.”78 Yet effecting this paradigm shift is a task of appropriately colossal proportions. How, if at all, can we hope to educate others for this kind of transformation of consciousness?79 How can one teach an unspeakable truth to those who lack the ears to hear it?80 Put differently, how do we overcome the quandary of Nietzsche’s madman, who, after speaking plainly his truth, sees that he has not been comprehended?

“I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.81

It seems that the madman’s only option is to find a way to reduce the distance between “the ears of men” and the “deed.” This, then, is the task to which I can and must now bring my entire being to bear. Not because I think I will or even can succeed; surely my efforts will amount to little more than polishing the brass on the Titanic. But I must do this because – knowing what I know and being who I am – I feel obligated, or compelled, to try.82 

I hope that you, reader – having come to understand the human situation for what it is – now feel similarly. For we are going to need each other’s help “as night closes in.”83

Section IV: Conclusion

Before concluding, first let me say that if you’ve read this far, I applaud and thank you – it takes courage to confront this truth and perseverance to endure my unsparing writing style. Second, and since “what’s past is prologue,” I want to briefly describe my preliminary approach to closing the gap between ears and deed.84

The problem of misperception about the human situation is an epistemological one. This epistemological conundrum, as I see it, has three major dimensions: (1) cognitive, (2) ideological or worldview-based, and (3) existential. More verbosely, the most significant obstacles blocking from human awareness the reality of impending extinction stem from (1) cognitive limitations (e.g., common cognitive biases, such as time preference, and the inability of most persons – primarily resulting from their having been miseducated, not from innate intellectual deficiencies – to think in the mode of what Jean Piaget calls formal operational thinking, to say nothing of the more advanced and far less widespread modes of dialectical thinking, vision-logic, and systems thinking, among others); (2) conceptual blind spots stemming from various systematic ideological misconstruals of reality (e.g., false consciousness or misrecognition of one’s place in hierarchical and classist society, capitalist dogma like the unquestioned and unquestionable value of unlimited growth [which makes degrowth unimaginable and therefore impossible], and Catton’s cargoism); (3) inability and/or unwillingness to ask existential questions and to confront one’s own mortality even under optimal conditions (i.e., death denial as described by terror management theory), and, therefore, an almost unbreakable attachment to the illusory pseudosubject of the individuated ego.85 

Taken together, these impediments prevent our moving from a pre-ecological to an ecological paradigm. To overcome them, we must do deliberately and compassionately what irruptions of extinction awareness do violently and indiscriminately. That is, we must systematically deconstruct our paradigmatic limitations in a way that, from their rubble, offers reconstructive resources for the developmental move from a less to a more adequate species-wide paradigm or worldview. Then with eyesight nearer to Ramana Maharshi’s or Jiddu Krishnamurti’s will we be able to see that “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”86 

In a sense, this amounts to an idea of education as simulated near-death experience – fitting, given our proximity to extinction.87 This framing emphasizes the fact that, rather than focusing our efforts on trying to change the seen, we must instead attempt to alter the seer. For the goal is not to persuade humans that things are different than they think they are; rather, the goal is to empower humans to disclose to themselves a state of affairs that is already the case but that is going misperceived by them. Therefore, as adult education scholar Jack Mezirow’s work demonstrates, we must change humans’ perspectives on their world – a process which necessarily entails changing their conceptions of themselves.88 What I am suggesting, in other words, is that there is a mode of being that is as qualitatively distinct from conventional adulthood as conventional adulthood is from childhood, and that this more advanced level of development is what we should be trying to realize in ourselves as a strategy for surviving extinction.89

Figure 8. Catton’s typology of “modes of adaptation to ecologically inexorable change.”90 These types, especially Types I, II, and V, amount to distinct and incompatible epistemological perspectives or worldviews – “cults that snuff each other out,” in Piaget’s words – and thus are ripe for integration through transcendence (i.e., sublation) to a more adequate paradigm.91 

Ironically, then, the only way for us to save ourselves from extinction is to die to what we are and to become reborn as something we are not. An important part of this process will be the heeding of Zapffe’s call for antinatalism: “know yourselves – be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye.”92 Tragically, not all will hear this injunction, and so we must consider the plight of the children who will continue to be born even as our species draws nearer and nearer to extinction. These youths – who will not be burdened by any obligations to a dysgenic, filicidal system of social organization that has doomed and declared war on them from before the moment of their conception; who, having been thrown into this world, will not hesitate to acknowledge the self-evident reality of the human situation that their indoctrinated elders embedded in the gerontocracy self-servingly deny – will likely be our species’ only hope for survival.93 Educating this final, fated generation for undergoing – and, perhaps, overcoming – extinction, then, is the labor with which wise adults will soon be (are already) tasked.

I have much more to say about how we might organize to systematically perform this labor (recognizing, of course, that in reality there is not enough time left for us to actually complete it), as well as about what form my own contribution to this labor might take. However, this essay is not the place to go further into detail on these points – that is what my future research, including my dissertation, is for. Until then, I will say that my fool’s hope lies in the kind of work being done by scholars focused on the nexus of developmental psychologydeliberative democracycritical pedagogy and psychagogy, and cosmopolitanism. In particular, political theorist Jack Crittenden’s book, Wide as the World: Cosmopolitan Identity, Integral Politics, and Democratic Dialogue; futurist Jennifer Gidley’s book, Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures; integral theorist Ken Wilber’s ouvre; and much of the thinking being done in certain academic journals like World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research and the Journal of Transformative Education stand out as the most compelling sources of inspiration for promoting radical, species-wide change.94 

In the meantime, what matters is that all of us come to grips with the human situation. Crucially, each of us can do this on his or her own – we do not need to wait for utopian institutional change to guide us. To that end, take seriously the merit of philosophical spirituality. For, as physicist Fritjof Capra points out, “ecology and spirituality are fundamentally connected because deep ecological awareness, ultimately, is spiritual awareness.”95 In pursuit of that awareness, consider especially traditions (such as Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Transcendentalism, and existentialism) that prescribe specific practices for “makin’ sure your soul’s alright” – things like meditation, contemplation, introspection, physical training, or ritualistic psychedelic use (e.g., ayahuasca).96 All of these, and more, can help one to collapse now and avoid the rush,” as former Grand Archdruid John Michael Greer puts it.97

Indeed, these spiritual approaches can empower an individual to overcome his or her fear of death by dissolving or deconstructing the illusion which the literal and symbolic immortality projects conducted under the guise of terror management futilely seek to preserve; namely, the ego. With the walls of the ego thus taken down – or revealed to have always been hallucinatory – “the currents of the Universal Being [can] circulate” into the “transparent eyeball,” expanding thereby perception of the spectrum of consciousness and disclosing new world-spaces – ecological world-spaces – as a result.98 This is not unlike like what Albert Einstein, working from his belief that the “concept ‘I’ [is an] illusion produced by our self-created language,” means when he says that “the problems facing us cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created them.”99 

These spiritual paths, then, represent the best accumulated wisdom, or philosophia perrenis, pertaining to the enduring human quest toward embracing mortality and realizing nondual being.100 Indeed, striving to reach this way of being – through something like the overview effect, Ken Wilber’s notion of the worldcentric level of development, or what philosopher of education David Hansen calls a “cosmopolitan orientation” – is the exact shift in perspective that we humans must make if we are to understand and perhaps survive our current situation on ‘Spaceship Earth.’101 For every crisis supplies a turning point between tragedy and serendipity.102 

So, although we cannot avert the calamities to come, we must not despair. Instead, we must overcome ourselves.103 Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, we must recognize that “it is time! it is high time!” to embrace death in life.104 After all, “with life as short as a half-taken breath,” Rumi seems to ask, why wait?105 Rather, with Marcus Aurelius we should “consider [ourselves] to be dead, and to have completed [our lives] up to the present time.”106 Thus we, like Tolkien’s Gandalf, can see that “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”107 For, as Frank Ocean asks, “we are all mortals, aren’t we? Any moment this could go.”108 Yes, Plato’s Socrates tells us, “philosophy is nothing other than preparation for dying and death.”109 So William James is right: no matter how sweet life’s party, still “the skull will grin in at the banquet” – and, like Tyler Durden, we ought to meet that greeting with a shit-eating grin of our own.110 

Similary, Camus advises: “Come to terms with death. Thereafter anything is possible.”111 This frees us, Ralph Waldo Emerson agrees, to “live with nature in the present, above time.”112 Indeed, Michel de Montaigne says, “to practice death is to practice freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”113 Only then, according to Krishnamurti, can we “know the extraordinary state of being nothing, of coming to the abyss of an eternal movement, as it were, and dropping over the edge.”114 

So gaze long into that abyss, friends – and drop off! Light a lantern as you fall through a tesseract beyond the veil of our reality, and, once you cross Owl Creek in the Mountains of Madness, find a human with whom to share an amontillado.115 In other words, do as Jesus said and “leave the dead to bury their own dead.”116 For, Ken Wilber assures us, “the Void that you are looking for is identical to the Void that you don’t see when you look within for the Looker, so that the sought is the seeker, the seeker is the sought… Always already suffering death Now, we are always already living eternally. The search is always already over.”117 

Completing this unbeginnable quest – conquering death – is the only way to brace ourselves for the mass irruptions of extinction awareness that await on the horizon. For it is only by overcoming the terror of death that we can achieve true equanimity. This is what Nietzsche calls amor fati, or what an incandescent Frenchwoman whom I am lucky to know embodies as joie de vivre.118 Unfortunately, these qualities are rare; historically such equanimity has been quite difficult for humans, “who fear their own death,” to actualize. But, at this point, we no longer have a choice. We must all become like the swans who, “when they realize that they must die, sing most and most beautifully.”119  We must all philosophize as preparation for death in the age of extinction.120 

The first step in doing so demands that each of us stop denying or ignoring the truth about his or her place in the human situation. Rather, to paraphrase Geoffrey Rush’s wonderfully delivered, reality warping admonishment at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl:

We best start believing in human extinction – we’re living through it!

Appendix I: Suggested Websites

/r/collapse – This is by far the largest informal online community for extinction-aware folks, aka collapseniks. The forum is not without problems: as in many fringe communities, sensationalized headlines, unfounded conspiracy theories, and bigotry slip in, though these problems tend to be dealt with quickly by moderators. But, to my knowledge, /r/collapse offers the Internet’s most well-curated collection of collapse-related news stories and commentary, including excellent insights from some anonymous community members.

The Archdruid Report (mirror) – This is a mirror of John Michael Greer’s former blog. Greer served from 2003 to 2015 as the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. I have set the link to Greer’s entry titled “Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush,” which I think is perhaps the most compelling starting (and ending) point for his writing.

Centre for the Study of Existential Risk – CSER is an “interdisciplinary research centre within the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge dedicated to the study and mitigation of existential risks.”

Collapse of Industrial Civilization – I have not spent much time browsing this blog, but from my initial inspection it seems to be quite a decent source of relevant information and commentary.

Ecosophia – John Michael Greer’s current blog.


Extinction Radio – This is a video podcast hosted by Mike Ferrigan, aka Professor Pongoo. Ferrigan interviews guests about near-term human extinction. He also runs the Near-Term Human Extinction Support Group on Facebook. 

Global Catastrophic Risk Institute – GCRI is a ”nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. GCRI was founded in 2011 by Seth Baum and Tony Barrett. GCRI studies the full range of global catastrophic risks and GCR topics in order to answer the big questions: Which risks should society be most worried about? How do the different risks affect each other? And above all, what are the best ways to reduce the risk?”

Future of Humanity Institute – FHI is a “multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Oxford.” Scholars at the institute bring “the tools of mathematics, philosophy, social sciences, and science to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects. The Institute is led by founding Director Professor Nick Bostrom.”

The Future of Life Institute – FLI’s mission is “to catalyze and support research and initiatives for safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.”

Helical Holdings – Founded by Dylan Ratigan, “Helical Holdings designs and manufactures sustainable, state of the art, plug-and-play food, water, electricity and communication systems intended to convert global goodwill to reduce poverty and improve health into distributed resource security, jobs and education – for every community in America and every country in the world.”


Michael Dowd – Dowd is an “evolutionary theologian.” He leads a unique, future-oriented Christian faith community that takes seriously the prospect of near-term human extinction.

Nature Bats Last – This is the website of Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. McPherson predicts near-term human extinction will result primarily from abrupt climate change. Some of his claims are questionable, but nevertheless his work is some of the best on this topic – see, for example, his discussions of positive feedback loops and the phenomenon of global dimming.

The Next System Project – “The Next System Project is an initiative of The Democracy Collaborative aimed at bold thinking and action to address the systemic challenges the United States faces now and in coming decades. Deep crises of economic inequality, racial injustice and climate change—to name but three—are upon us, and systemic problems require systemic solutions. Working with a broad group of researchers, theorists and activists, we are using the best research, understanding and strategic thinking, on the one hand, and on-the-ground organizing and development experience, on the other, to promote visions, models and pathways that point to a ‘next system’ radically different in fundamental ways from the failed systems of the past and present and capable of delivering superior social, economic and ecological outcomes.”

Paul Beckwith, Climate System Scientist – This is the personal website of Paul Beckwith, currently a PhD student at the University of Ottawa. Beckwith’s research focuses on abrupt climate change from an Earth system science perspective.

Resilience – This website’s purpose is “to support building community resilience in a world of multiple emerging challenges: the decline of cheap energy, the depletion of critical resources like water, complex environmental crises like climate change and biodiversity loss, and the social and economic issues which are linked to these.” As such, Resilience serve as “an information clearinghouse and network of action-oriented groups focused on building community resilience.”

World Futures Studies Federation – WFSF is “a non-profit global NGO” and a “transdisciplinary [group of] scholars, teachers, researchers, foresight practitioners, policy analysts, activists, students and others with a long-range view.” WFSF is “dedicated to stimulating awareness of the urgent need for long-term thinking in government, policy, civil and educational institutions, to resolve complex local, national, regional and global problems.” Check out especially their lists of books and journals.

Appendix II: Selected Unreferenced Readings

Altvater, Elmar – Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism

Angus, Ian – Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System

Armstrong, Donna – Seducing Ourselves: Understanding Public Denial in a Declining

Complex Society

Becker, Ernest – The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man

Becker, Ernest – Escape from Evil

Catton, William – Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse

Dawson, Ashley – Extinction: A Radical History

Diamond, Jared – Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Frankl, Viktor – Man’s Search for Meaning

Gebser, Jean – The Ever-Present Origin

Ghosh, Amitav – The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

Graves, Clare – Levels of Human Existence

Hamilton, Clive – Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change

Hirsch, Robert, et al – The Impending World Energy Mess: What It Means and What It Means to You

Kaczynski, Theodore – “Ship of Fools”

Kaczynski, Theodore – Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczysnki, a.k.a. “The Unabomber”

Monbiot, George – How Did We Get Into This Mess?: Politics, Equality, Nature

Morton, Timothy – Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence

Orlov, Dmitry – The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit

Randers, Jorgen – 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years

Robinson, Kim Stanley – New York 2140

Robinson, Kim Stanley – The Mars trilogy (Red MarsGreen MarsBlue Mars)

Scranton, Roy – We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change

Smil, Vaclav – Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years

Toynbee, Arnold – A Study of History, Volumes I and II (abridgment)

Tsing, Anna – The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

Wadhams, Peter – A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic

Wilber, Ken – Trump and a Post-Truth World

Weisman, Alan – The World Without Us

[1] Prince, “Sign o’ the Times,” Sign o’ the Times, Warner Bros., 1987. [2] Image is from “Oops… Hawaii governor was late in retracting false missile alert because he ‘forgot’ Twitter login,” RT, January 23, 2018, https://www.rt.com/usa/416728-hawaii-governor-twitter-password/.
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulu,” The H. P. Lovecraft Archivehttp://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cc.aspx.
Aldo Leopold, “The Round River: A Parable of Conservation,” quoted in Curt Meine, “Aldo Leopold at 130,” OUPbloghttps://blog.oup.com/2017/01/130-years-aldo-leopold/.
Images taken from “Oops… Hawaii governor” and “2018 Hawaii false missile alert,” Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_Hawaii_false_missile_alert.
Sheldon Solomon, et al, “Terror Management Theory and Self-Esteem: Evidence That Increased Self-Esteem Reduces Morality Salience Effects,” Journal of Personality and Psychology, 72:1 (1997), 24-36.
Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House, 2015), 6.
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973).
Solomon et al, Worm, 9.
Prince, “1999,” 1999, Warner Bros., 1982.
10 Solomon et al, Worm, 7.
11 Cf. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).
12 Cf. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (New York: Random House, 2003).
13 Murray Bookchin, “The Meaning of Confederalism,” Green Perspectives, no. 20 (November 1990).
14 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Random House, 2007), 257-258.
15 Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), afterword.
16 Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920, Israel Museum, http://www.paul-klee.org/angelus-novus/.
17 Daniel L. Schacter, Donna Rose Addis, et al, “The Future of Memory: Remembering, Imagining, and the Brain,” Neuron Review 76:4, 677.
18 Donna Addis et al, “Remember the Past and Imagining the Future: Common and Distinct Neural Substrates During Even Construction and Elaboration,” Neuropsychologia 45:7, 1363.
19 Jürgen Habermas, quoted in “The players resign: Core Europe to the rescue: a conversation with Jürgen Habermas about Brexit and the EU crisis,” interview by Thomas Assheuer, Die Ziet, July 12, 2016, http://www.zeit.de/kultur/2016-07/juergen-habermas-brexit-eu-crises-english.
20 Terence, quoted in Jack Crittenden, Wide as the World: Cosmopolitan Identity, Integral Politics, and Democratic Dialogue (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011), 61.
21 William R. Catton, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 272.
22 Ibid., 18.
23 Ibid., 277.
24 Ibid., 126-129, 138-139.
25 Ibid., 32.
26 [1] Donella Meadows, et al, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004). [2] Robert L. Hirsch, et al, “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management” (February 2005: Science Applications International Corporation, U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory), 4. Retrieved 11 February 2018. https://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/Oil_Peaking_NETL.pdf.
27 Catton, Overshoot, 155.
28 [1] Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (New York: Random House, 1989), 73; [2] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI (1927-1931) (New York: Norton, 1961), 37-38. [3] Catton discusses “man, the prosthetic animal” in Overshoot, 145-147.
29 [1] James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); [2] Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017).
30 Catton, Overshoot, 274.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid., 52.
33 Ibid., 273.
34 Ibid., 216-217, 168.
35 Ibid., 216.
36 Ibid., 204.
37 Cf. [1] Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, the Clergy, and Their Own Families (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969); [2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1976).
38 Blu, http://www.blublu.org/.
39 Catton, Overshoot, 272.
40 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Picador, 2014). For a contrary view, see “Earth is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction,” Peter Brannen, The Atlantic, June 13, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/the-ends-of-the-world/529545/.
41 Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, “Three Futures: Nightmare, Diversion, Vision,” World Futures (DOI: 10.1080/02604027.2017.1357930); Catton, Overshoot, 183-195.
42 Harold B. Weiss, “Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (book review),” Public Health Reports 124:1 (2009), 167, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2602943/.
43 [1] H. P. Lovecraft, “The History of the Necronomicon,” The H. P. Lovecraft Archivehttp://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hn.aspx. [2] Silicon Knights, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, written and directed by Denis Dyack (GameCube video game: Nintendo, 2002), “The Binding of the Corpse God,” introduction.
44 Aldous Huxley, Grey Eminence (London: Random House, 2005). Thanks to /r/collapse users /u/hopeornope and /u/Ambra1603 for bringing this quote to my attention.
45 Edward Abbey, “The Second Rape of the West,” in The Journey Home (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 183.
46 Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (New York: Mariner Books, 2000), 50.
47 Anonymous, “ecology,” Etymonline, https://www.etymonline.com/word/ecology.
48 Catton, Overshoot, 177.
49 Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Cf. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).
50 Cf. Luke 23:34.
51 Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Journal of Evolution and Technology (2002), 14.
52 Eric M. Jones, “’Where is Everybody?’ An Account of Fermi’s Question” (Los Alamos National Laboratory, 1985). OSTI 785733. Retrieved February 2, 2018, https://www.osti.gov/accomplishments/documents/fullText/ACC0055.pdf.
53 Bostrom, “Existential Risks,” 14.
54 Ibid.
55 Jason Matheny, “Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction,” Risk Analysis 27:5 (2007), 1336.
56 Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic, Global Catastrophic Risks (New York: Oxford University Pres, 2008), 3.
57 James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Grove Press, 2005).
58 Martin Rees, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 8.
59 [1] William J. Ripple, et al, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” BioScience 67:12 (Dec 2017), 1026-1028; [2] Johan Galtung, The Fall of the U.S. Empire – And Then What? Successors, Regionalization or Globalization? U.S. Fascism or U.S. Blossoming? (Oslo: Transcend University Press, 2011), 8.
60 “Climate breakdown” is George Monbiot’s more accurate term for climate change. George Monbiot, “Climate Change? Try Catastrophic Climate Breakdown,” The Guardian, September 27, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/sep/27/ipcc-climate-change-report-global-warming. For inverted totalitarianism, see Sheldon Wolin, Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarinism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). Cf. [1] Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12:3 (2014), 564-581, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/testing-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizens/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B/core-reader#; [2] Gilens and Page, Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). [3] Bandy Lee (ed.), The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017). [4] Aaron Blake, “Trump’s Loose Talk on Nuclear Weapons Suddenly Becomes Very Real,” The Washington Post, October 11, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/10/11/trumps-loose-rhetoric-on-nuclear-weapons-has-become-a-very-real-concern/?utm_term=.ba0901cecb15.
61 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
62 [1] Silicon Knights, Eternal Darkness, Chapter One (introduction); [2] Lovecraft, “Cthulu.”
63 Cf. [1] “Animals & Earthquake Prediction,” United States Geological Surveyhttps://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/topics/animal_eqs.php; [2] Maryann Mott, “Can Animals Sense Earthquakes?,” National Geographic News, November 11, 2003, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/11/1111_031111_earthquakeanimals.html; [3] “Can Dogs Predict Earthquakes?,” Stanley Coren, Psychology Today, May 9, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201205/can-dogs-predict-earthquakes.
64 Catton, Overshoot, 219.
65 [1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York: Penguin Books, 2017); [2] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley & ed. Robert Strassler (New York: Touchstone, 1996).
66 Gisle Tangenes, “The View from Mount Zapffe,” Philosophy Now 45, https://philosophynow.org/issues/45/The_View_from_Mount_Zapffe.
67 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1992), 555.
68 James Temperton, “’Now I am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.’ The Story Behind Oppenheimer’s Infamous Quote,” Wiredhttp://www.wired.co.uk/article/manhattan-project-robert-oppenheimer.
69 Cf. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York, NY: Random House, 1991), 3.
70 Michael J. Novacek, “The Current Biodiversity Extinction Event: Scenarios for Mitigation and Recovery,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98:10 (2001), 5470.
71 Ibid., 5466.
72 Robert Jay Lifton, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival (New York: The New Press, 2017), ix.
73 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Grant Maxwell, The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging Worldview (Nashville, TN: Persistent Press, 2017).
74 To be clear, I do not place “election” in scare quotes because of the propagandized corporate media narrative about ‘Russian interference’ or ‘collusion’ in the 2016 American presidential election. Rather, I place “election” in scare quotes because America’s political system is thoroughly antidemocratic and thus all ‘elections’ amount to nothing more than political theatre. Indeed, American government is a plutocracy or oligarchy that, to my knowledge, has been best described by political theorist Sheldon Wolin as “inverted totalitarianism.” See Wolin’s brilliant final book, Democracy, Inc.
75 Plotinus, Enneads IV.12, quoted in Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2015), 13.
76 Catton, Overshoot, 244.
77 [1] For an understanding of the theory that underlies the tactic of detournement, see Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994). [2] Image from Darbikrash, “Sic Transit Imperium,” Collapse of Industrial Civilization: Finding the Truth Behind the American Hologram, May 2, 2017, https://collapseofindustrialcivilization.com/2017/05/02/sic-transit-imperium/.
78 Catton, Overshoot, 244.
79 Cf. Ken Wilber, et al, Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development (Boston: Shambhala, 1986).
80 Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1995), 157, 182, 206.
81 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181-182.
82 Cf. Plato, Republic, 520e.
83 John Michael Greer, “As Night Closes In,” The Archdruid Report, February 4, 2015, https://worldnewstrust.com/as-night-closes-in-john-michael-greer.
84 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 2.1.289.
85 [1a] Time preference refers to the common bias that “a good enjoyed in the future is worth less, intrinsically, than a good enjoyed now” (Matheny, “Reducing the Risk,” 1338). [1b] Researchers have found that “only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.” See W. Huitt and J. Hummel, “Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development,” Educational Psychology Interactive (Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University, 2003). Retrieved 2/4/2018 from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cognition/piaget.html. [1c] For dialectical cognition, see Michael Basseches, Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1984); for vision-logic, see Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (Boston: Shambhala, 2000), 173-176; for systems thinking, see Michael Goodman, “Systems Thinking: What, Why, When, Where, and How?,” Systems Thinkerhttps://thesystemsthinker.com/systems-thinking-what-why-when-where-and-how/. [2] For an intriguing discussion of the origins of social hierarchy in primitive gerontocracies, see Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005). Bookchin there also argues, compellingly, that the notion of humankind dominating nature historically emerged from humans first dominating one another. Cf. Janet Biehl’s commentary in Janet Biehl (ed.), The Murray Bookchin Reader (Montreal, Quebec: Black Rose Books, 1999), 75-77. [3] “Pseudosubject” is Ken Wilber’s term, in The Spectrum of Consciousness (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1977), 266-267.
86 Jiddu Krishnamurti, quoted in Mark Vonnegut, The Eden Express (New York: Dell Publishing, 1975), 208. Cf. Ramana Maharshi, Be As You Are: The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, ed. David Godman (New York: Arkana, 1985).

87 See the description by P. M. H. Atwater of the common aftereffects of near-death experiences at the website of the International Association for Near-Death Studies: https://iands.org/ndes/about-ndes/common-aftereffects.html. Cf. [1] “The Myth of Er,” in Plato, Republic, Bk. X; [2] Jack Crittenden, Stalking the White Crow and Other Adventures in Consciousness (manuscript under preparation for publication).
88 Cf. Jack Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1991).
89 See the notions of “autonomy” and “postautonomy” in the developmental psychology literature, and the subfield of transpersonal psychology in general. Cf. [1] Jack Crittenden, “The Social Nature of Autonomy,” The Review of Politics Vol. 55 No. 1 (Winter, 1993); [2] Susanne Cook-Greuter, Postautonomous Ego Development: A Study of Its Nature and Measurement (Tucson, AZ: Integral Publishers, 1999).
90 Catton, Overshoot, 70.
91 Jean Piaget, quoted in Leslie Smith, “Piaget’s Developmental Epistemology,” in Ulrich Müller, et al (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Piaget (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 64.
92 Zapffe, “The Last Messiah,” Section V, Philosophy Now 45, https://philosophynow.org/issues/45/The_Last_Messiah.
93 [1] For an introduction to Martin Heidegger’s concept of “thrownness,” see “Thrownness,” Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrownness. [2] For an excellent treatment of political obligation, see Hanna Pitkin, “Consent and Obligation I,” The American Political Science Review 59:4 (1965), 990-999; and Hanna Pitkin, “Consent and Obligation II,” The American Political Science Review 60:1 (1966), 39-52. [3] For gerontocracy, see n.80[2] above.
94 Cf. [1] 
Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). [2] Debi Campbell and Jack Crittenden, 3-D Politics: The Case for Direct Deliberative Democracy… Now! (Montreal: Black Rose Books, forthcoming); [3] Jack Crittenden and Peter Levine, “Civic Education,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/civic-education/#SpeVir[4] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012); [5] Henry Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

95 Fritjof Capra, quoted in Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), back cover.
96 Prince, “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” Diamonds and Pearls, Warner Bros., 1991. Cf. [1] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); [2] Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (New York: Bantam, 1993); [3] “Ego death,” Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_death; [4] “Man’s Plot to Dump Tons of LSD in L.A. Water Supply Thwarted by Police,” World News Daily Reporthttp://worldnewsdailyreport.com/mans-plot-to-dump-tons-of-lsd-in-l-a-water-supply-thwarted-by-police/.
John Michael Greer, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush: The Best of The Archdruid Report (United States: Founders House Publishing, 2015), 137.

98 [1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Joel Porte (Ed.), Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 10. [2] “Spectrum of consciousness” is Ken Wilber’s term, in The Spectrum of Consciousness.

99 [1] Albert Einstein, quoted in Robert Goldman, Einstein’s God: Albert Einstein’s Quest as a Scientist and a Jew to Replace a Forsaken God (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997), 89. [2] Albert Einstein, quoted in Crittenden, Wide as the World, back cover.Cf.

100 Cf. [1] Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); [2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008).
101 [1] David Hansen, The Teacher and the World: A Study of Cosmopolitanism as Education (New York: Routledge, 2011), 90-118. [2] Wilber, Brief History, 170-171, 185. [2] R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008). [3] Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Schools (New York: Vintage, 1995), 93-113.
102 Anonymous, “crisis,” Etymonlinehttps://www.etymonline.com/word/crisis.
103 Nietzsche, Zarathustra, 115.
104 Ibid., 130, 133, 242.
105 “With life as short as a half-taken breath, don’t plant anything but love” – apocryphal or misattributed, but a nice and Rumi-esque sentiment nonetheless.
106 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (New York: Random House, 2003).
107 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2012).
108 Frank Ocean, “Strawberry Swing,” Nostalgia, Ultra, self-released, 2011.
109 Plato, Phaedo, 64a.
110 [1] William James, quoted in Becker, Denial of Death, 16. [2] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).
111 Albert Camus, quoted in Oliver Burkeman, “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” The Guardian, May 29, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/29/death-anxiety-don-t-fear-it. Also quoted by Sheldon Solomon in Marilyn Schlitz, Death Makes Life Possible: Revolutionary Insights on Living, Dying, and the Continuation of Consciousness (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2015), back cover.
112 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Random House, 2000), 132.
113 Michel de Montaigne, “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,” in Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 89.
114 Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Collected Works of Jiddu Krishnamurti, Vol. 11 (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 2012), 242.
115 Cf. [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Random House, 1992), 279; [2] “Diogenes,” Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diogenes; [3] Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (New York: Square Fish, 2007); [4] Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs (New York: Library of America, 2011); [5] H. P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness,” in H. P. Lovecraft: Tales (New York: Library of America, 2005), cf. http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/mm.aspx; [6] Edgar Allen Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado,” in Edgar Allen Poe: Complete Tales and Poems (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002).
116 Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60.
117 Ken Wilber, Spectrum of Consciousness, 327.
118 Nietzsche, Gay Science, 223.
119 Plato, Phaedo, 85a.
120 Cf. Phaedo, 64a.

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Rory Varrato

Rory Varrato

PhD student in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Rory Varrato

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11 thoughts on “We Are the Threat: Reflections on Near-Term Human Extinction

  1. Congratulations on coming to the top of Hacker News with this topics. I doubt that it would manage to stay there for long, as proponents of religion of Progress usually discount resource limitations.
    IMO it is not settled yet, I do not believe in fate, and I hope that humanity can escape the extinction.
    Likely not all of it, but at least a big enough part, hopefully concentrated in Russia :).

  2. Hey Alexey, thanks for letting me know! It does seem that several commenters on Hacker News are unimpressed with the essay, haha, but that’s OK. And I share your enthusiasm for ‘raging against the dying of the light.’

  3. “Cargoism, then, covers everything from the seemingly reasonable belief that solar panels and other forms of renewable energy can replace fossil fuels (they can’t – as Moriarty & Honnery point out, “an energy source can be renewable without being ecologically sustainable”)…”

    Searching for that phrase led me to http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02604027.2017.1357930

    which elaborates the claim with

    “Solar energy may be unlimited, but this does not guarantee system sustainability for RE. Instead, we run the risk of replacing non-renewable fossil fuels with another set of non-renewable metals and minerals (Vidal, Goffé, & Arndt, 2013). Greatly increased use of RE, especially wind and solar, will require similar increases in many rare minerals (Bardi, 2014).”

    This is a reference to Ugo Bardi’s book “Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.”

    I was able to peek inside Bardi’s book via Google Books, and he actually writes the opposite of what Moriarty & Honnery claim in citing him. Page 239: “We have also seen that technologies such as modern wind power, solar concentration, and photovoltaics have reasonably high EROEIs and can be manufactured without a critical need of raw materials.”

    Wind turbines and solar cells *can be* made with rare minerals, but they do not *require* rare minerals. The vast majority of solar cells do not require gallium, indium, or tellurium (the usual rare elements cited for solar), and the majority of wind turbines do not require rare earth elements. Some wind generators use rare-earth-containing permanent magnet generators, but most use electromagnets made with common copper or even aluminum.

  4. Hi PhilipKGlass — thanks for the info. I will try to dig deeper into Moriarty and Honnery’s sources myself (perhaps you should read their article, which you can download freely here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319406751_Three_futures_Nightmare_diversion_vision). Even if your claim is correct, though, I’m not sure it defeats the argument that renewable energy sources cannot replace fossil fuels, because that argument is based on more than just the scarcity of rare earth minerals.

  5. Hi Rory,

    I am in broad agreement with the thrust of their argument that exponential economic growth of the sort favored by most economists and politicians cannot continue be sustained. There are hard physical limits, whether it’s “green” growth or not.


    I reacted to the “renewable energy needs rare minerals” claim for a few reasons:

    a) I see it repeated *all the time* in discussions about decarbonization.
    b) I see it even more often invoked by BAU defenders than by sincerely concerned ecologists. “Solar panels require rare minerals from dangerous, filthy, foreign mining, so we should just keep burning good old domestic fossil fuels.”
    c) It’s incorrect.

    Even the last scenario in the Moriarty and Honnery paper, “Vision: ecological sustainability,” implicitly requires “greatly increased use of renewable energy,” given the dual constraints of “conditions for a dignified life” and “little fossil fuel use.” It’s less than in the scenario of continued growth, but still a lot compared to present. I’m not sure what numbers they have in mind with phrases like “little” or “greatly increased.” I have my own numbers attached to these ideas, and I’m not sure if the authors’ numbers would be roughly the same or not.

    Providing conditions for a dignified life, and the energy for those conditions: Hong Kong and Argentina are the energy-thriftiest nations to have achieved a “very high” Human Development Index. (I’d prefer to use an indicator which *doesn’t* make high income per capita an explicit goal, but I am very much interested in the education and life expectancy components of HDI, and I didn’t have a better composite index handy.) Both nations have power use of about 2500 watts per capita in terms of primary energy. Substituting renewable electricity for combustion-driven processes can “automatically” shed 1/2 – 2/3 of that primary energy demand, since most primary energy in fuels is wasted as heat without providing energy services. ~800 watts per capita of renewable electricity, multiplied by (soon to be) 8 billion people is 6.4 terawatts. This is a big drop from present human power demand of ~20 terawatts. It’s also a great increase from present renewable electricity generation of ~0.7 terawatts. Dropping “high income” as an explicit goal and focusing on healthy life expectancy, education, secure provision of food, clothing, and housing, etc. could probably drop this power requirement per capita further though I hesitate to guess at that number right now.

    When I picture a steady-state future, I *hope* for something like “Hong Kong, but with more economic equality and far less fossil use.” Argentina-with-modifiers is fine too, except Argentina’s population density is lower than world average. There isn’t enough room in the world for all humans to spread out to Argentinian densities, though we could urbanize like Hong Kongers. Of course Hong Kong can’t be self-sufficient in material necessities like food at such high density, while Argentina is a large food exporter. There are a lot of dimensions to consider when estimating what’s possible within planetary limits and this comment is already too long.

  6. Hi Rory,

    Your post really cheered me up this morning! No, I’m serious. So nice to have my life affirmed in your words, as I am lonely amongst an ocean of believers in the current paradigm.

    My very quick answer to the problem that you have so well expounded (and I am not as intellectual as you):
    In light of the relatively unstoppable drive of global consumerism, and in light of the lack of intellectual will, inclination or education amongst the vast majority of the human population, in essence the paradigm shift can only happen like this;

    1) ‘The message’ -let’s say, for instance, your post here, which is more than good enough to precipitate the required paradigm shift- must be re-rendered / translated into (a) vastly simplified, dynamic form(s), (including a superhero film of course)
    2) ‘The message’ must be BOUGHT by the target audience, which is everyone, or alternatively, the message must be tailored differently to different audiences and then bought by them. I use the word ‘bought’ in a metaphorical as well as literal sense.

    I am anti-consumerism, and it is great to see you mention Rojava; however acceptance and utilisation of the consumerist mindset is key to our potential survival on a large scale. This is why I am learning all I can from entrepreneurs and marketers (especially the marketing guru Seth Godin).

    As we human beings live by stories, conscious or unconscious, the ‘saviour of humankind’ may be, flippantly enough, down to ‘telling a good story’ of our future. And crucially, marketing it.

    Similarly, I feel that using celebrity culture -however much we dislike it- must be integral to paradigm-shift strategy. Academics and changemakers must court celebrities strategically, and deal by deal, persuade them to champion the cause of ‘the message’.

    Familiarity with military strategy and military interests is also key, however much we are ‘against war’ (as I am). Even developing close links with influential military personnel is desirable. (Politicians, not so essential).

    For me, it is no mercy that we cannot generally, as human beings, manage to hold in present awareness all that we know to be true. Fragmentation (of narrative, of the truth) is for me the defining pathology of the current paradigm. Re-integration of all narratives, of all perspectives -to appreciate the full truth of what is happening to us- is essential for any paradigm shift. We cannot shift whilst in denial of elements of what we are shifting from.

    Thus, ‘wholeness of perspective’ must become a practical, strategic endeavour. Hence the imperative to translate ‘the message’ across military, celebrity and consumerist subcultures -those most powerful subcultures globally. Hence also the imperative to translate ‘the message’ into every known human language.

    Meanwhile, on a personal level, I am learning to box, learning to farm (a little) and keeping my eye on developing links in as many different countries as I can, to give myself (and through me, the planet) more future options.

    I have also started my blog with the eventual aim of being a beacon for the paradigm shift. At present, you will see, my blog is very sketchy. I haven’t included any references yet. I have a long way to go. My whole blog is but a rough scribble compared to my vision of what it will be.

    However, I really hope that we can develop some kind of link / conversation / practical strategy. You are far more intellectual than I, but I feel I may be useful to you; not now but later, and vice versa.

    Best regards,


  7. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad the essay helped to validate some things for you. Know that you aren’t alone — there is a growing community of folks with varying ideas about near-term human extinction. I especially recommend that you check out the NTHE Support Group on Facebook, which I’ve linked to above within the entry for Extinction Radio in the “Suggested Websites” section.

    I don’t have time to respond to each of your points individually, but I will say that I am in strong agreement with your overarching belief about the importance of narrative, or storytelling, for facilitating the needed paradigm shift. In fact, I plan to write my dissertation as a dialogue or philosophical novel for precisely that reason — as Camus says, “People can think only in images… if you want to be a philosopher, write novels.”

    Best of luck to you on your blog and other endeavors, and I hope to see you in the Support Group and elsewhere around the community.

  8. “What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?”
    ― Jorge Luis Borges, Dreamtigers

    Imagine this quote with the word “future” replacing the word “past”. This, for me, is your essay.

  9. Thanks, Calvin — I take any comparison to Borges as a compliment of the highest order. Check out the Near-Term Human Extinction Support Group on Facebook if you want some folks to commiserate with.

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