Joel Karanikas delves into the worlds of Greek mythology and extinction theory to uncover a possible future for the human race.
Words | Joel Karanikas
Those who predict the end of the world today are bound to feel a lot like Cassandra, a mythological Greek woman who could foresee true prophecies but was doomed to always be disproved.
There have been too many predictions fallen foul, too many crazy New Age cults, for a serious forecast of imminent annihilation to escape a chorus of hooting by the rest of sane society. And who can complain? Isn’t that how civilisation works: pushing the loonies to the fringes, normalising sanity in the centre? Well yes, but the problem is not all doomsayers are alike in their febrile embrace of conspiracies. Rather than scrutinizing Mayan calendars, some prefer scientific data.
The foremost of these data-driven doomsayers is Guy McPherson, the emeritus professor of ecology at the University of Arizona whose Near-Term Extinction theory would have you believe that all of us will be dead in 2026, after climate change goes really bat-shit crazy and makes our current bushfire crisis probably look like a nostalgically idyllic period. And no, he’s not trolling.
Unsurprisingly, the professor has a touch of Cassandra about him. His vocal critics in the scientific community deride his alleged misunderstandings of feedback loops and atmospheric physics. Scientist Michael Tobis claims McPherson is one of those bizarre professors we’ve all probably had, whose PhD only encouraged his inner charlatanry.
With the 2020’s now rolling out, it’s especially true that our deepest intuitions will insist against the scenario our dear McPherson has cogitated for decades. You may have no pretensions to fathoming the intricacies of climate, atmospheric physics and ecology, but Doomsday is still Doomsday—far away and unlikely.
Could the Climate Really Kill You?
On the other hand, no one—except denizens of geological formations—is unfamiliar with the elevated level of alarm that characterises scientific diagnoses of earth’s climate. Specifically, the earth is unambiguously warming. The IPCC report from late 2018 already described a world only 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter, and in no rosy terms. A 1.5-degree increase would unleash “climate mayhem.”
The most recent IPCC report from 2019 says that climate change and land degradation are threatening the ability of the planet to sustain civilisation, with more droughts, disasters and instability and less food in store. The recent Australian bushfires have brought tragic attention to the fact that habitats are being irreversibly changed, crossing a tipping point that researchers had believed to be much remoter. Currently 11,000 scientists have declared a “catastrophic threat to humanity”.
These are hardly the voices of crazed loonies skulking paranoidly on the fringes of scientific discourse—the IPCC’s decades of predictions have mostly been on the mark. So what are we to make of our chances? Is the Near-Term Extinction club just an exaggerated, hyper-alarmist extrapolation of these dire warnings? McPherson would say that he’s not absolutely certain, just that he “can’t imagine” a human on earth in ten years. He points out that even the IPCC admitted global warming is irreversible without extensive, unlikely geoengineering. And the IPCC, he notes, is a conservative body that underestimates the extraordinary effect of self-reinforcing feedback loops in the climate system. In the past, extreme climate change happened rapidly over the course of a few decades, transforming the world in an eyeblink.
He lists numerous researchers who have studied “abrupt climate change,” all supporting the idea that “near term acceleration of the rate of temperature change” is in sight. This would make the Sixth Mass Extinction comparable to the last, which killed off three quarters of the world’s species. It would also utterly decimate our food supply and bring about mass starvation.
The science seems to be clear. Climate change is happening abruptly, and at 4 degrees above the baseline, we will be extinct.
He quotes studies showing that, based only on the feedback effect of methane release from the Arctic, global temperatures will reach 4 degrees by 2030. At COP 19, a professor of climatology warned that he didn’t believe any scientist doubted a 4 degrees increase was unavoidable. A scientist argued in the Arctic News Group that human life would most likely be ended before 2040 due to a runaway greenhouse event already having started.
The scientific community, McPherson says, is not disagreeing with these findings—they are just publicly silent for the most part. Whatever the reason, we apparently don’t have much time left.
Vibing to Extinction
So, are we going to die in six years? Should we catch the next cruise to the Galapagos Islands, storm away from all responsibilities, embrace pure hedonism and then commit suicide?
I don’t claim to be an expert. However, what is most important is not so much that we could or could not be extinct in the near future, but the questions raised by that possibility.
Does it matter who caused climate change? Surely not. It is unstoppable and catastrophic. Action won’t guarantee a normal future for coming generations. Even attempts to adapt would be futile when the runaway effect starts multiplying ever more sources of global warming, causing social chaos.
We know that social chaos breeds government repression, and that this time it will be no different to the rest of humanity’s history, with the poor suffering disproportionately.
The point of this crushingly hopeless exercise is to address the ultimate gap in our collective psychology: to think about what final extinction means to us. We rarely talk about it, although by definition there cannot be a more monumentally serious subject. When it does come, it’s not hard to imagine that the vast majority of people will have failed to adjust their lives according to that reality.
By adjusting, McPherson would intone us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence.”
Maybe that’s the point. We may not be dead in 2026, but if we spend the next decade cognizant of our brevity here and thus attuned to the best and most enjoyable experiences of life, or in a word, vibing, the very least we can say is we had no regrets. It seems we could do much worse than listen to the climatic Cassandra.