05 June 2009

Contemplating the extinction of Homo sapiens

The recent report by the Global Humanitarian Forum, entitled "Climate Change – The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis" contains some news which I would say is alarming but, since so few people in the corridors of power are alarmed by climate change, I won't. For example, it states that climate change kills over 300,000 people a year through hunger, sickness and weather disasters, seriously affects 325 million people, and creates economic losses of $125-billion U.S. Four billion people are vulnerable and 500 million are at extreme risk, with the number of those affected more than doubling in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, scientists tell us that the problem isn't a greenhouse gas effect but rather a runaway greenhouse gas effect. In other words, barring dramatic action, it will soon be beyond our ability to control.

And the will to get it under control seems lacking in both leaders and populations at large. The only Canadian leader who took a serious policy on global warming into an election was Stephane Dion, and we all know what happened to him. We not only rejected him, we humiliated him. Get out of here, you silly man, we seemed to say, and take your carbon tax with you. The winners of the election show little interest in doing anything serious about climate change except meekly following the American lead.

This leaves Barack Obama as the great environmental hope. But this hope is increasingly faint. The U.S. House of Representatives is working on legislation that includes a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. This would provide improved environmental protection but is being so watered down it will be nowhere near strong enough. Scientists claim the U.S. must cut its emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 to slow global warming. This legislation calls for only four per cent. And even this weak effort may not ultimately pass the House and Senate.

So global warming marches on and we fail to face up to its challenge. One wonders how far this can go. To the collapse of civilization, perhaps, or even to the collapse of life on Earth? Could we turn our planet into another Venus or would the collapse of our civilization limit the damage we could do? In any case, the extinction of Homo sapiens has become a real possibility.

And not only from climate change as we know it. Catastrophic war seems to be an increasing possibility as more nations go nuclear in order to play with the big boys, and nuclear war could in itself cause climate change. And then there's the possibility that chemical or biological warfare could run amok.

Any of these could result in our inability to physically or financially contain our technologies once catastrophe has unleashed them. Nuclear power plants, oil fields, chemical factories, could rage out of control. Add in the political and social breakdown that would result as governments collapse, massive population shifts occur and rogue armies rampage, and Armageddon starts looking like a real possibility rather than just a metaphysical prophecy.

Quite aside from catastrophe, our technology could turn on us in other ways. It may simply evolve beyond us -- the next logical step in evolution, so to speak. We have, for a long time, built machines that are vastly superior to us physically, now we are building machines that are superior to us, in some important ways, mentally. There doesn't seem to be any reason we can't build ones that are superior to us in all ways mentally. Maybe even superior to us emotionally. That certainly wouldn't be hard. And if we do produce machines -- robots -- who are physically and mentally superior to us, what will they need us for? House pets? Will they put us in kennels while they go off to explore the universe?

We are an intelligent species but not a wise one. We have always used our intelligence to destroy as much as to create. We are bright enough to create ever more advanced technologies but not wise enough to restrict their use to productive purposes. We are too violent, too greedy, too arrogant, too narrow, or at least too many of us are.

You might say we are too smart for our own good. We are like the dinosaurs in a way. They dominated the Earth for 1,000 times longer than we have been here. Their advantage was their size, their big bodies. Then one day, because of an asteroid landing or whatever, size became a huge disadvantage and the dinosaurs were finished. Our advantage, the thing that has allowed us to dominate the Earth, is our big brain. Now, it has become a disadvantage, a terminal disadvantage, like the dinosaurs' big bodies. It has led us into creating the means of our own destruction.

Oddly, I find myself quite philosophical about the possibility of our extinction. I am distressed neither intellectually nor emotionally. Maybe it's because at my age I'm facing my own extinction, but I don't think that's the reason. I have just become more analytical about Homo sapiens, simply recognizing that, whether individual or species, extinction is part of evolution, the natural road of life. We have our little moment, our speck of existence in an infinity of time and space, and then we disappear. If we, Homo sapiens, were a credit to our home, there might be room for regret, but we aren't. In our little moment, we have done massive damage to the planet, including driving thousands of other species into extinction. There would be a certain ironic justice in doing the same thing to ourselves. If we are to go, we won't be missed.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you have said. I, too, am philosophical about the demise of the human species. Our presence on Earth is finite, as with all other species. We cannot hope to thwart the natural process. In my view, there are only two future scenarios: we will vanish from the face of the earth and the planet will eventually heal itself; or we will vanish from the face of the earth taking all life with us. I lie awake at night worrying that it will be the latter but I fervently hope it will be the former. The damage we cause in the 21st Century, by way of global warming, biodiversity loss, nuclear contamination, GMO and nanotechnology contamination, etc., will determine which scenario will come to pass.