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Human extinction (and swine flu, AIDS, whatever else)

March 8, 2010

(I typed up most of this post in November, but I didn’t post it because there was another thing I wanted to get to.  Not knowing what it was I wanted to get to, I just left it as a draft.  I still don’t remember what it was, so I deleted the would-be transition and wrapped it up.)

My inner nihilist got out today.  A lot of people know he exists, since I don’t keep his existence completely unknown, but he’s so greatly annoyed by whine-asses throwing stupid (and wrong) accusations at him that he generally just keeps to himself.  It’s understandable, I guess, since I wouldn’t like being called a sociopath for not adhering to any moral code either, nor would I like being scolded because someone got sensitive about brown people and decided to turn me into a pariah by saying I said ethnic cleansing was a solution to carrying capacity overshoot (something which neither of us has never suggested and never will suggest, although we can both see where the anger came from: there are a lot of people, most of them brown, so to say “less” people obviously means less brown people).  Anyway, we’ve both been reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, and the chapter we just finished was about extinction.  Since this seems like a fitting topic for a nihilist with a careless, totally-matter-of-fact manner of speaking, I’ll let him have the keyboard.

Let me just start out by saying I don’t care if humans go extinct.  However, I don’t find that possibility very likely any time soon, since humans have proven themselves worthy of existing and will probably scratch out some niche to fill until Earth becomes unlivable.  One of the chapters I read yesterday mentioned the possibility of HIV adapting to a point where it is no longer killed by mosquitoes’ systems, therefore becoming transmitted on a new, vast scale thanks to the little bugs.  I just thought Cool! The possibility of humanity being wiped out by something bigger than them is cool.  But the longer I thought about it (OK, I made the realization just a few minutes after) the more I realized that even something totally kickass like that probably wouldn’t do people in.  There are (almost) seven-fucking-billion people now, and no realist is going to believe that a virus that is evolving alongside us is suddenly going to totally wipe us out.  Smallpox killed a ton of Indians because it was new to them—they had been isolated from the Old World for thousands of years by the 1500s, so for the purpose (smallpox wiping them the fuck out) the illness might as well have come from outer space.  If  super-HIV came from space then people might be totally fucked, but it isn’t going to come from outer space (I don’t think; that might make a decent sci-fi story though).

We’re hardy.  I’m not even sure a massive extinction event that kills 75% of all living species will kill us all; there are seven-fucking-billion of us, and we’re on basically every part of the planet.  There is no doubt about it taking a huge chunk, probably way more than half, but I’m almost certain that at the very least a few thousand here and there would survive.  We’re too clever and adaptable to die out only because our numbers are reduced—we don’t even really have any natural predators left because we out-smarted them, so it’d basically just be humans, at the top of the food-chain, and whatever 25% is left.  Put a fucking mask on the back of your head and a tiger won’t attack you from behind (most of the time).  And we think cats are smart!

OK, so that’s out of the way.  Let me find my point….

I don’t care if humans go extinct, but they probably won’t.  Even though an extinction event might have trouble taking every human, it’s what would have the highest chance of doing so.  The only thing I can see wiping out humans altogether is a complete eco-catastrophe, or a collapse in the food chain, which would take out basically all forms of visible animal life (plants and bacteria probably ain’t goin’ nowhere), not just us.

I guess that’s why climate change isn’t quite the big deal it’s made out to be.  The underlying causes of climate change are important, but a climatic shift alone isn’t the end of the world.  We’ll survive it, some animals won’t, and the world will go on.  Maybe it’s completely natural (even though it’s probably not), and if it is then so fucking what?  We can baw about the havoc, but we’ll have to get over it at some point.  We can even baw about the polar bears dying, but … well, that brings me to my next point:

Humans are currently driving an extinction event that might rival the ones that did in the dinosaurs.1 Climate change is just a bit of it, even to the sorrow of the polar bears.  That, by my estimation, is a lot more worrisome than New York being under water—fuck all that—but most people are completely unaware of it.  If the foundations of the food chain are constantly weakened, given enough time it will collapse—and then we have that eco-catastrophe that I talked about, the one that will probably take everything even slightly complex.  And it is happening, even if most people don’t know about it—it can even be measured and quantified (with a degree of uncertainty).  When the oceans are becoming increasingly unlivable, the forests increasingly non-existent, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine an end approaching.

Since Daniel Quinn has put a lot of things very nicely, I guess I’ll just quote him:

We’re like people living in the penthouse of a tall brick building. Every day we need 200 bricks to maintain our walls, so we go downstairs, knock 200 bricks out of the walls below and bring them back upstairs for our own use. Every day. . . . Every day we go downstairs and knock 200 bricks out of the walls that are holding up the building we live in. Seventy thousand bricks a year, year after year after year.

I hope it’s evident that this is not a sustainable way to maintain a brick building. One day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and the penthouse is going to come down along with all the rest.

Making 200 species extinct every day is similarly not a sustainable way to maintain a living community. Even if we’re in some sense at the top of that community, one day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and when it does, our being at the top won’t help us. We’ll come down along with all the rest.

It would be different of course, if 200 extinctions a day were just a temporary thing. It’s not. And the reason it’s not is that, clever as we are, we can’t increase the amount of biomass that exists on this planet. We can’t increase the amount of land and water that supports life, and we can’t increase the amount of sunlight that falls on that land and water. We can decrease the amount of biomass that exists on this planet (for example by making the land sterile or by poisoning the water), but we can’t increase it.

All we can do is shift that biomass from one bunch of species to another bunch–and that’s what we’re doing. We’re systematically shifting the biomass of species we don’t care about into the biomass of species we do care about: into cows, chickens, corn, beans, tomatoes, and so on. We’re systematically destroying the biodiversity of the living community to support ourselves, which is to say that we’re systematically destroying the infrastructure that is keeping us alive.2

Ah, but you, clever reader, have spotted the contradiction!  You’re always so alert, so aware!  “But Tony,”  you plea, “if you don’t care if humans go extinct, why do you care if they themselves create the optimal conditions for their extinction?”  And damn it all, you got me!

My defense is basically this: it’s just stupid for humans to actively try to kill themselves off, and in the process also kill off anything else that gets in their way.  Stated another way, while it’s totally fucking badass (from some perspectives) to be taken out by something bigger than us, and it’s completely respectable, it’s totally fucking retarded to commit suicide just because it sounds like a good idea, and not respectable at all.

Notes and Links

  1. The Extinction Puzzle at
  2. The New Renaissance at
4 Comments leave one →
  1. uncommonscolds permalink
    March 8, 2010 10:40 pm

    Wow. You sound like me.

    Have you read _Overshoot_?


    • March 9, 2010 12:00 am

      By William Catton? No, not yet. It is on my list of books to read though.

      I suspected that it was you that made a post about Catton last year, and I was right. I still haven’t gotten around to reading the book though. I seem to remember that the local library doesn’t have it, which is why.

      • uncommonscolds permalink
        March 9, 2010 9:55 am

        Time to ask for an inter-library loan?

        If you think overpopulation itself is bad, wait until you read Catton’s analysis of what happens to land that’s overburdened and ultimatelysuffers a population crash. He uses an island with a heavy deer population as his example.


      • March 9, 2010 3:36 pm

        Actually, it looks like the community college library has it. Assuming non-students can check out books (I think they can) I can do that, or get someone to check it out for me.

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