It seems like I’m asking an absurd question, doesn’t it. Surely the title is nothing more than a way for me to attract attention, a sure hook for potential readers. You expect this article to start on an explanation about the dangers in the path ahead, and most likely focus on climate change or nuclear warfare. But you are fairly sure that by the end of the article, you will have realized that the title was merely an exaggeration.
It would be great if all of your expectations were correct, and that I really had thought up the title simply to attract readers. But unfortunately, the extinction of the human species is neither something ridiculous nor abstract. It is a very real possibility for the future. Most likely not in our lifetime – or our children’s’. But given the asymptotic increases in technology, production, and population, it is not impossible that our grandchildren be around to see it happen. A UN report estimated that the population of the world could reach 10.5 billion by 2050. We do not realize that our greed is stretching our planet’s resources to the limit. Already, we know that if the entire population of the world were to consume the resources per capita enjoyed by the population of the United States, we would need the resources of about 5 earths.
The obvious threat to our species, and to which you probably think this whole article will be dedicated, is global warming. Republicans continue to fuel the so-called ‘climate change debate’, which actually does not exist anymore. Their ignorant followers, brainwashed by Fox News, continue to believe that global warming is a scam invented by a handful of scientists who were looking to make themselves rich and famous, and who somehow managed to fool the rest of the world. I am fairly certain that in about fifty years at the most, we will look back on this ‘debate’, and view it as a similar historical occurrence as the Inquisition’s declaration of war on any scientist who dared believe that the world was neither the center of the universe nor flat. Hopefully, by the time Fox News admits that climate change is a real problem, it won’t be too late. Because climate change is a very real threat, and already the governments of countries such as the Maldives are worried that in a few years, there won’t a country for them to govern.
But climate change isn’t the only indicator that we, as a species, are headed for extinction. The problem is not so recent.
We have been on a sure path to extinction ever since man first declared war on nature in the name of progress. As Thor Heyerdahl, famous ethnographer, adventurer, and environmentalist, points out, “we assume that the planet was presented to man the way we see it today. That the Sahara was always a vast desert. That parts of Greece and Spain always presented a bleak and barren landscape”. But the Sahara was not always a desert; it was once a land covered in forest, according to many historical sources. The human species have been destroying nature since their very existence, consuming resources from one region until they were extinguished, then moving on to another and consuming those. Although it was nature that created an environment suitable for us to survive and evolve, we do everything we can do escape from it. Those that remain in full contact with nature, living with it rather than against it, we call savages. Even Plato, 2,300 years ago, observed, “Our land, compared to what it was, is like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease. The plump soft parts have vanished, and all that remains is the bare carcass”.
And while in our modern societies we like to pretend that we are no longer dependent on nature, you can’t hide from the truth. We depend on nature completely for our survival. Even for objects as man-made as iPods we require nature’s minerals, dug up from deposits formed millions of years ago. Our food still comes from nature, although we are doing our best to invent man-made foods as well. We humans are like teenagers still dependent on their parents for virtually everything, but who like to act as if entirely autonomous. We need nature to survive, whether we like it or not. Natural catastrophes serve as nature’s reminders to us that she is still our mother, able to punish us if we misbehave, if our provocations are just a little too much.
And provoke we have. How many places were once lush paradises? How many places could humans once live in without the slightest need for work – places where we could enjoy bountiful fruit and a seemingly endless supply of food? But we were unsatisfied with how simple life was for us, and so, we set about to making it increasingly more complicated. And eventually, through our desire for ever-more complicated and stressful societies, we stripped these lush havens dry. Where nature had created paradise, we – in the name of progress – de-created until there was nothing but barren deserts. The Sahara, Greece, and Spain are but a handful of examples. Mesopotamia, the region often claimed to have once been the Garden of Eden and located in the once ‘fertile crescent’, a place depicted by historical sources as a land rich and teeming with life, is now the barren desert of Iraq. Further North, clouds burdened with sulphuric acid drift from industrial Europe over Scandinavia, letting loose treacherous rains that reduce the growth of trees and murder fish in their peaceful mountain lakes. People were shocked when they heard of the first ‘dead lake’, in which all life had ended. But such lakes now number in the thousands.
In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, when humans were moving ever faster away from nature, William Wordsworth realized the danger lying ahead, and reminded us: “She has a world of ready wealth / Our minds and hearts to bless”. Nature has all we need to survive – why fight against it? Extinction isn’t nearly as impossible as it seems. We as a species have been heading towards it since our creation, ever since we left the perfect paradise nature had created for us. We have already succeeded in killing off a myriad of other species – why not our own? Thor Heyerdahl points out that “time hides from the brain what the eye should register as a miracle. Man, like the beasts, is designed to react to sudden changes in the environment in his own self-defense”. We can’t grasp the true meaning of this horrible destruction because it is not a sudden change. And with our record of environmental abuse, human kind is slowly but steadily creeping to a time when nature will not be able to satisfy our never-ending desires and endless greed. When nature will simply keel over and surrender, and we will be left alone on an empty planet. To quote Heyerdahl one last time:
“In fighting nature, man can win every battle except the last. If he should win that too, he will perish, like an embryo cutting its own umbilical cord”.
September 25, 2011 / Julian Modiano