“We Stand Today On A Precipice Of Annihilation”

The dramatic quote that I have chosen as the title for this post comes from an article by Roy Scranton which appeared on the New York Times website dated 21 December 2015 (link below).

Whoever would have thought that one might see an article with the title:  We’re Doomed. Now What?  appearing in a major mainstream media source?  I was intrigued and had to take a look.

I didn’t find this piece myself, it came as a link in an email newsletter from Dave Pollard’s How To Save The World blog

21stoneweb-superjumboImage: Aly Song / Reuters


So, what did Roy Scranton have to say?  Did it live up to the excitement generated by the title?  Or was it just another beat-up?

Well, it started off quite well, better than that in fact.  I will repeat the first paragraph here as an appetiser which will I hope draw you in to read more in the article, and make up your own mind.

The time we’ve been thrown into is one of alarming and bewildering change — the breakup of the post-1945 global order, a multispecies mass extinction and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.  Not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe.  The world groans under the weight of seven billion humans; every new birth adds another mouth hungry for food, another life greedy for energy.

He then goes on to talk about how we tend to react to the situation once we realise that something is actually going on that may be important enough for us to consider, and says that “We respond according to our prejudices…”.  Quite true.  Then I actually learned something when he spoke of the different categories of prejudice, mentioning:

  • Right wing deniers – who think that the real problem is not Climate Change but only Terrorism or Refugees
  • Left wing deniers – who think that all the problems are fixable and controllable as a matter of political will
  • Accelerationists – who believe that all it takes is more technology
  • Incrementalists – whose answer is to just keep doing more of the same led by the leaders we already have
  • Activists – who want us to fight, even if it means losing

I don’t appear to fit into any of those categories somehow, but I can’t, offhand, think of a suitable group name for people like me.  I like to think of myself as a ‘Realist – who knows there is nothing we can do and we should just accept the consequences of the nice mess we have gotten ourselves into‘, but I’m sure there would be various objections to that on the basis of ‘what is real’ or ‘we can’t just lie down and give up’.  Did I say anything about ‘giving up’?  No.  Just that no matter what we do, it will make no overall difference.  It might make some difference for the individual though.  But there are no guarantees.  Oh, then how about ‘Pragmatist’?  Yes, that sounds quite important, and has some air of mystery about it.  Maybe that will do.

So, just for that little revelation, it was worth the read.  But there’s more.

Scranton went on to talk at some depth about nihilism and Nietzsche.  I thought at first he was talking about Bill Nye – The Science Guy (nihilism?).   I didn’t really, but it’s a nice line, don’t you think?

Personally, I may have at some stage been interested in pursuing such convoluted, cerebral, logical, arguments (not sure how the average New York Times reader would have reacted), but at 70 years of age I consider that I don’t have enough lucid minutes left to me to spend even some of them in trying to follow that sort of thing.  You may of course think differently.

However, I persevered by skipping along the lines until I came to something that required less energy outlay.  And I was pleased that I did.  I am going to join a few quotes from the piece together in what I think are some very relevant and interesting thoughts which everyone could benefit by considering at some length and with an appropriate degree of seriousness.  So, thank you Roy Scranton a) for getting this piece out there in mediaworld and b) for some of the fine things that you wrote.

We all see what’s happening, we read it in the headlines every day, but seeing isn’t believing, and believing isn’t accepting.  We respond according to our prejudices, acting out of instinct, reflex and training.

Meanwhile, as the gap between the future we’re entering and the future we once imagined grows ever wider, nihilism takes root in the shadow of our fear: if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway.

We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point. We’re already one degree Celsius above preindustrial temperatures and there’s another half a degree baked in. The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.

Yet it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation … if we’re willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it.

We can’t do it by clinging to the progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism.  We can’t do it by trying to control the future.  We need to learn to let our current civilization die, to accept our mortality and practice humility (emphasis is mine).  We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint.

We were born on the eve of what may be the human world’s greatest catastrophe.  None of us chose this, not deliberately.  None of us can choose to avoid it either.  Some of us will even live through it.  What meaning we pass on to the future will depend on how well we remember those who have come before us, how wisely and how gently we’re able to shed the ruinous way of life that’s destroying us today, and how consciously we’re able to affirm our role as creators of our fated future (emphasis is mine).

I guess I can no longer say “You won’t see any of this in the mainstream media” 🙂

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