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Adios Homo or the Ethics of Die-off

Global extinctions are cyclical and natural. Homo sapiens has initiated one.

Thomas Powell

Fear stories never leave us. The end of the world fear story has moved into the limelight at last, and speculation about survival strategies for humans are being openly discussed. The most pressing social, political problem for the next generations will be how to reduce human populations to survivable levels without recourse to nuclear war and mass starvation.

The human relationship to Mother Earth has grown to resemble a carcinoma poster. In a short 10,000 years of moderate climate since the last glacial period, the adaptive success of Homo sapiens has resulted in rapidly increasing population growth. From a few thousand family bands roaming the Neolithic landscape to teeming millions of bodies in today’s megacities, we see the great florescence of humanity. Human beings have come to dominate Earth with our shear numbers in a remarkable-to-date run of good fortune. However, mass extinction is inclusive; all biological species of the exiting Holocene Epoch will be impacted— both the extinct and the survivors alike— and it would be foolhardy for humanity not to exercise preparedness.

The Anthropocene, as this geologic epoch of our own making is now widely referred, gives us new, long-duration biological insight into human civilization and its predicaments. Global extinctions are cyclical and natural; Homo sapiens has initiated one. Now the challenge becomes, how will our species survive? The Anthropocene Epoch has also brought renewed political insight— the patriarchal organization of civilization into dominant and subordinate classes maintained by perpetual warfare and obsessive wealth accumulation is no longer viable. Its latest incarnation, monopoly capitalism, with its systemic rapaciousness of the global environment, has blindly bum-rushed humanity and all our biosphere cohabitants head long into the Anthropocene extinction.

The Human Problem: Soft or Hard Landing

The problem confronting us is twofold: how do we take proactive rationale steps to improve chances that Homo sapiens will be one of the surviving species, and simultaneously, how do we make this looming possibility of extinction a “soft landing” as opposed to a “hard landing,” that is, how do we maintain the highest species diversity going forward to soften the extinction profile? The sobering truth is that there are far too many human beings on the planet. The one planetary trend which would have the greatest mitigating impact on both the totality of the Sixth Extinction and human survival, would be the radical “die-back” of the human species. It is in our own species self-interest to reduce our population to a small fraction of our current seven billion inventory. That is the proposition argued here.

But what constitutes a die-back? Does this mean human beings kill off each other— through genocide? nuclear holocaust? mass starvation? forced sterilization? armies of homeless refugees driven into the sea? How do we, as the collective human species, reduce human population? The difficulty going forward with any serious discussion of human population reduction is the ever-lurking and real fear of eugenics and ethnic cleansing which still regularly occurs across the globe. This primal fear and mistrust of our own species is deeply rooted in human experience and the historic memory of all people.

With that reality in mind, what would be humanity’s optimum stabilized population goal to ride out the extinction event and how do we get there? The first part of this question is easy compared to the second. If we reduced species population by a factor of twenty, that is, reduce to five percent of seven billion, we would eventually reach 370 million people, far more than any other large animal species. This is an arbitrary number, but its shock value provides a basis for serious thought on a very difficult topic. This goal would return us to a global population level of New Testament times. Such a population could still support dynamic cities, remarkable culture, and space exploration, while much of the planet could be abandoned to habitat recovery. That might be our soft landing. A hard landing could be a population reduction to one percent or 70 million souls. If we continue on our current trajectory of accelerated global warming and population growth, a hard landing seems inevitable. And it will be unforgiving in violence.

The history of patriarchal civilization with its litany of repeated terrors does not offer us great hope that humanity can successfully navigate the desperate circumstances of mass extinction. However, this essay argues the premise that a lot fewer people on Earth would give us a much better chance of species survival during mass extinction.

We should begin this discussion by noting four really big obstacles to intelligent population reduction. The first hurdle is its immediate rejection by patriarchal authority, especially states and religious institutions which fear being overrun by armed rivals. The war machine economy demands a constant supply of soldiers for offense, defense, and maintaining class privilege. The second and most profound hurdle we must overcome is the endemic subjugation of women in civilization, most importantly the suppression of reproductive freedom of females. Women with liberated minds and liberated bodies are feared under patriarchy. The third great hurdle we face is how to rewrite the cornucopian narrative. Humanity’s burgeoning population is held as evidence of our tremendous success as conqueror species of the planet. We venerate progress, leadership, vision, and ingenuity. The human story from cave man to spaceman has been an astounding accomplishment for one species, and there can be no doubt about it.

But glory in our success without humility is hubris. We face a final huge problem with our civilized attitude towards nature. Nature undeveloped has no value; it gains value only as “natural resources” to be conquered and exploited towards human goals. Civilization as the progress of domination over nature has removed us from nature; it has made us separate and condescending towards nature. As the result of this separateness, we have lost our moral compass. Deliberately reducing our human population in dramatic fashion will accomplish the goal of reconnecting humanity within our natural world.

The Anthropocene Extinction scenario will unfold in real time and we don’t have an event program. We can graph population models, observe trends, make statistical predictions, but in the end nobody really knows how the sum total of humanity will fare if there is, indeed, a planet-wide cataclysmic die-off. The human extinction duration may last a millennium, a long time as we nobly struggle to patch-up the biosphere, launch sulfur nitrates into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, and reinvent political economy, or it may become the rapid and violent collapse long prophesied as Armageddon in Christian fatalism. Mass extinction might also stair step in dramatic fashion alternating die-offs with stasis.

Melting polar glaciers raise sea levels, shorelines recede, low-lying, densely populated and fertile countries like Holland and Bangladesh will be inundated. Where are these people to go? Pinpointing that future moment when the human crunch time begins is a morbid but relevant question. However, we can all feel relieved to know that following the mass reduction of the human species, after the dust settles, global climate will find a new normal. The Anthropocene Epoch will stabilize for several millennia as did the interglacial Holocene, and life on Earth will blossom with a renewed biosphere florescence, purged and refreshed. Eden will be rebirthed with novelty, for the geologic cycle of life on Earth is seasonal— abundance, death, fallowness, and rebirth. This has been the recurrent pattern over the eons of biological evolution on Earth.

The survivor cohort species are then faced with a new task. Tremendous evolutionary pressure will be placed upon these survivors towards further speciation. The rebuilding and repopulation of habitat becomes an evolutionary opportunity for new speciation (Gould 1989.) Mass extinctions remove great disparities of anatomical architecture, but the survivor body chassis have endless future opportunities to diversify. Should humans survive to procreate into the geologic future, the next fauna could produce various human offspring species with higher intelligence. Nevertheless, as Cro-Magnon replaced Neanderthal, Homo sapiens ultimate locale for all time is the fossil bed. But we can become progenitors to our successors.

The Cornucopia Narrative

Not everybody will agree with the shocking scenario described above. Many people will doubt that this could be the dread fate of humanity and life on Earth, for any variety of reasons. Civilization apologists will assert that humanity has always overcome obstacles in our past through our creativity. Why should the fear story of mass extinction be different? Technological solutions and human ingenuity will feed our teeming billions— biotechnology, meat protein grown in solar-powered factory trays— the future may be more crowded with bodies, but it will be engineered. Humankind’s destiny is to colonize space.

Space colonization is the new cornucopia narrative. It is a marvelous science fiction belief system of adventure and conquest, of Dr. Who, ET, Aliens, Star Trek and Star Wars, and it has succeeded in capturing public imagination. Space colonization has grown rapidly as a destination to rival Christian Heaven and Communist Utopia. Humans must go forth and multiply in order to “colonize” space, to populate these certain-to-be-discovered worlds, these proto-Earths orbiting distant suns waiting to be seeded by us. Has not population pressure in our past fueled human migration across the globe? So, why not across the galaxy?

The problem with this visionary future is that most of us cannot possibly imagine the vastness of outer space from the quarantine of life on the rock of Earth. The distances of interstellar space are truly enormous, and there is no pit stop in between. The seeds of life which crossed this void of outer space 4.25 billion years ago to take root on Earth were chemical molecules which transformed in a grand evolutionary leap into one-celled living matter under the right conditions and nutrient matrix of early Earth. Since then, life has proved itself endlessly malleable in water and air, fluorescing into the bounty and history of Earth’s living, growing biosphere. Complex inter-dependent living organisms are unlikely space travelers, but life on this blue Eden has thrived for one-third the 13.8 billion year age of the universe. Life is a major player in cosmic affairs.

Evolution History

Scientists have documented five previous major extinction events in Earth’s history. At the Permian-Triassic boundary 230 million years ago, more than 90% of land and marine species perished. Following each extinction event, life has rebounded with increased evolutionary complexity. Individuals, species, and even genera are fragile, but life in its totality is damn tenacious. Carbon-based life is highly opportunistic; it can even be virulent. Perhaps for that very reason habitable rocks in space are few and distant. Homo sapiens’ ambition to colonize first the solar system and then outer space would be much better served with a vastly smaller global population, one which was not a perpetual drain on planetary resources. The colonization of space may be a worthy goal for human ambition, but over-taxing Earth’s resources won’t get us there.

It must also be pointed out that human survival of the Anthropocene Extinction is by no means a given. Our chances of successful transition are 50/50 at best. The longer we delay collective mitigation measures, especially human population reduction, the faster our planetary cohort of species die-off, and the lower are the odds for human survival. We shouldn’t minimize our most serious physiological vulnerabilities which are our lengthy nine-month gestation period to allow for embryonic brain development and the even longer duration to human reproductive maturity. Furthermore, we have evolved to the point where we can no longer subsist solely upon a raw and uncooked diet. Smart as we are, it takes time and a large biosphere investment for humans to reproduce even one generation. In the greater scheme of things, we are at risk of losing our evolutionary viability.

Adding to this, the remarkable science which has propelled our species’ bloom is civilization dependent. The collapse of human civilization will include the collapse of science. We are in a predicament and it may well be “adios homo.” If we ignore the biosphere’s symptoms today, we will witness tomorrow the biosphere’s catastrophic collapse amid war, famine, and mass die-off— a very hard landing indeed! But, if we take proactive measures to reduce populations globally, and this will be a very challenging undertaking, then we may be able to soften the landing while keeping our great brains and much of human civilization in tact.

The Politics of Die-off

So, how do we reduce our global population without resort to mayhem and genocide? How do we avoid the specter of the primeval Hobbesian state of man? This is the thorny political quandary facing humanity— what will be the ethics of die-off?

The most enlightened process would be to reduce global human population by collective voluntary means. Couples choose to reduce family size or choose not to reproduce altogether. This trend is already occurring in much of the affluent West. Birthrates in France and Germany for whites are well below population replacement levels. Under capitalist growth economics this represents a national fertility crisis. Immigration, to increase population, becomes an economic and military necessity. For any voluntary process to succeed in reducing population there must be perceived fairness and universal sacrifice.

The one-child family planning policy of China was highly unpopular, but universally applied, and therefore quite effective in stabilizing population growth. While this policy has revealed the sad practice of female infanticide in China with consequent social problems, it has also contributed to family well-being. Enhanced family well-being which includes access to education and birth control is the greatest single contributing factor to national birthrate decline in developing nations. Improving the lives and security of all peoples on earth would foster a reduction of global human fertility. What does not work as a long-term population reduction strategy is the forced sterilization of poor women as occurred in India in the 1970’s. This policy subjugates women and fans very real eugenics fear.

UN population experts predict the current rapid global population growth rate will begin to taper off in the mid-21st Century, and then begin to gradually decline. That will be a welcome trend, but human population needs to dramatically decline, not grow more slowly or simply stabilize. In concert with this growth rate decline, a planned die-back of the human species by voluntary birth-rate reduction strategies could be accomplished within very few generations. It could be a viable goal for all humanity to strive for in the 21st century. Population reduction would require the knowledge and participation of people from every nation as all populations would need to shrink.

Ethos for a New Epoch

A global ethos is necessary to create such a mass consciousness. The ethical premise must be real and realizable: all nations shrink, all nations survive. All population groups, states, races, ethnicities, tribes, must be saved. Our goal should be to reduce our numbers, while simultaneously maintaining maximum genetic and cultural diversity in the human gene pool.

Here is a potential ethos for a new epoch— all populations shrink; all populations survive; maximum cultural and genetic diversity. This is an ethos of basic fairness, an ethos of altruism and hope, a marriage of romanticism, idealism, pragmatism and Taoism, a healing ethos for a stressed planet. There may be other survival ethos which could be proposed. There is no one ethos, not even a random lottery, which can assure absolute fairness in global population reduction. There is no way to prevent cheating and bullying and cynicism but inherent fairness to all is the only hope of a soft landing. Do we really want to live on an overcrowded, dying planet? What incentive is there to march arrogantly towards that tragic end? Reducing human population is our best survival strategy. It will be a political odyssey. It will become the moral imperative. It will transform our conception of the human soul.

Another great benefit of a deliberate, radical and global population reduction will become the increased value awarded each individual human life. At least that potential does exist. A just, classless society becomes more realizable when human taxation upon the planet is diminished. However, humanity will not achieve any soft landing in the Anthropocene Extinction without many more sacrifices than population reduction. The permanent elimination of war and the war economy will be a much more difficult task than weaning humanity from the carbon teat. But both tasks become more practicable with shrinking populations and economies. There is no instruction manual going forward, but thinking about die-off ethics in advance is a good start. The Anthropocene Extinction needs not be a fear story, rather, it is the path to the next enormous challenge to human will and maturity.

The effects of changing climate have made us aware that species can engage in “collective action.” Plant and animal species are migrating towards the poles and moving up the mountain. This we view as an adaptive evolutionary mechanism, not as a collective species consciousness. But human beings do have the ability of collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is, in fact, the foundation of all education, religion and ideological belief. And though we rarely discuss it as such, we are already quite versed in this practice.

Thomas Powell is a sculptor who lives in Northern California and writes on issues of aesthetics and politics.

Image credits:

"The Aquatic Life" by Chris Nitsche, plastic and rubber toys, 2009
"Florida Flora and Fauna" by Chris Nitsche, plastic and rubber toys, plastic foilage, 2009
"Mystique"(Novellas-Unbearable Weight)by Patrick Nagatani, chromogenic print, 2003
"Untitled", from the Novellas Series,by Patrick Nagatani, chromogenic print, 1997

Copyright © Thomas Powell. All rights reserved.