HeeSoo Park / Sun Sketch Artist

March 5, 2018

BENITEZ | Accepting Extinction

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Buried amidst last year’s dumpster fire of headlines are harrowing threats to our species’ long-term existence. In 2017, we learned that the “slow down” in climate change between 1998 to 2012 was actually because we lacked Arctic data revealing otherwise. In “resistance” to this, the environmental goals of the world’s governments have grown increasingly pessimistic: what was once described as the point of no return has already been breached. While there are billionaires making earnest attempts to reduce our technologies’ footprint and send lifeboats to Mars, the ambitiousness of their proposals is enough to provoke skepticism in even the most fervent optimist.

Empirical evidence of our planet’s increasing degradation might prompt a sense of nihilism even greater than that felt by the early postmodernists. After all, we aren’t just confronted by the Cold War possibility of atomic annihilation, but also that of irreversible, existentially-consequential climate change. While life on this planet will likely persist past the death of the last human — either through a post-apocalyptic restructuring of the animal kingdom, or at least through the cockroaches — it is perhaps worth psychologically preparing ourselves for the likelihood that we may be among the last great-great-grandparents.

Many of us would argue that it is morally wrong to bring a child into existence faced with a high likelihood for an unhealthy, unhappy life, which means our pre-determined, inevitable extinction at least saves us from the challenge of having to consciously end our species. If our species’ run is ultimately finite, at least we have an expiration date already slapped on us, instead of having to choose one for ourselves. The global displacement and thinning of populations caused by rising ocean levels and deteriorating crop yields will cause unparalleled suffering in the relative short-run. But, as painful as the inevitable may be, at least it will reduce the number of future lives that’d have to endure the dystopia awaiting thereafter.

After all, almost all of us intuit it’s wrong to bring a child into a miserable life: an intuition on full display by either end of the political spectrum. We can expectedly see it, for example, invoked in defense abortion, but also, more surprisingly, in the conservative belief that it’s better to raise a child under the framework of a traditional relationship. A socially conservative person would likely argue against a teen pregnancy in favor of an adult one because the prospects for the child are much dimmer under an unprepared teen than under a prepared adult. And, holding all else fixed, the child born to an adult parent is intrinsically different to the one born to that same parent as a teen: the two possible children are entirely distinct beings. Applying this intuition societally, this morality implies the end of our species might therefore be the most morally responsible outcome, especially accounting for climate change’s devastating irreversibility.

Philosopher David Benatar argues life is much less enjoyable than we believe. In Better to Have Never Been, he argues we spend most of our fleeting lives with unfulfilled wants, and the periodic satisfactions we’re limited to aren’t enough to outweigh our prolonged unfulfillment. The only reason we continue to accept this quandary is, according to him, due to a positivity bias that compelled our ancestors’ survival. The mildly dissatisfied were the ones most keenly-attentive to the needs of survival. Pain, to more severely describe dissatisfaction, teaches us what to pay attention to and be careful of. And the relationship between our attitudes and specific bodily reactions reveals how unfulfillment can have direct, material consequences. Stepping away from this survivalist intuition, an objective analysis would see life as not something worth inflicting on anyone. Even without climate change, Benatar argues that human life may still not be worth continuing.

Indeed, from Eastern philosophy, we recognize the inevitability of dukkha, or suffering. The poor suffer because of their poverty, while the rich suffer because of their riches. People without worldly pleasures suffer from their lack, and those who can access them soon discover the emptiness of the hedonic treadmill. This is not to say that all suffering is equal — some is more visceral and fundamental to the Maslowsian hierarchy — but we all suffer in diverse ways over the course of our lives. And, as the world rushes toward a future of total work, we find our disposable time, which German philosopher Josef Pieper highlights as the basis of culture, increasingly disappearing. Left in its wake is a population ever more dependent on drugs and spectacle as leisurely respites from a world in which our foremost purpose is to serve as labor inputs, often mischanneling the productive energy of our one life and surrendering our unfulfilled wants to constant postponement.

If human extinction is promised by climate change, at least we can take solace in knowing that so too must end the boundless possibilities for suffering. Almost all of us would regard our species’ longevity as perhaps the most fundamental societal priority, but in addition to being derived from a positivity bias, it might also be derived from a subjectivity bias. Like how each of us thinks we are the most important individual in the world due to our personal subjectivity, we could think we’re the most important species out of a similar inability to envision a universe unmediated by our macro-subjectivity. Growing secularism implies humanity is not made special by some divine mandate, and so maybe our social intuitions ought to shift accordingly. The universe, the earth and probably other terrestrial organisms will persist longer than us. And so, while the survival of our species remains a fundamental axiom in ethics, perhaps we should reconsider whether human survival, in-and-of-itself, is actually supported by logical truth.
Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.