Negative Optimism [September 22 2015]
This is a snapshot in a continuous exploration of the meaning of life and our place in nature. All thoughts and ideas expressed here are subject to change at any moment.
Ideas evolve and change. Or, at least, they usually do. When I picked up The Sixth Extinction, I had a sense that I might not get much new to advance my current ideas. I was wrong.
My skepticism seem warranted when, reading the introduction, it appeared as if the book was about the telling of a great story first and foremost. But while that might have been the author’s initial motivation, she made a convincing case that even if she might have been looking for a story, it might just happen to be one that is incredibly captivating because of its importance.
The Sixth Extinction, also named the holocene extinction, is the one we’re currently experiencing. There are many intuitive ways we can imagine ourselves playing a role in extinctions that globally make this one up: climate change, GMOs, surpopulation, overfishing. All of which are fairly recent on a geologic time scale. Going back just a little bit further, we could think that agriculture, civilization and colonization could have been immensely destructive. That would also be very right. It was and it remains more so than anything else. As we go back further though, it gets increasingly interesting.
I was a little surprised to find more evidence that our hunter gatherers ancestors might also have been causing mass extinctions. What follows is based on very incomplete research is incomplete and only partial data. Also consider that we got facts about history wrong many times before. So, with the data that we currently have, it would seem like extinctions started with the homo sapiens. Before homo sapiens, neanderthals seemed to be doing well on Earth. It remains to be explored what was so different between neanderthals and homo sapiens but it would seem that ingenuity, creativity and ambition were qualities that could have had a major factor in newly occurring destruction. Or maybe it was our ability to tell ourselves stories, deal with virtual/abstract things (i.e. money, religion) and collaborate together based on those stories. Or maybe it was a deep and constant appetite for more.
Colonizing remote continents is one obvious way homo sapiens have impacted ecosystems and caused harm. But it’s also very obvious how the same traits are still causing us to destroy faster and more decisively by the day. The same homo sapiens quality that is making me want to write about this idea is contributing to us to destroy our environment. This was a deep revelation for me, as a self-qualified “creative” person. What the planet would need, it seems, is boring and predictable species. Ones that are content living in equilibrium in their habitat. But this is fundamentally not how homo sapiens are. And very disappointingly, native tribes are not immune to this. It follows that rewilding ourselves might not be the saving grace. It would be going in the right direction: using less resources and being more connected to nature can only be good. It would most definitely be a better life for most of us urban folks. But I doubt it would be enough.
I realize that this is a hard conclusion to come to and it might appear awfully negative. I guess it is. But only if we view it purely in the lens that life means human life. If we try to view human life as just another form of life, there’s optimism. Because, with the bringing of the Sixth Extinction, it’s likely that one of the species going extinct is going to be the homo sapiens.
How is that optimistic? Well, let’s talk about the common “optimistic” scenario for a constrast. One common suggested alternative is that the human “ingenuity” gives us a solution. Imagine technological means to explore and settle on a new planet. Throw the Earth away and take our stuff to a new world. This, to me, is the pessimistic scenario. After destroying all life on Earth, we’d get to do it all over on another world.
So now what? I’m going to bet that we don’t survive the Sixth Extinction. I’m going to bet that several resilient or lucky species do. I’m going to bet that with enough time, evolution will take its course and new species with pop up. The Earth will find a new balance again. Life will strive and the Earth will be a nice home again. Maybe a new species of bipeds like the Neanderthals will appear. A smart biped ape that wouldn’t be inflicted by the urge to realize bigger dreams than just living in symbiosis with its environment. That, to me, is the optimistic scenario. That’s the one I’m betting on.
I realize that betting against my own species could be considered trahison. But if we just think of ourselves as one member of a larger group that is “life”, this doesn’t seem as terrible of an idea.
Of course, how this affects how I live now gets a bit more complicated. We all want to live. I still want to live. I’d like to move in the “right” direction but it becomes very confusing as to what this could be. Another way to look at it would be that as we’re going extinct, I should just find a quiet space to reflect in the meantime. A life closer to nature. Try to find solace knowing that when we won’t be there, some of this nature and some of this life will actually be able to strive.
So maybe that’s it. It might be time to come to peace with the resolution that we screwed up. Come to terms with the idea that we are the problem. Saying our final good byes before we go the way of the dodo. And know, that maybe, probably, there will still be life after us and that life will be smart enough to not try and get too smart to disturb a fragile and beautiful equilibrium.
But, of course, this might also be a bump in the road to a brighter, continuously evolving set of thoughts and ideas where we’d be a force for good.