I grew up in the middle of the cold war. Along with fire drills, we were regularly asked to get under our desks at school and pretend that nuclear weapons were on the way (and pretend that that thin piece of wood would protect us in some way).
In 2014 there are more nuclear weapons than ever, but we don’t really talk about them very much. Instead we talk, primarily about the possibility of human extinction due to climate change, food shortages, ocean acidification or, occasionally, super-volcanos or comet collisions.
All of these things are possible, and all of them are very unlikely to cause the extinction of humanity. Given our current population, if something killed 99.99 percent of the human population, 700 thousand people would survive and those people would have the knowledge necessary to make drinking water safe, create sanitation systems, advanced communication systems, make medicines, transportation systems and generate electricity.
During the 20th century, we experienced the dust bowl and the great depression, two world wars, worldwide pandemics, numerous genocides and still managed to triple our population and double life expectancy in 100 years. We are a resilient species. It is likely that, by the end of this century, we'll inhabit a second planet and vastly increase our life expectancy rather than face extinction.
However, even if there is something out there that can wipe out 100 percent of humanity, we need to stop talking about it that way.
Long term thinking does not come naturally to animals, including humans. A squirrel may put away food for winter, but it has no concept of the long term health and wellness of its species. Humans are smart, but we are still intelligent naked apes at our core. We may consider the long term viability of humanity, but we’re fighting millions of years of evolution to think that way.
As Richard Dawkins said in an interview with the Environment Foundation
“A species, all of whose individuals work for the long-term survival of the species, is more likely to survive than a species whose individuals work for their own selfish good. But it is of the nature of Darwinism that short-term survival is what counts and, if the striving for short-term survival drives the species extinct, that’s just too bad.”
I’m not a psychologist and I can’t say for sure what the effect is of raising successive generations with the assumption that there isn’t going to be a future. However, I think I can safely say that the impact is not positive.
Going to high school in California I was within 100 miles of three important military bases. I knew that I was at ground zero and if someone launched nuclear weapons that there was no chance of survival. Between the nuclear threat and various environmental threats I did not expect to see much of adulthood.
If generations X and Y seem a little lost it may, in part, be because many of us didn’t think we’d see 2014. Many still don’t expect to see 2020. Beyond individual outcomes, the lack of long-term thinking makes it much more difficult to solve problems like climate change and global poverty.
In a way, constantly telling people that we’re facing human extinction actually makes human extinction more likely.
Extinction is a sexy word. I’m sure that using gets more people to read your article, support your political position or donate to your cause. However, using it is problematic both because it isn’t true in any case and because it runs the risk of creating a self fulfilling prophecy.
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