Ideas To Avoid Extinction
An article with a grandiose subtitle pitching ideas to save our demise can be construed by many as gloomy pronouncements of a fearmonger, although such tactics may attract a large audience. I hope it does, but not because of fear. That is not my intent. I am one of those who brush aside such articles. I run that risk even as I plan to publish this article ahead of Earth Day 2021. But I have to confess I had an epiphany while reading Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by Geoffrey West. I feel compelled to share some key insights that got me out of my stupor. At the risk of sounding alarmist, here is the punchline.
It is not unfathomable for Homo sapiens to go extinct.
At The Brink
That punchline tends to spark a range of emotions from nonchalance to skepticism, denial, anger, or even outrage in the minds of readers. For those who get past the amygdala hijack, their mind must confront another obstacle. And that is the ghost of our false intuitions. It is hovering around and duly appears to inform us that such a prospect is slim to none. Therein lies the paradox of imponderables. But humor me by reading on. There is real possibility humanity may be at the precipice, but with blinders on and unwilling to pull back. It would seem mildly comical like the dodo scene from Ice Age if it was not so dire. It is not as if we are all dumb and suicidal. We are neither. Yet sadly, because our intuitions are crappy and unreliable in such matters, we dismiss it outright.
The epiphany I had was the inevitability of such an outcome. Not merely its intellectual grasp, but a feeling of sadness coupled with a lump in my throat as it dawned on me. I am not here to convince you of anything. We stand a better chance at affecting a positive behavioral change by appealing to our elephants (emotions), not just their riders (reasoning). But, let us ambitiously strive to appeal to both.
Who knows if such a sobering outcome is still avoidable? Nevertheless, it requires effort to grasp counterintuitive facts inconvenient to our cherished beliefs. First, a lofty goal is to obliterate stubbornly held mistaken beliefs. Once we get past that, we need to exorcise the ghost of half-baked intuitions to help us wrap our heads around this problem. There may be a silver lining around that gloomy cloud — a way for us mere mortals to thwart extinction. But first, the bitter red pill. Let us jump in by swallowing it, shall we?
Pale Blue Dot
Mother earth is an oddity — a lonely pale blue dot placed just-right, like countless others orbiting in Goldilock zones around their suns. She is no ordinary planet. Among many reasons to be in awe is her capacity to sustain complex life. We sprang forth to marvel at her grandeur growing a three-pound mass of jelly between our ears that she generously endowed in us! Despite our frailties, our short trek in her epic voyage merits rejoicing.
Earth is under no obligation to play hostess, much less serve or defend our species. Triassic–Jurassic extinction is an event that occurred approximately two hundred million years ago. It wiped out nearly seventy-five percent of species on earth. The fossil fuels we consume today are a result of its aftermath. We dig up their fossilized remains but do not have to encounter them for real. These are simply objective facts impervious to our beliefs. Many of us may accept that, although it runs counter to some of our hard-headed notions. But we do not question them. Instead, we stow both away in their own compartments in our minds. I will address that later. Back to dinosaurs. Whatever caused their extinction was external. We can safely assume they never saw it coming. How could they? They were unequipped to contemplate or plan their future for such eventuality. Most, if not all other species, are incapable of living in anything but the present moment, except Homo Sapiens — we stand alone in acquiring sentience.
Is there one good reason for believing we are immune? Worse still, how can we feign ignorance in good faith? If a past mass extinction is any indicator, feigning immunity or ignorance is not just delusional but dangerous. If there is one pressing existential threat greater than an alien invasion, it is our self-engineered demise. We cannot ignore and blow past all warning signs as though we are invincible. We lack in preparation for such eventuality. How does one prepare for an invisible enemy threatening to wipe us out, nevertheless unfolding on a time horizon exceeding well beyond a single lifetime?
Why does one fail to summon an adequate response befitting an emergency of a five-alarm fire? Because this is a catastrophe unfolding in slow motion, unlike a house on fire. We invariably succumb to hyperbolic discounting of the future as we get lulled into a false sense of well-being in the present. Delusional does not begin to describe our stance. Case in point — look out of your window. Nothing is on fire!
A vehicle neglected of care may not show any signs of a breakdown until it suddenly does, with the dashboard flashing the engine light. It is probably too late to take action on the day it stalls. An external sense of normalcy masquerading a gradual internal degradation is the worst kind of deception there is.
Our current mantra seems to be to conveniently pass the buck to a future generation. To assess our preparedness, we need to look no further than the botched response to the global COVID-19 pandemic that caught us napping.
If the earth is a vehicle, energy is the fuel powering it. We are the current occupant in the proverbial driver’s seat. We quite literally extract natural resources to sculpt modern cities and manicure suburbia to sustain nearly eight billion of us. To that end, we simply consume energy, but not proportionally, and never with care. We stumbled into fossil fuels and coal and simply started burning them to power the ongoing experiment we call Civilization without much forethought. The juggernaut of the Industrial Revolution kick-started in the mid-eighteenth century is in its fourth iteration and shows no signs of abating. In merely three hundred years — the blink of an eye in evolutionary timescale, we have burnt through what steadily accumulated over hundreds of millions of years.
How did the earth amass all this energy? The sun, of course! Using a low-entropy configuration afforded by the sun, the earth tag-teamed in capturing it. It is no secret we know her secret, but we still do not possess the requisite knowledge of replicating her example of producing clean energy at scale, but at a much faster rate, concomitant with our needs. There are two detrimental effects of our current method of energy consumption. Both feed on each other, amplifying a negative feedback loop. First, we eat (consume) way more than we need. Second, we poop where we dine. Allow me to elaborate.
High On The Hog
The human body is a very efficient consumer of energy because we did not make it! So why do we consume ten, or in the developed world, over ten thousand times what we need? Because of Greed and Inefficiency. Human technology (the myriad forms of the age-old Carnot internal combustion engine) is utterly inefficient. The burning process generates waste in a high-entropy form. The daily metabolic rate of a blue whale, that is a thousand times more massive than a human, is only slightly larger than the daily power consumed by an American household — roughly 11 kW. An adult human still burns around two thousand food calories a day (roughly a 100 watt power of a light bulb), but the rest goes into other necessities unique to civilization. We can overcome the first (inefficiency) by switching to a tried-and-tested-by-earth-for-millions-of-years method. It’s called clean energy. But nature makes it impossible to avoid the byproduct. The high-entropy form is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics.
We Poop Where We Dine
High-entropy is to low-entropy as poo is to food. Entropy (poop) is the ultimate grim reaper of the universe. Human activity is the lone culprit in its rapid release into our atmosphere. We consume (dine) on low-entropy energy from the sun captured by plants using photosynthesis. We stumbled on the stowaway of coal (dead wood, peat) and fossil fuels (dinosaurs) and started using it. We do not yet know how to burn it more cleanly and more efficiently than we do today. And earth is a closed system (energy supplied and drained within it) as far as thermodynamics is concerned. Meaning, we do not know how to take out the trash — i.e., gather up all the high entropy form resulting from our activity and discard it elsewhere, perhaps in our planetary neighborhood or beyond.
Open Or Closed?
Recall, our sun being away from the earth makes it an open system (external supply of energy). It continues to burn much cleaner than we can ever dream of, generating an efficient low-entropy form for over four billion years. If we simply got out our own way and allowed the sun to be the primary energy source needed for human consumption (it is not currently), we can get inordinately more than we are ever going to need. Enough to live high on the hog and then some, instead of rapidly draining the pent-up energy squirreled away by earth for eons.
Ironically, all the constituents still remain on earth — but transformed by us into high entropy configurations. Take carbon, for instance. Viewed as an element, it was always there. It still hovers over the planet as a greenhouse gas instead of remaining trapped in geological fossils. We stand incapable of cleaning up our act — to put carbon back whence it came — terra firma. Carbon capture technologies exists but are still in their infancy. Earth is a vehicle that does not stall. Instead, the driver gets ejected! When we go extinct, the cruel joke is on us.
Price of Knowledge
The astonishing progress of knowledge accumulation has advanced greater human well-being over the last two centuries. Though its great dividends are undeniable, it has exacted a heavy price. Our insatiable thirst for bigger, better, and faster has wreaked havoc on the planet. Can we better shepherd our pasture?
Daunting as it seems, it requires overcoming our fears and frailties to face the pressing twenty-first-century global challenges head-on — of the climate crisis, clean energy, feeding twelve billion sustainably, among others. Even if we hasten to get our act together, it may not be enough. But try we must, for the alternative is unimaginable.
Forging ahead with new ideas takes courage. If we act, we stand a chance of discovering new knowledge as a side effect, but not without its own shortcomings. But with the hindsight of our past misadventures, we can do better. It must start with the acknowledgment of scarcity and boundedness of resources. And we must strive to tread gingerly on mother earth. That requires collective enlightenment.
It is not enough just to sound the alarm without offering ideas to avert the crisis. In that spirit, let us enumerate what gets in the way of apprehending the enormity of our imminent demise | and their antidote.
- Apathy | Build courage needed for taking personal responsibility
- Fear | Acknowledge and accept brevity of life
- Greed | Ascend to a selfless vantage point to view things clearly
- Ignorance | Dispel it with the light of knowledge
Overcoming frailties squarely falls on each of our shoulders, assuming personal responsibility. A middle path cutting between the two ditches of a Malthusian doom-and-gloom and a Cornucopian rose-colored glasses is available. No single person has all the answers, but each of us can do our part to walk that path.
When confronted with facts accelerating our demise, many choose to ignore it. Others promptly fail to marshal their intuitions to grasp the enormity of the situation, let alone summon the courage for action. How can we radically alter our predisposition so it remains front and center in our psyche? The antidote to apathy is best captured by two slogans:
- Quit Our Selfish Ways
- Update Our Beliefs
Doing either takes some undoing. The danger with beliefs stems from neglecting to update them in light of new evidence — we are non-Bayesians or bad ones at best. Wrong-headed views originate from indoctrination by persistent conditioning since childhood. Most are usually born into a religion. We do not outgrow it, nor do we dare question some of the overripe ideas on offer. As we get exposed to new and radical-when-new ideas that challenge our deeply ingrained ones, we either resist or tend to partition our minds to make room. We cherry-pick ideas that enter into focus in our compressed attention spans while continuing to hold conflicting ones from the past in separate compartments. We hardly, if ever, allow for their spontaneous combustion because we are afraid of the fallout. We have to allow room for combustion. Let the sparks fly!
Fear of Death
Foremost among unworldly preoccupations lies the promise of immortality, immaterial souls, and material aplenty. A sense of entitlement washes over many an unwitting mind caught in its spell. This belief can engender the misunderstanding that the earth with its resources was created in the express and sole service of our worldly needs by a benevolent creator. And it often implies a passport to consume with abandon and a wanton disregard to delicate natural balance. Flora and fauna be damned. And the littering of a presumed temporary pit-stop en route to eternal life is a minor but unavoidable inconvenience. Lending credence to such ideas can fuel an accelerated demise of our species.
An afterlife is a form of denial. Implicit is the continuity beyond the terminus of death. It is an ancient red pill too hard to swallow for most of humanity. As we go to great lengths in its denial, we even conjure up elaborate stories. Stories aimed at disallowing an abrupt end to life, but a brief hiccup of death, followed by a promise of heaven and hell we all crave and abhor while simultaneously trying hard not to die each waking minute. Few among us are lured into blowing ourselves up in sparkling fireworks to get there, collateral notwithstanding.
What if this is it? The continuation we crave is irrational. A different kind of continuation exists. Earth recycles. Among the recycled is human remains. Our bodies are sprinkled with carbon atoms that were once found in historical figures, dinosaurs, and even constellations! We die, so our offspring can survive, thrive and pass on the genes. This reflection can exorcise the apparent fog of irrational fears that lurk over us throughout our lives. When assimilated, earthly life suddenly assumes greater significance. And the brief interval between birth and death becomes more precious. None of the solutions professed by the world religions withstand the test of reality that rational scientific inquiry does. With it at our disposal, it is high time we outgrew our irrational fears to celebrate its brevity and beauty. They were inevitable growth pains in our metamorphosis from the cocoon of ignorance to knowledge butterflies. Our knowledge will always remain incomplete, especially in matters of what lies beyond. And that is okay.
Greed is one of many manifestations of selfishness and requires the most effort to overcome. It is the unquenchable thirst for all material things. We have to recognize one crucial catch — it is of the world, rented out to us by mother earth. We do not own anything, and when we die, we do not carry anything but leave behind our mess. Our terrestrial resources are not unlimited. Can we still call it our home after slaughtering most other species by decimating their habitats, trampling fragile ecosystems, with wreckage littered across land and oceans? Is that a price worth paying for so-called progress? Unless we course-correct away from our selfish ways, we stand a slim chance of making it past the halfway mark of this century.
We may find ways to colonize Mars one day. What if we do not make it as a species before its realization? Assume it materialized. A privileged few mavericks may go Mars-bound. What about the rest of us?
It is not all doom and gloom. We need only look back at our past. Our species has overcome greater odds to get here. And it requires another global effort. Banding together to tackle climate change. And that requires altering our ways.
Ignorance is hard to eradicate. Stumbling in the dark is unavoidable as we continually remain susceptible to the expanding horizon of ignorance even as our knowledge expands. But there is hope. And that is to see that the natural world we inhabit is not a distinct entity from us. We are an integral part of it. A room is an arbitrary boundary that separates spaces. Granted, we are not just rooms, but the notion that a human body is a wholly separate entity from its surroundings is just as arbitrary when viewed from an objective, evolutionary sense. This altered perspective holds enormous sway and may very well steer us away from extinction. Let me elaborate.
Why bother viewing through an evolutionary lens? Because it is impersonal — free of the human ego. It is also a unique yet unbiased vantage point worth taking because we are not merely out there eking out survival. We transcend other creatures in our heightened consciousness. We know enough to know we will die someday — a fact unfathomable by any other species. Endowed with an out-sized brain that can contemplate itself and the cosmos, we have come farther than any other species — from the use of rudimentary tools to discovering mathematics, from exploring our inner universe to discovering the accelerating objective universe.
No other creature we know has arrived here. And that places the burden of responsibility squarely on our collective shoulders. And science is our only credible and best hope. Gaining a new perspective on interconnectedness can help dispel dangerous ideas many of us still harbor. It may yet arrest our greed; help usher a renewed appreciation of finiteness and impermanence of all things.
Our bodies are not that distinct from our surroundings as we consider it to be. From a subjective view, that distinction was necessary for survival. But we have come a long way from mere survival in the savanna into modernity with all its trappings. But most of us still find it hard to outgrow this primal instinct. Survive we must, but with the recognition that we no longer have to forage or fight for survival. We innovate, cooperate and create instead. The problems facing us are not merely survival or keeping hunger at bay. Truth could not be farther. They are due to excesses stemming from greed, and inequitable distribution of natural resources, even with world hunger, climate crisis, and other pressing concerns facing us. Our entire planet is one living body that requires caring, upkeep, and nourishment. Let us try donning that lens to view each other and our environment.
Blossoming healthy self-esteem (ego) is necessary and unavoidable until maturity. But our sense of ego grows unabated past adulthood. No natural mechanism limits its outgrowth either — it is up to us to fend for ourselves.
We always want more, to stand out, and to distinguish ourselves from others in our possessions. But always remaining discontent after having acquired them. Enough just is never enough. At some point during our hunter-gatherer past, we must have drifted that way. Instead of living in harmony, inconspicuously blending with our natural habitat, we could not resist the urge to tame it, and with a good reason, of course, to cultivate and share their harvest with a community. It seems to me the farther we drifted, the harder it became to constrain our sense of self-worth, fostering greed in all its detrimental but tell-tale forms. Hard as it is to fathom a discontent hunter-gatherer in the African savanna, it must have happened. And the result is the present-day modern society with all its trappings of luxury and paraphernalia to barely satisfy our obscene desires that seems to never get quenched.
Such is the nature of self-deception and a stew of bad ideas that continue to accumulate as we harden and grow old. Pausing and making room to sort conflicts by critical forays into our beliefs is essential and a skill we must develop. That requires intellectual honesty to update or uproot our beliefs when warranted. Our stance must be open and to readily embrace good ideas even if they go against the grain, never on faith alone, but with a deliberate intention to update or uproot cherished beliefs in light of new evidence. Then constantly repeat this process.
Practicing meditation with proper instruction can be helpful to trim the ego. Losing the ego must not sound scary but be a noble aspiration. Blurring the line between the self and surroundings is a selfless act of recognizing the whole. The whole is an entity called earth. It is much larger than the sum of its constituents.
One way to slice through ego is by mindfulness and the practice of meditation — by noticing emergent thought loops capturing our attention. By deliberately robbing thoughts of their essence by clearly witnessing them, we rob their power and vice-like hold on us to act upon their cue. The ego is a constellation of thoughts masquerading as self. That recognition can be liberating. It is not unlike revealing our optical blind spot with proper instruction. But mere noticing does not go far enough. One can intuitively know their blind spot as a phenomenon and yet not care. One must apprehend by actively intervening and punctuating moments in their daily life with a clear recognition of its absence. One trains to become less selfish and less egotistic by way of meditation.
Are We Special?
Yes and no. We are unique insofar as we are conscious. But not as exceptional as we give ourselves credit for. Also, not because of any divine intervention but by a quirk. Our self-aggrandizement rooted in ignorance and dogma informing otherwise is a balloon that can be burst with the pinprick of attention. It is floating us towards self-destruction. Ignorance can only be eradicated with proper knowledge — that beneath the seeming randomness and diversity of natural phenomena, flora and fauna, lies a unifying theme.
The laws of Conservation of Energy, Evolution by Natural Selection, and Economies of Scale regulate and govern birth, death, and subsequent recycling of all nature’s resources, including humans. With simply those prerequisites, we have come a long way in reducing infant mortality, improving hygiene, eradicating diseases, and setting in motion the fourth industrial revolution — all aimed at human flourishing.
We must expand that umbrella to include the well-being of the whole earth. With a renewed sense of urgency, we must prioritize right ideas over wrong-headed ones and with the stance of openness to new ideas driven by evidence, not dogma. That will usher in a greater appreciation of our precarious but precious planet. With a greater appreciation, we stand a fighting chance of better shepherding it. And it may allow for greater human flourishing for many more generations to come.
We must recognize our existence as fleeting and precarious — a brief passage between two known end-points of life and death. And for having proffered a chance to exist, we must strive to live as frugal tenants of our humble abode. Let’s all marvel at our existence and preserve our planet for posterity.
Thanks for reading!
- Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by Geoffrey West
- The fractal nature of nature: power laws, ecological complexity, and biodiversity. The Royal Society, 2002
- Effects of size and temperature on metabolic rate. Science, 2001
- The Fourth Dimension of Life: Fractal Geometry and Allometric Scaling of Organisms. Science, 1999
©️ Dr. VK, 2021. All Rights Reserved.