As a Species, H. Sapiens Is Extraordinarily Samey
December 2, 2021 2:27 PM   Subscribe

The signs are already there for those willing to see them. When the habitat becomes degraded such that there are fewer resources to go around; when fertility starts to decline; when the birth rate sinks below the death rate; and when genetic resources are limited—the only way is down. The question is “How fast?” from Humans Are Doomed to Go Extinct by Henry Gee
posted by chavenet (126 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Good. It will be a huge relief. Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, etc.
posted by Frowner at 2:36 PM on December 2, 2021 [23 favorites]


That was cheery!

Now I want to read the speculative fiction about the series of meetings needed to put H. Sapiens on the threatened & endangered lists.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 2:50 PM on December 2, 2021 [15 favorites]


The idea that humans might not be doomed to go extinct is just another example of human hubris. All species are doomed to go extinct, and the vast majority of them have already done so.
Not only will we not be missed when we go, I have no doubt that there will be an enormous and joyous party, and an unprecedented explosion of biodiversity.
I only wish I could be here to see it.
posted by Joan Rivers of Babylon at 2:57 PM on December 2, 2021 [30 favorites]


You guys joke, and I laugh, and I feel the same way; but I also feel a deep disturbance at the casual nihilism of thinking people today, how the best of us have given up on us, and it is the worst of us that want to reproduce and make armed compounds on the dying earth.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:04 PM on December 2, 2021 [117 favorites]


whatever we want to say about intelligence, consciousness, etc.. is there another lifeform we know of that can contemplate its end in any comparable way? e.g. knowing I will die.. knowing all humans will die forever.. knowing all life on the planet and the planet and the solar system will end..

for most of us, we can articulate the thoughts but I'm not sure we know what to do with the information.. I feel a lot more like my dog in this way: in about one hour, I will have a beer, and that is enough mental content thanks.
posted by elkevelvet at 3:05 PM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


I understand why this might be interesting reading to some people who want to experience species-based schadenfreude, but do we REALLY want to post this in a community where a significant number suffer from anxiety and or depression frequently related to this topic?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 3:06 PM on December 2, 2021 [25 favorites]


^ I think the preview would warn off anyone who would rather not engage with this sort of topic. I mean, there are a ton of things posted to MeFi that I simply don't venture into, for any number of reasons.

For what it's worth, the grand Heat Death of the universe has some comfort to offer a person. I think about the idea of all things ending, and it puts some of the very real and present concerns in perspective.
posted by elkevelvet at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2021 [15 favorites]


Within a generation, places like Quebec, Ireland and Italy saw their birth rates go from some of the highest to some of the lowest….probably to do with wriggling free from the grip of a certain church.
posted by brachiopod at 3:15 PM on December 2, 2021 [20 favorites]


Metafilter: a community where a significant number suffer from anxiety and or depression
posted by keep_evolving at 3:22 PM on December 2, 2021 [25 favorites]


I've long felt that this was inevitable. I keep making comparisons to yeast in my head. Put yeast in wort and it propagates until it dies in its own excrement. Humans are doing the exact same thing and have shown no propensity for stopping it or even slowing it down. All the current talk about the end of the world is talk about the end of human habitation.

I really feel bad for friends and family that are having kids right now since they'll see a massive decline during their lifetime whereas my generation is going to escape the brunt of it. My wife and I have chosen not to have kids, mostly be cause neither of us really wants them but partially because we don't want to bring them up in the world that's coming.

Good riddance to us and I hope the next sentient species to come along learns from the remnants we leave behind and figures out how to maintain equilibrium with their environment.
posted by mikesch at 3:24 PM on December 2, 2021 [13 favorites]


I think this is a pretty narrowly western dystopian privilege-pessimist view. The earth is large and there are a lot of people living in different environments in different ways. We not be as genetically diverse as chimps but we are behaviourally diverse and adaptable. If 99% of us disappear, some of us will persist. It probably won't be northern white people, of course, which is why those people, in particular, are panicking about it. I have my money on innovative groups of indigenous people living in the tropics.

Full circle.
posted by klanawa at 3:25 PM on December 2, 2021 [56 favorites]


Eh, we've had our innings.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:31 PM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


My take on the longevity of humanity is that we're going to go extinct a hell of a lot sooner than the "Longtermists" suppose, and a hell of a lot later than the Henry Gees of the world surmise.

But then, there's long been folks who seem to revel in the apres nous, le deluge millenarian sort of lazy thinking, and this opinion letter just reeks of it.

Humans are going to be around a long, long time, almost certainly measured in tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years by which time it'll have changed into something appreciably different enough (and appreciably different enough multiple somethings) to no longer be H. sapiens sapiens. Human civilization, on the other hand? It's in trouble.
posted by tclark at 3:34 PM on December 2, 2021 [24 favorites]


Yeah, those guys on the Andaman Islands are probably gonna be fine. I think of them a lot these days. I expect that if their island holds up, they will too.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:53 PM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


The way I have looked at this for a while now is simply that we know humans have predicted our own demise for about as long as we have oral and written records.

On one hand, yes, it’s gotta end at some point. On the other? Who are we to think we are so special to be the human’s alive when it all ends?

The author touches on this point, but doesn’t really go back into the history of “omg omg we’re all gonna die”. Truth is, none of us know. We’re an incredibly adaptable species, many signals that apply to other animals don’t apply to us, and we just don’t know. The odds are good we’re gonna keep going for a while yet, and the further will be a mixed bag of awful and wonderful.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 3:57 PM on December 2, 2021 [11 favorites]


I have to disagree. Humans have proved themselves to be amongst the most adaptable of species. We inhabit and flourish in the hottest, coldest, wettest, driest, lowest, highest, fertile and infertile environs the planet has to offer. What will disappear is civilization, not us. Undoubtedly with collapse our numbers will diminish, perhaps by many billions. Perhaps time to be practicing those hunter-gather skills...
posted by jim in austin at 4:01 PM on December 2, 2021 [11 favorites]


Well, if an editor at Science writes it, it must be true.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:05 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


I don’t see the problem with fertility in this equation. First of all: despite declining birth rates in some countries, the global population is at an all-time high and continues to grow. Second of all, declining birth rates, especially in wealthy countries, seem like one of the best ways to reduce our impact on the environment (yes I know they fuck up the economy but that’s hardly the same as human extinction).
posted by vanitas at 4:08 PM on December 2, 2021 [21 favorites]


The human race may be going extinct, but you are alive and reading this, so you've beaten the odds!
posted by JDHarper at 4:11 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


I didn’t click the supporting links, but I just don’t think this was argued well, or even argued much at all. If I were the editor, I’d have sent it back for revision.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:14 PM on December 2, 2021 [12 favorites]


The question is “How fast?”

And it seems to me that the answer, given our overwhelming numbers compared to all the other species we're doing our best to displace, is "not as fast as most of them".

There is no doubt in my mind that this planet is headed unavoidably toward a substantial reduction in the population of H. Sap. The only uncertainty, it seems to me, is whether this happens humanely via deliberate and substantial reduction in our birthrate, or by the more traditional red in tooth and claw route.

And at this point my money's still on tooth and claw. There are still far too many of us who think of human exceptionalism as something that puts us outside ecology, as opposed to being the owners of brains that implement language to the extent of being capable of formulating abstractions like life and death and ecology and extinction and sustainability to begin with
posted by flabdablet at 4:22 PM on December 2, 2021 [8 favorites]


I think the whole concept of humans going extinct is pretty myopic. Civilizations? Yeah maybe, but Human Beings as a species, not likely. With the exception of the planet exploding or turning into molten lava, even after the standard doomsday scenarios some humans will find a way to survive, adapt, and start again. It's what we do. Think BIG.
posted by Liquidwolf at 4:33 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


It is the only certain thing we DO know about humans and our future. We will go extinct. There is zero doubt about that. Saying anything to the contrary is simply wrong.

When? We can and do debate that all the time, and nobody knows. But we are life, and all life will pass at some point on this earth.

It is both sad and confusing and hard to think about sometimes. Lucky and unfortunate that we can think about it and also that we cannot know how the whole thing ends.
posted by tiny frying pan at 4:45 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


even after the standard doomsday scenarios some humans will find a way to survive, adapt, and start again. It's what we do.

That right there is the exact ecology denialist kind of exceptionalism I see all over the place.

The question is not so much whether we can adapt to the conditions we find ourselves faced with, as whether we can convince each other that our highest guiding principle needs to be that of leaving the spaces we each occupy in a healthier state when we're done with them than they were in before we arrived. It's about using our exceptional brains to understand that each of us is part of a community of living things, and that an individual win that comes at the cost of communal degradation is not a win at all but a contemptible and dishonourable display of hubris.
posted by flabdablet at 4:45 PM on December 2, 2021 [16 favorites]


I like to think of Vonnegut’s Galapagos at times like these.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:49 PM on December 2, 2021 [9 favorites]


our highest guiding principle needs to be that of leaving the spaces we each occupy in a healthier state when we're done with them than they were in before we arrived.

If it helps, think of the Earth as the kitchen in our shared student housing.
posted by flabdablet at 4:53 PM on December 2, 2021 [17 favorites]


Sure, ALL species go extinct, and it's extremely nearsighted to think that homo sapiens will not also do so. The question we as a species are facing is: do we become extinct by evolving into another species, or do we become extinct by reaching the end of our evolutionary path? All I know is that, with our being the culprits of the 6th Mass Extinction event, we need to go away ASAP for the sake of other species. The longer it takes for our extinction, the more species we are going to take down with us. It's be nice for us to hang on long enough to evolve into something else, but I have my doubts about that. May I recommend Stephen Baxter's 'Evolution'? It is the story of primates, from the age of the dinosaurs to the end of life on the planet.
posted by frodisaur at 4:55 PM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]



It is the only certain thing we DO know about humans and our future. We will go extinct. There is zero doubt about that. Saying anything to the contrary is simply wrong.

When? We can and do debate that all the time, and nobody knows. But we are life, and all life will pass at some point on this earth.


Well yeah of course, but we don't know what kind of timescales we're talking about. And life can move from planet to planet.
posted by Liquidwolf at 4:55 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


This story comports nicely with Elaine Morgan’s exposition of the Aquatic Ape theory in her 1972 The Descent of Woman. I read it in 1974 and ever since have been awaiting the larger narrative into which it might fit.
posted by theoriginalkdawson at 4:57 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


I mean, in a billion years give or take the sun will boil the oceans and chances are humans will falter at adapting before that, don't even have to wait around for the sun to expand until it consumes the earth. We so far have no real evidence that we are viable as a species outside of the ecosystems we have evolved in, either; I assume any proliferation of us from this planet would change us quite dramatically, like how birds originated from dinosaurs.
posted by foxfirefey at 4:58 PM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


Soon for someone like Henry Gee is sometime in the next 500,000 to 2 million years. Which is soon, in a geological context. Considering we’ve only had 5000 ish years of civilization and where we are at, it seems pretty likely, but also 500,000 years is a very very very long time!

When I was in grad school a particularly cranky paleontologist liked to troll ecologists and others who were trying to make predictions about things like species distribution due to global warming by asking “what will be the impact of this change in distribution 5 million years from now?” His point- that the earth will carry on- is correct, but also completely non-constructive.
posted by rockindata at 5:02 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


with our being the culprits of the 6th Mass Extinction event, we need to go away ASAP for the sake of other species

Our exceptional brains could become an absolute benefit to other species if we could just learn to pull our heads out of our own arseholes and start using them for something other than boosting our own numbers at the expense of everything else. See also: permaculture.

life can move from planet to planet

Assumes facts not in evidence.
posted by flabdablet at 5:03 PM on December 2, 2021 [13 favorites]



That right there is the exact ecology denialist kind of exceptionalism I see all over the place.


I'm not engaging in any ecology denial exceptionalism. I'm addressing the idea that humans will disappear entirely. I see a lot of hope in the future.



The question is not so much whether we can adapt to the conditions we find ourselves faced with, as whether we can convince each other that our highest guiding principle needs to be that of leaving the spaces we each occupy in a healthier state



As I said, I think Humans will address these conditions as they come because they will be forced to and they'll make the world better in ways we can't even fathom from our point of view because we live now, and not in the future.
posted by Liquidwolf at 5:04 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


While on this cranky rant streak: the idea that there's a valuable distinction to be made between us dying out and us evolving into something else rests on an irritatingly parochial meaning attached to the word "us".
posted by flabdablet at 5:07 PM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


All of this doom and gloom thinking where something is going to come along and wipe us all out, is just a way to avoid dealing with all the problems right now. It’s the hope for a solution by just wiping out any source of the problems. But only sometime later in the future through the hand of something bigger and more powerful. It all reeks of the Christian apocalypse.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:09 PM on December 2, 2021 [23 favorites]


The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.

We will make great pets.
posted by eustatic at 5:09 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]



life can move from planet to planet

Assumes facts not in evidence.


Pretty safe assumption I'd wager.
posted by Liquidwolf at 5:12 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


Humans will address these conditions as they come because they will be forced to and they'll make the world better in ways we can't even fathom from our point of view

There are certainly plentiful examples of humans having done exactly this, and for aeons at a stretch, in various places all over the planet. The rise of an essentially cancerous growth-at-all-costs culture is a relatively recent development.
posted by flabdablet at 5:12 PM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


Well yeah of course, but we don't know what kind of timescales we're talking about.

My point exactly.

And life can move from planet to planet.

We don't have a planet any of us can move to yet.
posted by tiny frying pan at 5:14 PM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]


My favorite culture ship name is “Seed Drill”
posted by Going To Maine at 5:17 PM on December 2, 2021 [6 favorites]


we’ve only had 5000 ish years of civilization

Another sadly parochial definition, revealing a distinct lack of knowledge about all of the civilizations cavalierly destroyed by assorted kinds of expansionist colonialism over the last few millennia.
posted by flabdablet at 5:21 PM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


We don't have a planet any of us can move to yet

and considering the extent of the disinterest in sustainable occupation of the one we already have among those most keen to leave it, I can't see how we're ever likely to.

Spaceships-and-lasers is more a celebration of magical thinking than a useful guidepost on the road to better living.

And the idea that living sustainably amounts to a kind of stagnation for which the only cure is relentless pioneering is exactly the one responsible for the present-day dumpster fire.
posted by flabdablet at 5:32 PM on December 2, 2021 [10 favorites]


I'm not engaging in any ecology denial exceptionalism.

I am in no doubt whatsoever that you fully and sincerely believe so.
posted by flabdablet at 5:37 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


how many humans and what level of complexity and technology will need to exist in a continuous unbroken world spanning society to actively manage and contain all the active or decommisioned nuclear reactors, weapons, waste and ore refineries? The idea that humans will adapt to waves of various radioactive contaminants while surviving thr climate induced collapse of food supplies is a tall order. We barely managed to keep that held wolf by the ears in the good times.

intracentury Human extinction is a very real possibility. For an analogy see our ability to manage an international pandemic.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 5:50 PM on December 2, 2021 [6 favorites]


We will go extinct. There is zero doubt about that. Saying anything to the contrary is simply wrong.

Obviously. The question is whether we will do it to ourselves. No, just as we overestimate our capacities in every other respect, we overestimate our capacity for self-annihilation.
posted by klanawa at 5:53 PM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]


we overestimate our capacity for self-annihilation.

We're insanely competent at many many things, but having an intuitive grasp of the consequences of huge numbers really isn't one of them.
posted by flabdablet at 6:02 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


see our ability to manage an international pandemic

Bad as it is, this is very far down the list of damaging pandemics even over the last couple of hundred years, few of which have been "managed" in any sense at all.
posted by klanawa at 6:05 PM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


What I'd like to see is a pandemic of some condition that makes people bleed out as soon as they learn that their personal economic worth has topped a billion dollars.
posted by flabdablet at 6:13 PM on December 2, 2021 [12 favorites]


"Let's lie down and rot, I hate humans, we destroy our planet so we deserve it." is the progressive left version of asking for the second coming of Christ to end the sinful world.

It gets kind of depressing to read a bunch of people hope I die out and the next species is better. Eventually we all will die, but jeez, I get why this thread has a post wondering if it is good for community mental health.
posted by Phalene at 6:31 PM on December 2, 2021 [34 favorites]


I like to think of Vonnegut’s Galapagos at times like these.

I think of Houellebecq, but he can be annoying.

Complex species always have more limited time-frames in the eternal scale of Paleontology. But homo sapiens are rather adaptable. We could just evolve into something else, or something.

But hey, everyone knows that the clock has already run out on our current version of human civilization. Now we're just waiting for that next phase, whatever it is.
posted by ovvl at 6:32 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Were I an unethical super billionaire or state level actor I would already be conducting human CRISPR gene editing experiments.

My army of skin cancer resisting, cellulose and plastic digesting, heat resisting, antifreeze blooded, salt water desalinating, radiation hardened, anaerobic adapted semi clones would inherit the earth.

Could even try some radiophage genes in case of nuclear holocaust.

A bit more seriously, when I’ve had this kind of conversations with people, trying to get to what the loss would be if humanity were to go extinct, since life of some kind would go on until the sun swallowed the Earth, I always end up with a variation of “[humans] are the matter of the Cosmos contemplating itself”.

I propose the Elon Musks of the world spare some of the money they are spending trying to scape Earth into researching how to alter ant colonies or mycelium networks or mega jellyfish to the point that the superorganism can contemplate the cosmos. Then humanity can go fuck itself and nothing of value would be lost.
posted by Dr. Curare at 6:51 PM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]


I think that people who think it is bad for human numbers to drop, are bad at math. We were doing just fine when there were a couple of million of us. We were, allegedly down to 1,200 or so, within the last 50,000 years, according to Craig Venter. It would be just fine if this planet were barely populated with homo-sapiens, such a hopeful name, yes we think, just not about the right things, or enough. All this handwaving about replacement and our doom. Lordy, lordy, lordy.
posted by Oyéah at 6:56 PM on December 2, 2021 [10 favorites]


I think that people who think it is bad for human numbers to drop, are bad at math.

Mainly I'm thinking about those poor numbers. I'll end up one of them. I've been affluent enough to be a useless person but not rich enough to buy a bunker and guards.

Honestly, the poor and those in the Global South will suffer most. There's a joke about the NYT's final headline -- WORLD ENDS: WOMEN, MINORITIES HARDEST HIT. But it will be true.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:10 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


I wonder if there are ants who predict the demise of ants.
posted by clawsoon at 7:57 PM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


Mod note: A couple deleted. This is a tough topic and I have enormous faith in all y'all's ability to discuss it without descending into despair and snarkery.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 7:58 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


Do you vote this for your parents? Your significant other? Your children? Your friends?

Personally I voted it for all my potential and therefore already nonexistent offspring.

I have no wish at all to see all of humanity wiped off the face of the earth. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement strikes me as a self-selecting collection of insufferable poseurs. But as a human being with all the privileges that come with being born into a culture wholly predicated on consuming planetary resources at an unsustainable pace, it seemed to me before I got the snip - and still does - that (a) I do not have the right to up and transplant myself anywhere else, because everywhere else is already struggling from what my culture has already done to it and can't reasonably be expected to make room for me (b) continuing to live where I do comes with a moral obligation to do what I can to minimize such consumption as I am personally responsible for.

I have spent my life in the conscious pursuit of finding ways to live as comfortably as my neighbours while consuming far less than their average, and obviously the single most consequential decision I could possibly make in support of that was to not create a tree of descendants of unknowable size. To choose to create even one descendant is, to an excellent first approximation, to double my own life's resource consumption and it only gets worse from there.

I labour under no illusions that this choice is going to make any meaningful difference whatsoever to the way my culture operates. A supertanker can't be steered with a canoe paddle. But it does contribute to the solution on a scale commensurate with my own existence's contribution to the problem, and for me that's quite good enough.
posted by flabdablet at 8:03 PM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


Oyéah: We were, allegedly down to 1,200 or so, within the last 50,000 years, according to Craig Venter.

More detailed data from the Human Genome Diversity Project suggests that this is true for all the groups that left Africa, but groups that stayed in Africa never saw their effective population size drop below 10,000 or so. So there's that.
posted by clawsoon at 8:06 PM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


The larger point stands, though: the time to worry about human extinction is when our numbers are comparable to those on present-day endangered lists, not when we are eight billion and rising.
posted by flabdablet at 8:08 PM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]


The idea that humans will adapt to waves of various radioactive contaminants

Assuming we don't actually detonate the bombs on our way out the door (and in that scenario the radiation would be the least of the problems the survivors face), you drastically overestimate the effects of our radioactive messes, at least where they are not highly concentrated, and even then a century or two will drastically reduce the hazard.
posted by wierdo at 8:27 PM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


Cancer rates will decrease as average life expectancy is reduced. I'd expect to see less diabetes and obesity, too.
posted by ryanrs at 9:37 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


There was a comment that has now disappeared that used a phrase something like (but not verbatim) “when the wrong kind of people are having lots of babies”. I don’t know that poster’s mind, and what I’m about to stay might not at all align with what they were thinking and feeling with it. I am pretty sure they were not thinking about any of the things below, but phrases like this make me white-hot alert, and I need to write it out.

Things that are implied by this phrase: there are people who deserve to reproduce, and people who do not deserve to reproduce. Really, it doesn’t get more baseline NOPE NOPE NOPE than that. Not every article talking about declining fertility is a coded neonazi comm on preservation-of-the-white-species, but a (assumably) white western author bemoaning declining fertility is not, functionally, talking about the loss of our species: Henry Gee is first and foremost talking about how his life, or the lives of his grandkids, will be affected if there wind up being more non-whites than whites in their city/state/country, mayyybe beginning to realize that the US is not likely to hang onto dominant global power forever, and feeling the same nervousness masquerading as critique. These are legit questions to think about. But they are questions mostly to ask about in our inside voices and/or debate with the most intense attention paid to our ethics (not to mention the history of people saying “Those People Make Too Many Babies And Do Not Contribute Enough To Society”). They are not words to publish as if they represent rationality of any kind, much less wisdom. They are rooted in fear of losing power - in this case of more human groups sharing power, or of some groups that currently have power getting smaller, meaning that they won’t have the body-count leverage to keep it, if new majorities want it and aren’t willing to share.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 9:42 PM on December 2, 2021 [13 favorites]


This article is like being shown a blue whale, being asked whether it's the size of a blue whale, and saying "Well, most mammals aren't that big, so no."

Like, yes, humans are animals, and there's no qualitative difference between us and other animals; but there are some pretty damn important qualitative differences, and you can't just ignore them when you argue for our near-term extinction from a purely biological perspective. You have to at least make an argument as to why they won't make a difference (in the short term; obviously everything dies in the long run).
posted by nosewings at 9:49 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


"Another might be stress, which, I suggest, could be triggered by living in close proximity to other people for a long period"

science!
posted by wibari at 10:05 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


If it helps, think of the Earth as the kitchen in our shared student housing.
posted by flabdablet at 4:53 PM on December 2
[5 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


…so I’m going to be inadvertently drinking psilocybin tea again?

The only thing I got from this was the phrase “extinction debt” - which doesn’t quite mean what I took it to mean, but which is still a pretty juicy morsel. Looking it up on Wikipedia there’s this further nugget: Interventions such as habitat restoration may reverse extinction debt.

Population “crash” would/will probably be for the best - there’s a hell of a lot of us. Just think of all the parking that’ll open up! (I kid… I kid… but at my most optimistic, the oil economy falls behind us, a solar economy develops and in 100 years, though there are drastically fewer of us (what are population crash numbers anyway, 1 billion? 4 billion? 6 billion?) the earth is better off than now (think of the near-eradication of smog in US cities) and life for those that are left is pretty banal. Plus, holidays on Mars… (yeah, no - but life on Europa, multicellular - fuck it, animals swimming around … animals that speak English. With markedly British accents. Except for the kooky outsider, who has an American accent…)
posted by From Bklyn at 12:01 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


The human race may be going extinct, but you are alive and reading this, so you've beaten the odds!

We will be the first fossils found!
posted by rhizome at 12:38 AM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


i hereby revoke humanity is dooooomeeeeed circlejerk thinkpiece publishing privileges from fifty something year old cis white dudes
posted by Gymnopedist at 1:01 AM on December 3, 2021 [8 favorites]


'"Let's lie down and rot, I hate humans, we destroy our planet so we deserve it." is the progressive left version of asking for the second coming of Christ to end the sinful world.'

THANK YOU. I know more than a few self-styled ecologists/"collapsologists" whose rhetoric is basically a non-theistic version of Evangelical apocalyptic thinking (a couple are, in fact, former Evangelicals). I have no more patience for engaging with the former than the latter, because both serve to excuse a refusal to act, frequently on the part of those who are best positioned and most obligated to do so (i.e., materially comfortable, white inhabitants of the global North).
posted by peakes at 1:58 AM on December 3, 2021 [11 favorites]


I find it very hard to read this article without reading into it a very specific male, white perspective. Last I checked, populations are growing and young in Africa, where btw there is much more genetic variation than among descendants of those people who first migrated out of Africa.

The main reason the unhealthy growth of the human population is perhaps finally coming to an end in this century, is that women who have the power and means to control their own bodies don't want many children. And that is a good thing, not a threat. Many women prefer fewer children who they can actually provide for, instead of lots of children who die before reaching maturity, because many women are rational like that. Well and also that part about their bodies.
In other words: if you want to stop population growth, empower women.

We have built our current economic system on the premise of constant population growth. So we will have to adjust. Is that a bad thing? I agree with many above that what may be doomed is our current way of life or civilisation, whereas humans as a species probably have several hundred thousand years ahead of them/(us?) I only wish I could somehow be around to see what memories of this age will persist in the way we still have fragments of Bronze age civilisations today.
posted by mumimor at 2:16 AM on December 3, 2021 [14 favorites]


ryanrs: Cancer rates will decrease as average life expectancy is reduced.

In the very long term, the opposite is likely to be true: As life expectancy is reduced, cancer rates will go up, because selective pressures against cancer-causing genetic variants will go down.

That's why rats and mice have extremely high cancer rates, squirrels have low cancer rates, and naked mole rats have virtually no cancer. Since rats and mice are likely to die young from predation or starvation or the elements anyway, there's little selective pressure against cancer-causing genetic variants.

Naked mole rats, on the other end of the scale, burrow in a way that limits predation and have a rigid social structure that discourages overpopulation and starvation, so anti-cancer genetic variants which allow an individual to keep living and reproducing longer are likely to increase in frequency in the population.

Humans have complicated this formula by discovering anti-cancer treatments, so it's hard to tell whether our ability to eliminate virtually all external threats will eventually (in the very long term) lead to the spread of more anti-cancer genetic variants than we already have.
posted by clawsoon at 4:25 AM on December 3, 2021 [6 favorites]


(To simplify: On an individual timescale, you live a long time because you don't get cancer. On evolutionary timescales, you don't get cancer because you live a long time.)
posted by clawsoon at 4:52 AM on December 3, 2021 [6 favorites]


This piece has the unwelcome honour of being one of the worst things I’ve read on the Blue. It is a typical example of when a scientist mistakes his pondering over a subject outside of his expertise as being worthy of publication and consideration. Quite simply, it is not. Being a renown expert on deep time and evolution is not the same as being an expert on history and society, making accurate predictions, and foreseeing problems. However, being a renown expert does make it easier to get your book published
posted by The River Ivel at 5:39 AM on December 3, 2021 [6 favorites]


you drastically overestimate the effects of our radioactive messes,

Won't all nuclear power plants melt down without us? On the scale of the world, maybe not too huge a problem but one I always assume will happen.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:14 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


Just read Gee's book A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, along with Katie Mack's The End of Everything, and oddly I enjoyed being reminded that in the larger scheme of things, (a) we are unimportant (b) I am unimportant and (c) at the moment, I'm alive.

There's something about the desire to live forever or to have humanity live forever that worries me - it seems to be characteristic of only the wealthiest and most fortunate people, that they are so afraid of ending that they'll even contemplate living on another planet, no matter how cold, far away, arid, and difficult to visit it might be. But they won't contemplate making things easier for everyone. Just for themselves.

I'm not saying it doesn't make me sad to think about all this richness and variety going away. It's just that focusing only on endings would make me into Queen Victoria wearing black and forbidding her children to laugh in her presence for the rest of her long life after Albert died.
posted by Peach at 6:22 AM on December 3, 2021 [7 favorites]


Yeah, I feel like living forever is only appealing to you if you don't worry about a future full of losing those you love or paying rent, presumably because you don't do either of those things anyway.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:38 AM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


With a population of 8 billion living unsustainably, worrying about a declining birth rate seems both a bit silly and in conflict with the rest of the author's arguments. This is a qualitative answer to a quantitative question. That doesn't mean the conclusions are wrong. It does mean they're unconvincing.
posted by eotvos at 6:38 AM on December 3, 2021 [5 favorites]


Won't all nuclear power plants melt down without us? On the scale of the world, maybe not too huge a problem but one I always assume will happen.

Without human interaction the reactors are designed to just shut down and go into cold shutdown over a number of weeks at which point they’re mostly harmless. The cooling ponds though will have issues if something in the automated systems fail and the water drains or boils off before the rods are cool.

That’s off all the automated systems work, if they don’t, like in the case of Fukushima, then yea bad things can happen.
posted by jmauro at 6:42 AM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


I'm not comfortable with dismissing fears over climate change as some sort of apocalyptic nightmare. I live in texas, and over the last few years I've gone from viewing climate disaster as something that's going to screw over my young nieces and nephews or their kids to something that is actively threatening my life.

We've had flash floods and increased hurricanes, hours spent keeping up with rain levels at the reservoir hoping it doesn't burst and wondering which way the flood waters would come, since we didn't live all that far from it...

We've gotten lucky and not gotten hit head-on with a major hurricane, though there's certainly been a couple that parked flood waters over the city.

At what point will it simply become too hot to go outside? It's not uncommon to have 80 or 90% humidity in the summer, days and weeks in a row, and if the temperature naturally hits 100 degrees, adding a few more is really pushing the limits of habitality. When my handicapped girlfriend was alive we had to significantly monitor her heat tolerance, because she was at severe risk of overheating even in reasonable temperatures.

During the freeze we lost power for 38 hours straight. I'm my own portable furnace and can bundle up plus have some excellent sleeping bags, but if the power had stayed out for much longer, we would have had to find transportation to a shelter for my girlfriend. We probably could have managed, but not everyone is that lucky.

Climate change is already killing people, and there's plenty of scenarios that can easily multiply the damage.
posted by Jacen at 7:01 AM on December 3, 2021 [10 favorites]


Can I just mildly challenge the consensus that the human race will inevitably be extinguished eventually?

One leg of the consensus is that evolution is ongoing and must lead either to humans disappearing or evolving into something else (Angels? Software? A nasty surprise?). Very likely, but it’s arguable that evolution has or will lose its force when it comes to humanity. If we get those angelic or robot powers we might choose to use them to keep ourselves essentially the same. So not really inevitable.

The second leg rests on the assumption that Earth will one day become uninhabitable. Yes, again probably, if we don’t acquire the godlike power to prevent that, but then we might be able to continue on other planets or in some artificial habitat.

Third leg (excuse my inhuman number of legs) is the heat death of the universe, or similar. Well, you know that’s cosmology. There’s speculation, wild speculation and then there’s cosmology. You tell me about entropy, and I reply that not even Steven Hawking could explain convincingly how that stuff was compatible with the universe existing in the first place. I’m not mounting an argument to say it’s all wrong, just reserving an element of reasonable doubt. To regard the matter as well understood to the point of practical certainty is overconfident.

And of course we haven’t even touched on the metaphysics we have so little grasp of - whether recognisable humans could continue to exist without physical matter, whether as souls or some kind of Platonic information, or as some thing we have not imagined and perhaps cannot yet imagine.
posted by Phanx at 7:17 AM on December 3, 2021 [7 favorites]


Put yeast in wort and it propagates until it dies in its own excrement.

This is my model. If I were president I'd give a speech, show the S-curve, and ask America and the world: "Are we smarter than yeast?" So far the evidence leans against that proposition. I'd be willing to keep trying, but the first step is to change the behavior, one way or another, of all the people who are either:

1. Betting on and actually promoting Malthusian collapse so they can come out on top of the resulting hellscape, or
2. Determined to Thelma and Louise the planet.
posted by hypnogogue at 8:29 AM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


Phanx, all of those are far fetched, but fun to think about and I'd love to see a sci-fi movie about all of that.
posted by tiny frying pan at 8:34 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


Homo Sapiens is dead --- Long live Homo-computer-space-based-post-sol-iens

Lets spread the good, creative, amazing parts of us throughout this galaxy and several other. Vivia the fight against the heat death.

ANTI-ENTROPY for all the eternities.
posted by sammyo at 8:56 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


Regarding the obsession with overpopulation in the 60s.
I've been doing some deep research on hard-left Christian theologians who published (often independently or via John Knox) during the late 60s, early 70s.

Their work is brilliant, prescient, and brave. I keep seeing the relationship being made between the alienation of the disciples and early Xians from Roman authority and the solidarity of the VC, the guerilla fighters in VietNam.

Anyway. It's all so thoroughly poisoned by their abject terror of overpopulation and the racism is extremely close to the surface. Mind you - these were some of the most highly educated, progressive minds of their generation - (men, pretty exclusively) who had travelled to meet with delegations of the "enemies of the American empire" around the world. And I can't get through a single damned chapter without running into this business about overpopulation.

It is a good and cautionary tale. I think about this often when I read articles like this lamenting our invariable doom. In sixty years they'll likely appear stagnant, even repulsive.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:58 AM on December 3, 2021 [8 favorites]


It will come down to conflict between those who use their very large human brains to solve problems by doubting, against those who use them to entertain complicated cultural or race myths and who will pay dearly for alien transport to Shangrilalala. Smart money is on the former because Covid exposed everything about the latter.
posted by Brian B. at 8:59 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]




Hang on a sec, aren't human-engineered domestic plants and animals undergoing rapid speciation, not extinction? Maybe we'll do to homo what we've already done to canis and brassica.
posted by ryanrs at 11:47 AM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


Is our planet overpopulated? We ask the expert
Overpopulation is defined as when a species exceeds the current capacity of its ecosystem. We’re consuming the resources of 1.6 planet Earths each day.
That would be a Yes, then.
posted by flabdablet at 1:57 PM on December 3, 2021 [5 favorites]


but I also feel a deep disturbance at the casual nihilism of thinking people today, how the best of us have given up on us

I feel a deep disturbance at the casual arrogance of believing that those who have given up on us are the best of us.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:06 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


That would be a Yes, then.

Does the definition imply that the world is overpopulated by rich people and underpopulated by poor people?
posted by clawsoon at 2:22 PM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


If you insist that "rich" and "insanely wasteful" must always mean the same thing, then I can't see any other way to interpret it.
posted by flabdablet at 2:49 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


I’ve said it before, but while I’m fully convinced there are too many people, I absolutely do not trust any entity, ethos or system to decide which ones are extra.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:12 PM on December 3, 2021 [7 favorites]


Me either. Nobody who is already alive is "extra", any more than I am.

The only humans I am comfortable with denying a right to exist are my own potential descendants, and even then, "comfortable" is overstating it; the decision not to reproduce has required considerable grieving.

But depite the endlessly repeated denials that Malthus, Ehrlich et al had anything useful to say, it seems to me that a human population consuming resources at 1.6x their sustainable replacement rate absolutely does constitute a population bomb, and ongoing population growth absolutely is the main impediment to rapid remediation of the unbelievable mess we've already made of our home planet.

This issue was not really on my parents' radar when they made me in 1962; world population then was a whisker over three billion. It's been firmly on mine for the last forty years.

US population in 1962 was 192 million. It's 1.7x that, or 330 million, today. Australia has grown about 2.5x over the same period, to 25 million. I struggle to understand how anybody born into an industrial culture can look at growth rates like that and the state of the world today and not give serious consideration to voluntary non-reproduction.

Certainly nobody who has reproduced has any moral basis for complaints about immigration making their country too crowded (and to be perfectly clear, as a non-reproducer myself I have no such complaints).
posted by flabdablet at 4:04 PM on December 3, 2021 [8 favorites]


Genetic extinction is inevitable, but there is a lot about humanity that will live on, even if we all suddenly went poof and vanished today: Indelible, permanent changes to ecological systems. Man-made chemical pollutants that will persist for millenia. Even glass is believed to last millions of years.

You might not have your genes around, but your offspring doesn't necessarily need to be genetic to have ongoing effects. And if you're lucky, some of you might even evolve into or merge with a new lifeform that isn't tied as strongly to the narrow and precarious environment this particular planet provides. I suspect we could never have a good enough imagination for what the future really holds in this direction.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 4:33 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


If I were president I'd give a speech, show the S-curve, and ask America and the world: "Are we smarter than yeast?"

And then the right wing noise machine will go nuts with headlines of "President Thinks You are Mindless Yeast". Many screaming "I am a Child of God!! Not a bunch of cells!"

Not criticizing your idea. I don't think it's terrible and anything's worth trying at this point. But there's just no escape at all from the bad faith arguments given by people who would rather have power & money than survival. If we end up going extinct in the near-ish future, this will be one of the key reasons why.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 5:09 PM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


Are we smarter than yeast?

Individually, sure.
posted by flabdablet at 5:24 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


Collectively we work more like your slime mold, but with an insanely janky and overcomplicated signalling system.
posted by flabdablet at 5:26 PM on December 3, 2021 [4 favorites]


Many screaming "I am a Child of God!! Not a bunch of cells!" ... But there's just no escape at all from the bad faith arguments

Bad-faith arguments, or bad --faith-- arguments?

[ba-dum-tssss]
posted by clawsoon at 5:32 PM on December 3, 2021 [8 favorites]


The invention of agriculture was the start of rapid human habitat creation. The history of our civilization since then has been one of increasing and improving our habitat, generally at the expense of whatever what inhabiting that place before us. Our great numbers and broad spread are testament to the success of those efforts.

Habitat destruction is something that happens to other species.
posted by ryanrs at 5:40 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


The article touches on declining birth rates and I wonder if the modern, non-natalist economy has created high opportunity costs to having children. Rational actors are going to be rational and children are only an expense, rather than being viewed as a product that the state consumes. More individuals are incentivised to avoid having children, which sets up a tragedy of the commons: nations need children produced in sufficient numbers in order to function.

Our prime reproductive age is in our 20s, but individuals are saddled with student loans, entry level wages, and ever increasing housing costs.
posted by DetriusXii at 5:45 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


Yeast of Kneadin’

(I’ll show meself out)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:52 PM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


The article touches on declining birth rates and I wonder if the modern, non-natalist economy has created high opportunity costs to having children.

You might be interested in E.A. Wrigley's work. One of the thing he talks about is how medieval and early modern European populations limited population growth by pushing back age at marriage. IIRC, an average person in England in the 1600s got married at the age of 27 or 28 and didn't start having children until they were married, which put a limit on how many children they were able to have.

And I'm sure methods like that aren't limited to Europe. Just the other day I was watching a video about the strong social pressure in mainland China to not get married and start having children until you own property.

There are plenty of ways in which inequality is tied into these systems - the English aristocrats of the 1600s were getting married and having kids in their teens - but it's not a new thing, or a solely Western thing.
posted by clawsoon at 6:05 PM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]




do we REALLY want to post this in a community where a significant number suffer from anxiety and or depression frequently related to this topic?

Oh man, nothing better for one's mental health than pretending that a world-historic catastrophe that is clearly and obviously happening, is not actually happening.
posted by coffeeand at 11:03 AM on December 4, 2021 [8 favorites]


There are plenty of ways in which inequality is tied into these systems

It can be argued that any inequality worth mentioning is a function of too much offspring in any given class, because class division is best understood as limiting access to resources, not limited abilities. One direct way out of poverty in the modern era is to un-breed one's way out of it rather than depress wages further by having too many kids, as in many parts of the world.
posted by Brian B. at 1:43 PM on December 4, 2021 [2 favorites]


Brian B.: It can be argued that any inequality worth mentioning is a function of too much offspring in any given class, because class division is best understood as limiting access to resources, not limited abilities.

I'm not sure if I entirely follow you. Inequality leads to people on the bottom transferring their resources to those on the top. In the case of the wet nursing that allowed pre-industrial European aristocrats to raise many more children than average Europeans, milk was almost literally taken out of the mouths of poor babies and put into the mouths of rich babies.

We don't do it as directly as that now, but there are still large numbers of poor parents who are financially forced to reduce the amount of time they spend taking care of their own children in order to take care of the children of the rich instead of their own. Sometimes that's done directly, as with nannying, and sometimes it's done indirectly with all the other jobs that make our economy function.
posted by clawsoon at 4:46 PM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]


We don't do it as directly as that now, but there are still large numbers of poor parents who are financially forced to reduce the amount of time they spend taking care of their own children in order to take care of the children of the rich instead of their own.

This is akin to a lump of labor argument, but using the association of similar labor itself to make a straight comparison, lump for lump as it were. The same could be said that someone exploits another if they hire them to fix their plumbing or make their shoes, because they can't be with their kids while doing it, etc. The main point is that working a job doesn't wrong the family by the parents missing their children, but that having children might instead cause their parents to miss work and then wrongs the family by creating insecurity and survival pressures. This is because the kids aren't able to work yet, and hopefully not forced to work sooner than they might otherwise.
posted by Brian B. at 5:29 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


This is akin to a lump of labor argument, but using the association of similar labor itself to make a straight comparison, lump for lump as it were. The same could be said that someone exploits another if they hire them to fix their plumbing or make their shoes, because they can't be with their kids while doing it, etc.

If I'm hiring you to make my shoes at a cost that allows you to live as well as I do, I'm not exploiting you. If I'm using my economic power to hire you to make my shoes at starvation wages, I am.

As inequality has increased in the US over the past 50 years, we've seen the start of a return to the European aristocratic pattern, and it's primarily driven by the decreasing cost of childcare relative to the income of rich parents - in other words, by the increased ability of rich parents to force poor parents to reduce investment in their own children and increase investment in the rich parents' children.

About the "lump of labour": It doesn't have to be one-to-one or zero-sum for us to see that there's a transfer of care from poor children to rich children.
posted by clawsoon at 5:56 PM on December 4, 2021 [2 favorites]


It doesn't have to be one-to-one or zero-sum for us to see that there's a transfer of care from poor children to rich children.

The "transfer" is the only sticking point with me as an economic matter, not as a specific case of injustice, which it is. The nanny in that link has kids, and likely has narrowed choices as a result in order to care for them, in person or remotely. The potential for exploitation was in motion well before she took the least paying job overseas and left them, presumably because jobs were non-existent in her location. I would reiterate that surveying the world shows that high birthrates is related to economic stress generally.
posted by Brian B. at 6:13 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


I mean physically much more physically resilient and ancient species than ours have gone extinct due to environmental change, regardless of what precipitated that change. What our human brains aren't even contemplating here are situations that are simply far, far beyond our control or ability to plan for, such as, oh, I don't know, an asteroid wiping out the planet, or any number of other pretty scary and unpredictable space-related events. We just don't know. But does it matter? It's not like any of us here are going to get the final word on the matter. Whoever here attains immortality can come back to this discussion in 10^83747202 years and be like, ha! Told those suckers SOME humans would survive! I mean who cares? We can't even manage to go a week without Starbucks, forget apocalyptic situations. But that doesn't make the present any less important or meaningful.
posted by erattacorrige at 8:14 PM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]


I don't think we've really come to terms yet with the (very very very) recent discovery that there was a time before humans and that there will be a time after them, is it even possible to imagine these times, to truly conceptualize a world empty of humanity? Or do we always, inevitably see some path forward. There is one thing that is absolutely certain to me, that human beings are the only beings we know of that have within them the capacity to forge an environment of self preservation that could outlast the sun, escape the solar system and keep the light alive in a wholly new universe. Or anyways that's the dream of humanity, our own fairy tale, perhaps we're just a mammal like any other, our dreams just fits in the night, doomed to extinction. Still we haven't incorporated that future, that nothing, into our lives at all, and instead we just go on dreaming
posted by dis_integration at 8:56 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


is there another lifeform we know of that can contemplate its end in any comparable way?

I think this answer is almost certainly 'yes', and it's indicative of a certain cultural or perhaps even biological myopia that we tend to assume the reverse. We don't really understand how consciousness works on a biological level, but there doesn't seem to be any particular reason to assume that it's unique to humans; other species have brains configured in much the same manner as ours, some much larger than ours, we just don't know what they do with all their brainpower. I mean, maybe a large part of elephants' brainmass is dedicated towards spatial memory or something, remembering where all the watering holes are over giant swaths of savannah or whatever, but there's no particular reason to assume that whatever allows for self-referential consciousness isn't in there, too. It just seems like we prefer to believe that it isn't, because otherwise it would raise a lot of awkward ethical questions that we seem to prefer not to deal with. Easier and less problematic to assume we're the only intelligent ones, and everything else on the planet are just clockwork meat.

Other animals may not act on the knowledge of their own mortality, perseverating on it in the same way that h. sapiens tends to do, but perhaps this is because there's no particular advantage, no compelling reason, for them to do so. And given that we're the ones on the verge of collapsing the ecosystem, it seems a bit odd to claim that ours is the superior intellectual configuration. Maybe we're the ones with a really maladaptive response to managing the existential terror of existence.

Claims towards human uniqueness seem to have a somewhat-suspicious "god of the gaps" quality to them. It used to be received wisdom that tool use made humans unique... except that it's not. But rather than reconsider the question of whether we're fundamentally all that different from other species, we tend instead to just move the goalposts around. Okay, maybe it's the richness of human language that makes us unique. Which seems reasonable... until we figure out that other species have their own methods of communication with at least as much information-carrying capacity, at which point I'm sure the goalposts will be moved once again.

Eventually you arrive at "well, there are no elephant footprints on the Moon."

Which is true.

And it's also the really damning indictment of humanity: we may have blown the best chance that multi-cellular life had of escaping Earth (and its eventual demise). While we shouldn't necessarily assume that life on Earth is unique in the Universe (we simply don't have the information to draw that conclusion), it certainly appears we're the only game in town, for values of "town" a few light-years in radius. And if the conditions to support life are as rare as they appear (given that it doesn't seem to have happened on Mars or Venus, two places that are—as stellar satellites go—practically dead-ringers for Earth), interplanetary life is probably several orders of magnitude rare beyond that. And we were really close. I think we could have done it, if we'd put in the effort.

I don't mean Elon Musk's vision of humans living in tents on Mars or the Moon, trying desperately not to starve with the tiny chunks of Earth biosphere they managed to drag along. I mean life much more broadly, in the sense of self-assembling, self-reproducing, anti-localized-entropy machines.

We could have, at the very least, gathered up every extremophile organism from every wacky corner of the biosphere, and yeeted them out at every plausibly-adaptable object in the solar system. Not exactly Heinlein's dreams of libertarians on Luna, but we might have been able to get something from a Yellowstone magma tube or a sub-Antarctic lake onto Europa. Or maybe we would have gotten really lucky, and found something from a deep-sea vent that could have managed Venus in August. Hard to say.

At least we got those tardigrades to the Moon.

It'd be ironic if ol' Elon managed to literally save all life in the Universe, and the poor guy doesn't even realize it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:29 PM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]


Okay, maybe it's the richness of human language that makes us unique. Which seems reasonable... until we figure out that other species have their own methods of communication with at least as much information-carrying capacity

Information carrying isn't the only thing that our faculty for language allows us to do, though. It also allows us to manipulate references to things, including quite abstract things, as if they were things in themselves. I'd argue that this is the fundamental basis for all of mathematics and therefore all of engineering.

In order to stop considering our particular take on language as the single feature we have that distinguishes us from the rest of the organisms we share this planet with, I would need to see some evidence of another species routinely manipulating symbols in order to tackle problems that resist being solved by other means.

Because anybody who has spent any time at all around animals knows that sentience is not, in and of itself, enough to make that distinction.
posted by flabdablet at 10:04 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


From the Wired article above about the tardigrades:
Digital technologies and encoding standards are great for compressing lots of information into a small amount of space, but they are also short-lived—how many people do you know who could play a VHS tape today? If you want to create a library for humans thousands or millions of years in the future, your best bet is to keep it analog.
VHS tape is an analog format, doofi.
posted by flabdablet at 10:07 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't declining fertility be a good thing? I don't get why declining fertility rates are so often talked about as some sort of a disaster. This line of reasoning/thinking really needs to be updated. It's plain to see how a doubling of the Earth's human population over the past 50 years, from 3 billion people to almost 8 billion people, along with mass industrialization, resource extraction, and technological advances that have sped up the rate of the resource extraction, have done irreparable harm to the biosphere. (I understand that within the capitalist hegemonic framework of unlimited growth, anything but growth is essentially bad, but c'mon folks...)
posted by nikoniko at 1:24 AM on December 5, 2021 [3 favorites]


life can move from planet to planet

[Objection] Assumes facts not in evidence.

Objection, calls for a narrative.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:57 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


I'd suggest that it's not our innate abilities that let us know that we might go extinct. It was our development of writing (which allowed us to keep track of the extinctions of other animals over long periods of time), high-quality glass lenses (which allowed us to see the large scale of the universe and the small scale of life), steamships and railways and excavators (which allowed us to travel to widely-separated places and dig them up and construct a coherent story of life out of the scattered fossil evidence), and all the other technologies that allowed us to see evidence that no other animal can see and store a large volume of evidence for longer than any other animal can store it.
posted by clawsoon at 5:51 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


I don't get why declining fertility rates are so often talked about as some sort of a disaster.

I think it might rest on the idea that none of the technologies we've developed can allow a smaller number of working-age adults to support a larger number of children and retired people.
posted by clawsoon at 5:54 AM on December 5, 2021 [2 favorites]


It's fun to imagine how this all ends for humanity. It's fascinating and we cannot know the answer. The sheer number of apocalyptic movies and shows illustrate how badly we want to imagine and know how the story ends. I love hearing new thoughts, particularly if they are rooted solidly in science.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:17 AM on December 5, 2021 [2 favorites]


(I don't want all of humanity to perish.)
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:31 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


@nikoniko: Declining fertility would be a good thing for some time interval, but what's the braking mechanism?
posted by DetriusXii at 6:32 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


Declining fertility would be a good thing for some time interval, but what's the braking mechanism?

Well, we probably don't even need to know before we get down to two or three billion humans, maybe lower. And no-one knows how things will look then. Until then, we have to radically adjust the economy, and as part of that probably live with mass migration. That's life, the consequence of us as a species damaging/ruining huge parts of our natural habitat (which is almost everywhere). Nothing to get hung up about.
It'll be a mess, though.
posted by mumimor at 7:06 AM on December 5, 2021 [2 favorites]


@nikoniko: Declining fertility would be a good thing for some time interval, but what's the braking mechanism?

I wonder if the species which have lasted for 500+ million years have high or low fertility rates. Is anybody an expert on the elephant shark?

(The author mentions that most mammalian species don't last very long. I know that mice and humans both have high percentages of retrotransposons in their genomes, which have been hypothesized as a source of rapid evolutionary change. That seems like one plausible cause for humans to disappear without going extinct.)
posted by clawsoon at 9:34 AM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]


Old white man upset largely white people not reproducing. Thread is full of people calling for a fatal judgement on the human species is bad. So is mplying that anything other than accepting our imminent demise and guilt as punishment for our environmental gluttony as collaboration. There is a nuanced point that "we will just magic a solution" is not useful to changed behaviour in the now... but on the other hand sometimes there is more of a nuanced conversation there about the perception of the role personal responsibility will have on change.

Entropy is inevitable, but didn't NPR have a bit about the guy who lost his whole family over his quest to pursue excellence in environmentalism at the expense of letting his anxieties justify atrocious behaviour? I think, collectively that things like ecofascism is enough of a risk we need to think about the role our nihilism and panic can have in fuelling destructive behaviour too.

I fully accept that, to a point, "voluntary extinction" is something anyone can pursue via not having children, or even medical choices for themselves like not pursuing certain medical care to extend their own lives. As a childfree human myself, reproduction should never be dictated in either direction. However, I think something has gotten lost in our empathy at how little self perception there is when people act so excited for the deaths and suffering of other people's loved ones.

Its not safe feeling or pleasant for someone to say they wish you were dead, be it drowned, starved or burned. It feels like "die to save the more deserving life" rhetoric doesn't realize that what they are saying isn't just suicidal, but genocidal. And speaking as someone on the front end of two climate catastrophes this year, the heat dome and flooding, and the scarcities that are following it... I beg your pardon, as someone on the front side of the actual deaths you are so cheerfully praying for (people already died in significant amounts in my home turf), oh oof.

This is while living where in the summer we just accept it is normal the sky can turn red in the daytime with fire smoke, with all the associated respiratory issues. Maybe the people saying it are confined to the areas already getting the brunt of our problem, but I feel about this the way I feel about the environmentalists who, during the start of the pandemic talked with awe filled glee about an anthropomorphic Mother Nature correcting our foolish over population.

Metafilter is one of the most pessimistic communities I can hang out in. It feels like sometimes there can be a culture of a sort of doom, which straddles an aloof nihilism that tries to show the futility of man in a performative way, combined with needing everyone to be extremely upset about real issues in a way that feels like a more aesthetically
accomplished version of doom scrolling.
posted by Phalene at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2021 [7 favorites]


Wouldn't declining fertility be a good thing? I don't get why declining fertility rates are so often talked about as some sort of a disaster.

Declining fertility rates are almost certainly a really good thing, and it's only within the capitalist hegemonic framework of unlimited growth-uber-alles that it's not. Really.

There will have to be adjustments away from the nuclear family as the supposed backbone of society (a claim I take issue with even today, but that's a different topic), and towards more group-oriented child- and elder-care. Economic models for resource distribution will, obviously, have to change, but they're unsustainable as they are anyway, so that's sort of a wash.

On an individual level, I fundamentally cannot see declining fertility as a "problem", given that it generally comes as a direct result from humans having greater control over our own reproduction than we have traditionally had. It's, IMO, largely an unfortunate flaw in human reproduction that we aren't (as some other species are) typically aware of our own fertility and have, aside from through abstinence or through the rather blunt instruments of nutritional-deficiency-related infertility/amenorrhea, no "out-of-the-box" way of not reliably getting ourselves / each other pregnant when it's not convenient or desirable to do so. This sucks. Maybe it let us outcompete our competitor hominids at some point in deep history or something, but it's not awesome on an individual level, and history has a variety of examples of localized civilizations overshooting the carrying capacity of the environment and crashing, which I suspect was very unpleasant for everyone involved.

Reliable birth control could have been the saving grace of industrialized civilization, if we had either discovered it earlier or adopted it more broadly as soon as it became technologically possible. It is, I will submit, the single greatest engine for social change discovered during the 20th century, maybe longer.

It is simply not feasible for 7+ billion individuals to live anything like a typical American without depleting the Earth's resources and damaging the biosphere. And while I can hear the snarky "well, just don't live like a typical American, then", I certainly have little interest in living like a typical Chinese peasant farmer throughout much of recorded history, and it would appear that most Chinese peasant farmers really don't either, given their druthers, based on what's going on in China currently. But it probably is possible for a smaller number of humans to live in a high-complexity, high-energy (meaning, not every prime mover is based on human or animal muscle power) civilization.

I am an optimist in the sense that I think this is actually the likely outcome in the next few centuries. I don't think industrial civilization is going to collapse completely. I am a pessimist in the sense that I don't see a really nice way of this happening; voluntary birth control, used by individuals to control their own fertility, offered (and maybe still offers, if we're being really optimistic) a pathway to a smaller population without mass death. The other paths are... less nice. When put into Malthusian traps, humans tend to get busy killing other humans. I do not expect human societies to suddenly open their doors to mass migration, given that (absent an open perceived "frontier", such as existed in the Western Hemisphere following the Great Dying of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas through the 20th century) this has never really been how we operate. I fully expect industrial-scale killing and/or engineered famines to do much of the dirty work, plus or minus disease. My guess is that the next century or two may go down as a rather dark time in human history.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:23 PM on December 5, 2021 [4 favorites]


voluntary birth control, used by individuals to control their own fertility, offered (and maybe still offers, if we're being really optimistic) a pathway to a smaller population without mass death.

It's the only such pathway I can see after thinking pretty hard about it for a very long time now. And the more education and economic security becomes available to women all over the world, the more likely it is to happen.

To me, this is a pretty good explanation of the resistance of women's empowerment amongst the assorted death cults that currently dominate most of the world's positions of power.
posted by flabdablet at 3:48 PM on December 5, 2021 [5 favorites]


If a declining fertility rate is due in part to long lasting environmental pollution causing endocrine disruption, then i suppose low fertility could become a big problem.

Reducing total pollution and habitat loss is the environmental necessity. It will occur involuntarily if we continue to fail voluntarily.

How that aggregate reduction is distributed is the political/military project. And the bad news is that regardless of what the metafilter deliberative network mind concludes would be a good programme, the plan currently in play is ethnonationalism fascism and industrialism. Sustainability, equality and consensus are endangered.

The ratio of workers and their productive hours to the potential demands of consumers is often possed as an economic or political problem of decling fertility. Because we have convinced ourselves that increased taxes and decreased wellbeing must only be imposed on outgroups and in the future more formerly elite/comfortable people will find themselves in some outgroup.

To posit human survival is to accept that our challenges are too complex to know. To posit the survival of our current industrial system is madness.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 1:14 AM on December 6, 2021


I don't get why declining fertility rates are so often talked about as some sort of a disaster.

Usually the "disaster" is mentioned in terms of retirement and longevity. It leaves out the modern notion that retired people should have a tax-saved fund with their name on it as an entitlement. It makes no sense to live out our lives as a burden to the next generation in terms of their cash and healthcare, and then expect to be well-remembered or cared for. Then there is the workforce of the economy argument. This implies that there is no workforce to hire, and if so, then maybe a new factory might need to go where the people actually live in the world without jobs. Then there is the cannon fodder argument that we need young bodies in order to storm beaches and swarm the enemy. This is actually the hidden argument that nobody wants to mention because it sounds like most history we want to avoid, and will be abused again. The bottom line is that if having kids is good for your bottom line in theory and practice, then it's good for the nation. In the old days people had farms and fishing boats, or some other business to pass on, and it made perfect sense to have lots of kids. But if having kids causes one to personally miss opportunity and stymie their own potential, then it likely isn't good for anyone. The common perception of a nation blessed by innocent babies is outdated, and cruel, when the parents are incompetent. Finally, 90% of the population cannot raise a child on their own, because education, nutrition and healthcare are expensive. This is especially true as a young family, when it all happens, so taxing the rich is the one good idea in order to supply those, which will later pay for itself in the return on investment. This means that the wealthy will be incentivized to suppress whatever they see as costing them. So let them suppress the birthrate for once, and maybe they end up paying some people not to have kids, otherwise they play it as a growth game in order to get out of paying any taxes. The other silent angle in this discussion is that there are major religions that see population growth as good for their own power and influence, and they historically control the rituals as they relate to families and babies, because nothing is more emotional and that is their business model.
posted by Brian B. at 9:40 AM on December 6, 2021


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