The One about the End of the World

My wife has encouraged me to add more humor to my blog posts. I’m more than willing to oblige her. Next week. This week, it’s all doom and gloom. Seriously, though, this week the topic is awful. I’m not joking here. If you are feeling good about the world and don’t care to destroy the remainder of your happy, sunny day, then do read on, do. You have been warned.

I suppose it’s about time I discussed something that’s been bothering me for a while now. It all started when I read this article on artificial intelligence. (If you’ve not heard of waitbutwhy, you have now, and you have absolutely no excuse not to read every piece of fantastic, trivial, über important, hallowed writing this blog writer summons with his keyboard.)

Now that I think of it, it started before that AI article. It actually started with this. The Dark Mountain Manifesto, “Uncivilization.”

Dang it, no. No. To be completely fair, it actually started with this.

Or maybe with all of them, simultaneously.

The fact of the matter is, my worldview has undergone some radical ass transformations in the past year. And not just because I became a father, though, that’s obviously a gigantic part of the transformation. The change I’ve undergone is multifaceted, and a big piece of the puzzle lies in what I’ve been intellectually consuming over the past year.

My recent reading/viewing/thinking/learning has focused a lot on cosmology. The structure of the universe, our place within it. (Our lonely, lonely place within it.) As I gained a better grasp of the universe (as we currently understand it) I began doing what everyone who studies the universe does: shitting my pants, wheedling away at my own self-importance, insignificant-izing my petty existence as some mere speck, some mote bereft of meaning on a far-flung oceanic rock. I began to move beyond this mere vision of stranded human civilization, and I acknowledged that we probably knew a few things about a few things. Not much, but not absolutely nothing either. That’s when I realized we were probably totally screwed – because we knew a little bit about all the crazy chemicals we were pumping into the air-water-soil-bones of the planet/ourselves. We knew a little bit about the cost of nuclear weaponry and internal combustion engines and rocketry and conflict diamonds and industrial agriculture. But we didn’t seem to know enough to stop. (And we still don’t.)

Around this time, The Dark Mountain Manifesto crossed paths with me, and then shortly thereafter (while listening to The Flaming Lips’ The Terror) I stumbled upon the AI article. My son happened to be born during this fracas. I welcomed him into the world with open, loving, excited arms. But I could not have been more plagued by doubts, could not have had more inner turmoil surrounding my own selfish desire to bring a fragile new life into a world so clearly (as I see it) on a path to its own immolation.

So, what is it, exactly, that’s bothering me? The pesky thing is multifaceted. It has something to do with all of the following:

-human overpopulation, ecocide, 6th mass extinction, imminent rise of artificial superintelligence, apathetic and/or bellicose approach toward everything and anything living that is not human

I could make a list a mile long, but I’m trying to complain a little less these days.

In short, I feel like we are on the edge of a precipice, of total global collapse. The Dark Mountain Manifesto, entitled “Uncivilization” says it well:

“And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm.”

And still the predominant myths of our culture tell us that everything is going to be alright, tomorrow will be better and brighter, technology and convenience will solve these myriad crises, the next round of political puppetry will change the course of blah blah blah blah blah.

I’m kind of fed up with all of it. I want to bury my head in the sand, ostrich-like. Take in the view of the world beneath the soil: dark, teeming with minutiae. Forget about the reek and roil above and around me. In short, I often want to abandon humanity, abandon society, abandon empathy. I’m a bit sick of trying so hard to give a shit about any of it. 7+ billion people. And counting. And the vast majority of those people haven’t the foggiest, don’t give the damnedest, or are actively trying their hardest to fuck it all up. Sure, there are fringe movements: there have always been fringe movements. But their offerings are consolatory, palliative – nothing substantial, nothing world-changing, nothing that will utterly reverse the endless crashing tide of doomed humanity.

Do you want me to get really real for a minute? Here it is. Here is what I honestly believe in my bones: I think I will witness with my own eyes something akin to the apocalypse. I don’t know what will usher it in, whether superintelligent robots or the collapse of the global economy or WWIII or rising ocean levels or depletion of the ozone layer or a rise in global temperatures in excess of 3 degrees celsius or the 6th great mass extinction or worldwide pandemic or population bubble burst or any other awful thing. And I may be an old, old man when it happens, but I think it’s going to happen. I think that something really really REALLY bad and/or irreversible is going to go down, and it’s most likely going to be our own damn fault. And if it happens when I’m 90, I’ll be too old to care. But my son will be 60, and he just might care. And his hypothetical 30 year old son will definitely care, as this will be around the time his own wife is giving birth to his first son – my great grandson. Right about the time she goes into labor, the world is going to collapse. You think I’m joking. I’m not. I’m convinced of this. Do I live in fear? Absolutely not. There’s little I can do to reverse innate human heinousness and the avarice-backed collective end that will be the full stop at the end of our human sentence- if it’s not me, then it’s theoretically any one of 7+ billion human beings who will “pull the trigger” as it were. And by the way, 7+ billion human beings is way too many. I think that when God said “Be fruitful and multiply” and “Fill the earth and subdue it”, he didn’t have this kind of thing in mind:

eco-deforestation-tree-removal1 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-15 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-12 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-14 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-7

And yet… I still think there is hope. No, not hope to reverse the downward spiral. Ha! Don’t be so optimistic. I think there is a kind of hope in our daily existence that we can really, truly find joy and meaning and fulfillment and peace and security in. And to be perfectly honest, I am reluctant to even finish the post on a high note. I think we need to discuss the really hard stuff more than we do. We need to sit around with loved ones and talk about our darkest fears and secrets. But too often we do not. My fear in ending this post on the proverbial high note is that the ruthless melancholy of it will be mitigated by such a step. That the underlying darkness will be assuaged by a pinprick of Disney-style, “but it’s all going to be fine in the end!” I don’t really think it will all be fine in the end. But, for those of you who need a little bit of denouement that doesn’t involve extinction and nothingness, I’ve got something for you. And it is summed up well by one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his best novels, The Sirens of Titan:

“It took us a long time to realize that the purpose of human life… is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

So, there you have it. We’re doomed. But you know what? We’ve always been doomed. No one is immortal. So hug the ones you love, open another beer, and enjoy the ride.

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2 thoughts on “The One about the End of the World

  1. Well expressed Jim. There are so many nights I’m rattled by similar concerns. There are times when everything in me cries out for an alternative reality, for some radical shift, or major change in the way I engage with the world. I’ll stay up late reading articles or thinking about topics that lead me into a state of despair and despondency. In those moments I feel like I want to pack up the family, sell everything and move to…well I don’t really know where, but there is a desire to sort of “opt out” of the system—whatever that means.

    But then after I fall asleep I wake in the morning up to my daughter standing beside the bed asking me to make pancakes and bouncing on the bed bed. Suddenly another reality comes rushing to the forefront—the reality that the best thing I can do is to be right there. The most loving thing I can do for the world in that moment is give my utmost attention to my daughter, be excited with her, invite her to make breakfast with me, be kind, and to be present. What was all that doom and gloom that was keeping me awake last night? Oh don’t worry, it will be back again very soon… but right now I’m going to make a darn good breakfast and enjoy the morning with my family.

    We just finished remodeling our bathroom for both aesthetic and functional reasons. Part of me is entirely proud that Kristen and I gutted and rebuilt it all by ourselves. Another part of me, particularly last night after reading about Bangladeshi refugees crammed together on a fishing boat, thought, “How completely selfish of me to spend money fixing up the space where I go to the bathroom.” How do I make sense of these extremes?

    Other times things like retirement will cross my mind and I’ll either think, “Who cares about retirement? By the time I’m 90 the financial markets will have crashed, there won’t be any food left, the air and water will be polluted, and the only form of reliable retirement will be whatever utilitarians skills I have to offer.” Or I’ll simply think, “Hmm, I should probably bump up my 401k contribution by a percent this year.” Invariably, there will be other decisions and thoughts throughout the week that are bracketed by these sort of extreme views of the world.

    At the end of the day, I resolve myself to try to be kind, to act upon the areas in which I feel a sense of conviction or particular passion toward, and to not live in fear or exude undue worry over the others. I know a lot of people who live in fear and I know a lot of people who have no fear at all. I’m not sure where I find myself in that continuum, but I hope that I am fearful enough to live with intention, respect, and compassion. I hope that I am fearless enough identify my own vocation and areas of gifting so I can live fruitfully out of them—trusting that if we all do the same the world will somehow be a better place. As cliche as that sounds.

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    1. Lance, your comment here is utterly beautiful, profoundly honest, startlingly accurate. Thank you. You summed up an average day and week for me, and how polarized my thoughts are throughout, how taut the cable is that pulls me to opposite extremes. I really appreciate your response on this. What a blessing your thoughts!

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