We sometimes seek new perspective on a difficult question by stepping back and attempting to approach it “from the view of the Universe,” meaning a comprehensive and true view of the matter, one that sees through and above all partial views, but which may, to varying degrees, include them. As humans, we never quite get there but such efforts toward objectivity form a large part of what we mean when we speak of intellectual integrity. It postulates a loftier, more disinterested vision, one that is particularly useful for my present purpose.

As a thought experiment, let us suppose that Creator Universe, whose view we would appeal to, decided to size-up what had become of its creative endeavors? Although Earth is but a nanoparticle in the immensity of space, the Universe may have known 4.6 billion years ago, as our solar system took shape, that Earth had unique potential for a planet in its cosmic region. How had that potential turned out?

Life appeared 3.6 b. years before today in a single celled form called prokaryotes and since then has evolved increased diversity, beauty, and fascination. It even endured setbacks that wiped out most of life but bounced back and moved on, eventually in better shape than before. 3,599,700,000 years after life’s beginning (give or take a few millennia) the species Homo sapiens showed up, Homo having appeared a bit over two million years earlier. The Universe may have suspected early-on that a species with such a brain, consciousness, and range of capacities represented an evolutionary gamble. But perhaps it did not fully appreciate the extent of that risk. It does now.

It isn’t just that scattered over the Earth are groups of various ideological, religious, and economic convictions slaughtering other groups with their own convictions, and that in the doing of this children and other noncombatants die as remorselessly as those wielding weapons. Nor that this sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years with Homo “sapiens” never having learned its futility and evident impetus toward repetition. Nor that, along with our intra-species depredations, we came to operate toward the natural world in the same manner, taking and taking and taking with hardly a thought toward what we left behind and its condition. Materialist man did not care, as long as he got what he wanted.

The Universe had known we were a species prone to self-centeredness (as a species relative to other species and as individuals and groups relative to other individuals and groups), to anxieties over real and imagined prospects of loss or threat, and a low threshold for aggression when either desire or fear were evoked. But humans might have evolved and learned to control and redirect these oft fatal inadequacies, even to supersede them through better judgment and measures of selflessness. But not so, alas.

Which raises the question: Does humanity deserve to survive? To put it more clearly, if we manage our extinction, or its near fulfillment, and the collapse of civilization as we’ve known it through the predictable consequences of our own choices and actions, is that any great loss to the being of the world? Would a tragedy or an injustice have occurred? Losses there would be, yes: instances of selfless love, compassion, art and other creative expression, community engagement and many meaningful endeavors, the joy of being alive for those who noticed it. But are these enough to justify our habituated forms of life negation, our willingness to risk it all for a foolish pride and trivial yearnings? I have raised this question in other essays related to the irrational willingness of our species to gamble with the good Earth’s future, including the future of ourselves and other life, by way of nuclear annihilation and catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. Here I will look at the considerations involved in responding to that question. But I must reiterate the seriousness of our situation first: except for most of the members of a single American political party, almost everyone else on Earth is aware of the threats portended by human-caused climate change and the massive disruptions that will come from that, and even members of that benighted American party acknowledge that a large-scale nuclear exchange between any two countries would make for a very bad day and future. Yet we live as if oblivious, or rather, allow governments to act as if they were. Which is remarkable; one imagines the last looks we would give one another as Armageddon descended, looks of spurious surprise and disbelief.

The question once again: Would human extinction be a great tragedy and loss to existence? Does humanity deserve to survive the Earth-altering consequences of its behavior?

The affirmative:

1. Evolution led in humans to a unique form of consciousness and reasoning abilities. These are distinctive and perhaps irreplaceable.
2. None but humans have the capacity for artistic, scientific, and intellectual creation. Aided by our technological ingenuity, we have investigated the quantum and the cosmos and developed a vast array of methods and devices that support our health and well-being and deepen our understanding of the Universe.
3. Every problem we created we have the potential to remedy. Even the vastly life-altering, life-ending prospects of nuclear weaponry and climate change will yield to human cleverness.
4. With our intelligence and associated abilities, peace, justice, and better ways of life may in time emerge.
5. Without humans, all of the unique and special experiences and possibilities that only we have would never be realized again.
6. God loves us.

The negative (beginning with response to the affirmations):

1. Yes, the level of human consciousness and reasoning is unique and, one might have hoped, conducive to good lives in good societies. But it has not had that effect. Those capacities are double-edged swords, and dramatically so or the question we are addressing would not have arisen. Furthermore, reason in the 21st century appears degraded, turned chiefly to materialist and ego-driven gratifications, which themselves feed the risk at the center of this discussion.
2. Indeed, humans have much to be proud of. We have learned a lot about physical reality and have generated music, literature, and arts that are admirable and occasionally ethereal. But the technological virtuosity that produced computers also developed “the bomb” along with an ever-growing array of new versions and new ways to kill each other more effectively. Even nonviolent civilian electronic devices pass the point of genuine usefulness and become trivializing obsessions at the service of moneyed interests and citizen complacence. Technology that could open one’s world instead shrinks and distorts it.
3. Regarding the matter of nuclear weapons targeted on people around the world, there is no evidence we will find a remedy and little indication that anyone is really trying. And for climate, it may already be too late. Those with money and power and no obvious interest in much else choose to deceive and obfuscate while the citizenry that could challenge and hold them accountable chooses complicity and the easy way of not thinking critically.
4. There is, again, no evidence that humanity will ever use its intelligence in a sustained and perceptive manner to make and maintain a good world. To accomplish this we would, among much else, need to face straight on human nature, identify its fatal weaknesses (such as a generalized inability to handle wealth and power responsibly), establish ironclad controls, remain alert and informed, forbid backsliding…and do all this forever since the vulnerabilities and weaknesses are unlikely ever to go away and protection of a better world is a never-ending struggle.
5. It is true that human extinction means the end of those experiences that only humans can have, it is a sad and unfortunate consequence. Of course, none but humans put the biome at risk either, and those cherished experiences have not penetrated denial of the risks and costs of other unique human capacities, those rooted in desire, anxiety, and ignorance of humans’ true Good.
6. Assuming that God and Universe are closely associated, even identified one with the other, its love of humans must be sorely tested by now and balanced against love for Earth and its other life forms, none of which threaten the whole of existence. The common assumption that Universe/God created everything merely to serve as resource for humanity is yet another belief without foundation, not to mention fatuous.

A reminder: The query about humanity’s deserving to survive arises from recognition that for seventy years it has held a fatal sword over Earth life, one that hangs from a startlingly tenuous thread, considering the possible losses. To this threat humanity has added a present probability of climate change and associated environmental disruptions that on the present course will reduce the diversity of life by well over half and our own numbers by perhaps hundreds of millions or more. It does this knowingly and with remedies at hand but largely disregarded owing to the inertia of what is and has been, and short-sighted greed on the part of those who profit from that inertia. The risks that have been willingly incurred are momentous and implacable. An Earth was granted to us of astounding beauty and richness, we have treated it with disdain, and we may lose it all, deservedly.

The query is a moral one—does one species that puts itself and all other species at great peril have a moral right to survival? How can we not be disturbed, even changed, by the knowledge that humanity constitutes a moral pariah amongst another Earth life? Answer: Those who can ignore or deny the jeopardy in which some have placed human and other life can ignore or deny anything, particularly something as ineffective as moral condemnation. Even so, the question itches for response.

1. Human numbers are at 7.25 b. now and increase by the minute despite the propensity toward intra-species killing. Above all, we are fertile. (At 0 A.D. population was about 200 m. and the first billion was reached only in 1810.) Quality of lives may suffer but quantity marches vigorously onward. No such luck for most of the rest of life, by either measure. Consider these deleterious human effects on the biosphere (I’m not aware that there are any positive effects), representative but by no means comprehensive:

1. Depletion of clean freshwater resources
2. Climate change (destabilized and dramatically endangering)
3. Human population explosion
4. Soil erosion and decreased arable land availability
5. Depletion of “resources,” i.e., natural richness
6. Biodiversity loss
7. Degradation of oceans and forests
8. Toxification of water, air, and land

So, we cannot but recognize that the instantaneity of nuclear apocalypse or, failing that, the disruptions and degradations of eventual climate induced calamities, are only more dramatic versions of daily human practice under presently accepted economic assumptions and aspirations along with associated militarism. We live for chimerical purposes, valueless, and consider life itself irrelevant except sentimentally and instrumentally.

Thousands of years ago humans appear to have marveled at life and to have sought understanding of its ways and meanings out of wonder more than utility. To this many added a wish to live appropriately in relation to existence as they came to understand and experience it. Life was good but serious (deep, nontrivial), and death perplexing. One view of how this organic sense of human engagement with life declined has it that the more humans presumed to control the conditions of their existence and to become preoccupied with its material aspects, the less they experienced the beatitude of pure, deeply mysterious being and its inherent joys and satisfactions. The less there became of conscious mystery and wonder as humans turned toward immediate gratifications, the less there was of respect and reverence.

How should a person live if he would achieve a good and noble life? —the ancient and most vital philosophical question of all, and it has no contemporary purchase. If humans survive, what would they survive for?

The answer to our query is clear. If humanity went extinct all the rest of life would figuratively applaud and breathe sighs of relief. Even those of us who love life and grieve human failure would, as our last, impotent gesture, feel compelled, resignedly, to join the applause and wish Earth a better future without us.


To ask, in seriousness, whether humans deserve to survive, which is to say, if we go extinct, as 99% of species that ever existed have, will it matter, would the Universe grieve? The asking does not arise out of misanthropy or nihilism. Present circumstance renders it utterly appropriate, a very natural question, even if only in the form of a moral thought experiment. Ethical theorizing loves quandaries and a popular one these days deals with the rightness of taking a single innocent person’s life if it would save those of several other people (and there was no option other than doing nothing). Humanity is not innocent, even if relatively few are blatantly guilty and the rest merely complicit, but the theoretical dilemma is similar existentially.

The question’s appropriateness derives from this: Humans could go virtually extinct under present conditions either in a day or a century, and crucially, from a moral perspective, not from an uncontrollable event (asteroid collision, mega-volcanic cataclysm) but from our own conscious, deliberate actions. And rather than suicide of only one species, it would more closely resemble ecocide, the killing on a vast scale of entire ecosystems and families and orders and classes of life. In short, a sixth great extinction, differing from the first five in its conscious perpetration.

If you were the Universe, what would you think best from the higher perspective? You might wish for a more selective, targeted way to brush humans off the Earth than generalized destruction by nuclear conflict or climate change. Human infertility, perhaps. But this is idle. In all probability when we go we will take multitudes with us and it will be at our hand and none other. When we go we cannot blame fate and we cannot honestly imagine it tragic, and we can recognize that the Earth will be a better, more flourishing place with nothing left to sorrow over. We would not have deserved anything better.

What does it mean to “deserve” something? We know that humans are infused and shaped by genes and experiences, conditioning, and circumstance, so that free will and autonomy are mostly fantasy. We may even ask if what has been called the “vicious circle principle” has us in an inexorable grip. But we are not automatons; a measure of freedom exists with which to exercise reason, moral character, and objectivity. Desert, then, lies in how we use this freedom, in what we demand of ourselves and what moral imperatives we honor. Modern humanity’s choices are evident, as are the results. Alternative choices, on the other hand, choices that made better use of that freedom and based on humility, moderation, respect, and gratitude would have led to a vastly different present—one in which the question of humanity’s desert would never arise since the answer would be implicit in its more virtuous ways of life.

The common response to this discussion will be consistent with the dysfunctionality under discussion—it will say that humanity has no need or obligation to justify itself. It is, after all, atop the great chain of being and dominion over Earth its birthright. Mistakes will be made, have been made, it will say, but human exceptionalness is such that they will be overcome and progress lead unceasingly toward a better world tomorrow. But who can believe it?

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