The Human Race at a Crossroads

Guy McPherson, professor of conservation biology at the University of Arizona,  pulls no punches in his May 21 essay, “Humanity at a crossroads.” In fact, he begins with his punchline itself:

The evidence is gaining increasing clarity: We’ve reached a crossroads unlike any other in human history. One path leads to despair for Homo industrialis. The other leads to extinction, for Homo sapiens and the millions of species we are taking with us into the abyss. I’ll take door number one.

Then he goes on to elaborate this view with references to peak oil, climate change, human overpopulation of the planet, and more.

Long-time Teeming Brain readers may recall that I’ve mentioned McPherson previously:

Now he continues to demand a hearing with his passionate and, as it turns out, literate and philosophical (in addition to scientific) diagnosis of our apocalyptic situation here at the dawn of the end of the industrial age.

In this latest essay, which was first posted to his blog at the University of Arizona website and then reprinted elsewhere (including Energy Bulletin and Carolyn Baker‘s website), he augments his thoughts about peak oil etc. with an examination of the meaning of the word “humanity” as both a character quality and a noun that refers to the human race, and also as a word that begs the question of what we mean by “human.” In this endeavor he directly invokes Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that humans are inherently and tragically flawed, and makes reference to Descartes, Plato, Lao Tzu, and John Stuart Mill. He also references C.P. Snow’s idea of the “two cultures” of the natural sciences and the humanities.

And he indicts the modern Western education system:

Shouldn’t we be trying to integrate knowledge, instead of compartmentalizing it? In an effort to serve the culture of death that is industrial society, we have taken the worst possible approach: We developed our entire educational system around the twin pillars of compartmentalization and ignorance. Throw in a huge, ongoing, forceful dose of opposition to integration and synthesis, and we’re left with a tsunami of incompetence. We probably stood no chance of overcoming the all-too-human incompetence described by Nietzsche, but we purposely designed an educational system to reinforce the incompetence on a massive scale. Is it any wonder we’re a nation of overfed clowns?

I recount all of this simply to note that I was amazed at the number of times he directly pinged specific tropes and themes that have been central to my own concerns here at this blog from the moment of its launch in 2006.

Last year I pointed to a YouTube video that showed McPherson being interviewed on a nightly public affairs program on Arizona PBS station KAET, where he talked about the eventual, complete, and inevitable breakdown of America and the rest of the world within our own lifetimes — industrially, politically, economically, and socially. If you didn’t watch it then, I urge you to watch it now. McPherson is impressive — it’s obvious in the video that he suitably impressed his interviewer — and his words command attention.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 24, 2009, in Environment & Ecology, Religion & Philosophy, Society & Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the link, Matt. I like your blog immensely as well, and will link to it from mine. Interesting, independent and creative stuff.
    All the best

  2. I stumbled across your blog, trying to find info on Douglas Harding and ‘The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth’- which I assume still awaits perusal on your shelf.

    Guy gives us a little less time than lets say John Greer, among others, see… anyway Guy doesnt give us very long at all.

    And the interviewer is right. He seems very composed… but gee whiz at this point what should he do… if he ran screaming from the room the interview would have been pretty short.

    What do we do..? Guy doesnt have any really good suggestions. At this point it seems we need to prepare for the worst… how do we do that? Do we need to adopt a survivalist’s mentality, stocking rations, and guns, scouting places to live that can be easily defended, preserve what is most important…

    We are at a turning point. We have been there for a little while now… most of us dont see the writing on the wall yet. I hate to think before my children grow up we will be caught in the midst of the consequences of our stewardship gone wrong… awry… how can I protect them..? I cant… the only thing I can do is make sure they have the mind-set and independence to weather the storm.

    • Thanks for the comment, James. I clicked through to your Tormance blog and found that I’ll have to set aside some time to read it, since it’s patently the type of thing I crave.

      Cool that you would compare and contrast McPherson and Greer, since I’ve been reading the latter for five years now and McPherson’s occasional writings for a couple of years. And I, like you, would much prefer Greer’s “long descent” over McPherson’s rapid catastrophic crash any day. The fast-crash scenario is only attractive in purely fictional form, when you’re reading a novel or watching a movie. In those cases I love it, since it’s as entertaining and philosophically provocative a fictional spectacle as one can imagine. But I’m all too aware of the tendency of the doomer crowd to get caught up in a positively gleeful expectation of its really happening, as a real-world event. And in that case, their gleefulness is wretched and condemnable, because we’d be talking about the hideous deaths of the majority of the human race.

      Of course, as we both know, the reality of what we’re facing, long descent or fast crash, doesn’t hinge on which one we’d like. I just find it harder and harder to think that McPherson and the other fast crashers are right. And that’s not because he does not, as you point out, have any good suggestions, because if his projected scenario really is in the cards, then there truly is no good course of action, and as you indicate, the emergency survivalist lifestyle — with all of its hardships and privations and stresses — is the way to go. There really may be, and have been throughout history, dire situations in which, well, everything’s irremediably shitty, and there’s no way out.

      But I’m just finding the dramatic, fast-doom scenario less and less likely because — among other reasons — more and more people really are waking up to a real, living sense of the emergency we’re facing (or, more accurately, the one we’re already in). I credit the dire doomer pronouncements with some of that, as enhanced by such things as the past few months of our collective Gulf-based nightmare. What’s the critical mass of waked-up people that’s required to effect a real, revolutionary change? Even if we already are so far past the turning point of, say, climate change that nothing we do can stave off really apocalyptic effects that are inevitably locked in to occur, I still think — and this quasi-optimism feels strange to me — that we may find a way to cope that doesn’t mean we’re headed off the cliff into a new stone age and so on. I may be going back on things I’ve said in the past by saying this now, but I have this unaccountable sense, more and more lately, that what we’re facing isn’t so much a titanic destruction (although that may play a part) but a vast transition, on the other side of which we may — may — come out pretty good.

      I know McPherson and many others can throw tons of viable and convincing evidence to the contrary right at such assertions. I’m just thinking more and more that we’re not facing an either-or situation, as in either the continuance of human technological civilization in pretty much its current direction or the proverbial “lights out” scenario, but a kind of transformative change that may emerge as an authentic discontinuity but won’t necessarily be a Kunstlerian “World Made by Hand” scenario. And the central point around which it will all constellate, and that will keep it from being a wholesale biblical Armageddon, will be the combination of heightened consciousness and new attitudes that’s being sown right now.

      Unsupportable claptrap, maybe, but it’s where I’m tending, basically involuntarily. And I realize I may just be spouting rehashed Greerisms. Again, thanks for posting. This is a topic well worth discussing, as I know you know.

  3. Recently my wife and I took our son Arden to see ‘Toy Story 3’. There is a scene where all the toys, having been taken to a junkyard, face final obliteration in a fire… a version of hell. How do they escape? Really there seems to be no way out… they are all riding a wave into the furnace and they are just seconds away from their ‘fate’.

    Our next door neighbors drop by, uh in other contexts ‘aliens’, to save the day. ‘Toy Story 3’ was rather disconcerting in its reflection of contemporary concerns, set askew only by the context of the film, and the film itself, in its own provocative way, seemed to be groping for answers. I actually found it interesting, without really liking it, I wouldnt buy it to watch again, still it made me think about the ‘limits’ we seem to be up against now.

    Another film, ‘Knowing’, again honed it seems to me to speak to what is going on today, and almost chilling in its evocation of possibility to me, again endorses aliens, and their technology, as a way out. But it also leans on the idea you suggest, transformation, not being simply snuffed out, like a candle so to speak, but on the edge of a sort of cliff, a cliff that invites one to fly. It reminded me very much of ‘Childhood’s End’.

    Finally after that long preamble its time for me to add my two cents. I am inclined to think all of our predictions are wrong. We always think we know best for ourselves when it is really He that knows what is in our best interest. And as a species we are terribly short-sighted anyway.

    I think we have the best seats in the house. I think like you we are in, probably already in the midst of, a transformation that may change the very idea of transformation. And I think we may even miss it, if we blink.

    We are in a place none of us has ever been, the only thing I can think to compare it to, beyond Genesis, is the discovery of a new world, and stepping onto the Moon was symbolic of what is to come.

    All of us will not make it there. And only the pioneers among us will survive. I think it will be accompanied by spectacle. Just like a movie. But I think also it will wreak havoc and exact a terrible cost. And I am afraid if I dont see all of it my children will… and I dont know how to begin to prepare them for what is coming. What I do feel certain about is our reliance on technology is not the answer. We are going to have to move beyond our understanding of technology and reach the deepest part of ourselves to meet what is just around the corner.

    • I haven’t seen Toy Story 3, but I’ve heard somebody else (at the LATOC forums) saying much the same thing you say. Sounds like I need to make a point of watching this one. First I’ll have to fill myself in on Toy Story 2, though.

      You convey your sense of uncertainty and anguish very well. Reading your words, I can’t help but think of my favorite video segment from Eckhart Tolle, who’s my favorite contemporary spiritual teacher. He talks directly about the various collapses we’re currently seeing, especially the economic one, and points out that these aren’t ultimately events to fear and dread, despite what the mass media may tell us, because ultimately they’re “being done” by Being itself, which is taking action so that the planet itself can survive. Not a new thought, obviously, but Tolle says it quite movingly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.