On Dec. 17, 2018, The New York Times published a article in their opinion column entitled, Would Human Extinction Be A Tragedy?: Our Species Possesses Inherent Worth But We Are Devastating The Earth & Causing Unimaginable Animal Suffering. The article (which sounds like a sociology piece off Academia.edu) was written by a one Todd May, who has precisely the kind of background one would expect from the title of his piece (French, existential, poststructural, anarchist—one knows the type; all scarfs, swank cafes, continental apoplexy and fake math).
In traversing the acrid crags of his article, a greater understanding can be gained of the burgeoning movement of earth worshippers so common to environmentalist and poststructuralist thought.
To the article itself (which is set with a forlorn picture of a abandoned lot along the highways of Haleyville, Alabama), May begins, “There are stirrings of discussion these days in philosophical circles about the prospect of human extinction. This should not be surprising, given the increasingly threatening predations of climate change. In reflecting on this question, I want to suggest an answer to a single question, one that hardly covers the whole philosophical territory but is an important aspect of it. Would human extinction be a tragedy?”
The term climate change — obligatory in this type of piece — is dreadfully nebulous; of course, everyone knows what is really meant by the term (especially when paired with the propagandistic picture of the ruined highway-side lot) — catastrophic and impending human-driven climate change — but taken literally it amounts to a nothing. One should be more specific.
Climate change itself is too massive an issue to treat properly here, but it may be remarked that there is a strange diffidence to the effects of the sun upon our climate and what often seems like a desire for man to be found, somehow, at fault for every storm, every drought and every bleached reef as if a certain contingent are looking and hoping for some perceived misstep among the rank-and-file of their fellows.
To May’s question; one should reply, “A tragedy to what?” The question, as May poses it, makes no sense. Tragedies are not things-unto-themselves. There is no substrate called tragedy, no essential fabric of existence separate from the sensorial and conceptual experiencer which fashions itself as tragedy. Tragedy is a experiential development, a response and designation of a memory of that response. A human response. Elephants may fashion graves for their dead and dogs may howl when their masters are absent, so perhaps, such creatures have a similar sense of the tragic, emerging in divergent ways from our own conceptions and response to bereavement. Yet, it would not be tragedy-per-se as the linguistic designator and the referent outside the observer are inseparable; that is to say, tragedy is unique to humans.
Dogs and elephants have little knowledge of human language; some people say they “understand us” and they do, but they don’t understand us as we understand ourselves, they do not interpret our language as we do, our experience of meaning is hostage to ourselves and finds no purchase in the world beyond our own minds.
Abandoned highway lot cover image from May’s Would Human Extinction Be A Tragedy? — Very True Detective.
The dog comes a running because it has familiarized itself with, or been familiarized to, a particular set of sounds, movements and other sensory associations. “I’m home” may, to the dog, translate as something more akin to “Will be fed soon,” but of course, even attempting to craft a translation is misbegotten given that dogs do not think in English. Something like tragedy certainly manifests itself in the animal-world beyond humankind, but it is not enough to be like to be.
May continues, clarifying his position, ” I’m not asking whether the experience of humans coming to an end would be a bad thing… I am also not asking whether human beings as a species deserve to die out. That is an important question, but would involve different considerations. Those questions, and others like them, need to be addressed if we are to come to a full moral assessment of the prospect of our demise. Yet what I am asking here is simply whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings. And the answer I am going to give might seem puzzling at first. I want to suggest, at least tentatively, both that it would be a tragedy and that it might just be a good thing.”
Yes, that is puzzling. That is top-notch puzzling.
May then goes on to expound upon various theatrical characters such as Sophocles’s Oedipus and Shakespeare’s Lear as examples of human tragedy, which he defines as “a wrong”… “whose elimination would likely require the elimination of the species-,” This is not the crux of his argument so I shall not belabor a response; it is nothing short of psychotic.
He continues, “Human beings are destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth and causing unimaginable suffering to many of the animals that inhabit it. This is happening through at least three means. First, human contribution to climate change is devastating ecosystems, as the recent article on Yellowstone Park in The Times exemplifies. Second, increasing human population is encroaching on ecosystems that would otherwise be intact. Third, factory farming fosters the creation of millions upon millions of animals for whom it offers nothing but suffering and misery before slaughtering them in often barbaric ways. There is no reason to think that those practices are going to diminish any time soon. Quite the opposite.”
Firstly, as pertains to factory farming, certainly there are forms of it wherein judicious care is not taken to mitigate the suffering of the animals and that should be remedied, further, for our purposes, factory farming can prove disastrous given that it allows diseases to spread more easily between the animals, due their close proximity to one another and the potential for profit and thus efficiency to intervene on responsibility which can impact things like the cleanliness of the facilities or checking on the health of the animals. This, however, does not hold true of all forms of factory farming, but nevertheless, we should take into consideration, to the best of our abilities, the cognitive ambit of the organism upon which we so intensely rely for our sustenance.
Secondly, “destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth” is extremely vague. What parts is he talking about? Habitats for what or whom? Does he mean nuclear wasteland, scorched earth, or merely environmental transformation (such as forest clearing for habitation)? Shiva is a twin-faced god. All creation mandates destruction. Human-centered environmental transformation is no exception and will always require the displacement (regardless of duration) of other organisms and the modulation of the land itself, this is no different than the Mountain Pine Beetle destroying trees in the process of building their colonies, save in terms of scale. The better at environmental modulation we (humans) can be and the more we learn (and remember) about the earth and its ecosystems, the better we can modulate with the least amount of collateral damage to other species (should this be found to be desirable, and it will assuredly not always be desirable). I am perfectly willing to devastate as many ecosystems as necessary to acquire the space and resources for the polity of which I am a part. Here we witness from May a inversion of human-centered concern for concern of land-itself, devoid of an articulation of impact (with the sole exception of factory farming), that the only way to be truly moral, is to displace concern from ones fellows and to begin offshoring empathy and sympathy to moles, voles, chickens and bacteria. Speaking of bacteria — they’re living beings, with their own intricate little ecosystems upon and in our bodies, will May who looks quite shinny and well-scrubbed in his public photos, give up washing so as not to unduly disturb the microverse or shall he continue initiating a holocaust with every scrub?
How shall he answer for his cleanliness? Is it not microbial genocide?
He touches lightly upon this issue briskly before falling, once more, into maudlin whinging, “To be sure, nature itself is hardly a Valhalla of peace and harmony. Animals kill other animals regularly, often in ways that we (although not they) would consider cruel. But there is no other creature in nature whose predatory behavior is remotely as deep or as widespread as the behavior we display toward what the philosopher Christine Korsgaard aptly calls ‘our fellow creatures’-”
Why he should choose Valhalla of all places as a ideal of peace and harmony is beyond me; that being said, he is, of course, correct that animals, both rational and non-rational, often behave in exceptionally savage ways. For example, chimpanzees hunt red colobus monkeys, both young and old. When a chimp catches a colobus, they kill and eat it, often brain-first, rending open the skull and suckling at the protein-filled gray matter, with special attention later given to the liver and other internal organs, less well-shelled and thus, more easily removed and consumed.
The South American botfly, Dermatobia hominis, deposits its eggs, either directly or through the utilization of captured mosquitos, into the skin of mammals, including humans, where they find their way into the subcutaneous layer of the skin and develop into larvae and feed on skin tissue for approximately eight weeks before emerging from the skin to pupate. Dermatobia hominis is, however, only one of several species of flies that potentially target humans. When a human is parasitized by fly larvae, the condition is referred to as myiasis and if aural myiasis occurs, there is a possibility that the larvae may reach the brain. If the myiasis occurs in the naval cavity, fluid build up around the face and fever will often occur and can be, if not properly and promptly treated, fatal.
In regard to Korsgaard’s remark about fellow creatures, he and May can speak for themselves in this regard, the human-flesh devouring maggots of the African Botfly and brain sucking chimp are not my fellow creatures, there is little fellow there to be had, they are either externalities or obstacles to human habitation. Given the chance any one of them would devour Korsgaard and May as they would their other victims. It is precisely because we are possessed of far greater power, which can be applied far more savagely and intelligently than any other creature on earth that we are not in a situation where we must constantly be on guard from what slithers and stalks the undergrowth.
For the flourishing of our species, there has been few attributes more beneficial than, what May describes as our extraordinary “predatory behavior.” Indeed, I should declare that we should be more predatory. Not less.
May then says something quite extraordinary, “If this were all to the story there would be no tragedy. The elimination of the human species would be a good thing, full stop.” He then clarifies that this isn’t all to the story and that humans contribute unique things “to the planet” (whatever that means) such as literature and then comes to the real meat of his argument, preempting some of the criticisms which have been leveled against him in this very paper, writing,
“Now there might be those on the more jaded side who would argue that if we went extinct there would be no loss, because there would be no one for whom it would be a loss not to have access to those things. I think this objection misunderstands our relation to these practices. We appreciate and often participate in such practices because we believe they are good to be involved in, because we find them to be worthwhile. It is the goodness of the practices and the experiences that draw us. Therefore, it would be a loss to the world if those practices and experiences ceased to exist. One could press the objection here by saying that it would only be a loss from a human viewpoint, and that that viewpoint would no longer exist if we went extinct. This is true. But this entire set of reflections is taking place from a human viewpoint. We cannot ask the questions we are asking here without situating them within the human practice of philosophy. Even to ask the question of whether it would be a tragedy if humans were to disappear from the face of the planet requires a normative framework that is restricted to human beings.”
Firstly, I fail to see what is “jaded” about arguing that if humans went extinct, there would be no loss, because there would be no one for whom it would be a loss. Secondly, I do not think this would be true; as previously stated, there would be some loss beyond the human species, namely, loss (or its less sapient variation) in those intellectually capable animals with whom we reside, such as those commonly kept as pets (dogs, cats, pigs and so forth). But then we come to one of the strangest points made by the author, for he says it is “the goodness of the practice” that “draw us” as if goodness exists separate from, not just humanity, but from anything but “the planet.” It is a curiously anthropomorphic remark from so clearly misanthropic a individual and one which, due its spectral imposition, is forthrightly irrational. He could simply have made the argument from non-human animal intelligence as the experiential nexus of the loss as I have but instead he shifts the nexus of experience to “the planet,” which is, of course, merely a exceptionally large space-rock.
May then turns his attention to “the other side” which he describes as those who think that human extinction would be a “tragedy” and “overall bad” (which I would regard as one and the same thing, as I don’t know of any tragedies which are overall good) and asks the question: How many lives would one be willing to sacrifice to preserve Shakespeare’s works? He says he’d not sacrifice a single human life and that is all fine and good as I’d not either, for the obvious reasons that Shakespeare’s works can be reforged but a human life cannot (yet). He then poses the question: “-how much suffering and death of nonhuman life would we be willing to countenance to save Shakespeare, our sciences and so forth?” The rest of the article is merely antinatalist tripe wherein May proclaims that preventing future humans from existing is probably the right thing to do given that we would be preventing an unnecessary flow of suffering from being unleashed upon the world. So what then is the answer to his challenge.
The answer is clear.
As much suffering shall be endured as the organism is capable of enduring to survive and to thrive. If a individual does not wish to survive than that individual is at liberty to remove themselves from the gene pool. It is as simple as that. It has always been as simple as that and it will always be as simple as that. People aren’t going to stop having children because May told them to, which he well knows, and even if he were to be successful in convincing everyone to cease reproducing in some kind of Benatarian revolt there would then be no organisms left capable of evaluating the benefits of our self wrought extinction.
- I.C. Gibly & D. Wawrzyiak. Meat Eating By Wild Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii): Effects of Prey Age On Carcass Consumption Sequence. Vivamus.
- Todd May. Would Human Extinction Be A Tragedy? The New York Times.