BIOLOGICAL PESSIMISM: CAN WE SURVIVE INSPITE OF OURSELVES?
By Dr. Michael W. Fox
The “biological pessimism” of those who foresee the ultimate extinction of the human species, I fully accept. But I prefer the term biological realism, since from my research findings and observations of the global problematique that we face today; Nature’s nemesis of Homo sapiens is inevitable. I see myself therefore as neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but as a realist. The main obstacles to human enlightenment and biological salvation/evolution are those mechanisms of rationalization and denial, and various belief systems, religious as well as secular (especially our blind faith in science and technology solutions) that lead us collectively to a wholly unrealistic view of the world: Of human “progress”, and of how to rectify the dire and declining condition of the Earth’s biospheric ecosystem.
Poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the Truth But tell it slant- The truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind.”
Now to frame my question on this poet’s insight: Is telling the truth about the human condition from the perspective of bio-pessimism/realism the best approach in terms of what the advocate of such a truth hopes to gain? And for whom is this gain intended? Simply in the name of Truth, or Justice, or is there some personal agenda of retribution against the human species as it is perceived? Who feels shame for being a member of that species?
The lack of prescience in most human affairs is a point of concern. I interpret this lack as a product of anthropocentrism, the psychopathology of human-centeredness that may indeed, and is I believe, a desirably terminal disease. I say “desirably” because extinction via self-extermination is the final solution for the human species in its present form, if we accept a priori that the mark of the fully human is obedience to the Golden Rule.
Be that as it may, a lack of prescience underscores the lack of what I call consequentialist ethics, in that decisions are made and actions sanctioned in an ethical and moral vacuum of self-interest, regardless of the consequences. A lack of prescience and concern for how our actions and values harm other sentient beings, the natural environment, and ultimately ourselves, guarantees this.
So where does this leave us? With a sense of doom that no one except a misanthrope will enjoy, or enjoin to gain insight and understanding? The immediate, self-protective response to any doomsayer is to proclaim innocence, un-involvement, declare the prophet insane, and continue life as usual. But to be uninvolved is to not evolve as a social, empathic species that realizes that the highest form of selfishness is altruism and obedience to the Golden Rule.
My concern about the world-view and predictions of biological pessimists, no matter how accurate, verifiable and rationally and scientifically objective and impartial their conclusions may be, is that they reinforce the burgeoning nihilism that afflicts the fatalism and “Gothic” cult of Western youth, already imbued with futility, despair, alienation, hopelessness, depression and nihilistic rage.
This is, I believe, the emergent pathology of the new millennium, that had its connection broken with the “Age of Aquarius” of the 1960’s and 70’s by powers dedicated to the new quasi-religious transformation of greed and materialism into global imperialistic values based on the technocratic, legalistic hegemony of industrialism and consumerism under the guise of freedom, social progress, the greater good, free trade and democracy. Self-interest and self-righteousness are coins of the same currency that no are now fueling a world-wide conflagration between indigenous, religious/spiritual, fundamentalists, and global, secular, scientific/materialistic determinists.
Around the world we find conflict between those who revere the natural world and those who see Nature and animals as resources to exploit. This conflict is exacerbated inevitably by over-population, over-consumption of finite resources and poverty, that bring religious, political, ethnic, tribal and other differences to the fore that were once part of a more harmonious tapestry of life, of cultural and biological diversity, prior to the first mega-wave of Western colonialism, after the Greek and Roman Empires had made their mark on the psyche of the white mans’ “civilized” world.
While some concerned and informed thinkers contend that it is best for the human condition for all to live as if there is hope—like Camus’ doctor in his book The Plague, —against the back-drop of biological pessimism that foresees human extinction, does this mean that to live as though there is hope is simply a misguided coping strategy, another form of avoidance and denial?
This depends, I believe, in what we hope for, and the basis or source of our faith from which hope arises. But what people generally hope for in their lives, and what they believe in, that is their article of faith, have combined, as history informs, to result in ever more human conflict and suffering—between the haves and the have-nots, and the virtual holocaust of the animal kingdom and what many today now see as the death of nature; the annihilation of the natural world. Jane Goodall in her 2021 book The Book of Hope co-authored with Douglas Abrams and Gail Hudson calls for correctives to such social and environmental issues without which there is actually no hope.
While evil flourishes where good men do nothing, it is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Spanish artist Goya inscribed in one of his etchings “Devils are those who do evil, prevent others from doing good, or do nothing at all” Albert Einstein similarly observed that “The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing”. He also concluded that the problems that we face today cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created them in the first place.
With a biological orientation to my own thinking, and having experienced as a veterinarian and animal and environmental protection advocate how people around the world relate to and treat other animals and Nature, as well as each other, I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that the only hope for humanity, and the life and beauty of Earth, is in the extinction of the present, dominant state of human consciousness and way of being. How right was poet John Milton, when wrote: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”. What we imagine we can make possible and manifest in the physical world, just as what we think and believe we can and put into action, in terms of how we behave and what ethical choices we make, if any, in satisfying our many wants and needs, all of which have consequences. Lacking prescience, we cause more harm than good to ourselves and to others, and have made “a Hell of Heaven”. We have transitioned from millennia of living in the body-mind consciousness of the free-spirited, earth-connected gatherer hunter and more recent farmer and pastoralist, well-adapted to a hazardous but relatively healthy environment, into the recent captive spirit life of the corporate worker and exploiter of earth, disconnected and destructive, polluting and toxic in an electro-polluted environment.
The only way out of this environmental, social, economic and spiritual dead-end is either extinction or taking a moral inventory of self-evaluation and ultimate liberation. The Hopi Indians call this extinction process the “Purification” of both the human species and the planet, currently in a state of pathological imbalance and increasing dysfunction that they refer to as Koyaanasquatsi: life out of balance.
In the Book of Job 5:22-23 such prescience is evident in his warning of the coming apocalypse “At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the wild animals of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the wild animals shall be at peace with you“. To echo Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I believe that this is “A consummation devoutly to be wished”.
We have been able to function for a few generations without the usual natural biological constraints imposed upon other species that control their numbers and minimize their harmful influences on the environment and on other species and communities. But we are not immune; though we may put off the day of reckoning—Nature’s retribution— with advances in science and technology for some time to come, especially in those countries and segments of society with the resources and power to do so, biological constraint cannot be denied or avoided forever. Unfettering ourselves from Nature’s constraints gave us the illusion of power and control, but in the absence of ethical constraints and respect and understanding of natural/ecological law and justice (karma), Nature becoming our nemesis was assured.
Simplistic nature versus nurture arguments aside, in the absence of any innate self-constraint for the greater good of the life-or Earth community, (which may be construed as a biological flaw in our species from an a-theistic, scientific perspective, or as original sin from a theistic, religious perspective), I see the central issue here as a fundamental cultural inadequacy.
Rather than focusing on deficiencies in human nature, or on the inadequacies of external natural controls, focusing on this cultural, indeed pan-cultural inadequacy may be more fruitful in addressing the deficiencies in both human nature and Nature to establish a viable, meaningful future that will sustain us and the entire biotic community in body, mind and spirit.
Before being annihilated by European colonists, the Iroquoi Confederacy of indigenous North American Indians enjoyed many generations of sustained peace, ecological balance and socio-economic security. Their Constitution was in part adopted by the founding fathers of the new United States of America with noted omission from the US Constitution of equal rights for women and the LAW OF SEVEN GENERATIONS. It is this Law, I believe, that holds the key to the viability and long-term sustainability of civilization (i.e. civil society).
The essence of this Law, (that is derivative of what is termed Natural Law), is for every action, policy, initiative, product and process that is human-initiated/generated to be subject to the most rigorous evaluation by elected community leaders in terms of costs, risks and benefits, and from the perspective of past experiences going back seven generations, and from the perspective of possible harmful consequences, including environmental, affecting seven generations into the future. This Law of Seven Generations, that brings the precautionary principle and bioethics to life, could and should be the corner stone for the kind of small discrete communities that advocates of civil society envision, that are self- sufficient and linked with similar socially just and sustainable communities adapted to a particular bioregion where cultural and natural biological diversity can be restored and once again flourish.
While today, Utopia is “Erehwon”—nowhere, the “Seed-savers” of this and the next generation in particular, who are literally and metaphorically protecting the seeds that are so vital for the ecological, cultural and spiritual renewal of humanity and planet Earth, are as much a part of the process of human evolution as those who have desecrated the planet: And with the coming and dominance of the latter, to quote Loren Eisely “ The Eden of the eternal present that the animal world had known for ages was shattered at last. Through the human mind, time and darkness, good and evil, would enter and possess the world”.
WE CAN ALL DO SOMETHING
Both society and the Earth are in a sorry state. But we are not helpless, since there is much we can do to make a difference. It falls upon all those of us who can still afford to keep animals as companions, and to care for them well in body and mind, to do something local that will help the global. This can be from spaying your animal for population control, and adopting one as a companion and reducing the number that will be killed in your local shelter every week, to supporting your local organic farmers and groceries and getting back to home-cooking whole, nutritious and organically certified foods for your self and for your loved ones. And if there is not an animal shelter in your community, and effective enforcement of both animal and environmental protection laws, then do what you can to make such important initiatives a reality in your community.
Other local action to help globally would be to not use any petrochemicals on your lawns and gardens that can make all your loved- ones sick, and harm wildlife. Introduce local varieties of trees, shrubs, grasses and other plants that help attract wildlife. The more ‘green’ your property and neighborhood, including office, apartment and warehouse rooftops– the more of a carbon sink you have created, which is one antidote to global warming.
The most radical, non-violent action of revolutionary consequence can come not from our freedom of speech and what comes out of our mouths, but from our freedom of choice and what we put into our mouths. The power of the plate and the conscience of the cook can make a world of difference through our informed choices in the market place, from purchasing humanely raised, free range farm animal produce if we are not vegetarians or vegans, to buying a more fuel -efficient car and carefully recycling all that we possibly can so as to diminish our footprint on the planet. To live lightly and reduce one’s carbon/environmental footprint is to live more simply, so that more may simply live. As ‘green’ consumers we have responsibilities as well as rights. Either exercise those responsibilities, or forfeit those rights.
A consumer-driven society ultimately consumes itself. A civil society is a humane one that exercises the power of the consumer in a responsible way, and that includes environmental and animal protection; the abolition of factory farms and the wholesale use of petrochemical -based pesticides and fertilizers. Many people care about wildlife protection and habitat conservation, but few realize the adverse impact of industrial agriculture on wildlife at home and abroad; and how making meat and dairy products from factory farmed animals their dietary staples means more wildlife habitat is taken to produce the feed necessary to raise billions of animals for human consumption.
Establishing more community enriching and enhancing areas of protected and restored wildlife habitat is enlightened self-interest. “Developers” appetites must be tempered by ecological science and sensibility. Cut down one tree, then replant with as many little trees that equal the photosynthetic rate of the felled one, and then harvest sustainably, keeping the enhancement of biodiversity rather than short-term profit’s the primary goal. More wildlife habitat preserves, from woodland and prairie, to wetland and water shed, would do much to improve air and water quality, and complement organic and sustainable farming and forestry practices.
Every human enterprise and activity that affects animals and the environment and causes harm, is in the domain of veterinary concern and professional responsibility. As Socrates, who advocated social democracy, cautioned, ‘a life unexamined is a life unlived’. So we are called upon to examine how our lives cause harm to others, and how we might avoid such adverse consequences. This is the realm of ethics, of making informed choices in our lives, that call for a broader bioethics that includes consideration of how we might harm not only our own species, but also all other species that make up the life community of this living, but increasingly dysfunctional, human infested, and poisoned planet. Then we vote with our dollars and sense.
I will close with one of my favorite quotes from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who observed almost 50 years ago that we are rapidly approaching the point in our biological evolution where we have one final choice, and that is between suicide or adoration. Perhaps collectively and unwittingly the choice has already been made. But that does not mean that as an individual I cannot make my own personal choice, and strive to live accordingly. Ultimately, biophilia and bioethics are the antidotes to the bio-pessimism, bio-terrorism and the ecocide of a biocidal civilization.