One day the sun will grow so large that it will first dessicate, then bake, then engulf and vaporise, the Earth and everything on it. No life will survive that. Perhaps some people will have escaped to habitable places in other solar systems, but it’s hard to imagine it would be many, given the enormous energy that is likely to be involved in any interstellar travel. I expect ordinary people will be unable to escape.
Even escapees will be wiped out eventually, as the universe, many billions of years from now, slides inexorably into heat death. No life will survive that.
So there it is: the end of the world is a matter of when, not if. We are powerless to prevent it.
That background makes it a bit confusing to work out what moral obligation we have to take actions that prevent a near-term end of the world, and to avoid actions that would hasten it.
If we are talking about preventing the end of the world in our lifetime, it can be easier to resolve, because that would affect people that are alive now, and most people recognise that they have at least some obligation of care to other people that cohabit the world with them.
But that obligation is less widely accepted when it comes to future generations, and the farther away those generations are, the fewer people tend to feel an obligation towards them. Politicians sometimes talk about intergenerational equity and caring for the future of our children, maybe even our grandchildren. But it’s a rare politician that argues for a policy on the basis of its effect on our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-children.
At some stage, life on Earth will come to an end, and it seems likely that that end, unless it occurs in the blink of an eye – which it is hard to imagine happening – will be accompanied by tremendous suffering. If that is inevitable then how can we work out whether it matters whether it occurs sooner or later?
We cannot solve this by reason alone. As David Hume so acutely observed “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Of course he wasn’t saying he did prefer the destruction of the world. He was saying that one must look to one’s emotions to find an answer.
Looking to my own emotions, I confess that I am more alarmed at the prospect of the world ending in a catastrophe in 100 years than in 100 million years, despite the fact that I will not be here to see either..
I use the word ‘catastrophe’ rather than ‘cataclysm’ because I think the end would be lingering and painful. We should be so lucky as to be extinguished in the blink of an eye. Philosophers who have nothing better to do with their time make up thought experiments involving a button you could press to instantaneously end the world, and ask under what circumstances you would press it. But there are no such buttons, nor ever likely to be, so we need to contend with the end being a drawn-out, painful process. I suspect widespread famine would be a major part of it. That would lead to outbreaks of uncontrolled violence as people compete for the dwindling resources of food and water. Disease would spread to accompany the famine – perhaps providing a more merciful end for some. We see this sort of catastrophe already in some parts of the Earth, and we will see them more often as climate change becomes more severe.
Is a ‘soft landing’ possible? What if, realising that the world will become uninhabitable within 200 years, we were to decide that we were morally obliged to not have children, in order not to inflict on those new people the pain of experiencing the world’s slow death? What would a world with no new children be like? Most of us, including me, feel that it would be very sad. I know of two novels that explore this: ‘The Children of Men‘ by PD James, and ‘I who have not known men‘ by Jacqueline Harpmann. In the first, for some unknown reason, humans cease to be able to conceive. The novel is set about twenty-six years after the last baby was born. In the second novel, a group of female prisoners escape from their underground dungeon to find the Earth deserted. They wander for many years in vain search of other survivors and after a while start to die of old age, with no replacement.
Both novels are confronting, bleak and sad. The James also has a thriller element to it (which I won’t spoil for you), but the basic premise is still bleak.
It would be very hard for us now to decide ‘No more babies’. Imagine us all gradually dying one by one, deprived of that feeling of continuity – the circle of life – that one gets from seeing younger generations. But what if society had the time to work up to that over several generations? What if, realising that all life would cease within ten generations, society worked to change its culture in order to equip people to feel more positive about non-procreation and less reliant on younger generations. It would be a very difficult psychological shift to accomplish. It would have to counteract the powerful impulse embedded in our psyche by evolution – to perpetuate the species. But who knows what techniques of psychological manipulation humans may have managed to invent in a thousand or more years’ time? Maybe they could condition future humans to find fulfilment in bringing their species in for a soft landing – for instance in working as a childless carer for old people until one becomes too old to work. Things could be set up so that the last remaining people have all the food, water, clothes, medicine, shelter, power and entertainment they need to survive solo (we would also need to train people to be comfortable with isolation, which we current humans are definitely not). They might also be provided with pills to provide a painless end to life once they near the point where they will no longer be able to feed themselves. That is not how it happens in ‘The Children of Men‘. But that book is set in 2021, not 3021, and with no notice for society to prepare for the landing (for some reason fertility just suddenly ceases in 1994).
If a soft landing were possible then, while an end of the world may be inevitable, its accompaniment by great suffering would not be. It would then become easy to argue for doing what we can to delay the end of the world. It is simply to prevent a great suffering.
What if it’s not possible, so that the great suffering is simply a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’? What if the amount of suffering accompanying the end of the world will be roughly the same regardless of whether it occurs in 200 years or 200 million years? Are we morally obliged to do what we can to defer it beyond 200 years? I pick 200 years by the way because that should be long enough to be fairly certain that nobody currently alive will be around to experience a world’s end in 200 years.
It seems to me that the main difference between the two end dates is all the currently-unconceived humans that would experience life in the intervening 199,999,800 years. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that such lives should come to pass? There is very little moral guidance on this. Even religions have little to say about this, with only a very few religions (albeit big powerful ones) forbidding contraception.
A group that has a decisive opinion that is the direct opposite of the anti-contraceptionists is the anti-natalists, led by the prominent South African philosopher David Benatar. Benatar argues that, since all life contains some suffering, it is immoral to create any new life. He does not accept that suffering may be offset by pleasure at other times in a life. Even a few moments of mild pain in an otherwise long, happy life makes the creation of that life a moral mistake, in Benatar’s book. Less extreme anti-natalists argue that procreating is OK if we think the new life will have more pleasure than suffering but that, since we can’t be sure, we are obliged to not procreate. A more folksy version of this is the comment uttered at many a late-night D&M discussion, that ‘this is no world to bring an innocent child into‘.
Not many people are anti-natalists. Most people, despite the exaggerated doom and gloom on the news – terrorist this and serial-killer that – (of course no mention of the real dangers like climate change, malaria, poverty, road carnage and plutocratic hijack of our democracies) see life as a generally pleasant experience and look positively on conferring it on new humans. But that tends to be a very personal feeling, in which the moral dimension cannot be disentangled from the powerful personal urge to procreate.
For those of us who are neither anti-natalists nor anti-contraceptionists, the question of those lives in the intervening 199,000,800 years remains a mystery to be explored. Is it important that they come to pass? Is it good that they do so?
Lest you decide I sound like a homicidal maniac and ring Homeland Security to have me ‘dealt with’, let me state here that I feel that it is better to do what we can to delay the end of the world. That’s a major factor in why I think action on climate change is the most important issue facing humanity today. But I won’t go into the reasons why in this essay, because this topic will be discussed at my upcoming philosophy club meeting and I want to avoid spoilers. In any case, I’m more interested in what other people think about this.
The dilemma posed by this essay was first raised by Oliver Kirk.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
- What, if any, obligations do we have to unborn generations? Do they include an obligation to ensure their existence?
- Does the nature or strength of the obligation change with the remoteness of the future generation?
- If we accept that the end of humanity will occur, and will be accompanied by great suffering, are we obliged to do what we can to delay it for as many centuries or millennia as possible (taking as agreed that we are obliged to delay it beyond the lifespan of anybody currently alive)?
- If we do feel obliged to delay, does that imply an obligation to maximise the population of the Earth, subject to being able to maintain adequate living standards?
- How do I feel about the fact that a time will come when there is no more life? Does it strip life of meaning? Or does it enhance meaning? Or neither?
- How would I feel about a world in which human reproduction became impossible?
- Do I feel differently about the world ending in 200 years from how I feel about it ending in 200 million years?
- What implications do our opinions on the above have on our feelings of what stance we should take on current future-oriented issues like climate change, balancing government budgets, infrastructure building, asteroid mapping, solar flare prediction?
PD James: ‘The Children of Men’
Jacqueline Harpmann: ‘I Who Have Never Known Men’ (‘Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes’)
Peter Singer: “Practical Ethics’. Discussion of obligations to future generations on p108-118 of Third Edition (2011, Cambridge University Press).
George Orwell said ‘At the age of fifty, everyone has the face s/he deserves’.
I first heard that saying decades ago and for some unknown reason remembered it. I was never very confident about exactly what Orwell meant by it, but I have always interpreted it to mean that if you spend your life being cross you will end up looking like a cranky old wo/man. But if you spend your life smiling kindly, you will look like a kind old person. It goes along with that other old saying, that your face will get stuck with whatever expression you are wearing when the wind changes (or does that rule only apply if you are making a face at somebody?).
If it were true, it’s bad luck for those that suffer a lot of pain or grief in their first few decades. They would end up looking permanently in pain or sad.
There’s not much we can do to avoid pain or grief, but we have at least some control over whether we scowl or smile on those around us.
Orwell’s saying came back to me at around the age of forty. I didn’t remember what the cutoff age was but I remembered that you had to watch out if you didn’t want to end up like Mr Wintergarten or any other fictional old person the neighbourhood children avoided in fear.
I started paying occasional attention to my facial expressions, noting when I smiled. I was somewhat relieved to find that I smiled quite often, partly because my children, who were all below ten years old at the time, often made me laugh or smile at their antics. ‘Thank goodness!’ I thought. I would be safe from ogredom and the neighbourhood children would be free from my future reign of terror.
There are two special occasions when I do my best to smile – they are when riding my bicycle on public roads, and when jogging.
The reason for the jogging smile is that I heard that a famous American public intellectual and wit said something like ‘If I ever see a jogger smiling I might try it‘. For a long time I thought Gertrude Stein said that but now the internet tells me it was actually the comedian Joan Rivers in 1982. I don’t know if others would count Joan Rivers as a public intellectual, but I like to think of Public Intellectuality as a broad church. Anyway, I resented the implication that joggers were a miserable bunch that hated jogging and did it either because, like banging your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop, or because like an Opus Dei monk wearing a cicatrice, they felt that the pain they were suffering was somehow accumulating points for them in their heavenly bank account.
Fie on you Ms Steinem (yes I know, I get Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem mixed up – pathetic isn’t it) I admonished her inside my head. I don’t suffer when I jog. I quite enjoy it most of the time, and sometimes I even love it. But I had to admit she had a point about the smiling. Joggers didn’t tend to smile, perhaps because they were too busy trying to breathe.
So I determined to set the world to rights. I became possibly the world’s first ever smiling jogger. I didn’t smile all the time. It is quite tiring on the facial muscles to maintain a smile for minutes at a time, as any games show barrel girl will attest (some people think that catwalk models look so sulky these days because they are perpetually hungry, but I think it may also be because it is more relaxing to maintain a vacant gaze than a beaming smile). But as soon as a passer-by hove into sight, I lit my face up like a Christmas tree, so they could see just how much fun I was having.
This led to some peculiar looks, and mothers shepherding their children anxiously away from me with worried expressions on their faces.
My campaign of smiling on a bicycle was for a different reason, and met with rather more success. There are a bunch of nasty ‘shock jocks’ in my city that anathematise anybody that expresses any concern for the environment as a Luddite, anti-democratic communist. They save their most virulent hatred for refugees and bicycle riders, in both cases, apparently because they clog up the roads and thereby interfere with the God-given right of every right-thinking person to drive their Land Cruiser down any street at 60km/h plus, unimpeded.
While most people, fortunately, are not influenced by this outpouring of bile, it does have some spillover effects and it did tend to generally increase the degree of hostility between cyclists and motor-car drivers. I thought that if I smiled at motorists that I encountered (or, at least, at the ones that hadn’t just nearly killed me by turning in front of me, cutting me off, passing too close and fast or just blaring their horn at me so close as to make me nearly fall off in fright) I would be doing my little bit to rebuild cordial relations.
I am pleased to report that this little strategy, unlike campaign Joggers-Can-Smile-Too, met with unexpected success. I received plenty of return smiles, waves and other gracious, heart-warming gestures. So, take that, Alan Jones!
For some reason it is also easier, and feels more natural, to smile when riding than when jogging. It might be because riding is after all more intrinsically fun than jogging, because of the whizzing. We all love to whizz after all, and not many of us are capable of jogging at whizzing speed. I used to be able to, but have not been able to for a long time now. Plus, every time one’s foot hits the ground (which is about eight-three times a minute, in case you were wondering), one’s facial muscles all get wobbled about by the shock-wave, making it more than usually hard work to maintain a smile. If you don’t believe me, look at a slow-motion replay of the 100m race in the Olympics and watch what the faces do. Ignore that famous sideways smile photo of Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. That was in a semi-final, so he wasn’t really running very fast (for him).
There’s also the fact that, because the air is rushing towards you quite fast on a bike, you don’t need to open your mouth into a big fat O shape to get enough air in. A sweet smile leaves more than enough opening for enough of the rearward rushing air to find its way to the lungs.
After a while, it just became a habit to smile when I was riding my bicycle, at least, when I wasn’t climbing a difficult hill or negotiating a particularly dangerous traffic situation.
So, in between the child-induced smile, the jogging smile and the bicycling smile, it seemed that my face was probably doing what was necessary in order to meet Mr Orwell’s challenge.
Now I am well past fifty, so I suppose I am out of danger. My face has, I suppose, become set in whatever configuration it is to maintain from here on in. The only expected future changes are ever-increasing numbers of wrinkles, perhaps sun-spots and scars from removed skin lesions and a gradual loss of teeth and hair. But can I be sure of that? After all, while Mr Orwell’s skill as an author is beyond question, his expertise as a gerontologist is comparatively unknown. Could he have been mistaken? What if it is sixty, seventy, or even eighty? One cannot be too careful. Perhaps it is too early to stop smiling.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay (better late than never): adolescent and young-adult offspring just don’t seem to compel beaming, helpless smiles from adults in the same way that two year olds do. Of the positive emotions that adolescents can generate (we’ll not dwell on the negative ones), there are affection, pride, sympathy and a number of others but “Oh my goodness that’s so adorable!” is not usually one of them. I presume this has something to do with evolution. We are programmed to find almost every utterance and action of a two-year old adorable, because they cannot fend for themselves and, if we didn’t find them adorable, we might not be inclined to fend for them – which wouldn’t do at all, not if we want them to grow up to be Prime Ministers. But above the age of about sixteen, the fending skills of the human species appear to be adequate, so evolution decided to ease off on the adorability spell. That may be all very well – after all, many adolescents prefer to spend time in any company other than that of their parents, and parents are easier to shake off if they are not following you around with adoring grins on their faces. But how are we to meet our smiling quota in the absence of such an influence? I have a feeling that now I may spend less than half the amount of time smiling that I did ten years ago. I can put some of that down to my mid-life crisis, but I think the partial maturation of my children has to bear some of the responsibility.
What, then, is to be done? One has to find other things to make one smile. But what? That will have to be the topic of another essay.
Ian Dury knew though. He made a list, in his song Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3).
Here’s a picture of Ian Dury showing he had not much to smile about, with his grim environment and the after-effects of his childhood polio on display. And yet…….