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).
I fried mushrooms and zucchinis in the juice left over from having fried a steak for my daughter. Then I ate them. They were delicious.
There’s nothing remarkable in that, except that I’m a vegetarian who is, since my ‘conversion’, repelled by the idea of eating meat. I could not have eaten the steak, but was happy to eat the mushrooms and zucchini fried in its juices.
This struck me as odd when I first thought of it. But I was able to explain it to myself well enough, at least at first. The explanation was that I was brought up to abhor waste and, since the juices would otherwise have been wasted, and the cow had already been killed, it would be a shame to waste the nutrition of those juices. All very sensible, except that the same argument wouldn’t have worked had my daughter decided she did not want her steak. I could not have eaten the steak to save waste, however strong my intentions. I would have requested my daughter to bury it in the garden. That is the fate of all unwanted meat scraps in our house, as experience has taught us that putting them in the compost bin attracts too many rats and breeds maggots.
As an aside, our garden is full of decently interred parts of animals. Buried carefully and solemnly, but without ritual (unless I do it, in which case there may be a surreptitious incantation of respect for the departed spirit). Perhaps that is why the garden is so lush.
But that leaves me without an explanation for why I will eat the thus-fried mushrooms but not a leftover steak or sausage. Don’t get me wrong. A left-over portion of meat is a rare event in our house, as we only have two meat-eaters out of five (the third meat-eater having flown the coop), and I try very hard to err on the side of too little rather than too much, to avoid the animal having died any more in vain than necessary.
Anyway, an alternative, or perhaps supplementary, explanation occurred to me today. It may be a bit new-agey and holistic, or is it just brutally biological, I don’t know. But whichever it is, I stand by it. It seems to explain why I’ll consume the juice but not the steak.
Carl Sagan told us that we are all made of star dust, and how deep and inspirational that is. But other perspectives are possible too. One comes from an African philosopher – Simba the Lion King. He reminded us that we are all part of the circle of life. Put bluntly, while from one perspective we are made of the remains of dead stars, from another we are made of the remains of dead animals and plants. And however vegetarian or even vegan we may be, we are still made of both. Because there is no food chain with a top and a bottom, there is only a food cycle. Even Lions and Tyrannosaurs become food for worms and bacteria, fungi and plants. Plants are part animal juice and animals are part plant juice.
So when I eat a pear or a nut I am also feasting on the bodies of long-dead kangaroos, rabbits, mice, dingos and wild cats and dogs. And also on the bodies of long-dead people.
Not only do we all eat the remains of people and animals. We also breathe them. The air is full of small particles of organic matter, each molecule of which has probably been part of the body of a long chain of living organisms – plant, animal, fungi, bacteria, whatever, over the billion or so years since organic chemistry really took off on this planet.
And of course we are breathing in loads of dust with every breath, which they tell us is mostly discarded human skin.
Now this doesn’t mean that I regard all consumption as identical, either in an ethical or an aesthetic sense. I have no immediate plans to become a direct cannibal, or any other sort of direct carnivore. I have aesthetic objections to both and ethical objections to most carnivorous opportunities that are presented to me. I won’t start eating steaks simply because I have come to dislike the thought of chewing on flesh, because every bite would remind me that this animal had been imprisoned for life and finally killed for my benefit.
That would not be the case if the animal had been shot in the wild, or raised on a happy farm (I picture the farm in Charlotte’s Web) and humanely slaughtered there rather than undergoing gruelling transport to an abattoir. But since almost all meat in our society does not meet that standard, I have come inevitably to associate the texture of meat with that spectre of life imprisonment and execution. So unfortunately, I could not even eat a humanely culled wild kangaroo or Wilbur the pig from the idyllic-sounding farmyard in Charlotte’s web. I doubt I could even eat road-kill, which would be the most defensible of all choices. Just because of the texture and what it reminded me of.
But there is none of that involved in consuming the juice of a steak, especially when combined with zucchini and mushrooms. One does not have to chew it or slice it. There is no tearing and ripping involved. One’s only obstacle to consuming those steak-cooked mushrooms is the potential to think ‘Oh no, this was cooked in the remains of a cow!‘ But since my epiphany of this morning, all I need do is remind myself that everything I eat is made of the remains of animals, including people. So why be squeamish?
Bondi Junction, November 2014
How fine it is to mend things.
There is a real satisfaction in tinkering with a faulty object, examining it, taking it apart, finding the source of a problem and then coming up with a way to fix it. The satisfaction comes partly from the intellectual stimulation of trying to solve a puzzle, and the pleasure in successfully solving it. Then there is the pleasure in learning something new about the world. Once I fixed a metronome and was delighted at what I learned about the ingenious clockwork mechanisms that were concealed within the case. I like to think of those creative and resourceful engineers and craftspeople that had remarkable ideas like putting a little doodad here that would tip the whirligig there on every third revolution, which would, via a series of additional baroque interactions, make a little bell chime.
What a brave new world it is, that has such people in it!
But the most important source of satisfaction from mending things is its contribution to sustainability. Every broken toaster, metronome or lamp shade mended is one less piece of rotten landfill and one more set of valuable resources saved to be used for another five or more years.
Quality control in manufacturing is almost non-existent these days, except for products where faults can cause serious safety hazards. It is much cheaper for a manufacturer to dispense with quality control and simply replace any faulty items returned by customers than to maintain an expensive quality management process in their factory. Why do your own quality control when you can get your customers to do it for you, at no cost?
The consequence of this is that an older, mended object is often better quality than a new replacement, because the older item may have been made in a factory that paid more attention to quality.
My abilities at fixing things are very constrained though, and venture hardly at all into the domain of Soft Things. I can, only just, sew a button on a shirt. It will usually stay on for a while, but it’s not a pretty sight. But beyond buttons I am at sea. That is not generally a problem because my partner is highly skilled with soft things, so between the two of us we manage to take care of most feasible mending.
But there is one terrible exception to the portfolio of challenges with which we can cope, and that is the rehabilitation of socks. What I wonder is ‘Why does nobody darn socks any more?’.
Now I am not asking that as a curmudgeon hankering after the days of his youth, when he could barely walk about for risk of getting stuck by the needle of one of the innumerable sock darners with which he was surrounded. No, my youth was in the post-sock-darning era. My mother was an avid mender of all sorts of garments. Some of my school clothes were more patch than original material. But I can’t recall her repairing a sock (Perhaps she did and I have forgotten).
I know there was a sock-darning era, because I have read many times in books of people performing this wondrous act, but it seems to have pre-dated my life.
The art seems to be long gone, yet it seems to be so useful, that one wonders why it has gone.
Let me be perfectly frank about this: I own many, many pairs of socks. So when it comes to things sock-related, I modestly consider myself to be something of an expert. And I have noticed a tendency of some of my socks to develop holes at the end of the big toe. I stubbornly wear those socks for a while, hole and all, but usually end up having to give up and throw them away under the weight of protestations from my family at the shame it brings them to have a father or partner walking around with holes in his socks.
Think how proud they would be instead, if passers-by could all see that my socks had been mended, perhaps with a striking splotch of scarlet thread on the end that darned over the hole. What a grand world that would be, in which people had access to sock darning services, whether from talented friends and family, or from hired artisans.
I don’t know why the art of sock darning disappeared. Some suggest it is that the types of materials used to make modern socks make darning difficult and unreliable. But I blame children’s story books. Let me give one example. Doubtless there are many others.
The other morning I was doing reading assistance with children at the local primary school. The story that my charge chose to read was ‘The Hole in the King’s Socks’. It tells the story of a king that has a hole in the toe of one sock, and gets a cold toe. He seeks advice from all his courtiers as to how he should remedy this, and none of the remedies (eg stuffing it with leaves, as the Royal Gardener suggests) work.
In the end, the Queen suggests to the king that he knit himself some new socks. He rapidly learns to knit, makes some socks, puts them on, and they all live happily ever after, with warm toes.
It is nice that it encourages learning new skills but other than that, this story is wrong on so many levels!
Firstly, why does he need to make two new socks when only one is damaged? We can see from the illustrations that the new socks are identical in colour and pattern to the old, so there is no problem of mismatch (not that that would be sufficient reason to throw away a perfectly good sock anyway).
But more importantly, if he can learn to knit a sock, why can he not learn to darn, and simply darn the hole? That would use only a tiny fraction of the wool needed to make a whole new sock. Yet that option was not even considered. Presumably both the old socks – the pristine one and the only-slightly-damaged one – were consigned to landfill.
I ask you, what sort of message is this sending our children? “If something is faulty, just throw it away and get a new one”. Whether you make it or buy it makes no real difference. The resources used in the manufacture of the old thing are still wasted.
As you would expect, I gave my young, impressionable reader a moving homily on the foolishness of the king in throwing away his socks, and how we should always seek to mend rather than replace. I am not sure if it had any effect. She seemed more interested in trying to balance her pencil on its end while tipping her chair backwards. But one tries to plant the seeds of wisdom, you know. One never knows when they might take root and grow.
In the past couple of decades we have seen a renaissance of previously unfashionable crafts such as knitting, quilting and crochet. Is it too much to hope that the craft of darning socks will also make a comeback? If I can only live long enough to see that, then I think I will truly be able to die happy.
Bondi Junction, July 2014