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).
When I was little I wished I could have an adventure. I put it down to reading too much Enid Blyton. The children in her stories were always having adventures. In the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree they visited magical lands in the clouds, got chased and imprisoned by goblins, wizards and stern school-teachers (Dame Slap and Mr Grim), flew on various improbable objects and had regular feasts. In the Famous Five and the Secret Seven they snuck across dark moors at night, following shadowy men in overalls who turned out to be either burglars or smugglers, frequently nearly getting caught, but finally managing to trick the wrong-doers and manoeuvre them into a sticky situation in which the grateful police were able to arrest them.
‘Oh, why can’t I have adventures like that?’ I wondered. ‘Why is my life so dull? If only I could have just one adventure, I’d be so happy!’
In primary school I loved playing soldiers with my friends in the bush around my home. Sometimes it was just me and my imagination. There were lots of great places: creeks with banks you could peer over to take a shot at the enemy, tall grass you could creep through, mounds of stones and sticks to hide behind and wriggle over. ‘If only’ I thought ‘this was a real war and I was a real soldier, with a tin helmet, a combat back-pack and a Lee-Enfield rifle’. I never thought about what shooting someone, or getting shot, would mean for me or them. One generally doesn’t, as a seven year old boy. When you’re shot you just fall over. You don’t bleed or scream.
When I was older, I graduated from Blyton and Boys’ Own Adventure Annual to CS Lewis and from there to JRR Tolkien. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ – now there’s an adventure’: travelling enormous distances over magical landscapes of enchanted forests, brooding mountains and miasmic swamps. Pursued by hideous spectres on terrifying black stallions. Dreading the power of the Dark Lord that I know is out there searching for me, growing stronger every day. I wasn’t that keen on the battle scenes – they were too chaotic and repetitive for me – but the struggle against the elements, trying to traverse the Misty Mountains in a blizzard, getting lost in the Mines of Moria, evading the tentacled monster in the black pool, that was the stuff of life! I longed to peek into Mordor, or even just to visit the Misty Mountains.
In later high school I often rode my bicycle out into the countryside. One of the rides was an 80 kilometre circuit past Tidbinbilla, to the West of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. There were steep hills and, further to the West, the Brindabella mountains. They were pretty good, and would occasionally get snow in mid-winter, but they were no Misty Mountains. Partly it was the lack of craggy peaks, partly the usual lack of snow, and partly the fact that the surrounding countryside was mostly brown, nothing like the lush green of Tolkien’s Shire.
One winter it rained more than usual, and the foot-hills turned green. I remember looking at them as I rode by and thinking: ‘Now if only they didn’t have those wire fences, and they had snowy peaks in the background, then this would be like the Lord of the Rings!’ There could even be dwarves and barrow-wights in tunnels under the ground.
Perhaps today’s teenagers would instead imagine that it was the countryside near Hogwarts, with dragons and hippogriffs flying overhead.
Later in high school I became more interested in girls and less interested in Tolkien. CS Lewis would have been disappointed in me.
I don’t recall thinking about adventures at all between my mid-teenage years and a few months ago, when I suddenly remembered riding through the Tidbinbilla hills and wishing I could see orcs peeping up above the granite boulders that litter the ground there.
What seems odd to me now is that it never occurred to me that riding my bike on an 80km loop in mostly deserted countryside, with no mobile phone, nobody knowing where I was, and with inexpertly driven cars occasionally whizzing past me at 100kph, was an adventure of its own. Not to mention the occasional attacks of dogs from below and magpies from above.
Nor did it occur to me that there was plenty of danger in the snakes that undoubtedly hid in various parts of the long grass through which I imaginatively snuck in my primary school war games, or the stones that my friends and I would occasionally hurl in one another’s direction, pretending they were grenades (‘oh to have a real live grenade!’).
In those days we had freedom that kids these days can only dream of. We could go wherever we liked, and do what we wanted as long as it wasn’t something likely to raise the ire of our parents or the police, or if it was, then as long as they didn’t find out about it. But we lamented the lack of smugglers and orcs in our lives. Oh, dreary existence that has no such pantomime baddies to liven it up!
Not that there weren’t real baddies. I remember Barry the Bully at primary school (not his real name), a lumbering, brutish lad whose only means of expressing himself seemed to be to thump the daylights out of some unfortunate child of lesser stature who had the misfortune to wander nearby. I vaguely remember him pummelling me one day, surrounded by the usual ring of excited nine-year olds looking on. I suppose I could have considered that an adventure, but somehow I didn’t. Like most of my schoolmates I feared Barry then. Looking back now, I can only feel compassion. I wonder what sort of life he has now, and if he is still alive. I fear he may not be flourishing, but I may be wrong. Barry wasn’t really bad. He was just an inexorable product of his genes and his environment, and I suspect he suffered from his inability to interact with people except through violence, as much as others did.
There were lesser villains too, like the minor antagonists in a pantomime melodrama. The boys from the government school sometimes stole my school bag and tossed it from one to the other, to tease and punish me for being a Roman Catholic and going to the RC school. Then there were the boys at my school who mocked me for having so many patches on my hand-me-down shorts. I remember my mother once tearing down to our school in a rage and excoriating them for their teasing. I can’t remember what led up to that but I remember vividly the verbal tirade she unleashed on them and their quivering, shame-faced silence as they stood there being denounced. I don’t think they teased me any more. I suppose in that episode my mother was as much a hero of the adventure as Galahad or Lancelot, Jupiter Jones or Janet (Secret Seven) ever were.
Then there was the dreaded Mr F at junior high school. He was as violent as Wackford Squeers – another adventure villain that loomed with lurid clarity in my over-excited imagination. The main difference was that, unlike Squeers, Mr F would smile in a broad, friendly manner as he twisted your arm behind your back or lifted you out of your chair by the ears, with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers. I think he saw this violence as some sort of game, expressing good-natured affection to the students. It was not malicious. Generally I bore him no resentment, and even quite liked him. There was only one occasion when I mentioned to my mother that I thought my arm might be broken because, after a particularly savage twisting, I couldn’t use it properly. It got better. Yet despite the Squeers-like violence (would Severus Snape be a modern-day equivalent?) it never occurred to me that these elements of colour in my life were as good as any Blytonian or Dickensian adventure. I still thought my life was bland.
When I was five we lived in Aberystwyth, Wales and my parents announced that we were going to move to Australia. This set off two fantastic trains of thought in my impressionable young mind.
Firstly, I imagined that Australia was a land covered with thick, dark jungle, and that we would live in a hut in a small clearing. The jungle would be full of snakes and whenever we went outdoors we would have to tread carefully to avoid being bitten.
Secondly, I remember resolving, standing next to the stove while dinner was being prepared, that our arrival in Australia would mark the beginning of a new life for me, and would be an opportunity for me to put my sins behind me and become the good boy that I wanted to be. Inculcation of Catholic Guilt began early in the RC church in those days, at least it did in Wales (those Welsh nuns were well fierce!). I can’t remember whether I ever recalled this resolution once we arrived in Australia. Regardless, the resolution did not seem to be fulfilled. A couple of years later I was as guilt-ridden as every RC boy is expected to be.
One would think that moving to a jungle-filled, snake-infested, primitive land where one seeks to purify one’s soul from its many misdeeds contains many of the elements of a classic adventure. But again I didn’t see it that way then. Snakes and pious aspirations are all very well, but where were the smugglers?
Later teenage years and university have different sources of excitement from boyhood: discovering girls, discovering sex, discovering algebraic topology.
I travelled a lot after leaving school, in a gap year, in university holidays and after leaving uni. I travelled through many lands: Europe, Morocco, India, South-East Asia, Iran, Pakistan. I was mostly on my own and always on a shoe-string budget, sleeping and eating in some very run-down places and encountering many dicey situations – recklessly driven buses careering on two wheels around U-bends on precipitous mountain passes, enduring dysentery and fever in a lonely concrete hotel room, sinister strangers in railway carriages trying to show me pornographic pictures and suggesting mutual exploration of what they depict, crossing the Iranian border with US bank notes hidden in my shoe to avoid the extortionate exchange rate required by the Iranian border controls (and wondering what they’d do to me if they found them). I would have described such things as an experience, but the word adventure never occurred to me. Adventures happen to other people, and usually only in books. Not to me.
When one grows up – whenever that is, some time between the age of 25 and 40 for me – one has other challenging, frightening and exciting experiences. Accompanying one’s partner through the experience of childbirth. Raising a child. Buying a house. Moving across the world to live and work in another country. Most people know what these experiences are like. As a five year old, I would have found the contemplation of such experiences terrifying, yet there I was wishing I could chase smugglers in Cornish caves, or dodge German machine-gun fire as I leaped from foxhole to another.
When we middle-aged people look back over our life to date, there will in most cases be plenty of exciting, surprising, dangerous events, in between the humdrum and routine. Yet in my case at least, I often saw the danger or the challenge in a negative light at the time, wishing it were not there. I have only recently realised how contrary this is to my childhood wish for adventures, a wish that surely some other children must share. The only things I can think of that are missing from real-life experiences, compared to the Secret Seven or Harry Potter, are the presence of magic, and of people trying to kill, or at least imprison you. Yet modern science is far more wonderful, surprising and weird than any tale of magic or myth ever was, and even if people aren’t trying to kill us, we nevertheless live in the constant danger of being accidentally killed by a motor car or attacked by a virus or cancerous cell.
Perhaps if we could re-frame our perception of the vicissitudes of life as an adventure, rather than an imposition or a chore, we would appreciate it more. When we trip while jogging and seriously bark our elbows on concrete, as I did the other day, we can view that as another interesting experience, rather than reacting as ‘woe is me’. Maybe, if one day I have to undergo chemotherapy, or a lingering terminal illness, I will be able to even frame those as new experiences. We shall see. Perhaps even death, as that great philosopher Albus Dumbledore said, is “the next great adventure”.
Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 July 2013