Repent, the end may be near

I thought I was a pessimist! But Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner (a scientist deeply involved in the eradication of smallpox with 22 books and 290 papers to his credit) gave an interview to The Australian last week in which he said:

“We’re going to become extinct… Whatever we do now is too late.”

Gone! Kaput! 86-ed! He thinks continued population growth multiplied by industrial-level consumption will make homo sapiens and other species extinct in ~100 years. Something akin to the extinction of the isolated population of Easter Island is, in his judgement, inevitable.

Well, that puts the trivialities I see on this morning’s (Sunday)¬†political talk shows in perspective! But that’s part of Fenner’s point: we’re fiddling while Rome smolders and will continue to fiddle even as it burns.

I share a good deal of his pessimism. One of the first posts I did on this blog was about the estimate that children being born today have a 50/50 chance of living 100 years. I think everybody ought to be clear that today’s kids will live to see whether Fenner is right, partly right, or wrong. I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen, and I can’t understand why the parents of today’s kids don’t insist on discussing this every day. I attended my wife’s grandson’s high school graduation last week. (I have a couple of titular grandkids by marriage, not by reproduction.) He’ll experience all of it, and the run-up to anything even approaching extinction has got to be awful. I’ll be long gone, but I don’t envy the young.

To balance Fenner out, The Australian interviewed a colleague, Stephen Boyden, who has a more moderate view:

“Frank may be right, but some of us still harbour the hope that there will come about an awareness of the situation and, as a result, the revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability,” says Boyden, an immunologist who turned to human ecology later in his career.

“That’s where Frank and I differ. We’re both aware of the seriousness of the situation, but I don’t accept that it’s necessarily too late. While there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s worth working to solve the problem. We have the scientific knowledge to do it but we don’t have the political will.”

Glimmer of hope“? Not very reassuring.

Personally I doubt humans can be extinguished. Homo sapiens is a tough, ornery species. We evolved through horrendous bouts of plague, starvation, predation, and barbarism. Any return to those challenges is not what I think anyone wants for our children. Nevertheless, from what’s happened so far on climate issues I don’t expect revolutionary changes ever on behalf of the commons. Personal, short-term needs and stability appear to consistently trump concerns over “maybes” of the future.

Some dismiss Fenner as an elderly (95 y.o.) crank or a mere alarmist. But the purpose of an alarm is to get you into action before the house burns to the ground. It’s an opportunity to avoid worst-case outcomes. And there is no outcome I can think of that’s worse than the agony of extinction.

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