I see that Elizabeth Kolbert's book The Sixth Extinction has been published. Before I get to Kolbert, for whom I have a lot of respect, I am reminded of some text I wrote in another context but didn't publish.
All of my published material on DOTE is guided by my firm belief that the human-made world should make sense. Let me illustrate that view with a typical example of muddled thinking I found at the blog treehugger. The post is called Diasterbation Turns You Blind. That post was written on May 5, 2010, and the author Sami Grover was upset by what he perceived to be a new wave of pessimism in the environmental movement.
I may be in danger of repeating myself here, but I have been thinking a lot about pessimism, nihilism, and a certain schadenfreude that pervades some parts of the Green movement. From the Dark Mountain Project's rejection of environmentalism to James Lovelock's assertion that mankind is doomed, there seems to be no shortage of greenies who don't just believe that we are all screwed, they also seem to take a certain pleasure in declaring it. So where does this embrace of pessimism stem from?
I'm not going to argue that civil disruption, climate chaos, or even the end of humanity is not going to happen. That would be stupid.
Right, Sami, that would be stupid. Now he gets to the heart of the matter.
Just as we can never know for certain that our time is up, we also can never know for certain that it isn't. Our knowledge of all systems—both natural and societal—is just way too rudimentary to make absolute claims.
As I've argued many times before, choosing a future and working towards it is always the most effective strategy. To put it another way, activism always beats prophecy.
I've had people make that argument with me about my work just before they quit reading DOTE. Those people simply didn't see how I could make the claims I make, although I have always tried my damnedest to thoroughly document those claims and explain how I reached certain "pessimistic" conclusions (I obviously prefer the term realistic).
I utterly reject the argument from ignorance. The human-made world should make sense. If it doesn't, then we're not yet thinking about things the right way, not yet thinking in a way which provides insight into what's going on.
Sami's argument from ignorance allows him to reach the conclusion he wants to arrive at in any case—choosing a future and working toward it is alway the most effective strategy. In so far as our all-encompassing ignorance makes any future possible, Sami feels entitled to conclude that enlightened humans (like him) can choose the one they want, and work to make it so.
Regarding the vague phrase "the most effective strategy," we are entitled to ask what goal that "effective strategy" is being used to achieve. The perfection of human life on Earth? The utopia which is the ultimate end point of Progress? An end to looming self-created self-destruction? If not these things, then what is the goal?
I don't believe that humans choose futures at all. Those "choices" we appear to be making were effectively made for us tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, leaving aside the large role which contingency has had on human development. (For example, what if humans had never stumbled upon the scientific method, and thus developed the technology which scientific insights made possible? What if humans had never successfully developed plant cultivation and animal domestication?)
While I do not disregard the large role contingency has played in human cultural development, I am a determinist, and as Sami Grover correctly perceives, determinism makes a mockery of activism. In my view there is no point in getting frustrated by our inability to change big environmental outcomes (e.g., the climate, marine ecosystems, the 6th extinction) because there was never any possibility that humans would be able to understand their own behavior sufficiently to be able to change it.
Determinism is altogether intolerable to humans generally, and in particular to activists like Sami Grover, who want to change the world. That view must be vigorously rejected, which Sami did.
Which brings me back to Elizabeth Kolbert, who did an interview with Mother Jones to publicize her book. I recommend that you read the entire thing, but also wanted to repeat her concluding remarks.
EK: Humans will eventually become extinct. People treat that as a radical thing to say. But the fossil record shows us that everything eventually becomes extinct. It depends what "eventually" means. But the idea that were going to be around for the rest of global history... I don’t think there’s any scientist who would suggest that is true. It could be millions of years from now. We may leave descendants that are human-like.
MJ: Is this book a call to action?
EK: I very carefully avoided saying what it was. What I've laid out requires action commensurate with the problem. We're talking really huge global-scale change, and I did not feel that I had the prescription for that kind of action so I’m going to leave it to the reader.
I believe Kolbert wrote the book (in part) to dispel the argument from ignorance with respect to the Sixth Extinction. There is nothing "rudimentary" (quoting Sami) about our knowledge of how human expansion is affecting other species on this Earth.
No one can say they don't know what's happening. Nobody can say they don't understand what is causing the Sixth Extinction. Kolbert's book, and several others, including David Quammen's Song of the Dodo, are there for everyone to read.
Then there is Kolbert's answer to the question about whether the book is "a call to action." For the know-nothing activist, who lives in a world in which anything is possible, everything is a call to action, despite overwhelming, ubiquitous evidence that humans are not only causing the Sixth Extinction, but are also doing virtually nothing to prevent it. A few marginal species conservation "victories" (after the species in question is >90% reduced) do not constitute persuasive evidence that humans have the wherewithal to stop themselves from destroying large parts of the biosphere.
So Kolbert says, carefully, that the book is not "a call to action" because she is loathe to specify what the book is meant to accomplish. Kolbert did not feel she "had a prescription for the kind of action" required to fix the situation. In fact, she is bearing witness to how humans are changing the planet, as she said in this interview.
And that's what I've been doing, too, on DOTE.
Thus Kolbert does not puff her readers up with phony obligatory hope. Good for her.
Kolbert is too polite to say it, but the book is not "a call to action" because there are no collective actions that would fix the mass extinction problem. Humans would have to be something other than they are. And if we were a different species, there probably wouldn't be any need for a "call to action" because we wouldn't be detroying ourselves and large parts of the biosphere. That's the essence of determinism. Humans are a species, so what you see is what you get.
And thus the activist argument from ignorance is simply more of the same blindness that got us to this point-of-no-return in the first place. Sami Grover says "activism always beats prophecy." Nonsense. Genuine prophecy, not Doomer prophecy, takes Human Nature as its basis. Viewed properly, "Us versus Them" activism, as I have written about lately, is simply another goes-nowhere manifestation of that nature.