Against longtermism

Why longtermism is the world's most dangerous secular credo | Aeon Essays
Scarecrows keep away migratory birds from the dangers of the tailing ponds created by the exploitation on the tar sands at Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Larry Towell/Magnum

It started as a fringe philosophical theory about humanity’s future. It’s now richly funded and increasingly dangerous

Phil Torres is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany. His writing has appeared in Philosophy NowNautilus, Motherboard and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among others. He is the author of The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse (2016), Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing…

Edited bySam Dresser

There seems to be a growing recognition that humanity might be approaching the ‘end times’. Dire predictions of catastrophe clutter the news. Social media videos of hellish wildfires, devastating floods and hospitals overflowing with COVID-19 patients dominate our timelines. Extinction Rebellion activists are shutting down cities in a desperate attempt to save the world. One survey even found that more than half of the people asked about humanity’s future ‘rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50 per cent or greater.’

‘Apocalypticism’, or the belief that the end times are imminent, is of course nothing new: people have warned that the end is nigh for millennia, and in fact many New Testament scholars believe that Jesus himself expected the world to end during his own lifetime. But the situation today is fundamentally different than in the past. The ‘eschatological’ scenarios now being discussed are based not on the revelations of religious prophets, or secular metanarratives of human history (as in the case of Marxism), but on robust scientific conclusions defended by leading experts in fields such as climatology, ecology, epidemiology and so on.

We know, for example, that climate change poses a dire threat to civilisation. We know that biodiversity loss and the sixth mass extinction could precipitate sudden, irreversible, catastrophic shifts in the global ecosystem. A thermonuclear exchange could blot out the Sun for years or decades, bringing about the collapse of global agriculture. And whether or not SARS-CoV-2 came from a Wuhan laboratory or was cooked up in the kitchen of nature (the latter seems more probable right now), synthetic biology will soon enable bad actors to design pathogens far more lethal and contagious than anything Darwinian evolution could possibly invent. Some philosophers and scientists have also begun sounding the alarm about ‘emerging threats’ associated with machine superintelligence, molecular nanotechnology and stratospheric geoengineering, which look no less formidable.

Such considerations have led many scholars to acknowledge that, as Stephen Hawking wrote in The Guardian in 2016, ‘we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.’ Lord Martin Rees, for example, estimates that civilisation has a 50/50 chance of making it to 2100. Noam Chomsky argues that the risk of annihilation is currently ‘unprecedented in the history of Homo sapiens’. And Max Tegmark contends that ‘it’s probably going to be within our lifetimes … that we’re either going to self-destruct or get our act together.’ Consistent with these dismal declarations, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2020 set its iconic Doomsday Clock to a mere 100 seconds before midnight (or doom), the closest it’s been since the clock was created in 1947, and more than 11,000 scientists from around the world signed an article in 2020 stating ‘clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency’, and without ‘an immense increase of scale in endeavours to conserve our biosphere [we risk] untold suffering due to the climate crisis.’ As the young climate activist Xiye Bastida summed up this existential mood in a Teen Vogue interview in 2019, the aim is to ‘make sure that we’re not the last generation’, because this now appears to be a very real possibility.

Given the unprecedented dangers facing humanity today, one might expect philosophers to have spilled a considerable amount of ink on the ethical implications of our extinction, or related scenarios such as the permanent collapse of civilisation. How morally bad (or good) would our disappearance be, and for what reasons? Would it be wrong to prevent future generations from coming into existence? Does the value of past sacrifices, struggles and strivings depend on humanity continuing to exist for as long as Earth, or the Universe more generally, remains habitable?…


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