It is hard to stay deaf to the religious overtones of the current talk on climate change and biodiversity loss. The environmentalist talks about an imminent ecological disaster that will engulf the planet in an everlasting darkness. No doubt these overtones are unavoidable when one talks about the end of life on Earth. This makes us wonder whether it masks a certain ideology, or whether it is a prediction based on good scientific evidence.
Some of the United Nations reports on the subject are important in this connection. In 2014, the UN released the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It was conducted by 800 scientists from around the world for six years.
Two things about it are astonishing. The first is its recognition that climate change is the result of human activities since at least the 1950s. The second is its projection of an increase of the Earth’s temperature by 4°C by the 21st century. Unless decisive action is taken in the immediate future about the emission of human greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide), the consequences will be disastrous. It talks about “substantial species extinctions”, of “large risks to global and regional food security”, of “consequential constraints on common human activities”, and of the “increasing likelihood of triggering tipping points”.
The UN 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is also astonishing. It found that the rate of species extinction has been higher than the rate of speciation (the formation of new species) since the 1950s and that this too is a result of human activities.
One third of the planet has been converted into a food supply for urban populations in megacities. Vast stretches of land are being used for agriculture and animal husbandry depriving species of their habitats. The use of intensive farming techniques and industrial animal husbandry is also cited as a cause of global warming and biodiversity loss. Pollutants are used that damage the soil and oceans as well as living beings.
A group of scientists came to a similar conclusion two years before the 2019 UN report in an article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The paper is titled, no doubt partly for dramatic effect, “Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signalled by vertebrate population losses and declines”.
In the eyes of this group of scientists, their results show that population extinction of land vertebrates is happening everywhere. It is “geographically omnipresent”. They’re confident that the extinction of invertebrates and plants is “as severe” as that of vertebrates.
They believe that the population extinction of vertebrates will have cascading effects on ecosystems. The “biosphere is undergoing mass species extinction”. This is causing “a vast reduction of the fauna and flora of the planet”. It will also have “serious ecological, economic and social consequences”. They conclude that humanity “will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe”.
This article and others like it give us pause for thought. What is most striking about them is the lack of restraint in their tone. They begin by mustering the facts of the last 50 years, or from further back into the past. Having looked at the past, they then turn to the future and they announce, not without drama and gusto, the approaching end of mankind and of all life on earth. And yet, though they portray the facts in such a way that the end looks inevitable, they call upon the reader for remedial political action, as though the disaster can yet be averted.
They resemble the priest who calls upon his flock to repent now that the end is approaching and the day of judgment is at hand. The end is certain, but they can still save their souls.
Where does the problem lie? I think it lies with the future they claim to predict: the end of life. I am not suggesting that there are no good reasons for worrying about the effects of global warming and biodiversity loss. There doubtless are.
The ordinary course of experience and knowledge is based on the conviction that the future resembles the past. We believe that what we’ve not yet experienced will resemble what we have. But the end of life refers to a future that is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. It is without precedent. This puts it beyond the scope of experience and knowledge. Even if it happens, we won’t be around to see it, at any rate if it is truly the end of all life. This means that this end does not exist for us outside of what we say about it. It is a fantasy destined to feed desire.
The philosopher and mathematician GW Leibniz asked in 1697: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The prospect of “nothingness” did not become a tangible reality before the threat in the 1960s that a nuclear holocaust would ravage the Earth for centuries to come. That is when the question of existence was posed for the first time not just for mankind but for all life forms on Earth.
It was also the first time that the fantasy of total destruction was deployed to serve ideological ends. From this perspective, there is continuity between the current talk on a global ecological disaster and the talk in the 1960s on a global nuclear disaster.
This historical perspective is significant in several ways. It demonstrates that what we have been witnessing since the 1950s is the rise of a planetary civilisation, the first in recorded history, the first civilisation in history capable of bringing about the destruction of the planet by technological means. I am referring to the civilisation that has issued from modernity and from centuries of colonialism, that is to say, global capitalism.
This perspective also demonstrates that a disaster is a planetary crisis. It represents an existential threat to the globe. The prototype of a disaster is that of a planetary catastrophe. Global warming and biodiversity loss are disasters. So are the nuclear incidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl. September 11 also perhaps falls under this category, the destruction of the Twin Towers as symbols of global financial capital, the heart of the world economy.
A disaster always has a spillover effect upon every domain, from the socioeconomic to the technological, scientific, legal, ecological and biological. It indirectly demonstrates the interdependency of all the domains that make up the world. It puts them all at risk.
More worrisome than the prospect of total destruction is the ideological use to which this fantasy is put. Under the prospect of an imminent end to life, everything becomes possible. One is ready to give up everything to those in charge or to those who promise salvation, starting with one’s freedom.
In this case, the fantasy of total destruction is used to justify the policy of placing mankind’s adaptation to the Earth under the supervision of states, non-state organisations or supra-national entities. One bets on the short time that remains between now and the coming disaster which will allow us to be saved. Salvation is promised through the total domination of life.
The domination of life does not begin with the unethical behaviour of industrial husbandry or deforestation. It began long before when life was taken over by a way of thinking that made it look like a resource and capital — a service. It started with capitalism.
The ecologist wants to ensure that this limited resource is used sustainably and equitably against the capitalist, who uses it up and wastes it away to make a profit. But they share the same way of thinking about life. They talk about it as a capital and a resource. But life is lost when that happens. It is lost to global capital and its world order.
Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg and is currently a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.