Letter to Someone
I began writing this some time ago, and I keep fiddling with it and adding to it. I'm posting it now, frankly, to get rid of it.
Things have changed, since then (which only goes to prove my point) -- when I wrote the first part of this, Pakistan and India seemed on the very brink of lobbing nukes at each other, and nobody was talking about avian flu in the mainstream media. I don't really remember, but internal evidence suggests that this was begun not long after the big tsunami. I also don't remember who asked me the question, if anyone.
You asked, do I really think the human race is doomed?
Yes, I do. So many slow fuses burning in the world, and just one of them has to reach the explosive. Do I need to name them all off? Supposing Pakistan and India start lobbing nukes at each other. Would China stay out of it? And then, would we? Israel and North Korea already have nukes. Iran either does, or will within a few years. And how long will Russians be content to live in squalor and hopelessness, chewing the table-scraps of old glory, when the tools of conquest are ready in their hands? As the players proliferate, the chances multiply, and the level of fear and distrust rises. It takes just one to panic. One defense-system to throw up a bogus alarm. One good software bug should do it. It's probably already in place, waiting for the right code path to execute.
Then there's the catastrophic drop in biological diversity, the huge die-off of species that we're in the midst of. We haven't even begun to suss out the ecological dependencies of our own species. Any one of those dying species, or some combination of them, might turn out to be have been critical to our own survival. Not the big mammals that everyone makes a fuss about -- the plants, the insects, the micro-organisms.
Then there's the vulnerability to epidemic that globalization has brought. We've been lucky so far, very lucky, I think, that nothing more infectious and virulent than AIDS has shown up yet. There's nothing, nothing at all, to keep a really vicious plague from sweeping the world from end to end, now. One that kills in hours, instead of years -- that communicates like the flu rather than like syphilis. We could just all get sick and die at the same time. No reason why it shouldn't happen. And, if the odds of nature coming up with such a thing don't impress you, there are probably scientists in bio-warfare labs in many parts of the world working hard to invent just such a plague.
Then there's the population. I know, it's old-fashioned to worry about overpopulation. The rate of increase has actually been dropping; the curve looks convex, now, not concave. All that alarm about nothing, you might think. But look where the curve is going. It will top out at -- maybe ten billion? Maybe twelve? Where do we find clean drinking water for another six billion people? Where do we find *any* drinking water?
Then there's global warming, or any number of entirely natural events that could just wipe us off the planet. We still don't really know what caused the other massive die-offs in biohistory, but we know they happened. Look what one good earthquake did to us just now. Plenty more where it came from.
I don't think any of these events is terribly likely. But they don't have to be likely. We only need one. The dice keep rolling, year after year. You really don't have to worry much if someone declares they're going to roll ten dice, and kill you if they all come up ones. If they're just rolling once, that is. But if there are five of them, each rolling their ten dice all day every day, that's a different story. That's what the situation looks like, to me. The human race is in for it. Maybe today, maybe ten years from now, maybe even two hundred years from now. But in a very short time, even on the scale of human history. Any second now, on the scale of biological history. This is probably the end of it.
So what does that mean for how we live our lives? Well. That’s the question, isn't it?
Species are not immortal, any more than individuals are. They either die out, or change beyond recognition. That was true before we began our self-destructive jag. The human species is not and should not be immortal -- really, I'm more worried about the havoc we might wreak in the universe trying to make ourselves immortal -- all those horrible sci-fi ambitions of perpetually expanding empire -- than I am about the prospect of dying off. Living things die. That's as it should be.
The problem is not that we're going to die. We were going to do that anyway, individually and collectively. I wish that we weren't in such a hurry to do so, and I wish we weren't taking so many other species down with us, but it doesn't really change anything. The real problem is that we refuse to think about death. We refuse to learn from it.
Embedded in almost everything we think and do, as individuals and as a species, is the tacit assumption that we are going to live forever. That we are going to be able to keep what we have gathered. Many people like to scoff at people who cling to science-fiction fantasies of human beings colonizing the stars, and gaining immortality – I do myself – but it’s only a variation on far more common fantasies. That the human race will achieve such ecological equilibrium that it will live safely on this planet for perpetuity. Or, even more common and even sillier, that it already is in such equilibrium. Or that we’re being looked after by a kindly father who, having given us one paradise and watched us trash it, can hardly wait to set us up in another.
And these, in turn, are just the macrocosmic versions of our personal fantasies of immortality. That we’re going to find a way of living that will make us enduringly content, and we will live so in the moment – some day – that our deaths will pass over us without a ripple, without a panic. That we’ll be able to pack up our personalities and take them with us to a new body. That for us, medical science will always stay ahead of entropy. That God, having tested us out with a temporary body, will give us a nice new (young and attractive) permanent one. Or that when we die our consciousness simply vanishes, so that actually we needn’t ever bother with death, because we’ll disappear before we can experience its losses and dislocations – how convenient!
Lots of different fantasies, but they all have one thing in common – a refusal to look death in the face, to dwell on it, to invite it into the house of our thoughts, and let it speak to us.
What death has to say to us is short and sweet. It's just this -- that the world we perceive is not real. We see a vast construct of permanence, a world of permanent essential personalities acting in an enduring world. It's all a fantasy. We are not the same person one moment to the next. Even the world we see is crumbling, shifting under our feet. Species are dying. All our friends are dying -- much faster than we care to see -- and they are changing, invisibly, even faster than that. Most of them will not be our friends ten years from now.
And the first delusion, the one that holds all the others in place, is that I am permanent. That I am the same person I was yesterday. That I can look at all the reflections of myself and make a composite picture, pick out the real, essential me; that I can express that real me and win appreciation for it that won't need constant renewal. In the teeth of all experience I go on believing that, and suffering for it. Always hungering for just one more validation -- the one that will hold.
None of them ever hold. None of them ever could hold. Ephemeral sketches of ephemera, as glimpsed in the background of their ephemeral mirrors by ephemera. If we could see them in all their impermanence and unreliability we would burst out laughing.
That's what being doomed can do for us, if we let it. It can encourage us to see things as they are. To live this last day of our lives with some sense of the joy and grief and grandeur appropriate to it, with some lessening of the fear that is so ludicrously inappropriate to it. Each day we should greet our friends as a miraculous resurrection, and take leave of our them as tenderly as if we will never see them again. Every day we should walk in the world as in a childhood house, which we have returned to after a shattering life in exile, marvelling when we see something that is as we remembered it.