Appreciating Species Extinction

Ten Thousand Baby Boomers have been turning 65 every day for about eight years now and the mortality salience is really starting to kick in.

The rich are working on immortality. The not-so-rich are just trying to extend their stay with nutritional supplements and personal trainers. Everyone knows about sun block.

Some people are trying to take the advice of Socrates, who said we should prepare for dying. Unfortunately, he didn’t provide an obvious curriculum. I’ve looked around a lot for a substantial mortality prep program and have not found much. So I made up my own course. I don’t know if it’s any good, but developing it sure helped me.

If I had to summarize my Instructional Design for Dying course in one bumper sticker it would be:

We humans are not supposed to be able to accept Death, much less appreciate it. Many scientists and other people say Fear of Death (FOD) is hard-wired, which I take to be a metaphor for not knowing how to deal with something.

I didn’t know how to deal with FOD either, but I made up a plan and started working on it. It changed me. I still don’t want to die. I’m not looking forward to it. But I can also hold the idea of me dying very clearly in my mind and just be there with it.

I am glad that I will have an end.

Accomplishments

I’d like to scale the proposition all the way up to humans as a whole. If it could be healthy for me to accept, and maybe even appreciate, my own mortality, how about for all the homo sapiens?

Is it healthy to accept and even appreciate the extinction of our species?

Appreciating extinction doesn’t mean feeling great about it — it means being fully aware of its value.

Etymology tells a good story here. The Latin source of Appreciation is ad (to) + pretium (price), so the origin lies in the crucial realm of setting the right value on things.

By the 1800s, the idea of value as a dynamic commercial property had emerged, adding a dimension of growth to the meaning. Appreciation “implies the use of wise judgment or delicate perception” [Century Dictionary]. When we recognize the true value of something and treat it accordingly, it will frequently grow in value (appreciate)as a result.

It is not normal to Appreciate Death in our current Death-denying culture. There is actually a large and legitimate branch of scientific research that claims we can’t. It’s called Terror Management Theory (TMT) and the Terror part does not refer to Bin Laden. It refers to that hardwired FOD claim.

The modern Father of TMT, Ernest Becker, wrote a bestseller in 1954, “The Denial of Death;” yes, a Bestseller about Death.

Becker is in the Death-Sucks tradition. He is one of my heroes even though I disagree with almost everything he stands for. I love that he thought long and hard about Death — that’s Appreciative.

He described everything we do as a mechanism of denial. Everything that means the most to You is an Immortality Project, an effort to Beat the Reaper!

Of course, what Becker called Immortality Projects can also be seen as Accomplishments, plain and simple. What he calls avoidance of Death can also be seen as making the most of Life.

It’s only Denial if you’re still pretending, but how do you know if you’re kidding yourself? You can’t. Maybe when the moment comes I’ll scream or whimper or cry out for God. I can’t really know that. What I do know is the freedom from fear, delusional or not, that I feel now and that I might feel for a long time to come.

I worked for this feeling, which is why it is meaningful to me. I used my own curriculum. I spent hundreds of hours with the best teachers we have — dying people — I was a volunteer caregiver for the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco for seven years. I also led active workshops for psychologists and counselors. I talked with high school kids about dying. I did chemo.

Accomplishing something is what makes me feel best, especially something hard. It might take fifteen minutes or fifteen years, doesn’t matter. Once it’s done, it’s past and all time is the same there. What’s left is me feeling good.

Deadlines

A perceived deadline might be integral to the accomplishment success formula, at least for me, maybe for others.

Andersonville Prison, NPS.Gov

The term ‘Deadline’ has an informative backstory. It first surfaced in the US Civil War as an actual boundary for prisoners, crossed at risk of Death.

The printing industry picked it up later as the physical boundary marking what would fit on the page; there was literally a dead line in the layout. That idea quickly jumped from space to time and became the temporal point beyond which things wouldn’t make it into the publication.

Deadlines motivate me. I want my stuff to make it into the publication. If you say the Deadline is ten days from now, I’ll get it done in six. If you say it has no deadline, I’ll turn my attention to the things that do. On my best days, I create my own priorities and set my own difficult Deadlines. And then meet them with time to spare.

Species Deadlines

Our species has a deadline, always has. We think it’s about 500 million to one billion years, the point at which our Sun will be large enough as a Red Giant to at least parboil us. Maybe it’s sooner — the big asteroid we don’t know about yet, or a terrible human error. But the end of our Sun is definite.

Earth with Sun as Red Giant, Wikimedia Commons

That means eventually we have to accomplish something we have done before — migrate, but also something we have never done before — leave the planet permanently. Because we do not feel the deadline to be imminent, moving off-planet is a project but not a priority.

Other life threatening deadlines are believed by many to be closer than 500 million years by at least seven or eight orders of magnitude. They are also projects, contested projects, not universally endorsed priorities. The proximity is not sufficiently salient.

Most of the serious philosophical discussion of species extinction focuses on risks, likelihood and costs. It’s like we’re assessing mud slide insurance. Should the value of unborn future generations be part of the cost accounting? And if so, how much?

It is more than an article of faith that species extinction is awful. In Christianity (faith), the existence of humans is divinely ordained, which automatically trumps everything. Nick Bostrom, the Swedish philosopher and best-known explorer of existential risk, claims every reasonable position agrees on our moral imperative to avoid extinction.

That is not true.

How about the people who see not just species extinction but the end of everything as part of God’s Plan? It takes the end of All This to usher in God’s Kingdom. So that would presumably make extinction a good thing, or at least something a believer is not morally obligated to prevent. A significant percentage of our species feels this way.

And then there’s the VHEMT, (Voluntary Human Extinction Movement), which has been around formally since 1991 so Nick Bostrom should know about it. VHEMT makes a solid case that the best way to preserve life on earth and reduce human suffering at the same time is to not have any more humans.

I am not a member and I will not be joining, although I love that there is a Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and that it started in Portland, Oregon.

I am not ready to 86 our species because of the supposedly awful things we have done. But I am ready to accept and appreciate whatever happens if we come to the deadline and that’s it. Nothing else gets published. We didn’t make it to a new publication, just Earth, and it’s out of business. That could happen.

Childhood’s End

To avoid extinction, our species will have to change dramatically, as dramatically as the changes that took us from before we were even neolithic all the way to modern homo sapiens. We will either achieve a change of consciousness that allows us to stay on planet Earth, or we will achieve technological advances that allow us to colonize other planets. Or both.

Some people think the change will happen through technology, a bio-tech merger. To evolve into something qualitatively different from the good old humans that we know and love — whether it happens through AI, VR, or LSD — is to become Transhuman.

So one way or another, we’re goners. We don’t evolve — we’re dead. We do evolve — we’re not us. Arthur C. Clarke wrote about one way the transformation could happen in a science fiction novel titled, ‘Childhood’s End,’ (spoiler alert) — All the kids go off and join a hive mind.

It’s hard. It’s sad. The end of childhood is all those things, plus it’s necessary.

It happens every day, every micro-instant. Become, transform, become, transform. It’s a scalable concept. We need to get used to it.

We are not the Crown of Creation. Just one level of organization, and one instance of that.

Saying goodbye to me helps me feel lighter and more fluid. Saying goodbye to us feels like remembering my kids real young.

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos