Sunday 30 June 2013

Near-term human extinction

Reflecting on anthropogenic climate change and near-term extinction

by Seemorerocks

I have been in the habit of collecting news stories that tend to support what I have come to describe as the collapse of human and industrial society.

I have often been asked why I do it, and doesn’t it make me depressed to be dwelling in so much negativity? My answer has always been that I couldn’t live with myself (that’s a nonsensical statement if ever there was one!) if I didn’t confront this head on.

What has made it easier is to treat it all a bit like the martial arts - to accept the information and then reflect it back out (in a more concentrated form) into the universe.

When I started this blog about 2 years ago it was all about collecting stories about Peak Oil and the collapsing economy, and encouraging people develop strategies for themselves, their families, and, first and foremost, their communities, to make them become more resilient and to transition to a post-carbon economy.

Two years later the world economy is still dragging itself along, still on the point of collapse, but things have become incomparably worse. The stories have become shriller and more frequent - yelling out that this cannot continue; something’s got to give.

Near term human extinction

While all these ‘old’ processes have not gone away it is hard to escape the reality that what we have now is runaway global warming with numerous non-linear, irreversible processes - positive feedback loops that ensure, in essence that ‘The hotter it gets the faster it gets hotter, and the faster it gets hotter the more....’ etc.

In the last weeks (since the onset of the northern summer) we have seen events whereby we seem to be watching the break-up of the Arctic ice in real time, and a series of truly horrifying extreme weather events around the globe simultaneously

Now, it seems to me, the narrative has to be changed from building sustainable communities to acknowledging that humanity is on a suicidal mission and the greatest likelihood is that we (along with the rest of life) are heading for near-term extinction.

So much so that it now has an acronym of its own - NTE.

Living with denial

I woke up this morning after listening to Guy McPherson’s interview with Doomstead Diner for the second time, with a strong need to make a tactical retreat and to process for myself what this really means.

There are various ways that we can process this.

One is to totally ignore reality and take refuge in the lies and distractions of mainstream, corporate media. Along with usually comes an unconscious anger at having one’s comfortable view of life challenged by the likes of you or I.

It is highly likely that as things get worse this anger will take on more violent forms.

These are the people that become the foot soldiers of fascism, who will invariably blame the victims and look for the reasons for their predicament anywhere other than where they should.

I genuinely fear the strength and violence of this reaction.

There are others who will take refuge in a liberal view that also paints a largely false picture.

The huge chasm between the cloying rhetoric of Obama and the reality of his administration stands out as well as the nonsense of the liberal media that takes the rhetoric for fact and ignores the reality.

When it comes to climate change the majority of those who recognise its reality will follow the ‘official line’ which paints a ‘frightening’, but false picture of linear change.

"The oceans will rise and the world will get hotter - but not in our lifetime".

Mainstream media, science and the IPCC

I have become somewhat used to the distortions of the media. 

In this country (NZ) there seems to be a complete taboo agaInst dealing with the realities of climate change other than in brief items that see things in isolation from the global context and the reality on the ground. 

I should have been a bit more realistic in my expectations that the stark realities of rapid sea ice melting and of methane release (along with all the other feedbacks) would be reflected somewhere in mainstream science

But it turns out, they haven't.

The actual observations of scientists working in the Arctic (and the Antarctic) has long overtaken the computer projections of mainstream science. David Wasdell of the Apollo-Gaia Programme in the UK, in his excellent presentation on Arctic feedback mechanisms, makes it clear how wide the gulf between reality and the computer models of the IPCC.

I have always been aware of the inherent conservativeness of scientists and their tendency to become locked in their own specialities (and thus avoid the 'Bigger Picture'). 

Regarding the IPCC, it is an international body and so is subject, not only to all this but also to considerable political pressures from member states who can literally veto any conclusions they don’t like. 

It is science by consensus.

Why would an elite that is suppressing the realities of economic breakdown and of Peak Oil (and resource depletion in general) be interested in having an informed public that is aware of the dangers of runaway climate change?  Why would they be interested in having people aware of ecological collapse - the extinction of 200+ species a day -  and the predicament of having 430 + nuclear installations that are past their use-by date and subject, at any time to catastrophic meltdown?

'The Pleasures of Extinction'

Another form of denial is illustrated by recent article, the Pleasures of Extinction
by John Michael Greer, who, I understand specialises in questions of Peak Oil.

His, in many ways, admirable essay points out how many times predictions of Armageddon have proved to be false and discusses the important role fundamentalism has played in the history of the United States.

However, without addressing the sound scientific base behind the conclusions, he attacks Guy McPherson without naming him, and refers to near-term extinction as 'the latest apocalyptic fad'.

Fantasies of imminent human extinction are one comforting if futile response to this ugly predicament. If you want a justification for living as though there’s no tomorrow, insisting that in fact, there’s no tomorrow is certainly one option”

As if the conclusions of McPherson and others was just one more example of an apocalyptic cult, instead of being based on sound science.

I did not come across a single scientific or factual argument in his article to counter Guy McPherson's argument.

In a subsequent article he talks about a thermostat mechanism and 'negative feedbacks' without, I suspect, understanding (at least in the context of climate science), what this means.


When we contemplate increases in global temperature of 1, 2...4C, it is easy to think there is nothing special in that. After all the human species can withstand wide variations in temperature, and I experience much greater variations when I step outside.

The clear answer came from Guy McPherson in his recent interview with Doomstead Diner

The answer is not in the temperature per se, but in habitat.

We are already seeing loss of human habitat from processes such as desertification and from ecological disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico; from Fukushima. We are seeing acidification of the world's oceans and increases in dead (anoxic) zones.

Increases in temperatures that we are already seeing, and future increases from concentrations of 400+ ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere (actually much more, thanks to releases of methane from the permafrost and methane clathrates in the Arctic and Antarctic), mean that we will see huge changes in the range of temperatures.

Already we are seeing that in recent climatic events such as the heatwave in Alaska and Siberia, where temperatures went from freezing to 90F in the space of 50 hours.

What happens to humans and their habitat in these conditions, especially with energy collapse when we won't simply be able to turn on the air conditioning any more?

We will then have to live with the 'new abnormal'

Prolonged exposure to temperatures more than 95F and we lose our ability to thermoregulate. In the words of Guy McPherson 'in the short term we're dead'.

When the temperatures go from freezing to 100F in the space of 2 days how is our permaculture garden going to survive. At a certain temperature protein starts to denature.

I would contend this means we will lose our ability to feed ourselves quite quickly - let alone the ability to feed 7 billion people.

No sane person would wish for the extinction of life on this planet, (still less make afad of it), but no intellectual argument is going to make the problem go away any more than collectively burying our heads in the sand.

The first thing we need to do is to accept the evidence.

If you are going to argue please do it on the basis of facts and evidence. 

Tell the climate scientists they are wrong; tell the polar ice scientists that their measurements are wrong and the volume of Arctic sea ice has not decreased by 80 per cent. 

And please bring some evidence along with you to refute the facts.

Living with uncertainty

Once we have accepted the evidence we have to work out how we are going to respond - another stage of round through K├╝bler-Ross' five stages of grief?

It's not just accepting near-term extinction. 

It's a probability, not a fact.

Perhaps we need to learn how to live with uncertainty.

That for me, at least, is harder.

A common argument against dealing with the facts is to say that people are incapable of doing so, so we should only give them such facts as they can deal with. And always leave room for Hope. 

Always Hope!

To me that equates roughly with lying.

And to the perennial objection that the only possible reactions are to fall into the most abject depression or to become a hedonist and party our way to oblivion.

To the latter, Guy McPherson had the perfect response.

Given the way that most of us in the developed world lead our lives it is impossible to distinguish how living as a hedonist could be distinguished from the way we are already living our lives.

And regarding depression, does that have to be terminal? Can't we move from denial to anger, to depression through to acceptance?

What about looking reality directly in the eye - without blinking.

For me that is the only way of living my life.

For a summary and update on climate change by Guy McPherson  GO HERE

PS - I put the following question to Guy McPherson

Q: All the media talks about is sea level rise and do not talk about changes to the human habitat. You don't talk much about sea level. Is this because the sea level changes could be slower than other changes that will finish us off, like extreme heat, acidification and general inability to produce food?
Or is it just one more factor?

A: Sea level lags well behind the changes in habitat that will kill most of us. The exceptions are small islands.


  1. NTE is pretty much a given.
    It's time to start acknowledging The 6th Mass Extinction. Climate change is only a part of this. As eminent biologist Prof.EO Wilson frames it, extinction is due to a series of impacts:

    H I P P O G
    Habitat destruction
    Invasive species
    Population pressure from growth driven "civilisation"
    Pollution from industrialism
    Over harvesting of food species
    Global climate change/warming

    The real underlying issue is not climate change, or peak everything, or The 6th Mass Extinction. These are simply the powerful symptoms. It is the insane dominant culture aka global industrial "civilisation" aka Empire.

    Until this is realised at a deep level, everything stays the same, and collapse of 'the economy' is a given, collapse of the biosphere is a given too, and that means NTE for most "civilised" humans...

  2. I have no doubt that you are right. It's also called "infinite growth on a finite planet".
    I would still argue that climate change is a bigger factor than pollution and habitat destruction - but taken together they will kill us off. Why not add nuclear to the list? Quite simply we won't be able to feed ourselves.

  3. "What about looking reality directly in the eye - without blinking."

    Hi Robin - I think about these issues daily and often I wish that I could put my head in the sand. My wife asks me daily: Why don't you just find things you and enjoy and let go?

    I don't have a good answer for her because I don't know what compels me to perpetually watch this slow-motion train-wreck. It's horrible but I can't take my eyes off it. Sometimes I wish it would all end in a blaze of light but then I realize that it's going to be death by a thousand cuts so like an obsessive-compulsive I watch and document each cut and bruise on the way down.

    Thanks for keeping an eye on this for all of us!

    1. I'm with you all the way brother! We soeak to those with "little dust in their eye"

    2. One of the coolest things is having the ability to pretty much watch this as it happens. And yet, most people choose to pay little attention. Freakin' amazing.

      This is not a comment on your work Mr. Sosebee. Many of us have done as much as we could, some of us for a really long time, and yet Empire rolls on, little phased by our puny efforts.

  4. 'NTE for most "civilised" humans...'

    Not to be picky, but extinction is something that either happens or it doesn't. A species can be close to extinction but it can't be partly extinct. NTE is all or nothing: if there are any of us left, it won't have happened.

    1. Good point, Graham. I have seen NTE advocates trying to make out that there isn't much difference between a few tens of thousands of humans and no humans. To me, there is a world of difference. There is no such thing as 99.9% extinct. If there are likely to be viable populations left after the big die-off, then I think it makes sense to plan to be among them.


  5. First time reader of your blog. Your calling out JMG for neglecting the scientific basis of Dr. McPherson is right on the money. I am sure he knows better, but just can't give admit it.


  6. Good one!

    I've never been able to confront reality in any way other than head on with eyes open. It's just how I'm put together.

    It's funny...I look back at 30+ years of writing and recording songs and albums, and the majority of them basically were warnings: "THIS is what will happen if you continue to do THAT" was the underlying message.

    Now that we're in the throes of experiencing the effects of our behavior, I may have to start writing songs about girls and cars or something...

  7. Although I acknowledge almost everything you've mentioned and, personally, view the situation in roughly the same way, I think it's hard to put such a forceful case to those who haven't even reached the first rung on the ladder of awareness (i.e. most people).

    The Arctic sea ice was looking like it would take another couple of years, with this year's extent just tracking at the bottom of the two sigma range, rather than well below it, as it was last year. However, it has just taken a sharp turn downwards. This happened later than last year so maybe Wasdell won't get it right about an ice free 2013. Not that that is anything to dance about but, if it doesn't happen this year, it may be another example of how the extreme predictions just never work out (just as any prediction doesn't).

    What the timeline will be for both Arctic sea ice melt or for human extinction is unknown. I think a strong case can be made for a very bleak future without invoking extremes of predictions and estimates. We know that the earth, as a whole, is accelerating its warming and that needs to be brought more to the fore, to counteract the idiots who fixate on the surface temperature, claiming that warming has stopped (even though the surface hasn't warmed enough to get to a balance between energy in and energy out, yet). We know that the extinction rate is many times the background rate (or, at least, the lowest, most conservative, estimates show that) but we don't know that it is 200 species per day. That 200 per day isn't even the highest estimate but it is an old one that just can't be confirmed from observations. Isn't 10 per day bad enough, given that it should be less than that per year?

    Guy does tend to pick the worst projections and take them as fact. They may turn out to be, of course, but people don't need to be scared by extinction to realise that we've done terrible damage to the biosphere that supports us. Indeed, it may be counter productive, whether people believe it or not - if they do then why do anything? If they don't, then why believe any of the bad projections? I believe the situation is far worse than the official line but I can't make that case and don't think I could if I understood all of the science. Talking of which, as Guy himself says, most feedbacks are poorly understood, so I don't think we should be assuming that all positive feedbacks cause runaway warming. We also shouldn't assume that this industrial civilisation won't collapse quickly (within 10-15 years) or what that will mean for global warming.


  8. ...

    I like (in a perverted sort of way) Wasdell's synopsis too. But I don't know enough about the science to know if Wasdell, who isn't a climate scientist, has got it right. I've asked a working climate scientist for his view on the videos. He said he will check it out but it may not be for a while as he's pretty busy right now.

    John Michael Greer eventually clarified his take on "NTE" (McPherson doesn't use the acronym and I tend to avoid it also, given the import of total extinction, unless it's referring to the cult of NTE). It is that NTE may take on a life of its own regardless of what the science may say about it (including science that might show NTE just isn't on the cards). We might get something analogous to the Mayan calendar fiasco of last year. I agree that this might happen although now Guy has acknowledged that the Malcolm Light paper is flawed maybe the extinction date of 2031.8 will now be abandoned. I wouldn't jump to conclusions about what John Michael Greer doesn't understand. His problem is not that he doesn't understand the mechanism (at least up to intelligent layman level) but that he refuses to think that it is just possible that this time it's different. He seems to think that there is nothing new under the sun and that history can tell us pretty accurately about what to expect; all we have to do is find a society or civilisation that has some similar characteristics and, BINGO, we know it will take 2 centuries for collapse and that the environment won't get really, really bad.

    There has never been a globally interconnected civilisation as complex as this within a global environment that is as stressed as this one but that doesn't faze John Michael Greer or his sidekick Bill Pulliam. The only examples of severe environmental change that they could come up with from the past are either from before humans existed or before humans discovered civilisation. Anyway, I think it's safe to assume that it is different this time, for all sorts of reasons.

    Regarding permaculture, I don't think it's as easy as assuming permaculture can't take such an extreme swing in temperatures. I remember, a long time ago when I was part of the problem (though I still am, to a much lesser degree), I was in Orlando, Florida. It was freezing early in the morning - the car windscreen was frosted up. By the afternoon, it was hot. Not as hot as 100F but probably high 80s. That was in the space of 6 or 7 hours, not 50. Anyway, many permaculture systems (food forests, chinampas, even bio-intensive veges) do form their own micro-climate. In a mature food forest, you wouldn't see those wild swings within the micro-climate. Permaculture systems are far more resilient than conventional food systems. Not that we should be complacent; prolonged such temperature swings would eventually cause too great a stress on the species that thrived in a different climate. But if any system can get to grips with such huge change, it would be a permaculture system, in my opinion.

    Lastly, on the subject of uncertainty. For me, certainty of near term extinction would make (remaining life) easy, at least in one respect. I'd know that it wouldn't matter what I did so I might very well decide to party again, or at least live a conventional life, which would be much easier than what I'm trying to do now. The uncertainty means I'm forced to follow my conscience and try to simplify my life as much as possible, as well as trying to be as self-sufficient and sustainable as I'm mentally and physically able to do.

    (Michael, your wife and mine would probably get on well!)

    1. Too much tho reply to quickly, but one thought....If you are concerned about Wasdell's science credentials you should try In particular comments by Natalia Shakhova, who IS a climate scientist and talks about methane emissions.

  9. In my Radio Ecoshock show "Will Humans Go Extinct Soon" I show the serious flaws in Malcolm Light's paper predicting human extinction by the 2030's. Malcolm is a petroleum geologist whose solutions is to open the Arctic to massive drilling for natural gas (more fossil fuels as a solutions to fossil fuel burning).

    In my blog for that program I also quote a German biologist and expert in extinction who explains it takes much longer than that for species to become extinct.

    While I checked all McPherson's sources, and found them correct - NONE of them predicted near-term human extinction. It appears to me that Guy McPherson, along with journalist Oliver Tickell, made that leap. There is as yet no peer-reviewed published scientific paper in the world that suggests, much less "proves" humans risk extinction before 2050, or even at all.

    I think we can agree we are already in a world of trouble, with much worse to come. There will be mass die-offs and suffering. But my opinion is, and it's all a matter of opinion (not science yet) at this point: humans will continue to struggle to adapt for at least a century or two, if not much longer.

    Thanks for this thoughtful blog post.

    Alex Smith
    Radio Ecoshock

    1. Thanks for that broadcast, Alex. It pretty much matched my own feelings about it. As I say, I'm glad Guy has now acknowledged the failings of Light's "paper".

  10. One aspect of all this that is only now just beginning to reach public consciousness is the role of psychopathy in this headlong rush for destruction. It is becoming increasingly clear that psychopaths - whose defining characteristic is a complete absence of conscience - are far more common than the Hollywood axe-killer model would have us believe. In the general population they account for about one in 25, but amongst the World's power brokers - bankers, CEOs and politicians, they are a very high proportion. Not only does our extremely complex technological society offer multiple ecological niches for such individuals (I won't call them people, because that would imply they are human), but the ultra-competitive struggle for power positively selects for psychopaths. I strongly recommend the video "Defence against the Psychopath", available on YouTube.
    Martin Hanson

  11. Our industrial civilization of pleasure seeking, always more, better, shinier, no matter the reality of its cost, is as if ind civ were a baby who was given one and only one diaper. Rather than face the obvious reality that we only get one diaper (earth), we have now permanently soiled that one and only diaper and so we just have to live in our waste products until they kill us, like bacteria eventually die if confined to a petri dish. Earth will recover...but it will take a bit.


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