Three paths to near-term human extinction

Out of time

Your luck done just run out, pardner. Photo: Llyn Gayatri Crounse via

About a decade ago I realized we were putting the finishing touches on our own extinction party, with the shindig probably over by mid-century.

During the intervening period I’ve seen nothing to sway this belief, and much evidence to reinforce it. Yet the protests, ridicule, and hate mail reach a fervent pitch when I speak or write about the potential for near-term extinction of Homo sapiens. I hear how:

  • We’re different.
  • We’re special.
  • We’re too intelligent.
  • We’ll find a way out. We always do.

We’re humans, and therefore animals. Like all life, we’re special. Like all organisms, we’re susceptible to overshoot. Like all organisms, we will experience population decline after overshoot.

Let’s take stock of our current predicaments, beginning with one of several ongoing processes likely to cause our extinction. Then I’ll point out the good not quite so bad news.

We’re headed for extinction via global climate change

It’s hotter than it used to be, but not as hot as it’s going to be.

The political response to this now-obvious information is to suspend the scientist bearing the bad news. Which, of course, is no surprise at all: As Australian scientist Gideon Polya points out, the US must cease production of greenhouse gases within about three years if we’re to avoid catastrophic runaway greenhouse. I think Polya is optimistic, and I don’t think Obama’s on-board with the attendant collapse of the US industrial economy.

Climate change is one of three likely extinction events. Well, three I know about: I’m certain there are others, and any number can play.

Back in the summer, the US had already tied its yearly record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters.

Russia is headed directly for loss of 30% of its permafrost by 2050. Tundra fires could accelerate planetary warming. This year, the Northeast Passage was open as of July 27th. This is a massively dire situation for the Arctic. In fact, we’ve passed a de facto tipping point with respect to Arctic ice. This latter outcome is stunning, but only to those who follow the horrifically conservative and increasingly irrelevant Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nature is responding with hybrid bears, suggesting the near-term loss of all polar bears. Indeed, all Earth’s systems are rapidly declining. Many organisms can’t keep up as they try to stay ahead of an overheating planet.

As the living planet decays, we keep piling on. Examples abound. Here’s one tiny example among thousands, from that pesky BP well at Deepwater Horizon. It’s out of the news cycle, but it’s not done destroying life in the Gulf of Mexico. But perhaps this tidbit belongs beneath the heading of …

We’re headed for extinction via environmental collapse

Nature is bankrupt, just like Wall Street and the USA. Thanks for playing, but you lose. The banksters on Wall Street “win.” But only in the short term. In the long run, we’re all dead (as first stated by John Maynard Keynes).

Among the consequences of taking down a few hundred species each day: at some point, the species we take into the abyss is Homo sapiens (the “wise” ape). The vanishing point draws nearer every day. Our response, in the industrialized world: Bring on the toys. Burn all fossil fuels. Harvest the rain forests and strip-mine the soil. Pollute the water, eat the seed bank.

And, most importantly figure out how we can make a few bucks as the world burns.

We have our hand in a monkey trap, and we can’t let go.

We’re headed for extinction via nuclear meltdown

Safely shuttering a nuclear power plant requires a decade or two of careful planning. Far sooner, we’ll complete the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy. This is a source of my nuclear nightmares.

When the world’s 443 nuclear power plants melt down catastrophically, we’ve entered an extinction event. Think clusterfukushima, times 400 or so. Ionizing radiation could, and probably will, destroy every terrestrial organism and, therefore, every marine and freshwater organism. That, by the way, includes the most unique, special, intelligent animal on Earth.

Ready for some good news?

Meanwhile, back on Wall Street

The Securities and Exchange Commission is busily covering up Wall Street crimes, just as they did during the last presidential administration. And, as it turns out, they’ve been performing this trick for two decades. Finally, though,  Standard & Poor’s is taking the US to the woodshed, albeit mildly.

The S & P knows what the media and politicians know: US national debt isn’t really $14 trillion and change, as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, it exceeds $200 trillion. And, back when it was a mere $10.5 trillion, it exceeded the value of all circulating currencies and all the gold ever mined. It can’t be paid off —ever. The response will be default. With luck, it’ll happen quickly and completely, thus sending us directly to the new dark age (with the post-industrial Stone Age soon to follow).

The ongoing crash of the stock markets differs from prior events because, for one thing, the Fed is about out of ammunition. At this juncture, there are no easy solutions. In fact, there are no solutions at all. We’ve just
about used up all our rabbits in the hat
as far as fiscal and monetary policy are concerned.

Economics pundit Graham Summers agrees: The Fed is about to find itself completely powerless as 2008 redux appearsThe great collapse, for which 2008 was merely a warm-up act, is under way.

Think of 2008 as an economic teddy bear, and 2011 as a grizzly. And I think I mentioned this one already: The hunters are out of bullets.

The all-too-expected political response from the final remaining superpower: ratchet up covert wars. Maybe, while we’re at it, launch another World War.

The bottom line

You’ve been warned repeatedly in this space, and the Guardian finally joins the party: The industrial economic system is about to blow. This burst of hope, our remaining chance at salvation, will undoubtedly be greeted with the usual assortment of protests, ridicule, and hate mail I’ve come to expect from planetary consumers who want to keep consuming the planet.

The underlying predicament — reduction in available energy — is described graphically by former Oil Drum editor Gail Tverberg in this essay. She then tacks on fine analysis in this subsequent essay. Jared Diamond adds a dose of complexity, as described by Transition Voice publisher Erik Curren.

But these warning shots are only the most recent in a rich history dating back to Marcus Aurelius (and probably further). For materials only slightly older than me that focus on our energy predicament, take a peek at M. King
Hubbert’s 1956 paper
and the text of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s 1957 speech.

If you’re looking for a personal response to the converging crises in which we’re immersed, start by recognizing reality. And then, let go.

–Guy McPherson for Transition Voice

You might also enjoy


  1. says

    Two of the three are (largely) related to global over population. You could add another derived cause: resource depletion. Even the outlier of desease pandemic (a reach for it to be existential) has a relational factor to over population.

    I don’t see how nuclear meltdown alone wipes us out. Makes us miserable, increases cancer rates yes, but an existential threat? Nuclear War (which would have your meltdown scenerio piling on to its effects) strikes me as far more plausible way for us to kill ourselves. Note that even a non-nuclear war could potentially meltdown a lot of reactors.

  2. Charlie Robinson says

    I find explaining to people that the best-case scenario for the medium term survival of civilisation involves a global economic collapse which would make the Great Depression seem like a minor blip, and which continues for a few decades, during which life expectancy falls so dramatically that the population halves (or more) can shake them up a bit.

    I don’t much like the binary choice between civilisation continuing to advance or collapsing completely though. What actually happens will no doubt be some mixture of the two…

    Unless the worst case positive feedback scenarios are true the species itself will probably survive…

    Personally, I’m an optimist – if we get the collapse over with quickly we could start a sustainable recovery by some time late this century…

    • svtransitiongroup says

      “Personally, I’m an optimist – if we get the collapse over with quickly we could start a sustainable recovery by some time late this century…”

      I have 1 question, start a sustainable recovery with WHAT?

      As people begin to go hungry there will be wars of epic proportions, because we are after all still animals and we will do whatever we feel we need to do to survive. Also with our modern education system in the state that it is, we have lost our ability to independent thought. So how are we supposed to create a brand new system that will be fair to all members? We won’t we will keep making the same mistakes that we have made as a society since the dawn of human society.

  3. Auntiegrav says

    Thanks, Guy. Another good piece of work.
    I think that what many are missing about the Collapse scenario is that the current ‘stability’ of our economic and logistic systems is dependent on the PERCEPTION that it will continue. Lose the perception of perpetual growth, and you lose the money, the transportation companies, the Deepwater Horizon wells (nobody is going to pay to drill them if they don’t think the economy is going to keep growing to pay them back).
    The government and other powers that be are working day and night to keep the illusion of stability going.
    Meanwhile, we are all riding high on an elevated monorail we call “the economy”, but the supports are all made from corn starch and petroleum.
    The real question is whether we will see it collapse SOON ENOUGH to prevent our climate from getting hot enough to boil away our lakes and streams. With the current state of things (the tundra, the antarctic, etc.), it may already be too late.
    I’m an optimist also. I believe people will figure out better and better ways to take themselves out of the equation.

  4. Robert says

    Some of us have seen this coming as far back as 1963 on the UC Berkeley campus when our student body head Mario Savo had invoked our need to do everything we can to be the wrench in the machinery that brings to a screeching halt the monster of perpetual economic growth on a finite planet of energy and resources, based on fatalistic-socio-economic model.
    A system pf burning a candle burning at both ends insanity with no future, believing we can issue infinite credit and debt expansion to keep the consumer spedning, as the primary means to keep everyone emplyed or it crashes, all the while we end up puiling up exponetially more garbage into our planetary waste-sinks wthat is destroying the physical processes that allow for life to exist in the second-place.

    Clealy we have both been looking at much of the same measurement data across the spectrum of so many multi-discipline sciences in which I agree with Professor Mc Pherson, along with many others that were not mentioned.

    One of which I believe is the most over-arching reasons we are headed for a mass-extinction event, is simply because we have just not made the evolutionary leap yet in our biology to have learned to self-actualize our intellectual, emotional and spiritual enlightenment to the degree necessary(en mass), to where humanity has learned to live in peace, harmony and balance with each other and our environment, without some male dominant need to exploit, dominate, and monopolize human capital, and take from others instead of through cooperation and mutually beneficial ways, instead wishing to have more than others.

    While I have always tended to believe in the lessons learned from Rianne Eisler’s, ‘The Chalice and the Blade” and Edward Schmookler’s “The Parable of the Tribes” where “gender-balanced human societies can play a significant role in developing more peaceful and harmonizing co-habitation with other societies, I don’t believe therefore humanity is necessarily hard-wired towards violence, selfishness, and aggressive predatory exploitation and monopolization of others, we as a species cannot overcome.

    And yet, given the anecdotal evidence and the current scheme of things, its hard to not see reality on the other side, where it appears there is always someone scheming with news ways to hone their sword of developing new weapons, and having the biggest stick to wield, and fining the means to take from others what they have through exploitation and the monopolization of energy and natural resources to which an empire can be built, for which this paradigm of human civilization has been in effect now, and maintained with vigor for the last 5,000 years.

    When you get a chance to see thousands of people who exercise enormous control over many peoples lives who commit such a huge waste of peoples time, money and resources in which to develop new technologies for social benefit, we have always had the wrong people in charge who use them in other more evil ways to annihilate other human-beings, at the expense of destroying fragile of planetary eco-systems.

    You know therefore its only a matter of time before its game over.

    The sheer magnitude of nuclear, chemical biological, ELM, (Electro-Magnetic) Scalar weapons, an neuro-cognitive psychological weapons to change consciousness, being developed in every conceivable way to use on each other, informs us, this is not a species destined for longevity, let alone what biology tells us about those species that nature kicks out of extinction first, which are those who are the most predatory and aggressive in the ecosystem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *