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Editorial |  :

Could we face a mass extinction of human beings in our lifetime? As global temperatures rise & bushfires devastate the landscape, it's a worst-case scenario that is beginning to be seriously discussd.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks has also escalated the anxiety that people feel about their mortality.

However, there seems to be a difference in the way the public has reacted to these two threats.

Global warming and potential mass extinction are seen as a vague threat somewhere out there in the distant future, whereas coronavirus is viewed as a clear and imminent danger.

The growing fear of a coronavirus pandemic appears to have quickly motivated Australian health authorities and governments into immediate and appropriate action.

By comparison, the anxiety around global warming and potential mass extinction seems muted.

Human beings have a naive optimism

A report written by Paul Gilding, a fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and commissioned by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, put forward the view that there is a "high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end in 2050" if action is not taken to curb climate change.

Climate change deniers will typically denounce any discussion of mass extinction as histrionic doomsday talk, while some climate change believers argue that discussing mass extinction now is precipitous and dampens the optimism that we can turn global warming around with a positive "can-do" spirit.

Who would have thought that both camps have a psychological mindset in common?

A naive optimism that human beings are just so clever that it will all turn out OK.

Older species fade away

Psychoanalysts use the term manic defence to describe how human beings can pathologically cling to optimism and hope as a way of denying their depression and anxiety.

To contemplate mass extinction is indeed a dark place to go to and a difficult conversation to have — even more difficult than global warming itself — because it is to think the unthinkable.

But spiritual traditions across the world believe it brings depth and richness to our lives to contemplate our own death. It does not necessarily have to be a morbid preoccupation.

It is sobering to consider what scientists tell us of the paleo-ontological history of the Earth, which may throw some light on the fate of human beings when we look at the broad sweep of time.

"More than 99 per cent of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. As new species evolve to fit ever-changing ecological niches, older species fade away," National Geographic science writer Michael Greshko wrote.

"At least a handful of times in the last 500 million years, 75 to more than 90 per cent of all species on Earth have disappeared in a geological blink of an eye in catastrophes we call mass extinctions."

We're not special

As human beings, we need to remind ourselves that we are oxygen-breathing biped mammals.

In other words, we are animals. Evolutionary science demonstrates that we are continuous, not discontinuous, with other animal species.

If one's view of the world is based on science, we are not special, we were not placed here by a God to be the custodians of the Earth (and if we were, we have let the Almighty down big time!) and like all other species, we will have our place in the sun.

We will die out, and other, more adaptable, life forms will take our place.

The myth that we are somehow special and will continue to live forever as a dominant species is based on a deluded human-centric form of existential narcissism.

We may wring our hands and our hearts may ache at the rapid destruction of wildlife that is happening right now before our eyes, but we never seem to seriously consider that we may go the same way.

But as the poet John Donne wrote: "Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee".

Death can be transformative

We may liken the state of the Earth to a man who has just been told by his doctors that he has lung cancer. There is treatment available that might save him, but it cannot be guaranteed that it will work.

The human species may, metaphorically, keep puffing away on fossil fuels and an inevitable death may well be the outcome in a blip of geological time.

But even if we "undergo the treatment" — changing over to sustainable forms of renewable energy, for example — there is no guarantee of survival.

Based on story by | Geoff Dawson (Psychologist and Zen Buddhist teacher)

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