Does the Human Species Wish to Survive?

The title question is deliberately provocative, yet relevant to reflections on the future of humanity. The question is framed to encourage inquiry into whether the human species as a species has the collective will needed to overcome several global challenges that confront humanity before the onset of catastrophic havoc. Such framing can be labeled as ‘prudent alarmism’ given the risks arising from global warming trends and the continued possession, deployment, and development of nuclear weapons.

Apocalyptic thinking has acquired a deservedly bad name, a kind of cosmic ‘crying wolf.’ In public consciousness, ultimate warnings are primarily associated with crazed religious cults that point to a particular date as the biblically designated end of the world, and when the date passes without anything happening, there is a shrug of the shoulders among true believers, reassuring words from the leader, and a resumption of business as usual.

Science fiction writers long preoccupied with real world problems, especially the persistence of war, have developed a variety of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios that at their best stretch our imaginative faculties. Such fiction usually entertains far more than it influences public perceptions, thrilling exploits of the imagination, but is not to be taken seriously by the arbiters of power. There are occasional exceptions such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Imagining Threats to the Planet

One common theme encountered in science fiction literature does illuminate the failure to deal with common global problems through effective cooperation among sovereign states. The scenario is narrated as follows: a condition of intense fear on the part of political leaders is generated by confirmed reports of an impending attack on earth from a hostile advanced species located somewhere in the galaxy. The threat has been verified by the leading intelligence agencies of the world prompting an emergency global convention of political leaders to plan a unified defense. To ensure an effective defense of the planet the national leaders are persuaded that it is necessary to establish a world government. In other words, the collective will to defend the peoples of the planet forges a planetary alliance preparing to wage a war of survival against threats of annihilation posed by alien intruders, overcomes the political fragmentation that currently prevents the protection of the human interest.

Such a scenario seems realistic if the credibility of the threat is accepted. Political communities, whether tribal or national or even civilizational, have throughout history displayed a capacity for greatly heightened forms of cooperation, including extraordinary sacrifices of blood and treasure, if threatened by a common enemy. This experience of achieving exceptional cooperation rests on mobilizing the political will of existing communities. It relies on the logic of the war system as operating within a fragmented world order consisting of sovereign states and presupposes an enemy. Without the menace created by an enemy, the record of cooperation for the sake of the human interest is not impressive.

From religious visions of end-time to science fiction depictions of inter-planetary warfare, we come to a contemporary secular envisioning of the end of human civilization in its most modern forms. The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 created a widespread anxiety about what the future would bring if there was ever a third world war. Many dire warnings were made, perhaps most famously by Albert Einstein: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” There were also artistic renderings in film and fiction that shared a sense that the species would likely survive a nuclear war, but in degraded forms identified with urban barbarism and ‘bare survival.’ One of the most rending portrayals of such a post-apocalyptic landscape is found in Cormac McCarthy, The Road. The ‘lucky’ survivors formed violent gangs of foragers that roam the countryside searching for scraps of food and sips of water. Such marauders are themselves never more than minutes away from rival predators also desperately seeking the necessities of life. These accounts of a post-apocalyptic future rest on the premise that the species would survive, but in the dramatically diminished life circumstances of an atmosphere of anarchic violence and lacking any pretensions of civic community life.

Preventing Human Catastrophe

What is missing from these accounts is some inquiry into what might have prevented the catastrophe from happening in the first place. I believe adopting such a focus is a necessary first step in meeting the global challenges. Humanity is in the midst of enduring unsustainable trends that raise risks of a catastrophic future that can be avoided, but only by way of a collective response that draws strength from species identity. Perhaps the most severe danger is not the threat of bare survival of the kind we associated with life in Nazi death camps or in a social setting dominated by anarchic gangs running wild in the city and countryside. The greatest hazard is better understood as directed at humane modes of existence that have in moderns times steadily extended life expectancy, provided empowering technologies, raised materialist expectations, and eased the burdens of daily labor for many earthlings. That is, what is likely to be lost is what was long thought to have been the gains of modernity.

The experience with nuclear weapons illustrates vividly the inability of humanity to act like a species rather than as an antagonistic amalgam of sub-species communities, bounded in space and consciousness to identities of nation, race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and civilization. Expressed differently, to eliminate nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction requires a strong dedication to the wellbeing of the whole that is absent. The world continues to be organized and authority structured so as to give the highest and ultimate priority to the well-being of the part. Some feel reassured that there has been no use of a nuclear weapon since 1945, but a more careful scrutiny of this period would suggest that the world escaped nuclear war on several occasions by the narrowest of margins. Recent research suggests that even a limited regional nuclear war would likely induce a global famine of ten years duration that would cause the collapse of organized life on the planet.

After World War II, beneath the shadows cast by the recent massive devastation of the just concluded conflict and forebodings about the nature of major future wars, the United Nations was brought into being. The primary pledge of the UN “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” was from the outset a meaningless gesture. The requisite political will to address the scourge of war was missing. Even the capabilities and independence needed by the UN to implement the promise of collective security were not forthcoming. And the more modest task of ridding the world of the specter of a future nuclear war turned out to be beyond the reach of global reformers.

There were some early initiatives taken by the United States to achieve nuclear disarmament, but always in a manner designed to ensure American dominance of any future rearmament process should problems arise. Besides, there was no indication that the Soviet Union, although lacking the bomb, was itself willing to trust its ideological and geopolitical adversary before it too had the comparable weaponry. And so a costly and dangerous arms race unfolded rather than a demilitarizing disarmament process.

The realism of sub-species leaders of governments remained paramount. There were important grassroots initiatives in Western democratic societies throughout the Cold War exhibiting widespread fear of nuclear war and related expressions of ethical disgust about basing security on the threat of retaliatory omnicide. Despite this, the geopolitical rivalry between the two superpowers and their allies dominated the global stage. Significantly, the United Kingdom, France, and China each decided that their security would be more enhanced by possessing their own separate arsenal of nuclear weapons than by foregoing the option. Security based on deterrence, offsetting omnicidal threats by
adversaries, was preferred to security based on disarmament. Additionally, the hierarchical side of world order was underscored by the nonproliferation approach, which rested on the perverse proposition that the main danger to world peace came from the countries that did not possess nuclear weapons rather than from those that possessed, deployed, and were continuing to develop this weaponry.

The Persistence of Statism

What is evident in this process is that the UN as an institutional framework was structured around the primacy of sovereign states. Even more revealing, the most powerful (and dangerous) states were constitutionally exempted from any obligation to adhere to international law and the UN Charter. This exemption took the form of giving the five winners in World War II a veto power that was a guaranty that a valid UN decision would never override what the government of any one of these states decreed to be in its national interest. My point is to suggest that the menace of nuclear weapons could not be addressed in a manner consistent with the human interest given the primacy of sub-species identity that was deliberately embedded in the structure and operations of the UN since its establishment. As a result, the treatment of nuclear weapons has been ‘normalized’ in ways that resemble earlier weapons innovations that were not threatening to the civilizational circumstance of the human species as a whole.

This same dynamic is evident in relation to climate change, but in an even starker form. At least with nuclear weapons, there is the possibility that their use can be indefinitely avoided by prudence and deterrence. With global warming there is no such possibility. Scientists have been warning us in ever shriller tones that if we go on as we have been since the industrial revolution, disaster awaits us in coming decades. Already the tell-tale signs of global warming such as the frequency of extreme weather, melting glaciers, desertification, and water scarcities abound. And there is no sign whatsoever that governments are prepared even to consider abandoning the iron law of growth or taxing carbon emissions or discouraging consumerism or restricting human fertility. That is, the main decentralized political units, sovereign states, are not able to summon the political will to respond responsibly to the near scientific certainty that a terrible future awaits coming generations. True, the rich and sophisticated countries will be able to adapt better and stave off many of the worst consequences anticipated by climate scientists, but only for an undetermined length of time, and during a period when less wellendowed countries become a new type of ‘failed state,’ sending waves of migrants across their borders in search of safety and livelihood.

This overall assessment is shared by many expert observers, perhaps most persuasively by Clive Hamilton in two recent books: Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (2010) and Earthmasters (2013). As with such other sages of our time as Richard Tarnas and Slavoj Žižek, Hamilton places his hopes on a transformed consciousness that will find a way forward by overcoming the modern idea that human activity best progresses by thinking of the environment, and nature more generally, as there to be managed, exploited, and dominated for human benefit. The stress is placed on recognition of the danger and then a resolve to act to overcome the radical disenchantment of human interactions with its environment that is the only home we can ever hope to have. I share completely this plea for active engagement in achieving this transformational shift in human consciousness, but it is not enough to rescue the species from impending doom.

A 23-kiloton tower shot called BADGER fired on April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site as part of the Operation Upshot-Knothole nuclear test series. photography | en
A 23-kiloton tower shot called BADGER fired on April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site as part of the Operation Upshot-Knothole nuclear test series. photography | en

Can the Human Species Learn to Survive?

I would call attention to two additional sets of fundamental concerns. First of all, there is the bio-political character of human nature as it has evolved over the centuries, and in diverse social and cultural settings. The simple question raised is whether there exists a sufficiently evolved species identity as distinct from less expansive collective realities as family, neighborhood, and nation. As far as I can tell there is no evidence that a collective will of meaningful strength at the species level exists. Even nuclear weapons survival threats were generally treated as threats to such existential levels of community, especially to individual, family, and national survival.

The second concern relates to those features of human behavior that facilitate survival in the face of severe challenges. Jared Diamond has explored survival success and failure from a civilizational perspective in his fine book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). In a later book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (2013), Diamond investigates how we can learn some survival skills from pre-modern societies. Put differently, until the middle of the last century, human survival was never really challenged except by religious prophesy, science fiction, and ominous fears prompted by pandemics imperiling health.

Related to this lack of species experience with meeting collective challenges is the fragmented structure of world order as earlier discussed. The challenges of modernity did not require exceptional levels of cooperation to serve human interests. Governments could be induced to cooperate to the extent necessary for mutual benefit as in establishing secure international navigation and communication or for the general well-being if no great sacrifice was entailed, as with establishing a system of governance for the oceans or Antarctica. When wealth, economic growth, and energy use is at issue, diverse national interests and corporate greed prevent cooperative solutions, partly because of extremely uneven resource endowments and technological capabilities. The potential wealth of deep-sea minerals was big enough to make powerful governments resist the effort of smaller states to treat such resources as belonging to ‘the common heritage of mankind.’

Responding to global challenges on the basis of species well-being will require taking account not only of the alienated consciousness that derives in the West from the Enlightenment, separating human activity from nature in destructive and misleading ways. It must also appreciate the problems that arise due to the lack of bio-political experience in dealing with challenges to human wellbeing associated with issues of truly global scope. Finally, there is the need to recognize that world order continues to rest on the primacy of sub-species identities as embodied in sovereign states, and that the UN is a failure if conceived of as a project to serve the human interest. The UN merely reproduces sub-species identities in both of its destructive forms without creating a global community in even a rudimentary form—that is, the sovereign state as the main agent of identity formation and the geopolitical super-state as the principal managerial and organizational force that approaches global concerns to conserve and promote its dominant position.

For a more hopeful human future we as a species need urgently to affirm the imperative of serving human interests and to recognize that this can only happen if people are able to create a vibrant global political community that embraces the whole of humanity.