Our Comfortable Extinction
(Adapted from The Climate Pandemic: How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival)

Even given our profound impact on the global environment, it may seem patently absurd to contend that we are rushing headlong toward extinction. After all, we citizens of developed countries live an incredibly material-rich existence. Food and water are plentiful, and our stores display a stunning wealth of consumer goods. In fact, we don’t even have to visit a store to buy those goods. We can order just about anything we desire online to be delivered to our door. When we don’t wish to cook, we can order food from any of a multitude of restaurants.

The Climate Pandemic cover

Our technological achievements such as our transport system are nothing short of stunning. To be whisked to whatever local destination we wish, we only need to get into our car and speed away on paved roads. Or we can summon a ride-hailing service; or if we have access to a mass transit system, walk to the nearest station and be carried to our destination.

Our transportation system also readily takes us to far-flung destinations. On a trip to Japan, my plane departed from Los Angeles’ LAX, which before the COVID-19 pandemic handled some 88 million passengers a year. Hours later, it landed at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, which accommodated more than 40 million.

My trip took me through Shinjuku Station in Tokyo—a transport hub where a web of rail and subway lines easily handled more than three million commuters a day. From there, we boarded the fabled Japanese bullet train, which sped smoothly at some 150 miles an hour over a countryside green with rice paddies.

Our utilities serve us just as well. We bring light with the flick of a switch, obtain water with the twist of a tap, and make our waste disappear with the flush of a toilet or a pitch into a trash bin, which is emptied weekly from in front of our homes and carted away to become “not our problem.”

With the internet, information flows into our lives just as any other utility. We can call up facts, documents, or videos with the tap of a few keys or a voiced question to an artificially intelligent computer.

We enjoy a vast array of easily summoned entertainment. We are seduced and distracted by blockbuster special-effects movies and computer games that immerse us in rich fantasy realms; by sporting events that excite and engage us; and by amusement parks that offer beguiling refuge from the real world. This entertainment has become the opiate of the people, amusing us toward extinction.

Even our news is infotainment, feeding us a neatly packaged flow of information that is heavy on crimes, scandals, and celebrity peccadilloes. The dramatic news of wars and other violence attracts far more coverage than the slow violence of climate disruption.

Amid this flood of information, news of climate disruption constitutes a mere trickle that attracts our attention only fleetingly before disappearing into the vast historical archive.

This media-spawned “false sensory security” is one reason climate disruption has not made the impact on our conscience that could have enabled our survival.

Embedded in the cascade of news are legions of alluring commercials “aimed to keep [people] in a perpetual state of infantile self-gratification as dependable and dependent consumers rather than as informed, active, engaged, and thoughtful citizens,” wrote environmentalist and political scientist David Orr in his book Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse.[1] “People distracted by consumption, which is to say the thoroughly infantilized, seldom disturb the public order or become zealous revolutionaries,” he wrote.

Nature documentaries are a form of enviro-ads, portraying the artfully edited beauty of the natural world, while ignoring the ugly reality of humans’ degradation of that world. Few give even passing mention to the large-scale extinction of species.

Sir David Attenborough has been among the most prominent producers of such rose-colored documentaries. Over the decades, his documentaries have celebrated the wonders of nature without featuring the threats to their continued existence. One could argue that he thereby abdicated his responsibility to the very creatures he covered and benefited from. In a 2002 interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes, Attenborough rationalized his approach in terms of the need to hold an audience:

“The most important job is persuading people that the natural world is complex and wonderful and one of the most precious things we have,” he said. “And if you're going to do that, then every time you do it, you show the facts, you end up by saying, ‘And it's all disappearing and it's all your fault,’ people will stop viewing.” [2]

Only late in his career did Attenborough begin to highlight the dangers of climate disruption, in TV interviews and his documentary Extinction: The Facts.[3]

We also discount the possibility of our extinction because of our perception of calamities such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. We tend to see them as unavoidable “natural” disasters. We take comfort in the belief that we are not to blame for that tornado, that wildfire, or that flood. So, we accept their damage, grieve over the human loss, and work to recover.

“Benign” pollutant

Even as fossil fuel combustion, the basis of our economy, overburdens our atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) we do not perceive the gas as an extinction-level threat. Colorless, odorless, and non-toxic, it seems perfectly benign.

But what if it wasn’t? What if CO2 were brown-colored and with a foul odor? Then we would see and smell it spewing from the tailpipe of every petroleum-powered car and truck. It would waft from the stack of every fossil fuel power plant, transforming blue sky into brown. The effect would be horrendous.

Now, in our thought experiment let’s make things even worse. What if every object exuded the CO2 created in its production? All plastics, in fact all human-made materials, would emit the brown, effluvia-smelling stuff because of the energy required to produce them.

Even the fresh, “natural” fruits and vegetables in the supermarket cooler would give off the disgusting gas because fuel was burned in its planting, cultivation, harvest, and transport.

Within a short time, our air would be thoroughly stained. That is, except for the near certainty that the world’s governments would likely have acted instantly to pass laws banning emission of this disgusting vapor. However, that banning has not been the case, and we and our governments have relegated reducing CO2 pollution to a low priority.

In reality, our comfortable existence is but an instant in the time of human evolution that is sliding toward extinction.

We wrongly believe we are insulated from the vicissitudes of nature—that we can even recover from its catastrophes—because we are comfortably enfolded in our technology.

But in the end, we will be entombed in that technology.

Our Industrial Age has created what philosopher Gunther Anders termed a “Promethean gap”—named for the Greek god who gave humans fire. It is a gap between our success in creating machines and our failure to understand the social consequences of that creation.

We suffer “apocalyptic blindness,” Anders proposed. Such blindness “renders human beings incapable of facing the possibility of a bad end to their history,” explained sustainability researchers Ulrike Ehgartner, Patrick Gould, and Marc Hudson. “The belief in progress, persistently ingrained since the Industrial Revolution . . . causes the incapability of humans to understand that their existence is threatened, and that this could lead to the end of their history,” they wrote.[4]



[1] Orr, David W. Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse. Oxford University Press. 2009.

[2] Zubrow, Keith. “Sir David Attenborough to 60 Minutes on Climate Change: ‘A Crime Has Been Committed.” 60 Minutes Overtime (September 27, 2020).

[3] BBC. “Extinction: The Facts” (2020).

[4] Ehgartner, Ulrike, Patrick Gould, and Marc Hudson. “On the Obsolescence of Human Beings in Sustainable Development.” Global Discourse 7, no. 1 (April 18, 2017).