There is no greater threat to individual and collective human prosperity than the crisis of extinction. It threatens our ways of life unparalleled in human history, except for the asteroid impact that almost wiped out our species about thirteen thousand years ago.3 We inhabit a struggle that holds within it the possibility to decimate our species, a domino effect of ecosystem collapse that will leave the vast majority without access to food or water and permanently alter the landscape of our plant and animal life. The result of this collapse will be conflict, inducing mass migrations, the continuation of existing wars, and the start of new wars. For many, violence and disease will follow, thrusting the vast majority of humanity into a time experience of desperation and struggle.
At any given moment, it’s difficult to know exactly how far our environmental crisis is accelerating because it just keeps getting worse. Our oceans are evaporating4, causing feedback loops that increase air humidity, warm the atmosphere, and further contribute to evaporation. This evaporation is coupled with oceanic overheating, which is devastating to marine and avian life.5 Early and declining snow melts are shrinking our lakes,6 resulting in increasing salinity that directly impacts the local climate and wildlife. Earth’s deserts are expanding,7 and over the past one hundred years we have lost as much forest as we had in the previous nine thousand years combined.8 Over the past fifty years, natural disasters have increased by order of magnitude, occurring ten times more frequently today than in 1960.9 Sea levels continue to rise as arctic glaciers melt at rapid speed,10,11 a change that will severely damage coastal cities around the globe and contain the potential to release dormant infectious diseases such as anthrax.12 Earth’s atmosphere now contains carbon dioxide (CO2) levels higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years. About three million years ago, Earth had similar amounts of CO2 in our atmosphere; the result was temperatures and sea levels about fifteen to twenty-five meters (fifty to eighty feet) higher than today.13 We are in the midst of a sixth major extinction, with recent predictions estimating that 70 percent of surveyed species will perish.14 It’s difficult to estimate how this eradication of life will impact humanity, but it is easy to understand how mass extinctions take a part of our humanity. The crisis of extinction is an expansive web of event chains collapsing upon one another and perpetually becoming worse than previous predictions.
To best frame the crisis of extinction, we must also recognize past and present ill actors. Over the past decades, many individuals and organizations have engaged in coordinated efforts to discredit the severity of the crisis through disinformation campaigns. For example, despite having evidence linking fuel burning to the rising levels of CO2 in our atmosphere, there is no shortage of corporate-sponsored “think tanks” actively churning out misinformation.15-27 Fossil fuel energy companies and investors have worked tirelessly over the past three decades to divide public opinion and purchase legislators to prevent meaningful political action from stemming the crisis. Popular media spreads information about how individuals might play a role in combating the climate crisis. Stop using plastic straws, recycle more, and travel less are just some of the many schemes concocted and popularized by corporate propagandists. They spin narratives highlighting the individual as a problem while intentionally omitting the root causes of our crisis. Today there are one hundred companies operating and eight now defunct organizations that are responsible for 70 percent of global emissions.28 Those who have engineered the crisis now seek to absolve themselves from the responsibility of solving it, instead attempting to create confusion and apathy. Critics of reimagining our spiritual connection with nature might argue that politics, not renewed philosophies of meaning and value, is the best pathway toward addressing the climate crisis. Nothing within the immediate present supports that claim. Global leadership is impotent, engaging in systems and power structures whose only function is to prolong and protect the established order. It should surprise no one that the same systems that invited the crisis of extinction to our doorstep will never be adequate to transcend it. What should be recognized as crimes against humanity is instead chalked up to the cost of doing business. The crisis of extinction forces us to confront the worst of our species, those who subscribe to systems of meaning and value that extend no farther than their personal accumulation of wealth. Now in the immediate present, we find ourselves deep in a hole that we have yet to stop digging.
The crisis of extinction will not impact everyone equally; the poor will undoubtedly suffer the biggest consequences. Impoverished rural communities around the world will struggle from changing weather patterns affecting crop growth and a changing landscape of animal food sources that will threaten their ability to sustain themselves. Those living in poverty within industrialized nations will suffer from a breakdown of already meager social services and a larger community increasingly unconcerned with the collective as they struggle to provide for their own families. Rising sea levels will damage coastal infrastructure beyond repair, removing access to readily available water, energy, and transportation, which will disrupt food supply lines for millions of people.
Consider also the impacts on indigenous communities who have played no role in the acceleration of the crisis. Indigenous Arctic cultures are grappling with rapidly diminishing food supplies as the seals, caribou, and other animals die out due to rapidly changing environments.29 Deforestation and segmentation continue to threaten native Amazonians’ ways of life, and glacial melts in the Himalayas are disrupting the water sources of many rural communities. It is estimated that 143 million people will need to flee their places of residence by 2050 in response to increasingly hostile environmental conditions.30 Those living in industrial societies will leave for more secure geographic locations, abandoning others to their fate. Many who consider themselves middle class will be in for a rude awakening as the cost of basic goods soar and many of their assets become worthless overnight due to some unexpected disaster. As we might imagine, these circumstances will increase hoarding, theft, and violence among sections of the populace with no alternatives. When basic material security is removed from millions, we will observe desperation become the primary motivator of human experience. It will become increasingly difficult if not impossible to collaborate toward a more transcendent vision of humanity when so many will inhabit circumstances of extreme insecurity. When we consider the crisis of extinction, we do so within the framework of the larger human condition, understanding that for many there will be no recovery from the material devastation they will suffer. The crisis will change who we are as individuals and collectively as a species, directing us away from transcendent struggle toward rudimentary survival.
The crisis of extinction highlights how social systems organized around birth lottery project an unequal value onto individual human life. While the poor suffer the most, the wealthiest will bear the fewest burdens. Those with plentiful assets will retreat into their walled gardens in their well-guarded compounds situated on hundreds to hundreds of thousands of acres fully stocked with food and supplies. These compounds exist throughout the country, and in other nations, many are already well prepared for the impending fallout should we remain on our current trajectory. If the worst-case scenarios of the crisis of extinction play out, federal laws and municipal governments will likely falter, leaving little recourse for those without assets to organize around the redistribution of resources. In this scenario, society will revert to a feudal state. The wealthy prepper is better prepared than most, reinforcing a self-delusion in believing they can outlive or outlast the crisis. It is possible within our immediate present that aerial distribution networks, self-sustaining homes, and a network of wealthy friends may prolong the inevitable, but it is foolish to assume the rest of humanity will remain idle as an extreme minority continues to live lives of luxury while the rest descend into chaos.
Consider also what the climate crisis reveals about the present state of global cooperation. There has been some progress through institutions like the United Nations, but any solutions arising from the organization are fragile arrangements. Because all agreements are essentially unenforceable, they become easily disrupted, as evidenced by the departure of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement in November 2020. It highlights a larger problem with multinational agreements: the power of the independent political actor to redirect and reshape past agreements based on personal preference. Today every nation attempts to advance its sovereign interests. The history of our species is full of tales detailing the fluctuation of power and resources, groups locked into never-ending struggles with other groups. Given that the present moment’s political institutions remain under the control of wealthy networks, the viability of these arrangements depends on alignment with the wants of economic elites. If a crisis presents a threat to the maintenance of existing power structures, we observe action, if not indifference. Solutions reached under this conflicting model of interest and action are always inadequate because the appropriate action requires a realignment of global priorities to redistribute resources to address shared challenges. The crisis of extinction poses a serious threat to existing power structures and those seeking to maintain them, but less so than the reorganization of individuals and systems in alignment with the single truth.
In many ways, the climate crisis is already robbing us of freedoms and behaviors we might otherwise undertake, further reinforcing our oneness with the relational universe. There is a growing trend among those in the age range of twenty to forty to avoid having children due to the extreme uncertainty of our future. Economic uncertainty is a persistent and growing threat, geopolitical relations exist in a state of perpetual war, and the systems governing society are captured by those with large swaths of private capital. Prospective parents are grappling with the gravity of bringing new life into a world that acknowledges the crisis but refuses to do anything about it. It forces us to prioritize actions we might otherwise not value and avoid aspects of our humanity we would ideally engage in.
Young children and those yet to be born will witness the extinction crisis unfold within their lifetimes and bear the brunt of the devastation while those responsible die out. We have chosen to damn the unborn to a struggle we do not yet comprehend the scope of. As individuals, we may feel powerless to create change because the vast majority of us do not have access to the levels of power driving local and global decision-making. In reality, we have immense power, but the systems governing our individual and group relationships do their best to nullify it. Nothing about our present arrangements instills confidence in our ability to overcome the crisis of extinction, which is why we direct our focus and energy toward organizing ourselves around new frameworks of meaning and value.
The crisis of extinction also presents a glaring lack of morality inherent in present-day humanity. Organizing large groups of individuals has always been a daunting task, but there is no excuse for the apathy and indifference of the present global leadership in addressing this challenge. Too many are too concerned with their political clout, fossil fuel funding sources, and antiquated ways of thinking about global organization to do what is necessary to avoid catastrophe. The effort needed to prevent the worst outcomes is akin to the national mobilization of economic verticals the United States implemented during World War II. During this time, the US nationalized several verticals of production and prioritized war efforts. Through this effort, the country realized its most productive era in history. Given the current corporate dominion of national governments around the world, a proactive mobilization is unlikely to occur before it’s too late, and when it does it will be disorganized and rushed. There are many possible reasons global leadership refuses to act when the extent of the crisis and the effort required to overcome it is already understood, but it’s an exercise in futility. What is certain is that our present institutions do not prepare individuals for circumstances requiring deep cooperation, collaboration, and, most importantly, courage.
Aside from the direct damage that will be caused by disingenuous approaches to solving the climate crisis, we must also consider the long-term ripple effects on our progress as a species. The climate crisis will inevitably stratify wealth, but it will also dramatically reduce the number of individuals able to leverage imaginative creation in their productive efforts. People who would otherwise have access to the resources necessary to develop analytical creativity will instead focus on survival. If our ability to contribute toward progress diminishes, so does the speed at which our collective time experience changes. Our biggest hurdle toward self-actualization in the age of crisis is recognizing our power to influence and guide it. However, neither of those can happen if the majority of people are thrown into a time experience of despair and chaos. We must address the crisis of extinction for the future of our species. It is perhaps the most significant obstacle preventing our individual and systemic actualization, but it also presents us with our greatest opportunity. Overcoming the crisis of extinction is a global effort that can unite us, but until now survival has proven an inadequate motivator to generate the energy needed to redirect ourselves. Coupling our desire to live with our journey toward transcendent humanity adds a spiritual element missing from the equation, a higher calling of unity and purpose that highlights what we already know to be true: We are greater than the crisis should we choose to be.