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The Precipice: Teetering on the Edge of Extinction

Updated: Sep 9, 2023


A Primate Studying the Anthropocene Credit: Kelvin, Tsz Hei Choi (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

There’s a disquieting feeling in the air. Everyone can tell something is wrong. The world is not as it should be and everything seems to be teetering on a precipice. This summer, we’ve recorded the hottest global temperatures in human history. Fires are raging in Canada and Greece. This year alone, violent weather events have caused $35 billion worth of damage in the United States.

You’ve probably read headlines describing how the water temperature off the coast of Florida is above 100 degrees, destroying much of the coral reef and sea life dependent upon them. In fact, there was a recent scientific report that with such high water temperatures, the gulf stream will eventually cease to function, triggering a domino effect of collapsing oceanic ecosystems throughout the Atlantic Ocean.

Destroyed school and school bus in Kherson Oblast

On top of these environmental threats, there are civil wars being fought in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. All of these wars are incurring massive military and civilian casualties, many of them with no end in sight. However, the war in the West that everyone is really paying attention to is the Ukrainian conflict.

The Ukraine War is especially scary because the aggressor, Vladimir Putin, has access to more than 5,000 nuclear weapons. Obviously, Western nations desire to see Ukraine victorious, but NATO leaders are balancing on a tight rope. They want to provide support, but they fear the wrong kind of support could incite a mentally unstable man to make a rash decision that could end life as we know it.


As a result of these wars and climate change, millions of humans are migrating towards more hospitable areas of the world. People from Central and South America are migrating north, only to enter into countries like Mexico that are run by drug cartels. Indeed, in some countries like Haiti, gangs have overrun the government. Every day, innocent Haitians are executed and left for dead in the streets. Even ironclad democracies like Israel are falling prey to the whims of extremists. Recently, Zionists passed a law weakening the power of the Israeli Supreme Court to strike down unfair government decisions, paving the way for an unchecked authoritarian regime.


Even if you’re not paying attention to these global issues, everyone is anxious. There are too many people with too few resources and the problems just seem to be getting worse. Scientists have long spoken of an Anthropocene Epoch, a global extinction event caused by human activity. What’s amazing about this event is that unlike an asteroid strike or massive volcanic eruption that happens in an instant, we are watching this Anthropocene unfold like a slow-motion train wreck right in front of our eyes. Even those who are currently guarded from the effects of this train wreck can see clearly that it’s only a matter of time before the reverberations impact them.


How Did We Get Here?


What’s amazing about the current state of affairs is that this extinction event is the result of human progress. If you look back over the last 150 years, our technological progress has been astonishing. My grandmother was born on October 7, 1908, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. At the time of her birth, the house she lived in had no electricity, no indoor plumbing and no refrigeration. Although her family was one of the first families in her town to own an automobile, their primary mode of transportation, besides walking, was horse and buggy.


My great grandmother and her friends in their new car (circa 1908)

By the time she died in 2003, the world she inhabited was completely different than the one she had entered. Her generation had witnessed the greatest century of technological innovation in the history of humanity. Perhaps the most significant indicia of this change can be seen in one number: The year that she died, the average lifespan of an American citizen was 77 years of age.


For the better part of human history, the average lifespan of homo sapiens vacillated between 30 and 40 years of age. You could die at any moment for a variety of reasons. You could contract a disease. You could acquire an infection from a small cut. If you were a woman, you could die in childbirth. Food shortages from drought were common events. You could easily become a casualty of war when resources became scarce. Not to mention just trying to survive when the temperatures became too hot or too cold.


For the vast majority of our 200,000-year history on this planet, human life has been unpredictable and defined by intense suffering. This reality is reflected in the opening chapters of the Bible when God curses Adam after he eats from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: “…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” (Gn. 3:17-19)


It is only in the last 100 years that we have developed the technological capability to remove much of the natural causes of suffering from our lives. Vaccines and antibiotics have eliminated most deadly diseases and infections. Irrigation systems, fertilizer and genetically modified seeds grow food in abundance. Sanitation systems have removed harmful waste and ensure access to purified water in developed parts of the world.


Technological innovation through machinery, computers and robotics has increased labor efficiency more than four-fold. We live in temperature-controlled environments that keep us at 70 degrees year-round regardless of the temperatures outside. Our ancient ancestors would be awestruck by the intense level of comfort experienced by the average middle class American living in the 21st century.


What do all of these innovations have in common? Energy and lots of it. From the creation of the gasoline engine by George Brayton in 1872 to Edison’s DC generator in 1878, the ability to harness energy drove innovation. Of course, the vast majority of the fuel we utilized to generate all of this energy was hydrocarbons—crude oil, natural gas and coal.


Edison Dynamo. Manufactured by Edison Machine Works Co.. Exhibit in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan. Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The byproduct of this fuel source, when burned, is the release of various forms of carbon into the atmosphere. As most of us learned in Earth science, carbon is a heat trapping gas. The best example of the greenhouse effect of carbon is the planet Venus. The atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide causing the average temperature on the surface to be more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead.


Unfortunately, when we came upon these innovations in the 1800s, we didn’t fully comprehend how all of these hydrocarbons were going to have such a dramatic impact on our environment. What I find to be remarkable is how quickly human activity has negatively altered the earth’s ecosystem. Although there were scientists in the 1970s who were warning of how carbon was going to impact the global environment, these voices were a minority. Even today, with 97% of climate scientists agreeing that human activity is the primary contributor to climate change, most humans have been slow to accept this reality and change their habits.


Our Ancestors


A question I have often asked given the current state of affairs is: Why are humans collectively so slow to change and adapt to prevent a very bad situation from getting worse? The answer is found in our DNA. If we could step inside a time machine and turn back the clock 100,000 years, we would find that humans lived in small groups or bands that would fluctuate between numbers as small as ten and as large as several hundred when the bands would combine together for certain events.


These groups were highly transient, following their food sources and living off the land. They had no permanent domiciles, utilizing simple tents and natural shelters like caves and forests. Their lives were spent entirely immersed in nature. Moreover, they depended on each other for survival. Everyone played a role in defending the camp, finding food and raising the children. As a result of these close, tight-knit communities, the human brain evolved to focus on maintaining the safety and well-being of the people within their direct proximity.


A mosaic illustration of hunter gatherers taken from William MacKenzie’s National Encyclopaedia (1891)

You have probably experienced this in your own life. When it comes to the people who you love, your close circle of family and friends, you will sacrifice a lot to ensure their needs are met. However, the further you stray from that close circle, the less resources you are willing to commit to those humans who are suffering. Part of this mentality comes down to pragmatism. With a limited set of resources and a high mortality rate, caring for those in your direct vicinity is the best way to ensure the survival of your immediately family. If you dilute those resources by giving to people outside of your tribe, your chances of survival diminish significantly.


This mentality works great when the only major existential threats are other tribes of humans or animal predators. In these situations, your focus is limited to guarding your camp and your people, which is a very defined area with a small number of enemies. Our brains can easily comprehend the threat and the solution. However, once the threat extends beyond what we can see and control, our brains struggle to comprehend the scope of the problem.


The Forest from the Trees


Imagine that you’re living in a forest 30,000 years ago and a group of people come by and tell you that the forest is on fire. You personally haven’t seen the fire, but they tell you it’s coming. You have a choice: 1) Believe what other people have seen and trust their eye-witness accounts or 2) Wait to see the fire with your own eyes.


If the group is related to your family or contains friends who you trust, you are more likely to act quickly. However, if the group is full of strangers or people you don’t trust, then you will likely wait. What if they’re lying? Maybe they’re trying to scare you? Maybe they want you to leave so they can take advantage of your food and water supply?



If you wait, there may be signs that the fire is coming like smoke and ash in the air. You might see animals fleeing to other parts of the forest. For most people, these signs would be enough to confirm the claim of fire is true. However, for some people, they will not believe the forest is burning until they can literally feel the heat from the flames, at which point your chances of survival have narrowed significantly.


This is why, when humans are confronted with issues like a global pandemic or climate change, there is a significant group of people who simply refuse to engage with the problem. This is not surprising given that our brains still have the same threat assessment capacity as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our brains have not yet evolved to the point where we can fully embrace the logistics required to combat existential threats beyond our immediate vicinity.


Hence, for a certain subset of people, unless they are physically being burned by the fire, when you ask a person to make a sacrifice (such as staying locked in their home for a period of time to prevent the spread of infection or reducing the amount of meat they eat or lowering the electricity they use), they refuse to change their habits. Unless their brains can literally see the problem in front of them, then they simply refuse to act.


Love Thy Neighbor


All of this brings me to the solution to this problem and why the Anthropocene is so scary. Unless humans are backed into a corner, many are simply too selfish to change for their own good. Interestingly, Jesus’ teachings are designed to override this evolutionary programming. For example, Jesus’ most compelling and well-known teaching is known as the greatest commandment, in which Jesus tells his followers to love your neighbor as yourself.


The Good Samaritan – painting by David Teniers the Younger (MET, 89.15.25) David Teniers the Younger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This teaching is found in three of the four gospels and is clarified the best in Luke’s gospel through the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Within the parable, a Samaritan, who the Jews despised, finds a man who has been beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. The Samaritan, at his own time and expense, helps this stranger by providing him lodging and medical care. The point of the parable is to illustrate the idea that, from Jesus’ perspective, our neighbor is not simply the person living next door to us, but any human being regardless of race, religion or nationality.


This parable is designed to break down the tribalism that is programmed into our genes so that we can make decisions for the greater good. The problem is that most Christians do not abide by this teaching. Case in point, there are somewhere in the order of 2.2 billion Christians on the planet. A quarter of the human population identifies as being somehow affiliated with the Christian faith, which should mean that a quarter of the population of the earth should be willing to sacrifice to solve these greater problems.


What is sad to me is that Christians are often some of the most selfish people I encounter. Particularly in American society, Christians are often the ones refusing to sacrifice for the greater good. Rather than follow Jesus’ teachings of selflessness, they believe being a Christian means they have the right to live however they choose irrespective of the consequences.


What I believe to be true is that the answer to the problems we are currently facing as a global society were offered up by Jesus 2000 years ago. We must assess what each of us can sacrifice for the greater good. In my opinion, there is almost nothing more important right now than reducing your carbon footprint:


  1. Turn up the temperature in your house when it’s hot and turn down the thermostat when it’s cold.

  2. Utilize public transportation or make fewer car trips with less gasoline or ride your bicycle.

  3. Eat less meat and throw away less food.

  4. Install low wattage light bulbs and turn them off when you are not home.

  5. Lower your water consumption by taking shorter showers and buying efficient dish and clothes washers.

  6. Buy less plastic and disposable items and recycle when possible.


If you really want to follow in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan and go the extra mile, you could house and feed one of the millions of migrants who have been displaced from their homes by war and climate change. I have friends who have done this and I am amazed by their generosity. I aspire to their level of sacrifice.


I want to end by saying please do not fall into the trap of nihilism. If you feel that there is no point in even trying, then we really are doomed. Making small sacrifices may seem insignificant, but if enough people do them, then our collective actions can slow these destructive patterns. Please realize that every time you sacrifice, you are being a Good Samaritan to the world. You may not be able to directly see the impact of your sacrifice, but the more we break away from our evolutionary programming, the end result will be a world where we pull ourselves back from the precipice of our own extinction.

1 Comment


Christopher Glass
Christopher Glass
Aug 01, 2023

Another banger. With Thomas, it took divine intervention for him to turn from skeptic to globetrotting Saint. And, while I agree we all have to do our part because it's all we *can* do at this point, I really fear that without larger intervention from the companies and/or governments that actively and feverishly fuel this destruction, then our collective efforts won't be enough.


I ain't no nihilist, though. Don't worry.

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