Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, twice adapted into a movie, explored the idea by imagining that the Cold War had exploded into nuclear catastrophe and that deadly radiation had obliterated all life in the Northern Hemisphere. Now the radiation cloud was heading toward Australia, and the people there knew they had just a few months to live.
P.D. James imagined it a different way in her 1992 novel Children of Men (also made into a movie). In her story, humans have become infertile. We know that we are the last generation, and with no hope of children being born, society has succumbed to overarching futility and despair. James writes:
It was reasonable to struggle, to suffer, perhaps even to die, for a more just, a more compassionate society, but not in a world with no future where, all too soon, the very words ‘justice,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘society,’ ‘struggle,’ ‘evil,’ would be unheard echoes on an empty air.
In his new book Death and the Afterlife, philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that our whole sense of wellbeing as individuals rests on the knowledge that other generations will follow us. While some of us may believe in a personal afterlife and gain comfort from that, he says that what really drives us is not a faith in our own afterlife, but rather in the survival of our species.
On the blog The Stone, Scheffler asks us to imagine what it would be like knowing that while you’re going to have a long life and a natural death yourself, an asteroid is going to obliterate the entire planet shortly after your death.
If you are like me, and like most people with whom I have discussed the question, you would find this doomsday knowledge profoundly disturbing. And it might greatly affect your decisions about how to live.
If you were a cancer researcher, you might be less motivated to continue your work … How much good would [finding a cure] do in the time remaining? … If you were a novelist or playwright or composer, you might see little point in continuing to write or compose, since these creative activities are often undertaken with an imagined future audience or legacy in mind.
And faced with the knowledge that humanity would cease to exist soon after your death, would you still be motivated to have children?
Scheffler writes that while the prospect of our own death doesn’t stop most of us from living a productive life, the prospect of the death of our species most likely would.
[M]ost of us pursue our goals and seek to realize our values within a framework of belief that assumes an ongoing humanity. Remove that framework of belief, and our confidence in our values and purposes begins to erode.
In today’s world, most people aren’t worrying about the prospect of Nevil Shute’s nuclear obliteration or P.D. James’s mass infertility. But it’s hard to avoid the fact that there are now equally big existential threats posed by climate change, drought, pandemic viruses and other potential catastrophes.
We know, too, that generations to come – people who don’t exist yet – already depend on us for their future wellbeing or lack of it.
But in an interesting twist, Scheffler turns this around and says that we are equally dependent on the future existence of those yet-to-be-born people:
Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants.
We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: It is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us.
Without them, our lives make no sense to us. Have we, concluded, deep down, that we’re screwed?
Which inevitably leads to the question: Why, then, are we so blithely sailing over the tipping point of catastrophe – creating a nightmare world of mass extinction, drought and disease? Why are we, at very least, bequeathing a horrible life to our descendants and, at worst, putting the very survival or our species in jeopardy?
Three possible answers:
a) Perhaps Scheffler is wrong in saying that our wellbeing and sense of purpose and meaning depend on building a better world for future generations. (Except that the evidence suggests that we do care about our descendants – at very least our own children and grandchildren, and other people’s, too.)
b) Maybe we just don’t comprehend the threat. While we humans are good at reacting to immediate threats like hurricanes and invasions, we’re not good at understanding and relating to more distant threats. But when we really get it, we’ll swing into action and save the day. (The trouble with that scenario, however, is we’ve already gone over several tipping points, and every year of doing nothing makes the long-term future bleaker and bleaker.)
c) Scheffler is spot-on, and even though we’re still keeping busy-busy, at a deep level we’ve begun to give up on the future. The dream of endless human progress that has fueled modern society looks more and more like a mirage, and while we still want to do the best we can for our children, we no longer believe that they’re going to inherit a better world. And neither do they.
That would certainly explain our descent, over the past 50 years, into an increasingly narcissistic society:
- our careless attitude toward destroying the oceans, the atmosphere, the forests and the other animals;
- our endless preoccupation with me, myself, my Facebook page and my selfie photos;
- and how willing we are to borrow from the future, rather than to invest in it, just to give ourselves a few extra years of false comfort.
Whatever we’re telling ourselves about the future of our children, of other humans, of the other animals and of the planet, our behavior is saying that we have little hope in the future of those who will come after us.
Have we, concluded, deep down, that we’re screwed?
And if so, what then?
I’ll pick up on that question in a future post.