NY Times Opinion: Human extinction might be a good thing

I swear the NY Times is just trolling us all at this point. Today the paper published an opinion piece by a professor of philosophy from Clemson University who hashes out an argument over the continued existence of humanity and concludes, at least provisionally, that our extinction might be a good thing. The author bases this argument on three premises which he says are “uncontroversial.”

Human beings are destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth and causing unimaginable suffering to many of the animals that inhabit it. This is happening through at least three means. First, human contribution to climate change is devastating ecosystems, as the recent article on Yellowstone Park in The Times exemplifies. Second, increasing human population is encroaching on ecosystems that would otherwise be intact. Third, factory farming fosters the creation of millions upon millions of animals for whom it offers nothing but suffering and misery before slaughtering them in often barbaric ways. There is no reason to think that those practices are going to diminish any time soon.

Let’s just pause here to note that this argument is about as subtle as a hammer and twice as dense. First of all, if you want to make the case that people create incredible suffering, maybe at least mention Rwanda or the Holocaust as examples in your favor. But the author doesn’t even mention human suffering and instead focuses on the harm done to cows and chickens. I’m just guessing but I suspect the reason man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t get a mention is that it undercuts the thrust of the author’s argument a bit. After all, once you start thinking about genocide and the horror it represents, the idea of a planetary species-cide seems rather repugnant. In any case, the author moves on to argue that if we just think of the animals, our mass destruction is an easy call.

If this were all to the story there would be no tragedy. The elimination of the human species would be a good thing, full stop. But there is more to the story. Human beings bring things to the planet that other animals cannot. For example, we bring an advanced level of reason that can experience wonder at the world in a way that is foreign to most if not all other animals. We create art of various kinds: literature, music and painting among them. We engage in sciences that seek to understand the universe and our place in it. Were our species to go extinct, all of that would be lost.

But it turns out none of that counts for much and thus, the world would probably be better off without us:

To address that question, let us ask another one. How many human lives would it be worth sacrificing to preserve the existence of Shakespeare’s works? If we were required to engage in human sacrifice in order to save his works from eradication, how many humans would be too many? For my own part, I think the answer is one. One human life would be too many (or, to prevent quibbling, one innocent human life), at least to my mind…

So, then, how much suffering and death of nonhuman life would we be willing to countenance to save Shakespeare, our sciences and so forth? Unless we believe there is such a profound moral gap between the status of human and nonhuman animals, whatever reasonable answer we come up with will be well surpassed by the harm and suffering we inflict upon animals. There is just too much torment wreaked upon too many animals and too certain a prospect that this is going to continue and probably increase; it would overwhelm anything we might place on the other side of the ledger…

All of human civilization dismissed in a paragraph.

I’m not going to bother arguing the point beyond saying that I think it would take someone who doesn’t think much of humans in the first place to think all of their best accomplishments aren’t worth any defense in terms of human or animal life. To offer an alternative thought experiment, if some madman were attempting to blow-up the Lourve in Paris, I sure as hell hope French authorities would risk their lives trying to save it rather than sit back and kiss some of the world’s greatest art goodbye. And if they want to snack on a few burgers in the process, that wouldn’t bother me much.

Another odd thing about this piece is that it never seems to consider any options short of mass extinction, almost as if the author is fixated on it. But there surely are other alternatives. For instance, we could all become vegans or start eating some kind of cultured meat grown in a lab. That would eliminate much of the suffering the author is concerned about. But he seems to believe that’s out of the question so extinction has to be on the table.

The only concession he makes is that it would be too cruel to ask people to kill themselves for the sake of the animals. Instead, he seems to think some sort of gradual extinction would be preferable because “preventing future humans from existing does not introduce such suffering.”

Yes, I’m sure there would be no suffering at all if we all knew we’d been sterilized (physically, chemically, or simply politically) for the sake of the planet. Knowing your generation would be the last, that there were to be no more children. Demanding younger people give up on any hope of a future or a family. No suffering at all there. In fact, I can’t imagine who would even object once they realize how much better things will be for the chickens.