The Church of Euthanasia founder offers 8 books that prove human civilization is already doomed
When the Church of Euthanasia was founded in 1992, its mission was to restore balance between humans and non-humans through voluntary population reduction. In other words, the goal was to persuade people to not have children. Since 1992 the Earth’s human population has increased by a third, from nearly six billion to nearly eight billion, so it’s fair to say that we haven’t won yet, but the battle is by no means over.
Humanity currently consumes about one and a half Earth’s worth of resources every year. Obviously that can’t last, and the only reason we’re getting away with it is because there’s a delay between our profligacy and the disastrous impacts it causes. Biologists call this situation “overshoot.” Put simply, there are too many of us, consuming too much, too quickly. Earth’s biosphere can’t restock itself fast enough to keep up with our ever-increasing appetites, nor can it neutralize our ever-accelerating excretions, particularly our CO2, which is now drastically altering the climate, just as scientists predicted it would as far back as 1896.
Much like yeast in a bottle of beer, we’re exhibiting something biologists call “irrational exuberance.” The yeast starts out with plenty of food, so it throws an awesome party, reproducing and consuming and excreting like crazy, and pretty soon it runs out of food and chokes to death on its own waste. We don’t care, because we like drinking yeast excrement, but we definitely should care about own overshoot, because we’re creating a hellish future for our own descendants, and if we keep it up, we’ll be extinct, as in erased from Earth’s hard drive, like the dinosaurs.
The Church of Euthanasia’s infamous slogan “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself” is wry humor. The planet doesn’t need saving, on the contrary it will be fine no matter what we do, until it’s destroyed by the sun in about a billion years. We’re not a long-term threat to the biosphere, because we need it more than it needs us. No one is coming to rescue us, and we have nowhere viable to escape to. Making Earth hotter is stupid because very hot climates favor reptiles, not mammals. Despite its misanthropy, the Church was always directed towards saving us from our own selfishness and myopia, and especially saving our fascinating but exceedingly fragile civilization. Human civilization is the most endangered species on Earth.
Our alleged intelligence notwithstanding, we’re one of the least likely species to survive our self-inflicted “bottleneck.” We’re apex predators—meaning we eat at the top of Earth’s buffet—and apex predators die off early in mass extinctions, because their elaborate behavior depends on specialized conditions. Much more likely to survive are humble opportunists, which biologists charmingly refer to as “weeds,” for example roaches. We could detonate all of our weapons at once in a blaze of apocalyptic glory, and bacteria and many insects would easily survive.
Earth’s human population was always going to be reduced, the only question was how humanely. Thirty years ago, a soft landing was already doubtful, but today it’s inconceivable. Our civilization is like the Titanic in the sense that any change of course requires considerable advance notice. We could have slowed down and turned around, but we didn’t. Impact is ongoing, and further shaming seems pointless. It’s time to work through the stages of grief. We’re stuck at denial, and we need to arrive at acceptance. We did a terrible thing, and it’s going to hurt, a lot. The worst pain will be inflicted on future generations, after we’re smugly dead. If you have children, you could start by apologizing to them.
The human drama is unfolding in a universe that’s utterly indifferent to our fate. Our extinction would be a tragedy for us, but only for us. We’re hairless apes on a ball of rock hurtling through the void. As John Gielgud’s character says in the 1977 film Providence, “Out there in the icy universe, there’s nothing.” How will future generations regard us, assuming they’re lucky—or unlucky—enough to exist? Are we heroes, or villains? In theory, we’re capable of listening to the better angels of our nature, because we’re smarter than yeast, but we’d better wise up fast.
Six Degrees by Mark Lynas
Why aren’t we responding to climate change quickly enough? Evolution optimized us for threats that are visible, familiar, and immediate, with direct impacts and simple causes easily blamed on others. Climate change, on the other hand, is invisible, unprecedented, and drawn-out, with indirect impacts and complex causes that are our fault. This mismatch between our previously adaptive biases and the perfect storm of climate change makes Mark Lynas essential reading because he methodically explains the consequences of each additional 1°C rise in Earth’s average global temperature in excruciatingly vivid and meticulously researched detail. Lynas only considers up to 6° but he could’ve easily have stopped at 4°, since beyond that it’s game over for civilization. Since the book’s publication in 2007, we’ve continued to race towards earth’s tipping points, provoking Lynas to release an updated version in 2020 aptly titled Our Final Warning.
Overshoot by William R. Catton
We owe a great debt to Catton for popularizing the term “overshoot” which was previously little known outside of biology. He was one of the first to apply ecological overshoot to humanity, and he did so with astonishing foresight at a time when environmentalism was still in its infancy and our population was half of what it is today. He unmasks our explosive progress as irrational exuberance and challengingly portrays us as detritivores—animals that feed on dead organic material—who succeeded by consuming the compacted remnants of our predecessors in the Jurassic. In other words, we’re dancing around a bonfire of dinosaur corpses, ecstatically oblivious to the lethality of the climatological forces we’ve unleashed. Like yeast turning sugar into alcohol, we’re gradually choking ourselves to death on our own waste, but unlike the yeast, we’re aware of it and theoretically capable of changing course. Let’s drink a toast to that.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
If you tire of tiptoeing around people’s religious and spiritual beliefs, this is the book for you. Dawkins doesn’t mince words: mystification is the opposite of explanation and debases the word “truth” to the point of meaninglessness. Firmly situated in the real universe of provable facts, he ridicules nonsense unsparingly, and his outrage is contagious. Fundamentalism gets the most attention, rightly as it causes the most harm, but the rot of superstition is everywhere, embedded in the soothing lies of astrology, wellness quackery, Waldorf schools, and fatalistic platitudes like “everything happens for a reason.” The stubborn persistence of magical thinking suggests that it was adaptive in our original evolutionary environment; perhaps it softened the blows of an unpredictable and often brutally violent existence. I’m with the cybernetic matriarch of Raised By Wolves: “Belief in the unreal can comfort the human mind, but it also weakens it.”
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
In this breathless young adult novel, the burning of fossil carbon is unthinkable and coastal cities are mostly submerged, their ruins jutting out of filthy bayous to create habitat for pirates. The protagonist belongs to a gang of child slaves that break apart ships to reclaim the steel, risking their lives daily for mere sustenance. The descriptions of ship demolition are detailed and terrifying. Perhaps the author saw Michael Glawogger’s bleak documentary Workingman’s Death, one segment of which features ship breakers in Pakistan. The characters regard the “accelerated age”—meaning present generations—with disdain and incredulity, and their bitterness influenced my album Apologize to the Future. The dichotomy of the barbarous south plundered by the affluent north is all too familiar. The book is the first of a trilogy and taken together, they help us foresee the horrors that will surely result if our carbon-fueled psychosis proves incurable.
O-Zone by Paul Theroux
Industrial society concentrates its power in cities, but only by ceding control over outlying areas, as Hakim Bey and others have observed. Already the elite submit to ubiquitous surveillance and willingly trade freedom of movement for increased security. Today’s “knowledge workers” telecommute, and rarely leave their gated communities, complete with exclusive shopping malls, recreation facilities, and private police. How much longer will it be before cities become walled cities, luxurious bastions patrolled by bloodthirsty militias and surrounded by anarchic wastelands? Are we returning to a feudal world? Theroux’s answer is yes, and his eerily prophetic novel searches for life outside the walls. His cast of jaded billionaires is woefully unprepared for what they find, but the best of them are humbled and humanized by it. “I’m an Owner… get out of my way and let me through!”
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
I often claim that the planet doesn’t need saving, and if you wonder how I arrived at that conclusion, look no further. Weisman posits the instantaneous total disappearance of humanity and rigorously describes the aftermath. It’s an epic fail for cows, corn, cats, roaches, and our other livestock, crops, pets and pests, but for most species, it’s a huge win. Without regular maintenance, water penetrates our buildings and rapidly turns them into debris fields. After a few thousand years, evidence of humanity’s existence is hard to find, notwithstanding weird exceptions like Mount Rushmore. Eventually the wreckage of civilization is compressed into a thin layer of oily rock, similar to the hapless victims of the Permian Triassic extinction. The book is enriched by many experts including one of my heroes, biologist Edward O. Wilson. Weisman also references the Church of Euthanasia, surely a selling point for me.
The Flooded Earth by Peter D. Ward
I’m a problematic guest at dinner parties, as I’m easily drawn into fiery debates with climate change deniers, like a sharpshooter obliged to duel every new gunslinger in town. One of my trustiest ripostes is from Ward: we needn’t worry about escaping to other planets, because we’ll be much too busy moving our airports. Why are most airports at sea level? Because cities tended to develop along coasts due to the need for harbors. Ward’s book is full of similarly trenchant insights that seem obvious only in retrospect. Even in the preposterous fantasy where we eliminate all CO2 emissions today, the sea will still rise three meters due to thermal inertia. Hence the line in Changing Climate: “From the coast we must retreat.” The Keeling curve—the canonical measurement of accumulating atmospheric CO2—continues to accelerate in the wrong direction. Wake me up when it reverses itself, or even stabilizes.
Earth in Human Hands by David Grinspoon
Grinspoon specializes in life on other planets, which might seem odd given that we’ve yet to encounter any, but the sliver of tax revenue that subsidizes astronomy is well-spent: by comparing distant planets, experts have approximated the prevalence of intelligent life in the universe. Intelligence evolves surprisingly often, but we’re unlikely to hear from it, because by the time it’s sufficiently advanced to send signals, much like us, it’s at the threshold of self-annihilation, and the odds of its brief blaze of glory lining up with ours approach zero. Edward O. Wilson put it more succinctly in his book Consilience: “Intelligence tends to snuff itself out.” The good news is that a small percentage of the time, instead of throwing an epic party and flaming out, intelligent life shows restraint, prioritizes sustainability above all else, and becomes long-lived. Let’s do that! We could start by reducing our population.