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Extinction: Worth rebelling against

Monday, 1 November 2021  | Ben Thurley

Extinction has made the news again. Climate activists associated with the Extinction Rebellion movement recently spray-painted Climate Duty Of Care’ on Parliament House and the Lodge, prompting the Prime Minister to decry their vandalism and declare that he prefers other, quieter, protesters. Protesters like Frances, who stands on the approaches to Parliament House each morning, holding placards calling for stronger climate action and occasionally gives Scott Morrison a wave and a smile as he is driven past. Im listening to her’, the Prime Minister averred in Parliament.

Ironically, Frances herself is also part of Extinction Rebellion and expressed support for their actions when interviewed by The Guardian. The available evidence also doesnt provide us with much evidence as to how exactly the government is heeding Frances’ calls for stronger climate action.

The threat of extinction – of a large number of people and other creatures on Earth – from rapid climate change, nuclear war or the release of a synthesised pathogen’ – has also led Roger Crisp, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Oxford, to ponder in The New Statesman, ‘Would Extinction Be So Bad?’ The article stops short of claiming definitively that extinction would be for the best, but via a thought-experiment in which an asteroid ends all life on Earth instantaneously, Crisp asserts that it is, at least, worth thinking about.

Given the amount of suffering on Earth, the value of the continued existence of the planet is an open question.

And while this might seem like a dubious moral position for a moral philosopher to take, it is instructive to examine Crisps utilitarian logic because versions of it are commonly used by our elected representatives to justify inaction or reckless indifference in the face of existential threats. We are, a certain kind of leader informs us, going to have to adapt to, or learn to live with, these threats. However, in order to wrestle properly with how to live with problems that will literally be unliveable for many people (and, in the case of climate change, whole nations and ecosystems), it is essential that we break free from the thought-deadening power of glib slogans and peer behind the faulty utilitarian logic being deployed against us.

For Christians, given new life by the creator of life, there is something particularly chilling about an (even philosophical) embrace of the extinction of life on Earth. We live as recipients and agents of grace within a story that begins in a garden and ends beside a river that waters the tree of life. And while ‘all flesh is grass’ certainly, the Biblical vision is of a resurrection life that extends to all of creation. So it is important to ask whose interests these slogans and this logic serve. And, as unlikely as it may sound, the Book of Revelation – with its own apocalyptic and extinction-level imagery – may provide an invaluable resource in this.

Crisps conclusion proceeds from three propositions:

1) Suffering is bad; and some suffering is indescribably bad.

2) Avoiding suffering is good.

3) The continued existence of people (and other non-human creatures) guarantees current and future suffering.

It so happens that I agree with each of those propositions and there would be Scriptural warrant for each of these statements. It is also not wrong to ponder the possibility of human extinction, particularly given the very real threats Crisp briefly mentions. However, I could not disagree more vehemently with the conclusion Crisp draws. We must not learn to live with, or grow inured to, existential threats of climate change, nuclear obliteration and ecosystem collapse. In fact, we must fight – rebel even – against these threats with all the know-how, organisation, cunning and persistence we can muster.

So how does Crisp persuade himself, and attempt to persuade the reader, that maybe extinction is for the best? Largely by disguising the weaknesses in utilitarian philosophy through the very nature of the thought experiment he poses. The hypothetical asteroid, it turns out, is not just (hypothetically) destroying all life on Earth; it is also doing a lot of work to divorce Crisps moral logic from any encounter with the actual threats the world faces. The asteroid of the argument diverts our attention away from the rational actors – particularly corporations and politicians – who are most responsible for causing and contributing to these threats. Its presence in the argument also obstructs any reasoned consideration of privilege and inequality, providing – as unlikely as it seems in a discussion of planetary extinction – a measure of psychic comfort for people whose privilege and power derive from and drive the causes of the threats, namely fossil fuel extraction and the rampant plunder of the natural world.

First, Crisps asteroid disguises the responsibility and agency of those who are causing or contributing to actually existing existential threats. The hypothetical asteroid cannot be held responsible (even hypothetically) for posing an existential threat to life on Earth. That is not the case with the existential threats of runaway climate change, nuclear conflict and ecosystem collapse. Those causing or contributing to each of those current and actual threats are rational and morally responsible agents – corporations, governments and individuals.

It is not wrong for the Prime Minister to urge us to adapt to’ climate change as he did in the wake of Australias catastrophic 2019–20 bushfires. Climate disruption and harm is part of our present and foreseeable future, so it is important to prepare ourselves and support others to prepare. Yet the attempt to divert attention away from the governments capacity and responsibility to address the root causes (not merely effects) of climate change is deeply disingenuous. Particularly while the government he now leads – and has been a senior member of since 2013 – directs significant energy and resources towards making the problem worse by undermining or delaying Australias urgently- needed transition towards zero-emission energy, transport and agriculture.

Second Crisps thought-experiment collapses morally meaningful distinctions between those who suffer enormous pain and those who do not. Crisp is aware of the euthanasic connotations of his argument and draws them to the surface. Many of us, he acknowledges, do not suffer terribly in life and would experience extinction as a grievous loss. But, he asks, for those who suffer atrociously, might not extinction come as a blessed relief? Reflecting on the person-destroying experience of torture, he asks whether extinction might not be a good thing if it ensured that no person among the billions still to be born would experience torture of the kind that disfigures both body and soul. Possibly; but this is surely an argument for putting an end to torture and torturers rather than to all life on Earth. Although, according to the attenuated utilitarian logic underpinning Crisp’s thought experiment, if you encounter Torturer and Victim, and can only end the existence of one of them, you should consider killing the Victim, whose suffering – we assume – is quantifiably greater than the Torturer inflicting it.

It is worth noting also that Crisp nowhere asks the victims of torture whether, given what they have suffered, they would prefer to have died. Which seems odd, as people’s valuing of their own lives – even without considering the value of the lives of innumerable other creatures into the future – ought to give him pause. He never once considers what it is that drives the vast majority of those who suffer to continue to fight for, or cling desperately to, their very survival and some semblance of dignity and hope. Which is simply to say that the value of existence is not easily weighed in a scale against an Oxford don’s projections of possible future suffering. Non-existence is, indeed, the end of all such calculations of suffering versus utility and to embrace it is not utilitarianism but, rather, nihilism.

By obliterating all of us’, the comfortable and the afflicted, at the same moment, the hypothetical asteroid also obscures a kind of genocidal logic that emerges when legitimate moral questions about end-of-life care or assisted dying for a suffering individual are applied to whole populations. In Crisps thought-experiment, there is no point asking who exactly suffers, how and at whose hands they suffer and what could be done to avoid, alleviate or provide redress for the suffering. We are all (hypothetically) equal when the hypothetical asteroid snuffs us out equally. In the real world, though, the specifics of who suffers, why and at whose hands they suffer, and what should be done in response is of enormous moral significance.

Comfortable people taking comfort in the idea that extinction will end the suffering of others has a noxious historical pedigree. The comforting fantasy that extinction could provide a merciful end to suffering at population or planetary level should be particularly horrifying for Australians, where the genocidal dispossession of First Nations peoples was justified by just such Social Darwinist myth-making. Nineteenth and early twentieth century policy-making was predicated on the undisputed backwardness’ of First Nations peoples and their inevitable demise, leading anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen (1899) to assert that the only course of action was to make their path to final extinction... as pleasant as possible’.

Political leaders are not wrong to urge that we will need to live with’ Covid-19. The coronavirus and its impacts are now an ever-present and rapidly-evolving global reality. This glib slogan, though, paints over the vast inequalities in how we will live with the pandemic at a national and global level. We are not all equally likely to suffer ill-effects from COVID-19; people in poverty and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk. We are not all equally able to avoid exposure to the virus; people with insecure work, inadequate housing and little social protection are most exposed and least able to cope with the public health measures – such as business closures and travel lockdowns – used to contain the virusspread. We do not have equal access to vaccines and treatment; we can already see that First Nations Australians and people in poorer communities pay the price for historic neglect and contemporary misjudgements. The same – or even greater – inequalities of exposure, impact and capacity to respond apply when considering how climate change will affect communities in Australia and around the world.

Finally, the immediacy of Crisps hypothetical asteroid strike – ending all human and non-human suffering in an instant – obscures the temporal reality of the actual existential threats we face. Climate change, nuclear conflict and ecosystem collapse will not mercifully end the suffering of all in a single, terrible instant. Rather – with the possible exception of all-out nuclear war – they will mercilessly increase suffering, particularly for people whose lives and security are already precarious. The extinctions they cause will not be swift, but protracted and painful – a species at a time, an ecosystem at a time, a life at a time, a marginal community at a time, an island nation at a time.

In short, asteroids make for gripping science-fiction but are less helpful when it comes to moral philosophy.

Embracing a truly biblical vision of life will lead us to conclusions entirely different to those Crisp draws. While space forbids a fuller treatment of a subject touched on in every part of the Bible, from Genesis to Wisdom and Prophetic literature, from the Gospels to the New Testament Epistles, it is worth noting briefly how the book of Revelation points us towards these alternative conclusions. While the blood-drenched imagery of Revelation has been used in some quarters to justify an indifference to the created order, it provides, in fact, resources to resist this indifference and to rebel against extinction and ‘the destroyers of the Earth’ (Revelation 11:18).

The elders and the angels who gather round the enthroned lamb in the visions that animate the early chapters of John’s Apocalypse are joined by the four living creatures – lion, ox, human person and eagle – who represent all of creation joining in worship. Later, John will portray parodic counterfeits of this true worship of the One who brings life – worship of the dragon and the beast and fornication (a common prophetic and apocalyptic metaphor for idolatrous worship) with the woman of Babylon (Revelation 13–18). Collectively, these represent the idolatrous religion of empire, the targeted violence of empire and the extractive and exploitative wealth of empire. These powers who stand against the people and purposes of God are the destroyers of the Earth who are themselves slated for destruction, as God overturns the ‘kingdom of the world’ and remakes it as ‘the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah’.

John’s call to Christians in this context is a call to resist and rebel, to ‘come out of’ the seductive and coercive embrace of empire’s wealth, violence and idolatry. As Richard Bauckham notes in his Theology of The Book of Revelation,

By no means all of [John’s] readers were poor and persecu­ted by an oppressive system: many were affluent and compro­mising with the oppressive system. The latter are offered not consolation and encouragement, but severe warnings and calls to repent.

We cannot rest easy with a philosophical indifference to the ecocidal exploitation and pollution of our Earth. We must not go along with political leaders who can plan for submarines to be developed for wars decades hence but who refuse to plan and act to prevent the extinction catastrophes we are witnessing now.

Unlike Crisp’s asteroid, the actual existential threats we face are caused and exacerbated by rational and moral agents who can be confronted, restrained and called to account. Suffering and extinctions from climate change, nuclear conflict and ecosystem collapse are not inevitable results of cosmic chance and Newtonian physics, but are the entirely avoidable consequences of human choice and indifference. The indescribable suffering – and extinctions – these threats are already causing and will continue to cause harm us all. Though they will harm already marginalised and vulnerable communities disproportionately, while the comfortable use their wealth and privilege to secure physical and psychic comfort for as long as possible, even in the face of implacably intensifying and entirely avoidable catastrophe.

So, the only moral, and indeed Christian, conclusion to be drawn from Crisp's propositions is not the one that he cautiously entertains: that maybe extinction wouldnt be so bad.

The only moral conclusion of these propositions is a commitment to action; to rebel against threats to life with all our might. And, indeed, to rebel loudly against leaders who respond to these existential threats not with urgency and ambition, but by admonishing us to protest – if protest we must – a little more quietly, a little more politely.


Ben Thurley is CEO of International Nepal Fellowship Australia – a charity supporting healthcare and community development in Nepal. For over 20 years Ben has worked and campaigned with leading Christian NGOs and campaigning groups in Australia and Nepal. 

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