The Sixth Mass Extinction

I’ve always had a little bit of a gloomy streak, and I remember having the feeling the world would end sometime in my lifetime. In 1999 I irrationally felt it might happen, partially fueled by viewing the motion picture Magnolia, listening to the Prince record 1999, and hearing some panicked reports on the news about electronics going haywire due to the number change that I didn’t really understand. That was a little anticlimactic and I honestly felt kind of disappointed.

As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I’ve adopted a more reasonably objective view that it seems like humanity is unsustainable if it continues its current trajectory of population growth, depletion of resources, and widening economic gap. Now I feel like I’m less bonkers (in that respect) in that the world has probably felt vaguely apocalyptic to a lot of people lately, what with global pandemics, fires, and storms breaking out. People who are way smarter than me—researchers and scientists—have been predicting a “sixth mass extinction” of biodiversity approaching, and it sounds like the situation is becoming more dire according to the most recent study.

Top scientists warn of ‘ghastly future of mass extinction’ and climate disruption | Environment | The Guardian

“Dealing with the enormity of the problem requires far-reaching changes to global capitalism, education and equality, the paper says. These include abolishing the idea of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing environmental externalities, stopping the use of fossil fuels, reining in corporate lobbying, and empowering women, the researchers argue.”

All of those changes sound unlikely to happen to me. It’s a weird feeling of cognitive dissonance when a feeling you’ve had for a long time you thought was absurd shows at least some signs of becoming a reality.

However, despite the feeling, I’m not sure it will happen in my lifetime. It’s just a feeling. That would be too easy. I think it will probably be more drawn-out, and I hate to say it, I think humanity is probably going to have to reckon for more of its crimes. Some people think we might be able to colonize space and start over. 

I once wrote about the gloomy but lovely Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, where the clinically depressed character played by Kirsten Dunst is the only one ultimately prepared for the end of the world, because she’s been expecting it all along. There’s a great ominous line in the film where she says “Life on earth is evil. No one will mourn it.”

Von Trier, who himself struggles with depression, said a seed of inspiration for the film came to him from a conversation he had with this therapist where they discussed how someone with a depressed viewpoint would react differently to the end of the world, and might actually embrace it.

What’s the saying, “I love humanity, but I don’t like people?” I feel like it’s kind of the opposite for me. I really hate the human species as a whole and collectively, but individual people like, and of course there are so many wonderful people I’ve known who deserve to live rich and full lives. I would mourn them if I could separate them out. However, if I was told the world was to end because mankind sowed its own seeds of destruction, I would probably accept it as fair and reasonable. 

I’m sure my mindset does stem from my depression and the dim view its given me at times as well as my experiences with suicidal ideation. I also know that I am bad about “catastrophizing” in cognitive behavioral terms and expecting the worst, and I’m very often wrong.

One technique in therapy for “catastrophizing” is imagining the worst of any given possible scenario—if you’re anxious about work, that you’ll get fired and lose your job; if you have relationship anxiety, that your spouse is cheating, and so on and so forth, and how if that thing eventually happened, it wouldn’t be as bad as you thought.

What thing could you imagine make the end of the world feel better? Well, there’s the life that you had the chance to have. And then, there’s whatever’s coming next–whatever you believe happens after life and, specifically, humanity.  

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