On Sujato’s end-of-the-world thoughts

Just few months ago I read the equally not hopeful piece Facing Extinction by dharma teacher Catherine Ingram and it had a deep impact on me. It acted like a maraṇassati practice, a powerful one. So I just wanted to add some observations by Thomas Metzinger which I think are a good complement to the piece by @sujato.

In the first paragraphs of his essay ‘Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty’ (2013), Metzinger wrote that in the coming decades we would come to regard ourselves as failing beings. It is now doubtful we’ll have that long. Thinking only 6 years ago, Metzinger saw the problem as having rippling effects for centuries, not as a mass extinction perhaps experienced by most people alive now. The climate challenge, he noted, “clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species”:

We will experience ourselves as beings who collectively and stubbornly act against better knowledge, who even under great time-pressure are unable, for psychological reasons, to act jointly and efficiently and to put the necessary formation of political will into effect. The collective self-image of the species Homo sapiens will increasingly be one of a being caught in evolved mechanisms of self-deception to the point of becoming a victim of its own actions.

He points out that our cognitive apparatus, precisely because of how it has evolved, prevents us from saving ourselves, even—he adds in what shocked me most dramatically—when we are crisply aware about this very fact. Not even that solves it.

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It seems to me that human beings have regarded themselves as susceptible to akrasia - “weakness of the will” or irresoluteness - for as long as there have been human beings with a recorded culture. It’s a commonplace theme in human thought.

The idea of a “failed species” of “failed beings” makes little sense. All species eventually go extinct, or evolve into other species. Individual lives are also obviously impermanent. Big deal.

Anyone with awareness of human history knows that that history is filled with numerous and terrifying calamities and holocausts. That we are facing large challenges in our time, that might well get the best of us, is nothing new. Human existence isn’t easy. No creature’s existence is easy.

Current estimates are that the Great Mortality of the 14th century killed between a third and one half of the European population. And before it afflicted Europe, that biological catastrophe hit Asia. Estimates are that a few Chinese cities lost nearly 90% of their populations. In Europe, the plague led to a profusion of apocalyptic cults and other spiritual coping practices preaching the end of the world. But of course the world didn’t end.

Solving or mitigating climate and biosphere crises, or socially adapting to them, if indeed they can be solved or mitigated or dealt with by social adaptation , will require a level of human coordination and cooperation that is unprecedented in our history. So it is unsurprising that it seems daunting and at times hopeless. But the additional kvetching and hysteria doesn’t improve the situation.

Some of the mental reactions that are going on right now strike me as very “first world”, in that they seem to be the kinds of emotional responses that would be expected from people who have achieved levels of comfort, predictability and security that are extremely rare in human history, and so such people have an unusual level of difficulty in coping with large scale adversity.

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It would seem to me that people hold vast power but are yet under the sway of defilements is the greatest threat.

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While it is true that race, class, gender, etc. influence perceptions on climate change (Pearson et al., 2017), I don’t see the need to label responses to climate change as “first world” in the present context.

History is indeed filled with many black pages. Those who have read Sapiens (2014) will know that species have gone extinct by the hand of man since the Homo genus spread across the globe; more black pages. Even the current mass extinction is not unique, as e.g. the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event shows.

Yet each black page is different, if only because a different set of humans and animals lived through each page. To express concern about “page 21st century” is only human—regardless if this concern comes from the frontlines or sidelines. Sadly, climate change is already claiming its victims among the poorest citizens (Pelling & Garschagen, 2019).

I’d like to note the respective differences between (a) assessing the consequences of climate change and (b) hysteric catastrophism and between (a’) skepticism toward vague feel-good mantras disguised as hope and (b’) demoralizing genuine efforts to mitigate climate change and its associated problems. In my view, (a) and (a’) are quite independent of (b) and (b’), and while I do not support the latter pair, I see little problem with a healthy dose of (a) and (a’).

References

  • Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind . Random House, 2014.
  • Pearson, Adam R., Matthew T. Ballew, Sarah Naiman, and Jonathon P. Schuldt. “Race, class, gender and climate change communication.” (2017).
  • Pelling, M., Garschagen, M. “Put equity first in climate adaptation.” (2019). doi:10.1038/d41586-019-01497-9
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Your mention of the Black Death reminded me of this article by Tobias Stone. Doesn’t seem that the plague was self-imposed, and resilience doesn’t mean immunity: one of the population-diminishing phases could be fatal, the last one. Still, I brought up Metzinger not because I think our self-sabotage is new (in fact we may just be getting better at it), but because of his points about self-identity, due to the scale of this particular predicament.

Well, I’m nearly sixty, and in my lifetime intellectuals and pundits have failed repeatedly to predict the course of even a single future decade, let alone upcoming centuries. Human culture and society metamorphose continually in ways human beings themselves can barely grasp. Prophecies about how people will respond technologically, socially, economically, emotionally and spiritually to upcoming changes in the global biosphere are relatively pointless. We can sketch out a few of the largest hazards we can currently imagine, and try to prevent or mitigate them. But we’re probably going to get a lot wrong.

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The Stone article is interesting because it captures the kind of panic attack that gripped the hearts of middle class Anglo-American liberals in 2016. No doubt the election of Trump, combined with Brexit and the rise of left and right wing forms of “populism” has thrown a scare into these folks and challenged the post-1989 End of History verities that had taken hold on their minds until the decade of financial crisis beginning in 2008 set everything reeling again. Ultimately, these developments might turn out not to be as significant as people think. But who knows.

One of the most striking forms of incoherent double-think we find here in the US is that the same people whose hair is on fire about the global biosphere crisis also have their hair on fire about shifting power relations in international affairs. At the same time they say they want to mount a planetary effort to address the first problem, they also want to launch a neo-Cold War, great power struggle to “confront” Russia, China, Latin American socialists and everyone else they find insufficiently enlightened - in the modern western capitalist sense - all over the world. Somehow they don’t grasp that, given that they represent only about 1/20th of the global population, their planetary cooperation ambitions and xenophobic cultural chauvinism are not a great mix.

My conclusion for the time being is that Americans, accustomed to more-or less running the world for three quarters of a century, with their brains pickled in a deep brine of privilege and superiority, are such stupid and incorrigible brats that they would rather scheme about how to re-establish perpetual and despotic American rule over a dying and broken planet than deign to share power and cooperate with others in a thriving one. Possibly others in the English-speaking part of the world, which includes the UK, Australia and Canada, have caught the same disease, since the last few centuries have been a string of cultural expansion and imperialist success for the English-speaking peoples. But it looks like Asians are poised to demote them.

Buddhism should help people develop the equanimity and calm good will to deal with change, insecurity and threats without losing their marbles, and without being paralyzed by fear and frustration.

Two white, western, English-speaking Buddhist monks setting up a monastery at “the end of the world”? Understandable, but a bit sad. Maybe their world seems like it is collapsing, but some world will go on.

This is true, but the powerful are always defiled. Almost everyone else is too. Somehow, some problems are addressed however, and the social order is maintained. We can’t wait until everyone is an arahant before solving our problems.

In cooking up a plan for this global soup, we need large amounts of reality, and an infusion of facing the facts of climate change. But a big pinch of optimism never hurts. Not only will the soup taste better, but it actually helps the soup.

Once we concede the game at halftime, we may as well not even come out on the pitch to fight back. But there is an undercurrent of people, young and older, from many corners of this battered Earth, wanting to fight back. I’m optimistic enough to think that 200 years from now, my future rebirth will be reading of and writing of similar topics, and hopefully offering similar optimism.

I’m getting involved in the politics of the 2020 election here in the US. A change of leadership could ignite a more global effort to put a dent in climate change. This effort is reasonable and doable, and it starts with who we elect to national office.

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Yes, the texts don’t offer much. However if the leader at least keeps the five precepts, it is said sanity will prevail ‘in court’. I of course take this to mean a wider moral standard than just those five precepts.

A stream entrant, at least is more realistic! :laughing:

That has a better track record for solving problems after the problem has happened, rather than preventing them from happening. Foresight is in short supply, especially when blinded by craving.

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The beliefs we hold about what should be the case exert profound effects regarding our own suffering. I admit to being one of those who held the view that human-kind should be smarter and wiser for most of my life. Working in social and humanitarian areas, I often witnessed the worst of human behaviours, and was constantly disappointed and disillusioned, if we were smarter we could avoid this needless suffering… I became extremely depressed.

It has taken a long time, and lots of work to understand the Buddhas position that these ‘depressing’ traits of humans are neither good nor bad - they are simply characteristics of the species. To wish and hope that they were otherwise is not a wise or beneficial path. One is then destined to be endlessly disappointed with Samsara.

The nature of Samsara, however is not only suffering, it also has happiness, and I’m talking in a mundane fashion here!! But this is an important point, because the vast majority of people on our planet live this ‘mundane’ existence. To take away the balancing happiness and hope from the sadness and suffering in this life, is neither wise nor compassionate in my opinion.

It is important to keep the goals and means between these two paths seperate. The psychology of the confirmed renunciant is completely different to that of an ordinary person in our society - so much so that the same things elicit opposite psychological responses eg the thought of death :slight_smile:

In the current situation, the lack of control over the future is a major issue and source of fear and humanity in general is being forced to confront its own limits. So it is to be expected that there will be a bumpy ride in our futures. Interestingly though, during challenging times we typically see both the worst as well as the best in humans :slight_smile:

From my perspective, the most important thing is to maintain balance of perspective. This means not focusing on the doom and gloom to the exclusion of the many positive things that we can see. As practicing Buddhists this situation is one that can assist on the path, it is hard not to develop Nibbida towards humanity and Samsara at the moment.

However, for those not aiming for personal liberation, there is a need to find ways to maintain balance and right effort! When a situation is hopeless and people feel they have nothing to loose, a complete lack of restraint of the baser nature can be the result… This is a situation to try to avoid. Therefore it is necessary to maintain hope, to articulate the reasons for it and to develop pathways where ordinary individuals and groups can feel like they are making a positive contribution.

I was pleasantly surprised to see an advertisement for an upcomming movie “2040” which is all about the many different positive things that are being done to mitigate climate change etc. This is what we need more of.

Yes the climate will change, Yes the Earth will’eventually ‘cease’ supporting life, but humans are brilliant at adapting! There will be suffering, there has always been suffering. But there will also be happiness - Samsara will continue. The way that this will ultimately shape up is unknown - Good? Bad? Who knows? :slight_smile:

In the meantime, we continue. As practicing Buddhists (at least in my opinion) this situation makes no difference to the path! We still have only this life in which to practice :slight_smile: With regards to the rest of the world, it will bumble along in its chaotic way. But as Buddhists we can continue to show compassion and to demonstrate how one can live a good and moral life with good individual contributions, in the face of an unknown, and uncontrollable future.

Metta to all beings :anjal: :dharmawheel:

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Though I haven’t read the book, the title of Silver’s book promises to elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of predictions.

Nate Silver built an innovative system for predicting baseball performance, predicted the 2008 election within a hair’s breadth, and became a national sensation as a blogger—all by the time he was thirty. He solidified his standing as the nation’s foremost political forecaster with his near perfect prediction of the 2012 election. Silver is the founder and editor in chief of the website FiveThirtyEight.

Drawing on his own groundbreaking work, Silver examines the world of prediction, investigating how we can distinguish a true signal from a universe of noisy data. Most predictions fail, often at great cost to society, because most of us have a poor understanding of probability and uncertainty. Both experts and laypeople mistake more confident predictions for more accurate ones. But overconfidence is often the reason for failure. If our appreciation of uncertainty improves, our predictions can get better too. This is the “prediction paradox”: The more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we can be in planning for the future.

In keeping with his own aim to seek truth from data, Silver visits the most successful forecasters in a range of areas, from hurricanes to baseball, from the poker table to the stock market, from Capitol Hill to the NBA. He explains and evaluates how these forecasters think and what bonds they share. What lies behind their success? Are they good—or just lucky? What patterns have they unraveled? And are their forecasts really right? He explores unanticipated commonalities and exposes unexpected juxtapositions. And sometimes, it is not so much how good a prediction is in an absolute sense that matters but how good it is relative to the competition. In other cases, prediction is still a very rudimentary—and dangerous—science.

Silver observes that the most accurate forecasters tend to have a superior command of probability, and they tend to be both humble and hardworking. They distinguish the predictable from the unpredictable, and they notice a thousand little details that lead them closer to the truth. Because of their appreciation of probability, they can distinguish the signal from the noise.

With everything from the health of the global economy to our ability to fight terrorism dependent on the quality of our predictions, Nate Silver’s insights are an essential read.