Extinction Isn’t the Worst That Can Happen

Yes, you read that right.

by Kai Heron

24 June 2021


Parts of the left in the Global North have taken to treating climate breakdown like it’s an ace up our collective sleeve. Capitalism, so the argument goes – a system predicated on infinite growth on a finite planet, on the pursuit of individual gain over the public good – has no solution to the climate crisis. And it shows. 

The $35bn Joe Biden recently pledged for tackling the climate crisis, to much fanfare, amounts to less than the US spends on pet food each year. Europe’s Green New Deal, also announced with considerable pomp, isn’t enough to meet the commitments made in the Paris Agreement. A report published last week found that the UK is woefully underprepared for the effects of global heating. And Australia shows no signs of halting its coal operations which, with Indonesia, account for 59% of the world’s seaborne coal market. All the while temperatures rise, species flicker out of existence, and tens of thousands of acres of life-saving forests, peatlands and water systems are destroyed.

If this is what “getting serious” about the climate crisis looks like under capitalism, the choice seems clear: it’s socialism or extinction, communism or death. Sentiments such as these are widespread in progressive circles in the Global North. They are no doubt well-intentioned: by bringing to mind the worst that can happen, they aim to clarify the political stakes and compel us into action. But what if this choice doesn’t take the crisis seriously enough? What if, to put it provocatively, extinction isn’t the worst that can happen?

There are at least three things wrong with the cataclysmic “socialism or extinction” framing. The first is that it conceals a theological pattern of thought beneath a thin veneer of secular political militancy. As academic Delf Rothe argues, fantasies of collapse are a theological hangover in our otherwise largely secular climate movements. Much like Christian theology, the choice of socialism or extinction is organised around an all-or-nothing millenarian dichotomy between the end times and salvation. This suggests that we are pulled through history in a linear fashion: that we have one shot and one shot only to save ourselves – or else forever suffer the consequences.

Rothe is surely right. There’s an air of atonement, guilt and retribution about talk of human extinction and civilisational collapse. At its worst, again like Christian theology, it perhaps even suggests an unconscious enjoyment of suffering. That unless we all pick up our placards and join the climate justice movement in its habituated patterns of protest and resistance, we deserve what’s coming to us. The problem here, as philosopher Alenka Zupančič argues, is that the possibility of breaking out of these limited and limiting forms of protest to imagine new strategies and new tactics is foreclosed by the urgency of acting, of doing anything, to avert the end times.

The second problem with this framing is that it’s historically inaccurate. Those who imagine the climate crisis will lead to the collapse of civilisation often look to the fall of past civilisations for clues to how it will happen. They conclude from this and today’s undeniably alarming climate science that collapse will occur in a matter of decades. Once our ecological niche is gone, so are we.

But as anthropologist Kenneth Seligson writes, studies suggest so-called ‘collapsed’ societies didn’t disappear as rapidly as is imagined. Rather they declined, endured and adapted. Seligson gives the example of Mayan civilisation, the ‘collapse’ of which should be described as an ongoing process of decline and adaptation spanning centuries rather than a single event that can be consigned to history. Over six million Maya people are alive today, and they stand as testament to the survival of Mayan communities in spite of dramatic climatic events and the continuing genocidal violence of colonial theft, exploitation, and domination.

This brings us to the third problem with eschatological framings of the climate crisis: they overlook the fact that for many, the end of the world has already happened. In October last year, Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani woman, mother and leader, wrote a desperate letter to the western world reminding us that for Indigenous peoples, “the fires are raging still”. The Waorani have been, and continue to be, savaged by colonial violence. Oil spills contaminate their rivers, gold mining operations pollute their soils, land grabs and deforestation transform their lands beyond recognition – and, of course, Covid-19 snatches the lives of friends, families and communities.

As Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte argues, Indigenous peoples already inhabit a world their ancestors would have thought apocalyptic. Colonial violence has irreversibly damaged the ecosystems, plants, animals, landscapes, knowledges, practices and communities that sustained Indigenous ways of life for hundreds of years. It’s because of this that philosopher Deborah Danowski and anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro argue the “first great modern extinction” occurred when the Old World unleashed the forces settler colonialism, slavery, white supremacy and capital accumulation on the New.

When the all-or-nothing framing of socialism or extinction is contrasted with the experience of the colonised, the enslaved and the subjugated, it reveals itself as the universalisation of a distinctly European, American and largely white experience. In the rush of realisation that climate chaos is irreversibly changing the world for the worse, it forgets that for many, the worst is already happening. At its limit, it risks exonerating those of us in the Global North from interacting with and mitigating the messy realities of how climate breakdown is playing out in uneven ways today, working through and exacerbating the so-called “ordinary disaster” of colonialism and racial capitalism

This is why extinction isn’t the worst that can happen. It’s much more likely that climate chaos will intensify existing processes than bring about the end times. Instead of the final collapse, we should fear a world of unfathomable suffering. Of crop failures, of food shortages, of prisoners press-ganged into putting out fires, of those same prisoners dying in their cells from insufferable heat, of flooded cities, of billions of climate refugees, of gated private city-states, and eco-apartheid-preserving borders that ensure the survival of those in the worst affected regions hinges on securing super-exploited employment in protected enclaves

This might sound like science fiction. But as those suffering the catastrophic convergence of capital, colonialism and ecological crisis today will testify, it’s already happening. Rather than talking about “socialism or extinction”, “ruin or revolution” might better reflect our choice. After all, we can live in the ruins, though we’d surely prefer not to. Some of us, tragically, already do.

Kai Heron is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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