Would you press the button to make humanity go extinct?

This post is also available in: esEspañol

Warning: this post contains ideas that some people may find irritatingly optimistic, as well as some big, long-term ideas that some may find ludicrous. Please set your mind to “open” before reading further 🙂

I often hear people entertaining the thought of making humanity disappear from the universe because, as a species, we are causing a lot of suffering, to ourselves and other sentient beings and the planet. One thought experiment goes like this: if you could make humanity painlessly disappear with the pressing of a button, would you press it? Or, slightly reframing the experiment so that you can make an abstraction of your own responsibility: would you stop someone else from pressing the button?

button

In the animal rights/vegan movement, more people seem to be in favor of human extinction than among the general population (just my anecdotal experience). That’s not hard to understand. People become animal rights activists and/or vegans because they have learned about the horrible suffering humans inflict on animals, for food, clothing, research or entertainment. It is tempting to think that the planet would be a better place without Homo sapiens, and given that in our thought experiment, no humans would really suffer (it’s just a matter of an instant, and no humans are left to deplore the new situation), we might say: where’s the harm?

Now, from the viewpoint of the notoriously tricky field of population ethics, there’s a lot of stuff to say here. Apart from the consequences for other species and the environment, we could talk about whether the universe in general is a worse or a better place with humans gone. If there is, on average, more value than disvalue in humans’ lives, it might seem that the net result is negative. But if there’s more misery than happiness, this could be good. We could also think about the value of future people being born. They will obviously not be born if we let humanity go extinct. I won’t go into this minefield here, because I do not have strong opinions about these issues, because I can’t seem to wrap my head around them, and mainly because here I want to touch on some other factors.

These are the reasons why I would not press the button.

1. Humans may do a lot of damage, but they’re also wonderful.

We all know the horrors that we cause in the world: to other people and annually to 65 billion farmed animals (excluding fish). We screw up our environment and use a lot of finite natural resources. There’s no need to write a long and depressing list here. However, we can also focus on all the good that we do. Never in the history of our planet – or, as far as we know, the universe – has there been a species that invests so much time in making things better for others. Look at the millions of people active in the non-profit sector. Look at those trying to help the weakest and the poorest. Look at all the beautiful things we do. Seeing Homo sapiens in this light, it becomes really problematic and unfair to just call us a shipwreck of a species that only does damage.

2. Humans still have a lot of potential to improve.

In many ways our history is just beginning. Moments ago we were mere apes in trees. We developed culture, learning and education only recently. We – in the richer countries at least – only recently managed to create comfortable environments where we no longer need to worry about food and shelter, so that we can spend more time on other things. Violence is declining and this era is, counterintuitively to some, the most peaceful era in history (read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature). We’re still expanding the circle of our moral concern. We’ll probably have to work less in the future and will devote even more time to creating change for ourselves and others. And there is the promise (at least for techno-optimists) of future technological advancements that can help us have a huge positive impact on ourselves and our planet.

3. Humans might be able to help other species further down the road.

In the future, given more moral growth and technological improvements, rather than having a net negative impact on other species, our impact could become net positive. Arguably the biggest source of suffering for animals is nature/the natural condition. Animals die by the billions because of hunger, disease, parasitism, the climate, predation (see my post The extremely inconvenient truth of wild animal suffering). Maybe in the future, we can limit some of this suffering. The same applies if at some point in our more distant future, we bump into sentient life on other planets. Chances are there is suffering there, and if by that time we have advanced enough morally and technologically, we may be able to help. Of course there is the chance that some other species in our corner of the universe is already at that level, thus making our own progress less important. But certainly in the event that we’re the only “advanced” ones around (in this region of the universe), it becomes very important that we survive and grow to help. It would be a pity if everything we have and everything we are was lost, and the universe would need to restart with another species to reach our level of development. Lots of time and lives lost.

As you see, I’m thinking a bit ahead. And why not? Some will believe this is speculation and science fiction that has no relevance for the problems and suffering at hand. But if we don’t destroy ourselves, we have to assume we’re going to be here for a long, long time still. And in that time, a lot is possible.

We’re on our way. We’re children still, growing up, getting better. It’s going to take ages or millennia, but we humans might just turn out to be the best thing for the universe. Let’s not press that button just yet.

21 thoughts on “Would you press the button to make humanity go extinct?

  1. Thank you for this interesting article. I am torned between these 2 sides of thinking; wanting the distinction of the human race to give the animals and this planet peace and time to heal and at the same time knowing all the good a human being is capable of.

    1. well, the thing is, i don’t think animals have peace with or without us. with us, they maybe may have more chance of some kind of peace in the long run

      1. I get your point, but when seeing and knowing all the horrors humans are inflicting on the animals it is difficult to embrace the idea that they would not be better off without us. As the state is today one is wondering, can it get any worse? But its important to remain positive and to believe in a better future, that thing can and will change for the better, that is the reason why I’m vegan. The work you do together with many of us is the hope for the animals.

      2. I really can’t be so optimistic. The idea that humans might eventually make other animals’ lives better strikes me as being as far-fetched as the idea that the domino effect will eventually make everyone vegan.

        If I have a disease, I don’t let it fester in the hopes that it one day might get better. I have it taken care of, or I suffer and possibly die. A button like the one in your thought experiment sounds like an antibiotic, to me.

  2. Thanks for the warning. 🙂

    Have to admit there are days when I’d push that button in a heartbeat. And given my generally pessimistic/misanthropic nature, there are times I’m more than glad to be old enough that I won’t be around forty years from now to witness the continual destruction we humans inflict on others. But, that also means I won’t be able to witness possible massive change in attitude and behaviour that could benefit all species. So I guess my answer for now is no, I wouldn’t press it myself, but I also wouldn’t stop anyone else from doing the deed.

  3. To play along as if such a button existed, I would not push it, but I would not prevent another person from pushing it. I am clearly not an optimist though 🙂

    Human beings have an odd evolution in comparison to other organisms – even among other populations of humans. Imagine if the Native Americans had progressed as rapidly as the Europeans. Would the outcome of the settlement of North America have been much different if the Native Americans had advanced weaponry? Many people treat the Native Americans as great stewards of the Earth. I think that would have not been the case had they been able to reach the industrialization stage as the civilizations slowly advanced. Regardless, it’s easy to applaud and/or denigrate human beings since we created the setting for our existence over centuries (language, religion, science, math, politics, philosophy, etc.).

    Ecologically, we are nothing special on this planet. Aside from detritus (which even then we deprive the decomposers through incineration and embalming), we don’t contribute much although we certainly benefit from all of the biological and ecological support services. If humans were to go extinct, aside from domesticated animals (which we create), the only organisms that would go extinct along with us would be a species of head lice and a couple demodex mites that live on our hair follicles and in our pores.

    I think it’s a slippery slope to over-glorify our progress and assume that we have the potential to improve the conditions of wild animals – especially when we caused most of the suffering through deforestation that is necessary to make room for growing human populations. Currently, do dogs, for example, have it much better than wolves? Certainly my dog lives longer, likes technology like the car she rides in to go to her favorite spots, eats processed kibble and anything else, sleeps in a climate controlled house on a fluffy pillow protected from predators and parasites for the most part! In the context of the situation that we are dealing with, with the over-population of domestic dogs and cats, certainly it makes a difference, but in nature dieback exists for a reason – it’s simple carrying capacity and natural selection. I would argue the wolf has it better than the domestic dog, regardless of suffering, purely based on numbers. We can understand and justify nature because it’s not a rationalizing organism, but we really cannot justify breeders, whether puppy mills or small, pure breed dog breeders. So we created a problem that we are now tasked to address and solve – with huge expense, resources, and energy. Couldn’t one argue that if we had just left wolves alone that we would not have to spend billions of dollars to rescue, care for, and euthanize domesticated dogs? Obviously, we have to deal with it because it is a real issue, that currently exists, and it does no good to dwell on what should have been done so long as it’s not repeated.

    A lot is certainly possible depending on how long human beings will exist. There is no magic number for carrying capacity, so it’s all speculation. We can assume suffering will always exist and that humans will create and solve problems that we thus created. We’ll also continue to advance medicine to increase lifespan and populations, but not in astronomical proportions as some people imagine.

    I’m not anti-humanity – obviously, I’m using a computer, I was not crippled by Polio because I was vaccinated, my mother and I survived birth when I would have died pre-1900’s, etc. I don’t shun technology because I pretend to be a Luddite whose job was eliminated by the “machine” or live “off-the-grid” trying to make my living off the land to make less of an impact. I certainly take refuge in wild areas because I like getting away from cities, mundane work, and people (especially during election time here in the United States – ick!).

  4. Another wrench: what happens to the animals in our homes, shelters, farms? Unless they are magically transported to a place all their needs will be met, pressing the button creates more suffering for the animals currently alive, locked away, unable to escape, and destined to die of starvation or thirst. If they would somehow be as well off as they would be in the wild, we don’t get to check out. I cringe at the thought of my dogs left all alone, with no one to let them out of the house or yard (they have a dog door; but the gates to the yard have locking latches).

    1. Well, in my imagination, if such a button would exist, the possibility to, before pushing the button, arrange for all animals to be set free, would also exist (“magically transported to a place all their needs will be met”, like you say). Both of the options are equally unrealistic so why just not use our imagination. In any way, we already hit the button every day by destroying the planet and its inhabitants slowly but surely. And according to the movie “Demain” not so slowly…

      1. well, that’s YOUR thought experiment, and it is different from mine. it’s not because they’re both unrealistic that they’re the same and are instrumental in uncovering the same values and assumptions 🙂

  5. If someone said “yes” to this…..what argument would they have for not pressing their personal red button?

    1. I would happily accept myself being included in the humanity extinguished by the button press. My own death frightens me far less than what human beings do, every day.

      1. But would you push your personal button now? Since veganism is based in the moral choice and action of the individual, why not extend that individual morality into at least eliminating your own awful human impact by eliminating yourself.

        Folks, this idea of pushing a button and removing humanity is like genocide at the level of species-cide. Why not introduce global compulsory sterilisation instead – at least people would get to live out their own lives? After all, what could be wrong with people being detained against their will and operated on without their consent? How would that be worse than murdering them (which pressing the button would be)?

        My view is this – as humans we all have a basic duty to other humans, not because other humans are necessarily nice, not because we will never be in conflict with other humans but because we rely on other humans. It won’t be the rainforest or a non-human animal that might feed you if you are starving, it’s going to be another human. Sure, it could have been humans that caused your suffering in the first place, but as I said humans ain’t necessarily nice.

  6. Wonderful article which I hope is widely read and shared. If we could tune the button to take out all the misanthropes and pessimists, then I’d hit it with a hammer. 😉

  7. There’s to many “might”, “could” and “potential” in there about possible human development. It’s not going to happen, at least not fast enough, so I’d press the button.

  8. Hey Tobias, nice piece! What do you think about the risk that humans expand suffering to places where currently there’s no sentient life? For instance, prototypes of insect farms that could work outside earth are already being developed.

    1. yes, of course there is that risk. not just re. insects. i mean, spreading just *ourselves* to other planets at a moment when we’re still too primitive (or when the environment is too hostile) to guarantee a decent level of enjoyment for all beings is a big risk in itself. i would prefer we only spread among the stars (or planets) when we have reached a certain level of moral maturity also.
      so i guess you can just as well be pessimistic in all this, but i think i choose to be an optimist 🙂

Leave a Reply