The Near-Term Extinction Movement Is Embracing the End Times

Meet the movement that's preaching peace and compassion in the face of inevitable apocalypse.

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Oct 1 2015, 12:00pm

Image: Doc Searls / Flickr

We know the planet is in the midst of a new Great Die-Off, caused by human behavior. Less clear is whether this mass extinction will someday include us, but a growing number of people believe that it will. Who can blame them?

We've already dipped into a doomsday seed vault stash in the Arctic thanks to a war catalyzed in part by climate change, and images of refugees from that war rushing past militarized border police who shoot them with rubber bullets and flash bang grenades certainly don't look like a world on the upswing. And yet the chaos has only just begun: Some degree of catastrophe this century is all but assured no matter what we do now. Our oceans will continue to rise for centuries. And scientists suspect that "feedback loops," like the fast-melting permafrost in the Arctic and Siberia could send enough methane into the air to lead to catastrophic, runaway climate change.

So it's no wonder that a burgeoning number of people are subscribing to the idea that human extinction in our lifetime is all but certain. Depending on who you ask, they earnestly estimate the climate change-caused apocalypse will unfold between a few weeks to three generations from now. There's not a lot of data on how widely these beliefs are shared, but the believers are beginning to organize; loosely, at least. An "extinction candidate" is running for Senate in California. Meetings and workshops are being held around the country to discuss the End. And an active, private Facebook group, "Near Term Extinction Love," to which I belong, has hundreds of members. Call them near-term extinctionists, or the stoics of climate change, though they don't go by any official moniker.

The tone of 'Extinction Love' is similar to what one might find in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One woman recently posted about feeling deep despair for life lost and fear of the future, and supporters piled on likes and comments assuring her it was OK to feel that way. Occasionally, there are posts of lighter things, like a viral photo of a swan neck-hugging a man. More frequently members post "told you so" news articles bearing bad climate news.

Pauline Schneider, the administrator of the group, says it functions as a "daily memorial or a constant wake" for the life lost to mass extinction; the people who participate are in a constant state of mourning. Schneider herself says she was a committed activist who held on to hope up until a few years ago, when she was arrested on the White House lawn as part of a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline led in part by famed environmentalist Bill McKibben. Now she scorns McKibben and others like him, whom she accuses of "lying" about our ability to mitigate climate change.

"We are not going be able to save the world," Schneider said of the group. "The events are already in motion. It's too big. We're focused on moving right now through the world and what we do with our lives, which we still have control over."

Many like Schneider say they mourn not only for the impending loss of life, but the mass death happening among the planet's beings right now, and profess a strong connection to the natural world. Some attended a workshop in New York for people who've "come to grips with near-term human extinction" and want to live out the last days of their lives as fully as possible, like doomed cancer patients who've accepted inevitable death.

Chris Johnston, who helped advise the development of the workshop, is a medical specialist with 20 years working in addiction recovery and a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance at Bristol University. When he began thinking about the psychological challenges presented by climate change, he was struck by how similar our coping mechanisms were to recovering drug addicts or terminally ill patients. Our addiction to a fossil fueled lifestyle and general refusal to recognize its harmful effects is similar to a junkie in denial, Johnston says. So is the process through which we come to terms with its mortal consequences, which proceeds from denial to anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—the stages of grief according to the Kübler-Ross model.

"People could believe their lives were just falling to pieces," he said, "and they start thinking what's the point, what else is there to do but junk out?" The workshop for near-term human extinction was informed by some of the ideas that Johnston developed with Joanna Macy, an environmental activist and spiritual leader who has used Buddhist concepts to help people in Ukraine process grief from the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Despair "becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Johnston, but when people recognize they've hit rock bottom, they tend to change their behavior, and can eventually find some peace in their remaining days.

"It doesn't matter whether the industrial economy collapses or not, we're screwed in the short term either way."

This workshop eventually evolved into a support group that meets a few times a month. Jevon Nicholson, a Brooklynite model and bar doorman in his 40s, has attended about five of the group meetings. Like Schneider, Nicholson's politics have long been progressive, and for years he worked to improve the world. He voted for Obama in 2008 and supported Occupy Wall Street, but the seeds of despair had been laid years earlier, after he lost his job at an education nonprofit and found more time to read about how the nexus of government and corporate interests were driving climate change. These days, Nicholson said, he's chosen to live a simpler life and "disconnect from the hyper-consumption" of the fossil fuel economy.

"I spend most of my time in the acceptance stage, trying to live lovingly and compassionately," Nicholson told me, referring to the Kübler-Ross scale. He regards people who propose market-based solutions to climate change as hope-profiteers, and said that through the extinction support group, he's found "other people out there comfortable letting go of hope." He estimates humanity will be gone within 100 years.

Nicholson, like many of the climate stoics, was introduced to the idea of near-term extinction through the blog postings of Guy McPherson, a professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology at the University of Arizona and, more recently, a certified grief counselor. "I was filled with hope until 4 years ago, when the evidence overwhelmed me," McPherson told me over the phone in July. "It doesn't matter whether the industrial economy collapses or not, we're screwed in the short term either way."

McPherson's stark hopelessness has earned him ire from some fellow scientists, who accuse him of cherry picking data to fit his terminal prognosis. And it's hard not to wonder whether McPherson's ego compels him to find pupils for his message. Back in 2009, when he threw in the towel and decamped to a homestead in rural New Mexico, he had expected others to follow him. When nobody did, he became confused and angry, but says he eventually reached a point where he accepted "how difficult it is to change one person's mind, much less other people's."

These days, McPherson says he works to help people learn how to "spend our precious few breaths on this planet doing work we love, pursuing love, and excellence in our lives," which he thinks are lessons we should take to heart whether or not he's wrong about the coming apocalypse—which he predicts could come as early as October.

Two months after we first spoke, McPherson invited me to a gathering at Pauline Schneider's home in Westchester, New York, about 35 miles north of the city.

When I arrived, McPherson and three others were sitting solemnly in the lush backyard under the last licks of summer heat. As more people arrived—about a dozen showed up in total, nearly all in their middle years—the mood became chattier, but remained grim. I can't recall hearing laughter more than once the whole evening. After warming up with a chat about car accidents, we got right down to discussing the end times.

I mentioned to the group that I'd spoken to ocean fauna experts who were hopeful that humanity could at least mitigate some devastation in the oceans. Thom Juzwik, a massage therapist in his 50's, shot down the possibility by pointing out the proliferation of oxygen-sucking algae blooms in the oceans, which one study suggests played a role in the Earth's previous five great extinctions. Others agreed. As the conversation moved along, they all scoffed at Hilary Clinton's support from the oil and gas industry, but I was in the minority in feeling unsure the world would end before 2030.

This pessimism is beginning to percolate into the mainstream with the release of Roy Scranton's anticipated new book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. In it, Scranton advocates for a new philosophical framework that could become a metaphysical wrench-in-the-machine for the global economy, interrupting flows of capital and and replacing knee-jerk reactionism with slow, mediated reflection on our own mortality.

"Philosophical humanism in its most radical practice is the disciplined interruption of somatic and social flows, [and] the detachment of consciousness from impulse," he writes. At a recent talk Scranton gave at the book's launch in Brooklyn, he suggested the science was just too bleak for social movements to change our future, and all there was left to do is cultivate compassion and patience as we wait to die together.

Scranton's stoicism is just the kind of detachment from our fiery collective fate that near-term extinction adherents value. Yet while they may uniformly believe the End is nigh, it's clear that some still hold onto the possibility that things could change for the better.

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Before I left the gathering in Westchester, I met a woman named Laurie Evans who said she had also attended the extinction workshop. Evans volunteers her time to a campaign to stop the construction of a pipeline to transport fracked gas, which takes up so much of her time that her husband gives her grief. She also tries to live a sustainable lifestyle, however futile she acknowledges the effort may be.

"I use candles, I use bars of soap because I don't want to use plastic bottles. I cut my sponges in half. Guy says it doesn't matter whether or not you cut your sponges," she said, "I want to keep trying to make change because I want to have some hope for my kids."