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Three Questions to Lead Us Away from Self-Extinction


Three Questions to Lead Us Away from Self-Extinction

David Korten

Some ideas hit us in a way that is hard to shake. Last year that happened to me. I was in a public conversation with my friend and colleague, theologian Matthew Fox, when he made this observation: “Humans might be the first species to knowingly choose self-extinction.”

Most people recognize that our situation is serious, and many realize it is a choice, not a foreordained destiny. Yet the clarity and finality of Matt’s observation keep it ringing in my ears, along with the profound questions it raises.


Three questions to lead us away from extinction:

  1. When do we get rid of Him?

  2. What do we do with Him?

  3. Who do we replace Him with?


My thoughts on the subject of this article have been fermenting for many years.

About 35 years ago, when I was naive to environmental issues, I recall being highly insulted that the park service would dare to insist that I “remove my own trash” from a picnic area. My thought was: Oh great, now they’re too cheap to provide trash cans in the forest preserves. It took another couple years for me to be aware of what was happening to our planet environmentally. I learned about by reading about the subject…helped by my environmentally aware daughter.

I propose that people simply are not educated to the effects that we as humans are having on our environment.

When I hear a song for the first time, I think I don’t like it. But then, after hearing it on the radio another dozen times, the song becomes familiar and I actually sing a long with it. I may then decide that I actually like that song.

Do we read or hear repeated commentary on our environment from the news media? NO! We hear lots about people killing each other, robberies, accidents–sound bites all geared toward sensationalism. Environment isn’t “sexy.”

We need to hear issues about environmental destruction every day ad nauseum in order for the problem to be crystal clear in our thick skulls.

Media coverage=education.


It is worth noting here–not as a criticism, but for reflection on our facile categories–that this author self-identifies as conservative.

Like Korten’s other work, this is thoughtful and interesting. He often manages perspectives that I find new and yet sympathetic.

But here it strikes me that the idea that mankind might knowingly choose extinction is at best oversimple. Human knowledge and intention is much more a song than anything that Moses might wish to drag down a mountain. It is meaningful, but inflected by intention and hubris and sycophancy. We assemble it afresh for each new day and, however incompletely, for each perceived new context. We are monkeys who discovered fire; our best and dearest qualities do not separate us from other creatures, but connect us.

No, we may well learn and stumble on–I am working on it, though I don’t know that such assertion reassures any of you much. But whether we kill ourselves off or not, the process will involve a whole lot of guesswork, it seems to me, and gossip and innuendo will survive until the end.

That is not to say that I regard wisdom as impossible or hopeless. It is hard to count on, but friendly when it shows up.


Well, at this rate, the liberal bourgeois Mr. Korten, darling of the leafy-neighborhood living, food-co-op going urban liberal bourgeois just might discover what Herrs Marx and Engels already advocated170 years ago.


Who is this “we” kimosabe?

I know very well who is trying to kill us off, and it is not me. So exclude this “we” from me and other libertarian socialists.


Very interesting that he included as one of his main three assumptions the concept of reincarnation. Thats going to really stir up some conversation amongst a large percentage of Christians (or preemptively shut it down). However a majority of people and cultures around the world (myself included) embrace the idea…


He said early on that he was proposing a “thought experiment.”


I read an analysis a few years ago suggesting that human beings are not biologically equipped for long-term responses to threats (long term, as in decades or centuries). That seems valid, at least in 21st century Euro-American culture. The indigenous peoples might be better equipped.


The environment could easily be more “sexy” than stories about “people killing each other, robberies, accidents” etc. The real reason we don’t hear about it is because what we’re fed by the mainstream media is by design. For example, when a multinational powerhouse like Exxon spends ridiculous amounts of money to buy a 30 second ad at a Super Bowl intermission, it is not because they are trying to sell more gas or appear more “sexy” to the general public. It is because the network is made quite aware that their existence hinges on what kind of stories they will broadcast to the masses. In the Exxon example that I have given, how often do we hear about the end date for fossil fuels, the millions who die prematurely from the burning of fossil fuels or how Standard Oil (precursor of Exxon) bought up all of the public transportation systems in the 1930’s to kill any attempt to electrify public transport? If any network dared to even mention such inconvenient truths, that networks’ funding from corporate America would evaporate over night. An honest ‘education’ will never originate from our MSM, if it at all threatens the status quo. Our first educational lesson should be the lesson in which we are all taught to dissect propaganda for what it is and delve into the motivations behind these campaigns of mass misinformation. Maybe social media could provide a critical mass awakening? Maybe a “charismatic leader” (using Max Weber’s description) could suddenly rise to power and survive long enough to motivate the masses to abandon capitalism and replace it with a compassionate and egalitarian vision for humanity? I don’t even know if we will be lucky enough to have such a mass enlightenment occur just in time to prevent a catastrophic collapse of our species! But I do know that we will never even witness anything remotely resembling an intelligent discussion about these topics from our contemporary, corporate dependent media.


Could’a, Should’a, Would’a. The actions of humans seem to have already caused the extinction of most species - too late to do anything about that. If humans refuse to learn to coexist with other life on this planet, at some point human self-extinction will become the only remaining logical and moral choice.


I agree. We need to find some way to dispense education to the masses. Isn’t it horribly ironic that our mass media is not that vehicle?


“… Who is this “we”…”

… The virtue of this particular ‘we’ meme is that it has a conciliatory, empathic tendency to greatly marginalize antagonistic dialogue whereby ever so slightly hinting that this little problem is ‘our’ problem -even though I/we know it is in truth ‘your’ problem. It kinda’ makes me/you sound like a smart*ss who thinks he/she knows everything -if only those ‘other’ idiots would get with the program…
… Why do ‘we’ find this such a difficult concept to grasp? Of all the things to draw a firm line in the sand -is ‘we’ really worth that much rancor???
… No, we think not…


Because we are all on the very same boat(Earth), one should admit to being part of the ‘we’. Unless, of course, you’re on the moon or something…


By we in this case I refer to Homo sapiens, Yunzer. Killing oneself does not require nor imply intent–which was part of my point in response to Korten.

Were Korten to find out what Marxengels knew in the 1800s, that’d be wonderful, no? It’d put him ahead of a lot of us if he knew little else–and us refers as we above.

Hang in, though, Yunzer. We may have better things to struggle against than leafiness.


And who will deliver the Darwin Award?

(couldn’t resist)


Perhaps, one of his offspring.

Jr. Perhaps.


You’re absolutely right… it is horrible and ironic that our media is complicit in the misinformation campaign. At least in the early days of print media, many different viewpoints existed. But now it is only the “Great Western Narrative” or else we never hear about it. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m bust trying to find one!


Alex… a.k.a. Space Cadet


“That after the death of our physical body, our consciousness is reborn in a random infant body in the same world we just left.” What leads you to this assumption?


So, since the author’s belief in the three assumptions are basic to his “thought experiment”, he is saying that unless we believe in the right kind of religion, we are doomed. Although as a “thought experiment” - if we all knew** we’d be right back here again starting from scratch - each time we were re-born, then it would be easier to change the world. There is no more evidence that we come back after we die than there is of an ancient grey-beard living in the clouds granting the occasional boon. zero = zero.
**how would we know?