On Human Extinction as Tragedy


Having gradually fallen in love with moving pictures over the past few years, I have become accustomed to viewing the world from the perspectives of cinema, taking on an attitude which I would confess, is not an altogether optimistic one. “When you record the moment you record the death of the moment”. This is the point of view of movielens, suggests David Cronenberg in his short film Camera. The main subject, the “victim”, of this piece is an aged actor shot in a cinéma vérité fashion. His old age is in plain sight of the audiences. His sorrow, agitation, and fear forever crystallised on screen in their demise.
However, mankind is a different form of witness — we who are more than “living cameras” know only to unceasingly record relentless instances (as individual entities they are fatuous, at most compiling to form Beckett’s “impossible heap”). I recall a scene from Let the Wind Carry Me (2009), a documentary about Taiwanese cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-Bing, Cannes winner and frequent collaborator of directors including Wong Kar Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien. In midst of an interview, Lee suddenly notices something outside the window. He quickly pulls out a cheap old digital camera to capture down what he has seen. It’s unusual to see so many leaves, all together excited, he says, laughing childishly. The shot is followed by an actual footage Lee recorded that day: a single leaf among others, dangling on a fence. This guy doesn’t know we’re filming it and it’s dancing like mad. Somehow, through his charming description the dispirited leaf comes to life afresh before our eyes.
In a recent New York Times opinion-piece, Clemson University philosophy professor Todd May argues that human extinction “both would be a tragedy and that it just might be a good thing”. Taking into account mankind’s numberless misconducts––the most condemnable among them he identifies as the “devastation of the lives of conscious animals on a scale that is difficult to comprehend”, he yields that it may well be beneficial for the globe if our species is to become extinct one day. Whereas May does take on a sympathetic view of this situation, recognizing (rather too lightly) the significance of the “things” that human beings can bring to the planet that “other animals cannot”, he suggests (in an over-simplified strain of logic) that nonetheless, no “suffering and death of nonhuman life would we be willing to countenance to save Shakespeare, our sciences and so forth”.
Indeed, some might agree with May in seeing mankind’s accomplishments to be reasonably creditable only in view of the arrogant posture of our race. To this I am reminded of the Golden Voyage Record, a “time capsule” launched into space in 1977 containing images (e.g. depiction of three men, respectively eating a bagel, licking an ice cream, and drinking liquor) and audio tracks (e.g. Beethoven’s Symphony №5 in C Minor) representative of our humanity intended to be discovered by possible extraterrestrial life form or future humans. Carl Sagan, chair of the committee in charge of the record’s content selection, notes with much confidence, “the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” However, what is the difference between this maneuver and that of a prideful writer, deliberately concealing insignificant insights into his / her work in the vain hope that some critic would be so enthusiastic as to uncover his / her self-entitled genius?
No no… What I have in mind is a much less pretentious conception of what “human achievement” is. In a scene from his documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Werner Herzog takes us with him to a frozen underground sturgeon beneath Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a space which will eventually outlive all of the large cities in the world being -70ºC in temperature. It is here that the scientists have left some remnants of our presence to be frozen for perpetuity––an old picture of New Zealand (“memories of a world once green”), some fake plastic flowers with greeting cards on their side (“the flowers’ here for you to smell; came from far and wide to this frozen hell; mom, friends, grandmas, great-aunts and such; they look nice and did not cost too much”), frozen popcorns used as decorations… These items seem to be representative of our naivety and unknowingness, configuring a kind of hope which acknowledges that our love letters may not be guaranteed a recipient. In my view, it will be the loss of this innocent eccentricity which would be most tragic upon our extinction, as no longer would there be some children, beholding their world in awe, holding out their hands together without knowing that this is a form of prayer. The documentary ends with a fascinating quote by Alan Watts––“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence”. The world is in our unconditional embrace as long as we exist, but it knows only to shiver for one second when we are gone. As if having awaken from a dream, promptly it fails to recall the night before and continues on at work with as much liveliness though with no more animation.


When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

– Wisława Szymborska

As we work on constructing our planet’s future we have articulated our doomsday when all will be bygone. In dwelling here where we call home, we have destroyed the silence of a cosmos. However, the last two lines of the poem is most compelling — in knowing to utter “nothing” at the universe (though perhaps with the original intention to reflect inwards at ourselves rather than to scorn the external world in ignorance), strangely we “make something no non-being can hold”. This, I believe, is the essentiality of our existence and the exclusive sympathetic viewpoint one should take when mourning in advance our possibly ascertained extinction.

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