Living In the Shadow of Doomsday

Fresno Bee, September 11, 2022

Down in Antarctica, a massive glacier is rapidly melting. The media have dubbed this 80-mile-wide ice sheet “the doomsday glacier.” Reporters warn that when the glacier collapses, it could raise global sea level by 2 feet. The collapse could happen as soon as 2031.

We are a long way from Antarctica. But it’s easy to picture the ice melting during our roasting September heat wave. My car thermometer hit 117 the other day.

It does seem like our “house is on fire,” as Greta Thunberg put it in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland a couple of years ago. Thunberg said, “I want you to panic.” She continued, “And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

When speaking to the elites at Davos it might help to ring the alarm bells loudly. Our leaders are currently throwing a few buckets of water at an advancing wildfire. They need some political heat to get them moving.

But what about the rest of us? Should we panic? Eco-anxiety is a serious problem, as I discussed in a previous column. Nihilism and despair are as deadly as the rising heat. If doomsday really is right around the corner, we might be inclined to crank up the AC, pull down the blinds and abandon hope.

Doomsday is pretty depressing, after all. But let’s think critically about our language for a moment. Words like “doomsday” cause panic and despair. Two feet of sea level rise is bad. But the world won’t end. Media literacy can help prevent overreaction. Doomsday is just a word. It was chosen by the headline writers to capture your attention.

It also helps to recall that human beings are adaptable and inventive. We likely won’t prevent climate change from re-shaping civilization. But human beings change and adapt. The history of civilization is a story of our adaptability and inventiveness. The future won’t be easy. And there will be pain. But it’s better to embrace the inevitability of change than to hide in the closet.

We had some practice in dealing with radical change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Things fell apart for a time. Remember the fear? The uncertainty? The toilet paper shortages? But we adapted. The response wasn’t perfect. Many people died. Political life became polarized. And we’re still recovering. But here we are. Life goes on. It’s different today than it was a few years ago. But each dawn is different.

We need to develop a kind of Stoic resolve, leavened with creativity, humor, love, and joy. One of my mentors, the philosopher John Lachs, described this as “Stoic pragmatism.” He encourages us to confront tragedy with “equanimity born of joy.”

We need endurance and acceptance but also good humor and energy. When things get rough, as they always do, it helps to smile into the pain. Shake off the suffering and keep going. That’s what marathon runners do. It’s what inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists do when they hit a roadblock. Make a joke, suck it up, and get back to work.

We have strayed pretty far from the doomsday glacier. But the end is never really far away. On any given day, millions of people experience their own private doomsdays. Loss is inevitable. Everyone you know and love eventually ends up dead. And no civilization lasts forever.

In admitting our mortality, there is the risk of despair. But it is better to look into the abyss with open eyes than to live in denial. And once you accept the inevitable, you can discover acceptance and even joy. John Lachs put it this way in a book he wrote about death and dying: “Of course we die, but why should that spoil breakfast?”

That cheerful nugget of wisdom is helpful. This doesn’t mean that we should just smile and wave without taking action. The house is on fire. There’s work to be done. And we’re going to have to adapt. But freaking out doesn’t help. When doomsday arrives, it’s better to greet it with creative good humor than with anxiety and despair.

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Technology, Transhumanism, and Perennial Wisdom

Technology and the future of the human race

Fresno Bee, November 26, 2016

The world’s religious and philosophical traditions teach that a good life requires lifelong spiritual practice. Daily effort is needed to develop virtue and character. Eat your veggies and get some exercise. Care for the weak. And come to terms with suffering and death.

Some view such old-fashioned wisdom as complacent and defeatist. Rather than embracing perennial wisdom, so-called “transhumanists” want technological shortcuts to longevity, morality and happiness.

Some advocate using drugs to improve cognitive capacity, to create happiness or to facilitate empathy. Others want to edit the human genome to eliminate diseases. Robotic surrogates could care for the sick. Medical technology can extend our lifespans. And consciousness could be downloaded, creating virtual immortality.

This may sound like science fiction, but technology is rapidly advancing. When physicist Michio Kaku spoke at the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall Lecture Series this fall, he sketched a transformed future enhanced by nanotechnology, robotics and computing power.

Audience members asked questions about the moral implications of this brave, new world. But Kaku brushed those concerns aside. Indeed, at one point he claimed that he couldn’t hear those questions due to a problem with the microphone.

And herein lies a problem. Our low-tech gadgets give us headaches. High-tech solutions could have terrifying side-effects. Plastic surgeries go awry. Today’s wonder drug is tomorrow’s health crisis. Genetic engineering could produce monsters. And so on.


Technophiles trust that the engineers will fix emerging problems. For example, if fossil fuels cause climate change, let’s respond with nuclear energy or geo-engineering. A much simpler solution is to consume less and reduce pollution. But restraint and self-control are antiquated values in a world of instant gratification.

Our culture encourages us to seek material solutions for spiritual problems. In a world of hammers, everything looks like a nail. And in a world of computers, we suspect that there must be an app for wisdom, virtue and happiness.

Hammers are useful. So are computers. But the most important human problems require spiritual responses. A pill cannot make you happy. A robot cannot provide love. Suffering and death can be deferred, but they cannot be permanently defeated.

Last week at Fresno State, a bioethicist from Florida, Dr. Melinda Hall, gave a presentation on her new book, “The Bioethics of Enhancement” as part of the Leon S. Peters Ethics Lecture Series. Hall is a critic of the transhuman vision. She warns that emerging biotechnologies devalue the lives of the disabled by treating disability as a problem that needs a technological fix.

Hall suggests that “disability” is often created by disabling social circumstances. For example, short people are disabled in a culture that puts everything on the top shelf. But rather than engineering bodies to make them taller, we could change our social world so that short people are not disadvantaged by their stature. And we could also learn to value short people as much as we value tall people.

Consider what Stephen Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler call “The ADHD Explosion.”According to their recent book with that title, one in nine American kids are diagnosed with ADHD. Seventy percent of those diagnosed are prescribed medication.


Medication can be a game changer for some kids. But we might consider alternative school structures, weaning kids from electronic gadgets, making sure kids get enough sleep and nutritious food, and other low-tech fixes.

The same is true with the obesity epidemic. We can fix obesity with bariatric surgery. But a different focus would change the social world so that we ate better and got more exercise. We might also develop a more welcoming attitude toward obese people.

We are not all the same. Some are fat. Some are thin. Some are short. Others are tall. But all human beings deserve love and a chance for happiness.

Transhumanists have a fairly narrow conception of what makes for a good and happy life. They forget that death, disability and dependence are part of the human condition. Suffering is a part of life. Good people find meaning in caring for others. And no one gets out of this life alive.

We really can do amazing things with technology. But technological fixes often float on the surface. A deeper approach embraces our differences, our dependence and our mortality.