Longtermism and the threat of climate doomism

A map predicting mass death in the Global South by 2050 went viral on Twitter.

Topics that evoke feelings of doom go viral on social media platforms like Twitter just about every other week. Most recently, a tweet containing a map created by “influential financiers” predicting mass death in the Global South by 2050 caught people’s eye.

The map is not just misleading, it’s dangerous.

The map “proving” imminent doom for the Global South is in fact from an unpublished map from a manuscript by Gaia Vince, a well-known writer on the anthropocene, detailing the consequences of a 4 degrees C world.

There remains a huge range of options between where we are now — at almost 1.5 degrees C of climate change — and the world we would have at 4 degrees C and that space makes all the difference for billions of our human and not-human kin. Why misrepresent established science in order to insist that it’s too late to save people made most vulnerable to climate change?

The map was first presented at a conference for PAWA, a conference meant to shape “a new narrative for humanity that offers a positive view of the future of our civilization”, according to  the conference’s event page. 

It’s ironic, therefore, that at a conference whose theme is “longtermism” — or the goal of bettering humanity’s chances of survival into the far future — someone would insist that, in the near term, it will be too late to save billions of people. 

To suggest such, as in the aforementioned viral tweet, is to take up the common doomist refrain that it’s too late to mitigate climate change.

Under this perspective, the Global North can continue to abandon the Global South.

Like other strains of doomism, longtermism obsesses about the possibility of human extinction rather than admit that climate change is happening right now and the most privileged among us have yet to suffer its impacts. 

In order to preserve the future of humanity, longtermism posits this:

 “If you could save a million lives today or shave 0.0001 percent off the probability of premature human extinction—a one in a million chance of saving at least 8 trillion lives—you should do the latter, allowing a million people to die,” according to reporting from the Boston Review

Again, this rhymes with doomism by suggesting that because it’s too late to solve climate change, it’s acceptable to close borders and hoard resources as if we are at the point of planetary collapse where survival is most important. This idea insists that the preservation of modern, Western civilization would be worth abandoning the rest of the world for. It’s simply another type of fatalism.

You hear longtermism in Elon Musk’s calls to build a colony on Mars as a failsafe for humanity in case of extinction — but leaving Earth for a deeply uninviting planet only seems appealing if we accept that the earth is beyond saving. 

Longtermism is the most recent trend in philanthropy, gaining the praise of other influential people like Ezra Klein and Bill Gates. 

Rich philanthropists can funnel their money toward an ideal of humanity’s future that best represents and centers themselves — Western, colonial, rich, and most often white — rather than mitigate climate change in the near term by supporting communities on the frontlines. 

It is as if this philosophy is saying: it’s too late to save them, the people of the Global South, so we must save ourselves, for a bright new technological future.

The colonialist urge to discount people who have suffered from the root cause and symptoms of climate change, isn’t confined to longtermist philosophy. The wealthiest countries in the world — most of which are colonial entities made rich by extracting resources from the Global South — are right now refusing to pay loss and damage ahead of COP 27, despite them contributing the most to global pollution. 

Technology makes mitigating climate change seem easy and refuses to engage with the fact that colonialism is a root cause of climate change. 

By skipping ahead to a predetermined future, longtermism demands we abandon the present, and the myriad of possibilities for humanity, if we “honestly” reckon with the climate crisis. 

In this way, humanity’s future becomes just another colonial frontier.

Illustration by Houssem Zouaghi.

Op-Ed by Megan Ruttan, Currently’s partnerships coordinator.


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