Who will mourn us when we’re gone? For many of us, I suppose, it will be our families and friends, those left behind when we have shuffled off our mortal coil, to paraphrase Shakespeare.
But who will mourn us as a species when the last of us has gone?
In fact, who will even notice that we’re gone? Or care? As far as we know, we are the only sentient life-form extant on this planet we call home—the only species who can think coherently, who can ponder the unimaginable, who can ask ourselves Why? and What if?
It is quite remarkable when you consider that, in more than four billion years of life on earth, it is we who are the only species ever capable of rational thought. And irrational thinking, too, unfortunately.
According to National Geographic, more than ninety-nine percent of all organisms that have ever lived on earth are extinct. Yet today, it is estimated that almost nine million species of life—plants, animals, and micro-organisms—cohabit the planet, most of them unknown to us. Many of those will probably become extinct before ever being identified.
Scientists believe that in the long history of the planet, there have been five mass extinctions, each lasting anywhere from fifty thousand to two-and-a-half million years, the fifth occurring before mammalian forms of life (of which we are but one) began to appear. Some believe we are currently experiencing a sixth such event.
Our species, homo sapiens, has been around for approximately three-hundred-thousand years, a mere sliver in the timeline of life on earth. In that relatively short period, we have come to regard ourselves as masters of our universe. We are the alpha predator, almost surely; yet, increasingly, we find we are not insulated from the predations of deadly life-forms in the shape of bacteria and viruses—most of which evolve and reproduce at a much faster rate than do we.
What accounts for our air of superiority might be summed up in one word—hubris. Hubris, defined as excessive pride, or self-confidence bordering on arrogance, has allowed us to convince ourselves of our invincibility. To this point in our history, we have successfully erected barriers to ward off all enemies who would harm us, be they human or otherwise.
Increasingly, however, I wonder if those preventive measures are like levees and dikes erected to shield us from the rising waters, many of which are proving insufficient to the task of protecting us. Indeed, they may prove to be no more sturdy than the walls of Jericho.
The COVID-19 pandemic currently sweeping the world should give us pause. Given that it is, perhaps, just one of many new viruses that will assail us as our planet warms and our ice-caps melt, how can we be sure we will avoid our own extinction? What can we do to ensure—not hope—ensure that will not happen?
And even if we discover what to do, will we muster the determination and the courage to do it? What do your own observations tell you about that as you participate in our current struggle?
And so, I come back to my question: who will miss us when we are gone?
Without us, the sun will rise and set as it always has, the moon will traverse the nighttime sky. Rain will continue to fall, grass and flowers will continue to grow, waves will continue to crash against rocky shores. Trees will fall and rise again in forests that are rejuvenating themselves, fish stocks will multiply in the vast oceans, animals and birds will reclaim the land.
Tundra and deserts will rejoice in their emptiness, mountains will cease crumbling under incessant boring and drilling, earth and sea will no longer be plundered of their natural resources.
There will be no war, only peace.
So truly, who among them will miss us?
Perhaps we do not care. If our prevailing attitude is that we must acquire as much as we can before we’re gone, and that nothing else matters, it is hard to make the case that we should mend our ways before it is too late. Many believe we are here, after all, for a good time, not a long time. Based on verses from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, we should enjoy life as much as possible.
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
It is a seductive philosophy. And if we are coming to believe as a species that no one will miss us when we’re gone, anyway, then why worry? Live for the moment.
But that is not a mindset to which I willingly accede. Surely we are better than that. Surely the best of us will drag the rest of us through the storms we face, if only we allow them.
I wonder if we can. I wonder if we shall.