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The Revolt Against Humanity by Adam Kirsch

Ian James Kidd responds to rejections of humanity.

Adam Kirsch is an American poet, biographer, literary critic, a faculty member at Columbia University, and a widely-published public intellectual. The Revolt Against Humanity (2022) appears in the Columbia Global Reports series of well-produced, novella-length essays on contemporary political and cultural themes. The theme of this book is the dispiriting judgement that “the end of humanity’s reign is imminent, and that we should welcome it” (p.10). Humanity’s beset by the climate crisis, ecological destruction, the possibility of nuclear war, and other existential risks that in the worst-case scenarios threaten our species’ existence. This pessimistic anticipation is expressed by a diverse range of voices – “engineers and philosophers, political activists and would-be hermits, novelists and palaeontologists” (p.10) – as they respond with exultation, despair, or sober determination. The Revolt Against Humanity explores these attitudes to and visions of our potentially imminent demise in a consistently clear, well-informed way, without the excesses of many of the writers it discusses. Rather, six erudite, clear, and concise chapters explore the issues raised by the serious prospect of the end of human life, at least as we know it.

Systematic reflection on the end of humanity only really became popular in the twentieth century, when it became clear that science and technology gift us the power of self-destruction. Environmentalists and others started to imagine ‘a world without us’ (the title of a 2007 book by Alan Weisberg). But Kirsch is more interested in attitudes towards the possibility of our demise, as not everyone is alarmed by it, and many profess to delight in it.

Chapter One identifies two contrasting sources of ‘the turn against human primacy’ (p.11). Anthropocene antihumanism takes on board familiar environmentalist litanies such as the destruction of ecosystems, but abandons the environmentalist’s ‘meliorist’ conviction that we should try to stop it. For antihumanists, our self-destruction is both inevitable and to be welcomed, however bitterly, as a ‘sentence’ we’ve passed on ourselves. But I think this needs clarifying: are they talking about the destruction of humanity, or of certain forms of human life? Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander’s book This Civilization is Finished (2019) for instance argues that consumerist, carbon-intensive human civilization is finished, even if other, better, kinds of civilization might succeed it.

Anthropocene antihumanists regard science, technology, and human ambition as expressions of the hubris that spells our doom. By contrast, transhumanists see these phenomena as the means of our salvation: the human world cannot continue, and must come to an end, but its successor will be a world of ‘post-humans’ – engineered super-beings who are physically, morally, and cognitively superior to Homo sapiens – so ushering in an age of ‘Humanity 2.0’, which must mean actual humanity’s dethronement and the start of a post-human age.

abandoned bus

For Kirsch, antihumanists and transhumanists share “visions of a humanless world” – one “from which we have disappeared, and rightfully so” (p13). He then invites us to see them as “new way[s] of making sense of the nature and purpose of human existence” (p13). The existential threats we face are not products solely of our worst side, but also of our better side – our curiosity about our world, for instance, and our desire to live in comfort rather than misery. Perhaps the most prominent threat to humanity is climate change, which Kirsch sees as a convergence of our ‘acknowledged vices’ of hatred, greed, selfishness with the pursuit of “aims that we ordinarily consider good and natural”, such as “prosperity, comfort, increase of our kind” (p.19).

Readers who expect Kirsch to call for radical activism will be surprised and perhaps disappointed. Instead he expresses honest pessimism: even modest climate goals are unlikely to be met – too little has been done, too many tipping points passed (p. 25). Left-liberal critics such as Naomi Klein or Jedediah Purdy might be right in calling for curbs to the power of corporations and greater social and economic equality, but neither are likely to occur in the time available to civilisation. Moreover, optimists must reckon with the depressing history of our moral failings. Purdy is right that we lack the necessary capacities for ‘self-restraint’: this is echoed by Kirsch’s recognition that the “ultimate political challenge is to limit… the scope of human appetites” (p.26). By rejecting implausible scenarios for doing so, Kirsch offers an interesting neglected alternative, which we might call quietism. Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine’s Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009), and according to the principle that “action is not always more effective than inaction” (p.31), Kirsch commends less dramatic responses of small, personal acts of withdrawal, moderation, and careful stewardship.

Chapter Four tackles antinatalism and other ‘pro-extinction’ positions. Kirsch calls out the ‘outrageous’ rhetoric of some of these writers, like the one ‘deeply saddened’ that plague and war have not already finished us off (pp.43, 47). But like Claire Colebrook, Kirsch argues that pro-extinction ideas should not be dismissed as ‘inadmissible’, given “human brutality and life-destructiveness” and “our malevolent relation to life”(p.47). But he notes that any moral case for human extinction – such as David Benatar’s anti-natalist arguments – will be “unlikely to prevail, on account of the very selfishness it bemoans” (p.43). So, unfortunately, the voluntary ending of humanity is unlikely to happen (as Benatar openly admits). The prospect of our involuntary end or catastrophic disruption is far more likely.

Unlike the writers who casually call for mass suicide or mass human die-offs, Kirsch is sensible and compassionate, and remains sober-minded in the fifth and sixth chapters, which provide a clear discussion of varieties of transhumanism. For Toby Ord and others, humanity has power, but lacks the moral capacity to handle it wisely, because we are “morally and physically circumscribed.” To gain the necessary moral maturity, we need what Kirsch dubs ‘species transformation’ (pp.54-55). But such transformations are fantastical and merit the criticisms they receive. This includes the blasé conviction that human beings are endlessly plastic creatures who may be moulded just as one wills. Calls for ‘transformation’ may be exciting, and chime with the moral ethos of our times; but the word ‘radical’ has pejorative senses, too.

The book ends on a sober note: we are obviously incapable of the necessary “drastic forms of human self-limitation”, since most of us are too “committed to preserving the species status quo” (pp.90-91).

Kirsch concludes that “the revolt against humanity casts doubt on the goodness of the human species and its whole history” (pp.94-95). It’s difficult to disagree.

© Ian James Kidd 2023

Ian James Kidd teaches and researches philosophy at the University of Nottingham, and is writing a book on misanthropy. His website is ianjameskidd.weebly.com.

The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us, Adam Kirsch, Columbia Global Reports, 2022, 104 pages


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