Category: Philosophy

It’s not just me!

I thought this was worth sharing!

The problem with coming up to the age of 75, and aware that I am close to the average life expectancy in the US, is that one increasingly worries about stuff. Such as it seems like the world is becoming more unsettled. But then it is put down to age!

But this article does imply that it is a more unsettled world and we should take notice. Republished with permission.

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5 tips for surviving in an increasingly uncertain world

What does the future hold – and how will you handle what comes next?
Svetlana Lukienko/Shutterstock.com

Jelena Kecmanovic, Georgetown University

A recent study showed that North Americans are becoming less tolerant of uncertainty.

The U.S. presidential impeachment inquiry has added another layer of uncertainty to an already unstable situation that includes political polarization and the effects of climate change.

As a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C. area, I hear people report being stressed, anxious, worried, depressed and angry. Indeed, an American Psychological Association 2017 survey found that 63% of Americans were stressed by “the future of our nation,” and 57% by the “current political climate.”

Humans dislike uncertainty in most situations, but some deal with it better than others. Numerous studies link high intolerance of uncertainty to anxiety and anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, PTSD and eating disorders.

While no one person can reduce the uncertainty of the current political situation, you can learn to decrease intolerance of uncertainty by implementing these scientifically sound strategies.

1. Commit to gradually facing uncertainty

Even though humans encounter uncertain situations every day, we often avoid feeling the discomfort of facing the uncertainty.

When unsure how to best proceed with a work assignment, you might either immediately seek help, over-research or procrastinate. As you prepare for the day, uncertainty about the weather or traffic is quickly short-circuited by checking a phone. Similarly, inquiries about family or friends’ whereabouts or emotions can be instantly gratified by texting or checking social media.

All this avoidance of uncertainty leads to relief in the short run, but lessens your ability to tolerate anything short of complete certainty in the long run.

Tolerance for uncertainty is like a muscle that weakens if not used. So, work that muscle next time you face uncertainty.

Start gradually: Resist the urge to reflexively check your GPS the next time you are lost and aren’t pressured for time. Or go to a concert without Googling the band beforehand. Next, try to sit with the feelings of uncertainty for a while before you pepper your teenager with texts when he is running late. Over time, the discomfort will diminish.

2. Connect to a bigger purpose

Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Presidency of Italian Republic/Wikimedia, CC BY

Rita Levi-Montalcini was a promising young Jewish scientist when fascists came to power in Italy and she had to go into hiding. As World War II was raging, she set up a secret lab in her parents’ bedroom, studying cell growth. She would later say that the meaning that she derived from her work helped her to deal with the evil outside and with the ultimate uncertainty of whether she would be discovered.

What gives your life meaning? Finding or rediscovering your life purpose can help you deal with uncertainty and the stress and anxiety related to it.

Focusing on what can transcend finite human existence – whether it is religion, spirituality or dedication to a cause – can decrease uncertainty-driven worry and depression.

3. Don’t underestimate your coping ability

You might hate uncertainty because you fear how you would fare if things went badly. And you might distrust your ability to cope with the negative events that life throws your way.

Most people overestimate how bad they will feel when something bad happens. They also tend to underestimate their coping abilities.

It turns out that humans are generally resilient, even in the face of very stressful or traumatic events. If a feared outcome materializes, chances are you will deal with it better than you could now imagine. Remember that the next time uncertainty rears its head.

4. Bolster resilience by increasing self-care

You have probably heard it many times by now: Sleep well, exercise and prioritize social connections if you want to have a long and happy life.

What you might not know is that the quantity and quality of sleep is also related to your ability to deal with uncertainty. Exercise, especially of the cardio variety, can increase your capacity to cope with uncertain situations and lower your stress, anxiety and depression. A new review study suggests that regular exercise may even be able to prevent the onset of anxiety and anxiety disorders.

Possibly the best tool for coping with uncertainty is making sure that you have an active and meaningful social life. Loneliness fundamentally undermines a person’s sense of safety
and makes it very hard to deal with the unpredictable nature of life.

Having even a few close family members or friends imparts a feeling that “we are in this all together,” which can protect you from psychological and physical problems.

5. Appreciate that absolute certainty is impossible

Nothing is certain in life. The sooner you start thinking about that fact, the easier it will be to face it.

Moreover, repeated attempts at predicting and controlling everything in life can backfire, leading to psychological problems like OCD.

In spite of civilization’s great progress, the fantasy of humankind’s absolute control over its environment and fate is still just that – a fantasy. So, I say to embrace the reality of uncertainty and enjoy the ride.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]The Conversation

Jelena Kecmanovic, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Georgetown University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Photo Credit: Twitter/bendemistims

Now whatever uncertainty exists in your life a dog or two will make things a great deal better.

That’s a fact!

The treasure that is a pit bull

This is the true nature of this breed.

Pit Bulls have such a bad reputation. But in our experience if they are cared for and loved and not used for fighting then they are great dogs.

No better illustrated than by this story that appeared on The Dodo website.

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Dog Refuses To Leave Mom’s Hospital Room After Saving Her Life

SUCH a good girl 👏🐕💕
BY

PUBLISHED ON 10/10/2019

When Shauna Darcy first brought Ruby home, the plan was to have Ruby act as a service dog to help her with anxiety, depression and agoraphobia. Ruby was an incredible service dog and companion from the very beginning — and quickly showed Darcy just how far she would go to help her.

Shauna Darcy

“While she was training to be a service dog I noticed that she started picking up on changes in my heart rate and would act funny — for example, paw at me, try to get my attention, get on top of me, etc.,” Darcy told The Dodo.

Picking up on Ruby’s cues, Darcy went to the doctor and discovered she had health issues she hadn’t known about, including a rare heart condition called vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Ruby had known something was wrong even before Darcy did, and her main focus as a service dog quickly switched to Darcy’s cardiac issues.

 

Shauna Darcy

Every day, Ruby helps her mom with things like monitoring her heart rate and blood pressure, helping her during panic attacks and retrieving emergency medications. She also carries groceries, picks up dropped items and gets things her mom can’t reach, and is trained in deep pressure therapy.

“When I pass out she gets on top of me and applies all her pressure on me and licks my hands and face until I come around,” Darcy said.

Shauna Darcy

Ruby is there for her mom every single day — even when she doesn’t realize she needs her.

Last week, when Ruby started alerting her mom that something was wrong, she had no idea why. At that point, Darcy was feeling fine, but decided to trust Ruby and call an ambulance anyway, just in case.

“It turns out my heart was going into atrial fibrillation,” Darcy said. “By the time the paramedics came, I was in pain and barely conscious.”

Shauna Darcy

As the paramedics rushed Darcy to the hospital, she realized that Ruby had saved her life that day.

While Darcy was in the hospital and the doctors worked to get her stable again, Ruby refused to leave her mom’s side. Even while Darcy was unconscious, Ruby lay in her hospital bed, pressed up against her, hoping her mom could sense she was there and that her presence would make her feel safe.

Shauna Darcy

During their stay at the hospital, so many people stopped by to meet Ruby. She’s always very popular whenever she and her mom are at the hospital and loves saying hi to everyone — but also makes sure that she’s never too far away from her mom. She loves her so much, and her mom loves her just as much right back.

Shauna Darcy

Without Ruby, Darcy’s life would be very different. Ruby helps her mom stay healthy and safe every single day, and her mom is so grateful for everything she’s done for her.

“I wouldn’t be alive without her,” Darcy said.

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“I wouldn’t be alive without her,”

I’m emboldening that last statement.

This is a wonderful story.

For Darcy has articulated what millions of other dog lovers know in their hearts. That the relationship between a dog and a human is extra special!

Being alone!

We have had a taste of this a week-and-a-half ago.

We were truly alone when we went to Utah.

But then again, one of the privileges of being on 13 acres, 13 very rural acres, here in Southern Oregon is that being alone is not that far away!

I don’t want to underplay the importance of this posting, republished from The Conversation website (with permission), because we live in so busy times.

Written by three professors, it’s a very wise and profound article.

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Spending time alone in nature is good for your mental and emotional health

June 4th, 2018

By

Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College

Associate Professor and Program Director of Parks and Recreation Management, Western Carolina Universit

Associate Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College

Today Americans live in a world that thrives on being busy, productive and overscheduled. Further, they have developed the technological means to be constantly connected to others and to vast options for information and entertainment through social media. For many, smartphones demand their attention day and night with constant notifications.

As a result, naturally occurring periods of solitude and silence that were once commonplace have been squeezed out of their lives. Music, reality TV shows, YouTube, video games, tweeting and texting are displacing quiet and solitary spaces. Silence and solitude are increasingly viewed as “dead” or “unproductive” time, and being alone makes many Americans uncomfortable and anxious.

But while some equate solitude with loneliness, there is a big difference between being lonely and being alone. The latter is essential for mental health and effective leadership.

We study and teach outdoor education and related fields at several colleges and organizations in North Carolina, through and with other scholars at 2nd Nature TREC, LLC, a training, research, education and consulting firm. We became interested in the broader implications of alone time after studying intentionally designed solitude experiences during wilderness programs, such as those run by Outward Bound. Our findings reveal that time alone in nature is beneficial for many participants in a variety of ways, and is something they wish they had more of in their daily life.

On an average day in 2015, individuals aged 15 and over spent more than half of their leisure time watching TV. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans Time Use Survey

Reflection and challenge

We have conducted research for almost two decades on Outward Bound and undergraduate wilderness programs at Montreat College in North Carolina and Wheaton College in Illinois. For each program, we studied participants’ experiences using multiple methods, including written surveys, focus group interviews, one-on-one interviews and field notes. In some cases, we asked subjects years later to look back and reflect on how the programs had affected them. Among other questions, our research looked at participant perceptions of the value of solo time outdoors.

Our studies showed that people who took part in these programs benefited both from the outdoor settings and from the experience of being alone. These findings build on previous research that has clearly demonstrated the value of spending time in nature.

Scholars in fields including wilderness therapy and environmental psychology have shown that time outdoors benefits our lives in many ways. It has a therapeutic effect, relieves stress and restores attention. Alone time in nature can have a calming effect on the mind because it occurs in beautiful, natural and inspirational settings.

Spending time in city parks like Audubon Park in New Orleans provides some of the same benefits as time in wilderness areas, including reduced stress levels and increased energy levels. InSapphoWeTrust, CC BY-SA

Nature also provides challenges that spur individuals to creative problem-solving and increased self-confidence. For example, some find that being alone in the outdoors, particularly at night, is a challenging situation. Mental, physical and emotional challenges in moderation encourage personal growth that is manifested in an increased comfort with one’s self in the absence of others.

Being alone also can have great value. It can allow issues to surface that people spend energy holding at bay, and offer an opportunity to clarify thoughts, hopes, dreams and desires. It provides time and space for people to step back, evaluate their lives and learn from their experiences. Spending time this way prepares them to re-engage with their community relationships and full work schedules.

Putting it together: The outdoor solo

Participants in programmed wilderness expeditions often experience a component known as “Solo,” a time of intentional solitude lasting approximately 24-72 hours. Extensive research has been conducted on solitude in the outdoors because many wilderness education programs have embraced the educational value of solitude and silence.

Solo often emerges as one of the most significant parts of wilderness programs, for a variety of reasons. Alone time creates a contrasting experience to normal living that enriches people mentally, physically and emotionally. As they examine themselves in relation to nature, others, and in some cases, God, people become more attuned to the important matters in their lives and in the world of which they are part.

Solo, an integral part of Outward Bound wilderness trips, can last from a few hours to 72 hours. The experience is designed to give participants an opportunity to reflect on their own thoughts and critically analyze their actions and decisions.

Solitary reflection enhances recognition and appreciation of key personal relationships, encourages reorganization of life priorities, and increases appreciation for alone time, silence, and reflection. People learn lessons they want to transfer to their daily living, because they have had the opportunity to clarify, evaluate and redirect themselves by setting goals for the future.

For some participants, time alone outdoors provides opportunity to consider the spiritual and/or religious dimension of life. Reflective time, especially in nature, often enhances spiritual awareness and makes people feel closer to God. Further, it encourages their increased faith and trust in God. This often occurs through providing ample opportunities for prayer, meditation, fasting, Scripture-reading, journaling and reflection time.

Retreating to lead

As Thomas Carlyle has written, “In (solitary) silence, great things fashion themselves together.” Whether these escapes are called alone time, solitude or Solo, it seems clear that humans experience many benefits when they retreat from the “rat race” to a place apart and gather their thoughts in quietness.

In order to live and lead effectively, it is important to be intentional about taking the time for solitary reflection. Otherwise, gaps in schedules will always fill up, and even people with the best intentions may never fully realize the life-giving value of being alone.

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I would modify that advice from Thomas Carlyle and that is to include a dog.

For in my experience when one is in the mood for a bit of solitary reflection your dog seems to sense it as well.

TED Talk

This is good

This doesn’t really have a link to dogs. However, I sense that dog lovers across the world have less of a problem with depression.

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In a moving talk, journalist Johann Hari shares fresh insights on the causes of depression and anxiety from experts around the world — as well as some exciting emerging solutions. “If you’re depressed or anxious, you’re not weak and you’re not crazy — you’re a human being with unmet needs,” Hari says.

Why you should listen

Johann Hari’s first book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, is being translated into 27 languages and has been praised by a broad range of people — from Elton John (who said it “will change your life”) to the British Journal of General Practice, who called it “one of the most important texts in recent years.” His second book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, has been translated into 15 languages and is currently being adapted into a major Hollywood film by Oscar-winning director Lee Daniels, and into a non-fiction documentary series.

Hari graduated from Cambridge University with the highest degree grade, a Double First, in social and political sciences. He grew up in London, with a Swiss father who was a bus driver and a Scottish mother who worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Today, he lives half the year in London, and he spends the other half of the year traveling to research his books.

Hari has written over the past eight years for some of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the Spectator, Le Monde Diplomatique, the Melbourne Age and Politico. He has also appeared on leading TV shows, including HBO’s Realtime With Bill Maher. He was twice named “National Newspaper Journalist of the Year” by Amnesty International. He has also been named “Cultural Commentator of the Year” and “Environmental Commentator of the Year” at the Comment Awards, and “Gay Journalist of the Year” at the Stonewall Awards. Read about what Johann is working on now.

About Johann Hari

I’m indebted to Wikipedia from which I have drawn some of the following:

Early Career

Hari was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to a Scottish mother and Swiss father, before his family relocated to London when he was an infant. Hari was physically abused in his childhood while his father was away and his mother was ill.

According to Hari, he attended the John Lyon School, an independent school affiliated with Harrow School, and then Woodhouse College, a state sixth-form in Finchley. Hari graduated from King’s College, Cambridge in 2001 with a double first in social and political sciences.

Later Career

In January 2012, after leaving The Independent, Hari announced that he was writing a book on the war on drugs, which was subsequently published as Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

His 2015 T.E.D. talk entitled “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong” has been viewed over 9.4 million times (as of July 12, 2018), and lays out the idea that most addictions are functional responses to experiences and a lack of healthy supportive relationships, rather than a simple biological need for a particular substance.

In January 2018, Hari’s book Lost Connections on depression and anxiety was published, with Hari citing his childhood issues, career crisis, and experiences with antidepressants and psychotherapy as fuelling his curiosity in the subject. Kirkus Reviews praised the book. Material from the book was criticised by neuroscientist and Guardian writer Dean Burnett, who pointed out that Hari appeared to be reporting as his own discoveries material — such as the biopsychosocial model – that has been common knowledge for decades, and for misrepresenting the medical, psychiatric and scientific establishments as “some shadowy monolithic organisation, in thrall to the drug industry”.

His website

Johann Hari

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Now as far as I can see Johann is not without some criticism but, for me, that doesn’t remove the validity of the talk on depression.

Picture Parade Three Hundred and Three

The last republication of an earlier picture parade.

Over the last few weeks I have been republishing some picture parades where the photos were sent in by Margaret down in Tasmania. As before if you want to go back to the originals they start here.

OK, let’s get into this last set!

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The last set of those glorious photographs sent in by Margaret from Tasmania

“Animals and nature are insignificant for a man when the man is unworthy.”

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“There is no better psychiatrist in the world than a puppy licking your face.“ – Woodrow Wilson

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“Somewhere in the rain, there will always be an abandoned dog, that prevents you from being happy“ – Aldous Huxley

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“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the manner in which its animals are treated“ – Mahatma Gandhi

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“Many who have dedicated their life to love, can tell us less about this subject than a child who lost his dog yesterday“. – Thornton Wilder

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“Dogs are not everything in life, but they make it complete“ – Roger Caras

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Just thinking that my dog loves me more than I love him, I feel shame.“ – Konrad Lorenz

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“They will be our friends forever, always and always.”

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That’s it, folks.

But I do have wonderful photographs for next Sunday albeit as different to these from Marg as one could imagine!

You all take care.

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They are really beautiful and the sayings are just as perfect.

Unfortunately next Sunday’s Picture Parade will not be a republication of a previous post.

Picture Parade Three Hundred and Two

Again, a republication of an earlier post.

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 Yes, another set of those wonderful photographs sent in by Marg.

If you missed previous sets then start back here.

“A dog is the only thing on earth that will love you more than you will love yourself.”  –
Josh Billings

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“You can live without a dog, but it is not worthwhile.”

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“If a dog does not come to you after looking you in the face, it is better that you go home and examine your conscience“ – Woodrow Wilson

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“Buying a dog may be the only opportunity that a human being has to choose a relative”. – Mordecai Siega

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“You can say any foolish thing to a dog and the dog will look at you in a way that seems to say: ‘My God, he is right!!! That would have never occurred to me’ “. – Dave Barry

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“Sitting back in the evening, stargazing and stroking your dog, is an infallible remedy.“ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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“To exercise, walk with someone who will accompany you willingly, preferably a dog.“ – David Brown

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It breaks my heart to advise you that the Picture Parade in a week’s time will be the last of the most glorious and touching photographs that came from Marg down in Tasmania.

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Not only are the photographs to die for but the sayings are exquisite as well!

 

How dogs are so good for children.

A delightful guest post from Holli.

A short while ago I was emailed by Holli Burch who asked me if I was ready for another guest post. Was I! I love to receive guest posts. From regular contributors, such as Holli, and people who are new to Learning from Dogs.

There was a quick exchange of emails and then yesterday in came Holli’s latest. It’s brilliant!

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How Dogs are Good For Kids

By Holli Burch. 22nd August, 2019
Many kids dream of having a dog.

While we know that dogs teach kids loyalty and unconditional love, there are also many other reasons that dogs are good for kids! I feel so grateful to be able to have both human and canine kids at home. I have always had dogs around me as a child also. My dad had hunting dogs and my mom liked the smaller poodle terrier dog breeds.

According to an article in the Washington Post, a recent study found that children who had strong bonds with their dog also had more secure stronger bonds with their parents and with their (human) best friends. I find this so extremely important, especially in adolescent age when kids struggle the most!

They had another study regarding how dogs effect children’s emotions during stressful times. They found that when the children had their dog with them, they were much more calm. Suggesting that the contact they have with their dog enhances positive affect.
More reasons dogs are good for our kids…

  • Dogs can help kids with behavioral problems – A dog can calm a hyperactive child and have been shown to be especially beneficial to those with special needs. Having a therapy dog can help ease parent worries a little by knowing the dog will protect them and can be trained to react to certain behaviors, including wandering.
  • Dogs can help ease anxiety- Petting your dog or cuddling with them releases the “feel good” hormones in their body called oxytocin. This soothes the anxiety mind and helps to calm them down
  • Dogs teach kids responsibility- Dogs need to be fed, walked and given love daily. When a child gets a dog they learn to take care of something other than themselves. This also creates empathy and self confidence.
  • Dogs keep kids in better health- Dogs can help overweight children and help get kids active. Parents need to make sure both are getting daily exercise. A study from Psychology today found that children who walked their dogs were 50% less likely to become obese. Not only that but according to LiveScience, kids that grow up around dog dust have less chance of developing allergies and asthma! It helps them develop a strong immune system.
  • Protection- A dog will always protect those it feels are family. This can mean protecting your child from bullies or helping them to feel safe while home alone. Kids often feel more safe during scary events if they have their dog by their side.
  • Dogs are best friends- They are always willing to play with your child and lift their spirit. Dogs can help with loneliness and depression because they won’t go away, they give unconditional love no matter what, so kids feel wanted and loved. They don’t fight with them, hit or yell. Kids can share anything with them with no judgement. Dogs often can help kids recover from trauma because they can confide in them.

We rescued Tuffy (above) from a shelter, as a puppy, after my daughter lost her horse in a traumatic accident. It’s been a couple years now and Tuffy has also helped her through more. We are blessed to have her and she follows my daughter everywhere. I know she will always keep her safe. Their bond is so strong and if she is ever feeling down, Tuffy knows and is right there to lift her spirit.

Each of my children have one of our dogs that they call theirs, except my 5 year old. Although, he did just ask me the other day if he can get his own dog. He is good at helping me walk them everyday and loves to cuddle with them. When we recently lost Jesse in April, it was also a hard lesson for the kids on loss. We miss her everyday. That’s her below.
One last thing I want to mention is how important it is to teach your child to respect their dog. First few things to teach is to respect their boundaries, how dogs communicate and how to interact when the dog is new to the family.

I would love to hear your comments and stories about how your dogs have helped your kids!
Dog Bless!~ The Dog Connection

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A little bit about Holli.

As a mother of 4 canines and 4 humans, I am here to help the connection between dogs and humans; mind, body & soul.  My purpose is providing inspiration and information to dog lovers on health, training and bonding.

Holli – The Dog Connection
Blog link: https://mysecretdog.blog

Dog Bless!❤🐾

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Time and time again we see a bonding between a human and a dog. It’s precious and the need to involve children from a young age is crucial. Young people growing up today will be facing a whole raft of issues, many of them extremely serious. All the more reason to have a young person bond with a dog, because that’s so important for that young person.

It’s very quiet out there!

A deeply fascinating essay from an individual at the University of Oxford.

I have long read the daily output from The Conversation. It’s a very useful way of keeping one’s brain cells functioning in some sort of fashion.

Yesterday morning I read an essay put out by  a PhD Candidate at the University of Oxford.

It was fascinating and I am republishing it here.

Now it’s not for everyone. It is also long and it also has a number of videos to watch. And there’s not a dog mentioned!

But if you are interested in where we, as in human beings, are ‘going’, so to speak, then this is for you.

And I’m ready to admit that it may be an age thing; something that is of much interest to me because I shall be 75 in November  and one naturally wonders about the end of life. Both individually and of society!

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The end of the world: a history of how a silent cosmos led humans to fear the worst.

By
PhD Candidate, University of Oxford

August 7th, 2019

It is 1950 and a group of scientists are walking to lunch against the majestic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. They are about to have a conversation that will become scientific legend. The scientists are at the Los Alamos Ranch School, the site for the Manhattan Project, where each of the group has lately played their part in ushering in the atomic age.

They are laughing about a recent cartoon in the New Yorker offering an unlikely explanation for a slew of missing public trash cans across New York City. The cartoon had depicted “little green men” (complete with antenna and guileless smiles) having stolen the bins, assiduously unloading them from their flying saucer.

By the time the party of nuclear scientists sits down to lunch, within the mess hall of a grand log cabin, one of their number turns the conversation to matters more serious. “Where, then, is everybody?”, he asks. They all know that he is talking – sincerely – about extraterrestrials.

The question, which was posed by Enrico Fermi and is now known as Fermi’s Paradox, has chilling implications.

Bin-stealing UFOs notwithstanding, humanity still hasn’t found any evidence of intelligent activity among the stars. Not a single feat of “astro-engineering”, no visible superstructures, not one space-faring empire, not even a radio transmission. It has been argued that the eerie silence from the sky above may well tell us something ominous about the future course of our own civilisation.

Such fears are ramping up. Last year, the astrophysicist Adam Frank implored an audience at Google that we see climate change – and the newly baptised geological age of the Anthropocene – against this cosmological backdrop. The Anthropocene refers to the effects of humanity’s energy-intensive activities upon Earth. Could it be that we do not see evidence of space-faring galactic civilisations because, due to resource exhaustion and subsequent climate collapse, none of them ever get that far? If so, why should we be any different?

A few months after Frank’s talk, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s update on global warming caused a stir. It predicted a sombre future if we do not decarbonise. And in May, amid Extinction Rebellion’s protests, a new climate report upped the ante, warning: “Human life on earth may be on the way to extinction.”

Meanwhile, NASA has been publishing press releases about an asteroid set to hit New York within a month. This is, of course, a dress rehearsal: part of a “stress test” designed to simulate responses to such a catastrophe. NASA is obviously fairly worried by the prospect of such a disaster event – such simulations are costly.

Space tech Elon Musk has also been relaying his fears about artificial intelligence to YouTube audiences of tens of millions. He and others worry that the ability for AI systems to rewrite and self-improve themselves may trigger a sudden runaway process, or “intelligence explosion”, that will leave us far behind – an artificial superintelligence need not even be intentionally malicious in order to accidentally wipe us out.

In 2015, Musk donated to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, headed up by transhumanist Nick Bostrom. Nestled within the university’s medieval spires, Bostrom’s institute scrutinises the long-term fate of humanity and the perils we face at a truly cosmic scale, examining the risks of things such as climate, asteroids and AI. It also looks into less well-publicised issues. Universe destroying physics experiments, gamma-ray bursts, planet-consuming nanotechnology and exploding supernovae have all come under its gaze.

So it would seem that humanity is becoming more and more concerned with portents of human extinction. As a global community, we are increasingly conversant with increasingly severe futures. Something is in the air.

But this tendency is not actually exclusive to the post-atomic age: our growing concern about extinction has a history. We have been becoming more and more worried for our future for quite some time now. My PhD research tells the story of how this began. No one has yet told this story, yet I feel it is an important one for our present moment.

I wanted to find out how current projects, such as the Future of Humanity Institute, emerge as offshoots and continuations of an ongoing project of “enlightenment” that we first set ourselves over two centuries ago. Recalling how we first came to care for our future helps reaffirm why we should continue to care today.

Extinction, 200 years ago

In 1816, something was also in the air. It was a 100-megaton sulfate aerosol layer. Girdling the planet, it was made up of material thrown into the stratosphere by the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, the previous year. It was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions since civilisation emerged during the Holocene.

Mount Tambora’s crater. Wikimedia Commons/NASA

Almost blotting out the sun, Tambora’s fallout caused a global cascade of harvest collapse, mass famine, cholera outbreak and geopolitical instability. And it also provoked the first popular fictional depictions of human extinction. These came from a troupe of writers including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley.

The group had been holidaying together in Switzerland when titanic thunderstorms, caused by Tambora’s climate perturbations, trapped them inside their villa. Here they discussed humanity’s long-term prospects.

Clearly inspired by these conversations and by 1816’s hellish weather, Byron immediately set to work on a poem entitled “Darkness”. It imagines what would happen if our sun died:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air

Detailing the ensuing sterilisation of our biosphere, it caused a stir. And almost 150 years later, against the backdrop of escalating Cold War tensions, the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists again called upon Byron’s poem to illustrate the severity of nuclear winter.

Two years later, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (perhaps the first book on synthetic biology) refers to the potential for the lab-born monster to outbreed and exterminate Homo sapiens as a competing species. By 1826, Mary went on to publish The Last Man. This was the first full-length novel on human extinction, depicted here at the hands of pandemic pathogen.

Boris Karloff plays Frankenstein’s monster, 1935. Wikimedia Commons

Beyond these speculative fictions, other writers and thinkers had already discussed such threats. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1811, daydreamed in his private notebooks about our planet being “scorched by a close comet and still rolling on – cities men-less, channels riverless, five mile deep”. In 1798, Mary Shelley’s father, the political thinker William Godwin, queried whether our species would “continue forever”?

While just a few years earlier, Immanuel Kant had pessimistically proclaimed that global peace may be achieved “only in the vast graveyard of the human race”. He would, soon after, worry about a descendent offshoot of humanity becoming more intelligent and pushing us aside.

Earlier still, in 1754, philosopher David Hume had declared that “man, equally with every animal and vegetable, will partake” in extinction. Godwin noted that “some of the profoundest enquirers” had lately become concerned with “the extinction of our species”.

In 1816, against the backdrop of Tambora’s glowering skies, a newspaper article drew attention to this growing murmur. It listed numerous extinction threats. From global refrigeration to rising oceans to planetary conflagration, it spotlighted the new scientific concern for human extinction. The “probability of such a disaster is daily increasing”, the article glibly noted. Not without chagrin, it closed by stating: “Here, then, is a very rational end of the world!”

Tambora’s dust-cloud created ominous sunsets, such as this one painted by Turner, c. 1830–5. © Tate, CC BY-NC-ND

Before this, we thought the universe was busy

So if people first started worrying about human extinction in the 18th century, where was the notion beforehand? There is enough apocalypse in scripture to last until judgement day, surely. But extinction has nothing to do with apocalypse. The two ideas are utterly different, even contradictory.

For a start, apocalyptic prophecies are designed to reveal the ultimate moral meaning of things. It’s in the name: apocalypse means revelation. Extinction, by direct contrast, reveals precisely nothing and this is because it instead predicts the end of meaning and morality itself – if there are no humans, there is nothing humanly meaningful left.

And this is precisely why extinction matters. Judgement day allows us to feel comfortable knowing that, in the end, the universe is ultimately in tune with what we call “justice”. Nothing was ever truly at stake. On the other hand, extinction alerts us to the fact that everything we hold dear has always been in jeopardy. In other words, everything is at stake.

Extinction was not much discussed before 1700 due to a background assumption, widespread prior to the Enlightenment, that it is the nature of the cosmos to be as full as moral value and worth as is possible. This, in turn, led people to assume that all other planets are populated with “living and thinking beings” exactly like us.

Although it only became a truly widely accepted fact after Copernicus and Kepler in the 16th and 17th centuries, the idea of plural worlds certainly dates back to antiquity, with intellectuals from Epicurus to Nicholas of Cusa proposing them to be inhabited with lifeforms similar to our own. And, in a cosmos that is infinitely populated with humanoid beings, such beings – and their values – can never fully go extinct.

Star cluster Messier 13 in Hercules, 1877. Wikimedia Commons

In the 1660s, Galileo confidently declared that an entirely uninhabited or unpopulated world is “naturally impossible” on account of it being “morally unjustifiable”. Gottfried Leibniz later pronounced that there simply cannot be anything entirely “fallow, sterile, or dead in the universe”.

Along the same lines, the trailblazing scientist Edmond Halley (after whom the famous comet is named) reasoned in 1753 that the interior of our planet must likewise be “inhabited”. It would be “unjust” for any part of nature to be left “unoccupied” by moral beings, he argued.

Around the same time Halley provided the first theory on a “mass extinction event”. He speculated that comets had previously wiped out entire “worlds” of species. Nonetheless, he also maintained that, after each previous cataclysm “human civilisation had reliably re-emerged”. And it would do so again. Only this, he said could make such an event morally justifiable.

Later, in the 1760s, the philosopher Denis Diderot was attending a dinner party when he was asked whether humans would go extinct. He answered “yes”, but immediately qualified this by saying that after several millions of years the “biped animal who carries the name man” would inevitably re-evolve.

This is what the contemporary planetary scientist Charles Lineweaver identifies as the “Planet of the Apes Hypothesis”. This refers to the misguided presumption that “human-like intelligence” is a recurrent feature of cosmic evolution: that alien biospheres will reliably produce beings like us. This is what is behind the wrong-headed assumption that, should we be wiped out today, something like us will inevitably return tomorrow.

Back in Diderot’s time, this assumption was pretty much the only game in town. It was why one British astronomer wrote, in 1750, that the destruction of our planet would matter as little as “Birth-Days or Mortalities” do down on Earth.

This was typical thinking at the time. Within the prevailing worldview of eternally returning humanoids throughout an infinitely populated universe, there was simply no pressure or need to care for the future. Human extinction simply couldn’t matter. It was trivialised to the point of being unthinkable.

For the same reasons, the idea of the “future” was also missing. People simply didn’t care about it in the way we do now. Without the urgency of a future riddled with risk, there was no motivation to be interested in it, let alone attempt to predict and preempt it.

It was the dismantling of such dogmas, beginning in the 1700s and ramping up in the 1800s, that set the stage for the enunciation of Fermi’s Paradox in the 1900s and leads to our growing appreciation for our cosmic precariousness today.

But then we realised the skies are silent

In order to truly care about our mutable position down here, we first had to notice that the cosmic skies above us are crushingly silent. Slowly at first, though soon after gaining momentum, this realisation began to take hold around the same time that Diderot had his dinner party.

One of the first examples of a different mode of thinking I’ve found is from 1750, when the French polymath Claude-Nicholas Le Cat wrote a history of the earth. Like Halley, he posited the now familiar cycles of “ruin and renovation”. Unlike Halley, he was conspicuously unclear as to whether humans would return after the next cataclysm. A shocked reviewer picked up on this, demanding to know whether “Earth shall be re-peopled with new inhabitants”. In reply, the author facetiously asserted that our fossil remains would “gratify the curiosity of the new inhabitants of the new world, if there be any”. The cycle of eternally returning humanoids was unwinding.

In line with this, the French encyclopaedist Baron d’Holbach ridiculed the “conjecture that other planets, like our own, are inhabited by beings resembling ourselves”. He noted that precisely this dogma – and the related belief that the cosmos is inherently full of moral value – had long obstructed appreciation that the human species could permanently “disappear” from existence. By 1830, the German philosopher F W J Schelling declared it utterly naive to go on presuming “that humanoid beings are found everywhere and are the ultimate end”.

Figures illustrating articles on astronomy, from the 1728 Cyclopaedia. Wikimedia Commons

And so, where Galileo had once spurned the idea of a dead world, the German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers proposed in 1802 that the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt in fact constitutes the ruins of a shattered planet. Troubled by this, Godwin noted that this would mean that the creator had allowed part of “his creation” to become irremediably “unoccupied”. But scientists were soon computing the precise explosive force needed to crack a planet – assigning cold numbers where moral intuitions once prevailed. Olbers calculated a precise timeframe within which to expect such an event befalling Earth. Poets began writing of “bursten worlds”.

The cosmic fragility of life was becoming undeniable. If Earth happened to drift away from the sun, one 1780s Parisian diarist imagined that interstellar coldness would “annihilate the human race, and the earth rambling in the void space, would exhibit a barren, depopulated aspect”. Soon after, the Italian pessimist Giacomo Leopardi envisioned the same scenario. He said that, shorn of the sun’s radiance, humanity would “all die in the dark, frozen like pieces of rock crystal”.

Galileo’s inorganic world was now a chilling possibility. Life, finally, had become cosmically delicate. Ironically, this appreciation came not from scouring the skies above but from probing the ground below. Early geologists, during the later 1700s, realised that Earth has its own history and that organic life has not always been part of it. Biology hasn’t even been a permanent fixture down here on Earth – why should it be one elsewhere? Coupled with growing scientific proof that many species had previously become extinct, this slowly transformed our view of the cosmological position of life as the 19th century dawned.

Copper engraving of a pterodactyl fossil discovered by the Italian scientist Cosimo Alessandro Collini in 1784. Wikimedia Commons

Seeing death in the stars

And so, where people like Diderot looked up into the cosmos in the 1750s and saw a teeming petri dish of humanoids, writers such as Thomas de Quincey were, by 1854, gazing upon the Orion nebula and reporting that they saw only a gigantic inorganic “skull” and its lightyear-long rictus grin.

The astronomer William Herschel had, already in 1814, realised that looking out into the galaxy one is looking into a “kind of chronometer”. Fermi would spell it out a century after de Quincey, but people were already intuiting the basic notion: looking out into dead space, we may just be looking into our own future.

Early drawings of Orion’s nebula by R.S. Newall, 1884. © Cambridge University, CC BY

People were becoming aware that the appearance of intelligent activity on Earth should not be taken for granted. They began to see that it is something distinct – something that stands out against the silent depths of space. Only through realising that what we consider valuable is not the cosmological baseline did we come to grasp that such values are not necessarily part of the natural world. Realising this was also realising that they are entirely our own responsibility. And this, in turn, summoned us to the modern projects of prediction, preemption and strategising. It is how we came to care about our future.

As soon as people first started discussing human extinction, possible preventative measures were suggested. Bostrom now refers to this as “macrostrategy”. However, as early as the 1720s, the French diplomat Benoît de Maillet was suggesting gigantic feats of geoengineering that could be leveraged to buffer against climate collapse. The notion of humanity as a geological force has been around ever since we started thinking about the long-term – it is only recently that scientists have accepted this and given it a name: “Anthropocene”.

Will technology save us?

It wasn’t long before authors began conjuring up highly technologically advanced futures aimed at protecting against existential threat. The eccentric Russian futurologist Vladimir Odoevskii, writing in the 1830s and 1840s, imagined humanity engineering the global climate and installing gigantic machines to “repulse” comets and other threats, for example. Yet Odoevskii was also keenly aware that with self-responsibility comes risk: the risk of abortive failure. Accordingly, he was also the very first author to propose the possibility that humanity might destroy itself with its own technology.

Acknowledgement of this plausibility, however, is not necessarily an invitation to despair. And it remains so. It simply demonstrates appreciation of the fact that, ever since we realised that the universe is not teeming with humans, we have come to appreciate that the fate of humanity lies in our hands. We may yet prove unfit for this task, but – then as now – we cannot rest assured believing that humans, or something like us, will inevitably reappear – here or elsewhere.

Beginning in the late 1700s, appreciation of this has snowballed into our ongoing tendency to be swept up by concern for the deep future. Current initiatives, such as Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute, can be seen as emerging from this broad and edifying historical sweep. From ongoing demands for climate justice to dreams of space colonisation, all are continuations and offshoots of a tenacious task that we first began to set for ourselves two centuries ago during the Enlightenment when we first realised that, in an otherwise silent universe, we are responsible for the entire fate of human value.

It may be solemn, but becoming concerned for humanity’s extinction is nothing other than realising one’s obligation to strive for unceasing self-betterment. Indeed, ever since the Enlightenment, we have progressively realised that we must think and act ever better because, should we not, we may never think or act again. And that seems – to me at least – like a very rational end of the world.

ooOOoo

I hope you have read it all. There’s much to engage one. And the message to me is very clear: We have to regard this race, correction: our race, as unique. As is put in the penultimate paragraph:

Enlightenment when we first realised that, in an otherwise silent universe, we are responsible for the entire fate of human value.

Now there’s a thought for an atheist on a Saturday morning!

Margaret Heffernan

Margaret who?

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Margaret Heffernan before.

But in browsing TED Talks one evening recently we came across a TED Talk by her. And it was riveting!

Here’s how it was introduced:

The more we rely on technology to make us efficient, the fewer skills we have to confront the unexpected, says writer and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan. She shares why we need less tech and more messy human skills — imagination, humility, bravery — to solve problems in business, government and life in an unpredictable age. “We are brave enough to invent things we’ve never seen before,” she says. “We can make any future we choose.”

Later on it explains: “The former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns that lead organizations and managers astray.

In doing more research I came upon this:

Margaret Heffernan was born in Texas, grew up in the Netherlands and was educated at Cambridge University. She produced drama and documentary programs for the BBC for 13 years, then moved back to the US where she became a serial entrepreneur and CEO in the early days of the internet.

All of Heffernan’s work challenges accepted wisdom about good lives and good work. Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times, looked at how our most cherished beliefs, behaviors and rules blind us to what matters most.

In 2015, she was awarded the Transmission Prize for A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition, a book that upended the idea that competition forces the best to the top, arguing that it mostly proves wasteful and destructive where collaboration is more sustainable and creative.

In 2015, TED published Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes which argued that organizational change can, and should, happen at all levels.

Her forthcoming book, Uncharted: How to Map the Future will be published in February 2020 in the UK and May 2020 in the US. It addresses the fundamental unpredictability of life, challenges technological determinism and asks how we can find in ourselves the freedom and imagination to create the futures we want. An early reader called it “Karl Popper for the 21st century.”

As lead faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Programme, Heffernan mentors CEOs and senior executives of major global organizations.

Trust me, you will find this talk fascinating.