On Dec. 13, 2018, Richard Branson stood in the Mojave Desert, eyes fixed skyward as he witnessed the culmination of a lifelong dream: His space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, had sent an aircraft into suborbital space. For Branson, the launch was not merely proof of concept for his latest business venture. It signaled that humanity was on the edge of a fundamental breakthrough. “Today we have shown that Virgin Galactic can open space to the world,” he declared.
Four days later, the prominent philosopher Todd May published a short article in the Stone, a philosophy series run through the New York Times opinion section. “Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?” asked readers to consider the possibility that the demise of humanity might be morally desirable. “Human beings are destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth and causing unimaginable suffering to many of the animals that inhabit it,” May observed. From this the philosopher concluded that although human extinction would be a tragedy, “it might just be a good thing.” The article was arguably the first to advocate for human extinction in a mainstream publication.
To the casual observer, Branson and May—and their ways of thinking—don’t have much in common. Richard Branson is a technology mogul who dreams of colonizing Mars and has flirted with digital immortality by uploading his mind using artificial intelligence. Todd May is a moral philosopher whose work aims to help human beings confront death with dignity, sharing none of Branson’s enthusiasm for space exploration or eternal life. Yet a new book from Wall Street Journal editor Adam Kirsch, The Revolt Against Humanity, argues that both radical environmentalists like May and radical technologists like Branson are in effect “cheering for humanity’s end.” Their views are reflective of what we might call the New Misanthropy that pervades corners of our cultural life in the 21st century. And such beliefs are more widespread than you imagine.
On the surface, these competing visions of humanity’s future—which Kirsch calls “Anthropocene anti-humanism” and Silicon Valley “transhumanism,” respectively—couldn’t be more different.
The first camp encompasses radical environmental organizations like Earth Liberation Front and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement—whose founder Les Knight recently received a glowing profile in the New York Times—as well as pro-extinction academic philosophers like May, David Benatar, and Patricia MacCormack. It can even be glimpsed in popular bestsellers like Richard Powers’ Pulitzer winner The Overstory, in which a dendrologist is tasked with answering the question: “What is the single best thing a person can do for a sustainable future?” Her response is to drink a glass of poison, committing suicide.
According to the most extreme versions of this “anti-humanist” belief system, man is a uniquely unpleasant kind of chimpanzee, slouching toward a wasteland of his own making. In this telling, the future will be the scene of a revenge fantasy. The Earth has been long denuded and debased by our machines—bled of its mystery by the enlightened scalpel of man—and our blood is the price we must pay for the planet’s resurrection.
Adherents counsel that we should welcome the demise of humankind by self-induced climate catastrophe, celebrating Gaia’s reprisal against her most miserable offspring. Some even argue that we are morally obligated to take up our cross, drive our own nails, and shuffle off this mortal coil so that wildness can again prevail across the Earth. “We are not a good species,” Knight told the New York Times. “We’re smart enough, we should know enough to end it.”
The second, very different group Kirsch examines is composed of influential futurists, respected academics, and members of the tech elite who enthusiastically embrace space colonization, longevity therapies, and mind-upload technologies that promise to fundamentally transform what it will mean to be a human being in the future. They subscribe to a philosophical belief called “transhumanism,” predicated on the idea that we should use novel technologies to hasten humanity’s evolution into a new, superior successor species. Those whose beliefs fall under the transhumanist label—whether or not they would claim the phrase themselves— include billionaires like Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Peter Thiel; world-renowned “existential risk” scholars like Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom (in the news of late for a horribly racist email); and futurists like Ray Kurzweil. Unlike the anti-humanists, these “transhumanists” believe that the future of humanity will be glorious—if only we can figure out how to transcend the material limits of the bodies and planet we inhabit.
According to transhumanists, man is not a terrestrial parasite, but a star god waiting to be born. For them, our species stands before a darkling plain that is at once its birthright and its destiny: the universe itself. This secular faith holds that it is humanity’s sacred duty to populate the vacant cosmos, to take our rightful seat upon its rude furniture and install Mind where there was before only the silence of brute matter.
Yet as with the anti-humanists, the price of such a magnificent future is death: this time, by self-directed evolution rather than extinction. Through the miracle of technology, transhumanists believe that the human species must orchestrate its obsolescence so that some worthier, digitized human form might emerge, phoenix-like from its shadow. Humanity is dead, long live humanity.
Although Kirsch spells out their differences in meticulous detail, he mainly focuses on what these competing images of the future share, emphasizing that both imagine “worlds from which we have disappeared, and rightly so.” Yet The Revolt Against Humanity spends little time addressing the far more interesting question: Why are these profoundly misanthropic ideologies ascendant in the early 21st century? Explaining the cause of Anthropocene anti-humanism and Silicon Valley transhumanism is not Kirsch’s primary objective, and he largely leaves the question of their etiology unattended.
In my view, however, the root cause of the New Misanthropy is quite apparent: we live in a secular age amidst a declining empire, and most of us no longer believe in the human project.
Domestically, Americans are confronted with spiraling political dysfunction that makes any talk of national unity seem not simply naïve, but absurd. Internationally, the moral clarity provided for half a century by a bipolar world—which pitted American freedom against the Soviet gulags—is long in the rearview. The Cold War’s black and white geography has today been replaced by a multipolar world order in which corrupt oligarchies (including the U.S.) jockey not for ethical or ideological legitimacy but for naked power. Meanwhile, governments around the world have proven unable and unwilling to reach even the most basic compromises that might help slow the relentless warming of our planet.
Confronted with such circumstances, it is no surprise that invocations of “humanity” as a collective project are seen as passé or “problematic.” Indeed, many scholars and activists argue that any talk about “humanity” inherently papers over the differences—particularly, the very real differences in access to thriving and security—that determine the “haves” and “have nots” in a world dominated by planetary-scale capitalism, whose externalities (particularly its environmental externalities) are largely borne by the global poor.
To be clear, my point is not that these criticisms are wrong—I agree that appeals to humankind often traffic in facile universalisms. Rather, my point is that 21st century misanthropies, whether the Anthropocene or Silicon Valley varieties, do exactly that—which is what makes them so seductive.
What both of these misanthropic accounts offer, in contrast to the dominant culture, is a coherent conception of humanity’s significance in the world. In the instance of Anthropocene anti-humanism, the human species is the snake in the garden, the principal antagonist in the story of the Earth and the lone obstacle to a planetary Eden. In the case of transhumanism, humankind is a gateway species that stands at the threshold of a cosmic Valhalla. In each account, humanity is shot through with profound meaning: Our fate is the fate of the planet, even the universe.
Of course, we are acculturated to view such nakedly unsentimental visions of humanity as coldly “rational,” a tendency Kirsch indulges despite evidence that transhumanism is scientifically dubious. According to his reading, “the revolt against humanity is inspired by … [rationalist] values” that place a premium on freedom and reason. In this way, Kirsch accepts the standard story about modernity: that ours is an era of “disenchantment” in which the old myths and irrationalities have been crushed under the boot heel of enlightened techno-science. Yet, by accepting at face value the purported rationalism of the New Misanthropy, Kirsch fails to fully appreciate its essentially theological, even cultic character. When Musk declares that he is motivated by “a duty to maintain the light of consciousness,” for example, the SpaceX CEO sounds less like an enlightened rationalist than a technological shaman.
Anti-humanist emissaries like Musk and Thiel or May and Knight might preach from the pulpit of pure reason, but their worldviews are suffused with religious zeal, with the promise of enchantment. We will not have understood this New Misanthropy until we recognize that its seduction lies in its promise of an enchanted world to come: its ecotopian visions of the forests returning to displace sarcophagal cities, its prophecy of a digital paradise where minds will have been untethered from the burden of bodies.
In William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in 1950 amid the opening convulsions of the then nascent Nuclear Age, the novelist spoke to the apocalyptic anxieties that dominated the postwar period. “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear,” Faulkner declared. Then he added: “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”
In the 21st century, the fears Faulkner speaks of have only magnified, and so too the sense that we live in a world in which questions of human meaning have been displaced by questions of human survival. Here, the New Misanthropy draws a sharp contrast to the reigning pessimism. These secular theologies provide coordinates of transcendental meaning—even if that meaning is life-denying and humanity-debasing—that explain the place of human beings on the Earth, and ultimately, in the cosmos. In an age of apocalyptic terror—of climate crisis, killer robots, and (as in Faulkner’s day) nuclear brinksmanship—the New Misanthropy attends to matters of spirit, albeit entirely in the negative. It offers its adherents a vision of human significance even as it calls for our self-flagellation, and finally, our suicide. It affirms humanity’s special status even as it welcomes humanity’s end. Like any religion, the New Misanthropy says there is something more to which we might aspire. Something grander than mere survival.
Against the background of a dominant culture that has nothing to say about what the end of the human project might mean—what might be lost or gained—the New Misanthropy steps into this nihilistic void and promises to its followers a land of milk and honey. One without people in it.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.