A recent Oxford study published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that people aren’t really all that bothered by the possibility of human extinction. In the study, 2,500 people in the United States and the United Kingdom were surveyed on their feelings about the possibility of an apocalypse.
The respondents were asked to rank how bad they thought potential doomsday scenarios were. In a very simple test, they were given three scenarios, one in which the entire human species was wiped out by a global catastrophe, another where only 80% of the species were wiped out, and another where nothing happens and life continues as normal.
As expected, the most popular choice was to continue life as if nothing happened, but the other answers surprised the researchers. The people taking the survey seemed to be more afraid of living in a world where 80% of the species were wiped out than they were of the idea of humanity becoming extinct altogether.
The researchers wrote that “When asked in the most straightforward and unqualified way, participants do not find human extinction uniquely bad.”
Oddly enough, when the questions were modified slightly to gauge how people felt about animal extinction, the respondents overwhelmingly agreed that a total loss of an animal species was worse than an 80% reduction.
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The researchers had a number of different theories about why people felt this way, and did not come to any single explanation for their results, but it seems that the respondents answered the questions based on how they would experience the situation as a human. It is very easy for most humans to look at the deaths of animals as a statistic, and give the cold and calculated answer that 20% of the zebras in the world surviving an extinction is better for the planet and for biodiversity than watching the whole species die.
However, when considering this same question for our own species, the matter becomes much more complicated and emotional. When faced with the question of human extinction, most people want it to be quick and painless if it is going to happen, they want minimal suffering. If something happened where 80% of the human population was suddenly wiped out, there is a good chance that would involve a lot of suffering for those who died, and those who are left behind as well.
“We conclude that an important reason why people do not find extinction uniquely bad is that they focus on the immediate death and suffering that the catastrophes cause for fellow humans, rather than on the long-term consequences,” the abstract of the study states.
However, there were some cases where the survey respondents opted for the near extinction as opposed to the total extinction, and that was when they told that the people who remained would create a world that is “better than today in every conceivable way.”
IMAGE CREDIT: Razvan Ionut Dragomirescu