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A Mindset Reboot

Grappling with the prospect of a finite human future

By David Levin

Headshot of Timothy Beal

Timothy Beal

As a species, we’re in trouble. Our rapidly warming atmosphere is contributing to increasingly epic droughts, dwindling water supplies, massive storms, rising seas and a host of other existential perils. The changes are so dramatic that many scientists consider the past century to be the dawn of a new geologic epoch defined by humanity’s damaging footprint. It’s called the Anthropocene, an era born from our own hubris. 

We’ve had plenty of warnings to act before it’s too late. But what if that deadline has already come and gone, religion scholar Timothy Beal asks. What if the changes we see are the beginning of the end of human life. 

Beal, PhD, a Distinguished University Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, grapples with these questions in his latest book, When Time is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene. In his view, we can either put our collective heads in the sand or constructively accept the prospect of a finite human future.

“A post-human world is a distinct possibility,” said Beal, also the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion. “By facing our end—which could come in generations or even centuries—we can learn to have a sort of hope that’s rooted not in humankind going on forever, but in our quality of life, relationships and experiences in the present.” 

For Beal, this cognitive shift would be a kind of “palliative approach” for our species. By acknowledging that time is short, as with someone who is terminally ill, we can take stock of what matters most in life and make the remaining time as positive and healing as possible. 

A book cover of When Time is Short

To do so, Beal said, humans must start by re-evaluating our place in nature. 

Our current mindset is steeped in Western religion, he said. Since the early 1600s, Christian scholars have suggested that humans are an “exceptional” animal, ordained by God to subdue nature, hold dominion over it and tirelessly extract its resources. If the end of our species is near, the key to our well-being may lie in reversing that perspective and adopting a mindset Beal calls “earth creatureliness.” 

“In a lot of Hebrew biblical traditions and related texts, you don’t see a disconnect with nature. We’re from dust, and to dust we return,” he said. “Earth creatureliness understands this interconnectedness—life comes from death, depends on death, even feeds on it.” 

Adopting this thinking, Beal noted, may help us break through our denial of human finitude and counter the panic and despair that follows from it. Our final generations as a species could be steeped in a radical acceptance of reality and grief, he said, in the hope that comes by connecting deeply with nature and each other.

Page last modified: January 16, 2024