At What Cost?

At what cost? That question is posed in so many circumstances it becomes almost meaningless. But in practical terms, it is far from irrelevant. Some examples might highlight the point:

  • We might save the planet from irreversible, catastrophic warming, but at what cost? If the cost involves shutting down entire industries, leading to massive unemployment and grinding poverty and starvation that follow, is the cost worth the “investment” of human lives? But if failure to make that horrific investment would lead to even more widespread and catastrophic terrors, how could we justify protecting the “few” to save the “many?”
  • Elimination of fanatical, murderous religious zealots could end their reign of terror, but at what cost? If the cost involves collateral damage in the form of the death of millions of innocent victims of the terrorists, is the cost of eliminating the terrorists worth the “investment” of human lives? Yet at what cost would we incur by letting the zealots live to continue their rampages?
  • Reducing the depletion of aquifers by redirecting aquifer-sourced agricultural irrigation water to cities could provide vital, life-giving water to large populations, but at what cost? Would the result be human populations having plenty of water, but little or no food to put on the table?

Life on Earth is fragile; it is not a given. Thanks substantially to decisions made by humans, it grows increasingly fragile with every passing moment. Questions about the costs of both complex and simple decisions are rarely rhetorical. They are consequential—often so consequential that actions based on our responses can mean the difference between survival of our (and other) species and extinction. And unlike the rapid extinction resulting from a catastrophic asteroid strike, for example, the process of extinction resulting from human actions or inactions could be long, excruciating, and unbearably horrible. The urgency of answering questions involving the difference between thriving, barely surviving, and extinction is growing more crucial every day. Yet our species, collectively, seems intent on putting off both answers and actions. At what cost?

And what if our species does not survive? What does it matter to those of us living on Earth today? It’s a legitimate, reasonable question. Unsentimental answers may cause some people to shrink away in disbelief and disgust. Sentimental responses may cause some people to roll their eyes and smirk. But when the initial reactions fade, contemplation may cause people to explore the answers in depth. Or, if the thoughts are too taxing, the entire topic may be dismissed as irrelevant. But at what cost?


The final day of October 2023 is here. One-sixth of the calendar year remains to be experienced. What if our collective experiences here on Earth suddenly ended before the last day of December? Would the New Year become an irrelevant concept? Irrelevant to whom? All human endeavors would suddenly have no meaning, because meaning requires human understanding. Contemplating such dark topics is both intriguing and depressing. Thinking about these things will ultimately lead one to realize that both intrigue and depression would cease to be without us to experience them. We are both everything and nothing. We represent all meaning and all irrelevance. We have absolute control and no control at all.


Onward toward November and beyond.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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