February 15, 2010
Apocalypse not now
The world is always ending and never will.
That is, until the sun goes nova, a black hole swallows up the Earth, or a nearby star collapses in a gamma ray event that turns us all into irradiated food. Since we can't prevent any of those things from happening, there's no point worrying about them (asteroids we can actually do something about).
But we love imagining that "it's all over (almost)," largely because Sunday School is boring. Plus that "love your neighbor" stuff isn't as much fun as hoping the son of a bitch fries when the big one hits. Thus every screaming headline is treated as evidence that the big, bad Damoclean Sword is about to go into free-fall.
Yet as Stephen Pinker and Jared Diamond have pointed out, during the 20th century, even including WWII, a member of the human species had a lower chance of suffering a violent death than at any time else during recorded history. We mistake news of bad things with the incidence of bad things happening.
What we're mostly witnessing presently is the inevitable shifting of the momentum of history from one part of the globe to another. Having previously identified and invested ourselves with the ascension of the West, this decline arouses much angst. But in the long view, it's another day at the office.
The "West" is aging so fast (along with China, Japan, and most of the developed world) that any call to arms in order to usher in Armageddon would first send us scurrying for our walkers.
Doomsayers used to warn us that when the nuclear apocalypse came (assuming, improbably, that all those long-dormant missiles would obediently fire when the button was pressed), only the cockroaches would survive. Human beings are more resilient than cockroaches and thrive in far more extreme environments.
It's unfortunate that Chinese history during the Three Kingdoms period and Japanese history during the Warring States period isn't a regular part of the high school curriculum. It would impress upon students how resilient the human animal is under extreme duress.
During the Three Kingdoms period, attrition rates in many areas exceeded 50 percent of the entire population. That'd be like the population of the U.S. dropping from 300 million to 150 million in a single generation. Now China is our principal loan officer.
True, it took a few centuries, but it wasn't the end of the world. It wasn't even the end of Chinese civilization. The history books simply marked the beginning of a new dynasty.
These same historical periods saw great social change and advances in technology and culture (ditto the aftermath of the Black Death). Give the human race a challenge and after a bit of Darwinistic pruning it'll rise to it. This end-of-days stuff makes for entertaining movies. But in real life it's a cop-out.
It's hard to match the presumptuousness of a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears teenagers selling the secret sauce to save our souls. Except that they're dim bulbs compared to to the blinding arrogance of the secular evangelists who claim they are going to save the whole bloody planet.
The new religion of catastrophic environmentalism has also embraced the apocalypse, along with the fundamentalist's fear of change. But just as much worse changes have happened to human civilization in the past, much worst changes have happened to the planet itself than we're capable of inflicting.
And will happen in the future, regardless of anything we do or don't do. Planetary catastrophic change--earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages, oceans rising and falling--is what the planet does normally. (The mean temperature of the North Slope of Alaska was once thirty degrees warmer than it is today.)
We've turned into roosters convinced the sun rises on our command. We're quite capable of fouling our own nests, but only in the sense that a horsefly fouls the windshield of a tractor-trailer cruising down the interstate. It's not like the tractor-trailer cares. A swish of the windshield wipers and its gone.
Let's keep in mind who's really in charge. There are more bacteria on earth--in mass and number--than all other living things combined. For that matter, there are more bacteria in the human gut than cells in the human body. The bacteria keep us around because we're convenient.
Our ultimate fate is to become compost. It is more comforting to believe that we're standing at the fulcrum of history, that like Archimedes we can move the Earth if given enough leverage (or "political activism"), rather than accommodating ourselves to whatever direction the Earth wishes to move in.
Except not that mundane, sausage-making politics. Or anything that requires any actual risk to life and limb. Just idealistically protest stuff and vilify those of different (political) faiths (the ones counting on you being "left behind"; it's apparently a very mutually-annihilating sentiment).
Merely declare your "awareness" of the situation and you are saved! (Wait, I forget, is that evangelicals or environmentalists?)
An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world's problems can be solved through "awareness." Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it. This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges.
Making every conflict, every frustrated objective, every twist and turn in the course of geological and human events, into a Manichean contest of wills buys into the same fanciful thinking as the conspiracy gnostics who insist they're the only ones who really know what's going on (and then can't shut up about it).
It's a trap that teenagers easily fall into, what with all their "goth" posturings and dour convictions that nobody (let alone their parents or teachers) has ever suffered as much as them in the whole history of the world.
But teenagers grow out of it. Adult, middle-class Americans indulging in non-fiction apocalyptic fantasies are like twelve-year-olds gathered around the campfire telling ghost stories and scaring themselves for the giggly thrill of it, knowing that in the morning they'll be driving home to the suburbs.