Every generation sees its believers in the End of Days. Certainly, the destruction of Earth and extinction of the human species is a practical possibility, a catastrophic reality that some feel hangs over us all like the sword of Damocles, a blade held above us by a single horse hair that might break at any time.
I like to think of it more like commercial air travel. Statistically, when my wife and I traveled from Pittsburgh to vacation in Iceland in 2017 we were actually safer in the air above the icy North Atlantic than we are when driving back and forth to work each day. Still, if anything had happened to that plane…
So, what do I think about the likelihood of the End of the World? How will it happen on Earth, when everything we know dissolves at last into chaos and death?
The possibilities, while not endless, are certainly robust.
Nuclear annihilation is still near the top of the list. Plague is an oldie, but a goodie, especially as our population is expected to top 9 billion planet wide by the middle of this century (it was less than 800 million in the year Johann Sebastian Bach died of a stroke, leaving The Art of the Fugue forever unfinished).
I personally find the possibility of a “Rapture” like event, including the return of God (any god for that matter) the most unlikely doomsday event of all. I happen to have a long and abiding interest in matters religious and respect for many believers, yet the end times as a physical interference in the cosmological order by a Supreme Being – well, neither you nor the next quaquicentennial generation is going to live to see that one. Dismiss it from your realm of worries. I may sound annoyingly smug about that, but I prefer you take it as reassuring.
(Should any confirmed believers in the Rapture happen upon this simple discourse, hey, you’re OK with me. You’re likely to be a great and compassionate person whose skill and intelligence in many matters surpasses my own. We just have a point of disagreement, and it’s one I’m not going to get upset about. I’m sure you simply think I’m wrong, and that’s OK.)
For the rest of you, more likely possibilities for apocalyptic destruction include asteroid collision, runaway nano-technology, and a man-made black hole coming loose from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Regardless of global warming, an ice age may yet bury us beneath miles of snow and ice if a bunch of astronomical factors line up perfectly, and we could always end up just poisoning ourselves, either to death or to sterility.
The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is at 5 minutes to midnight as I write this, but my own optimism tells me that Man is closer to the beginning than to the end of his days.
Of one fate I’m reasonably certain. Sometime toward the end of the next 5 billion years, the sun will run out of abundant hydrogen for fuel and begin to expand into a red giant. Earth, which in comparison is little more than a wet grain of sand, will be absorbed into the unfolding of this colorful nebula, regardless of any native protests or prayers. On that day, neither the sun nor the vast Milky Way beyond will give reprieve for the absolute and final extinction of all earthly life.
When the surface of the sun does come this way, will anything resembling Man still be around? I think not. But just like doomsday itself, the possibilities are many. No species lives for 5 billion years. One consideration is that we are in the process of designing our own successors, and have been since early man learned to smelt ore. Don’t be fooled by what robots and computers are capable of today, any more than by scoffing at the first copper sword you might have forestalled the eventual development of the thermonuclear bomb.
Time is commonly as underappreciated and unnoticed as the air we breathe.
When people say “we are long way from being able to…” what time scale do they have in mind? A generation? A century? How about 25,000 years? Twenty five thousand years ago a hamlet consisting of huts built of rocks and of mammoth bones was inhabited in what is now the small village of Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic. Around this time, people around the world were starting to make clothes out of fiber, give or take 1000 years.
Given time and human ingenuity, intelligent, rational, even emotional machines will come. Whether it is tomorrow or five thousand years from now, the long march toward that eventuality is a matter of time, not physics. Our brains do it, and they exist in the real world. The rest is just problem solving. And so Man will diminish and pass on into the west, and what our in-organic progeny will think of us is a story yet to be written.
As a side show of history, we may yet spread across the solar system, and perhaps even to the stars. That will stretch the ability of any one catastrophe to get us all. But even then, after a hundred thousand years, will the ore miners of Mercury and the cloud minders of Jupiter think of themselves as one and the same? Will they be children of the same God, or will their thoughts and perceptions so separate them that even fox and rabbit think more kindly of themselves as kin?
That is to say, in time we could separate ourselves truly into different species. How will racism rear its ugly head then?
One way or another, the world will end, and humanity too. It’s a question of time and circumstance, but the outcome is inevitable if not close at hand.
World’s have lifetimes, and so do species. In the natural course of things, even stars are born, age, and die.
If we are ill-equipped to understand any aspect of that truth, it is the nature of time. (There I go, harping on deep time again.) The age of Man, be it a million or a billion years in duration, is nevertheless but a single tick on a clock that knows no end. Nuclear war may come, but not today. The asteroids will surely come, but not tomorrow, or even the day after.
I believe we have an incredible, space-faring future ahead of us, and that as Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame has told us ‘the human adventure is just beginning.”
Yet whatever happens, even if some unforeseen and catastrophic setback befalls us, I believe our progeny are likely to scrape by and survive, perhaps rising and falling a hundred times. Only to do it over again as if they were the first.
Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, Imperial China and Rome, the Aegean and Phoenician civilizations: we and our remote descendants are one with those anciences in this singular moment of time. It’s all been an afternoon of a few thousand years, no more. The sun’s been fair, the weather clear, and our problems mainly of our own making. From the biggest volcano to the Biblical flood, we haven’t seen anything yet. Not doomsday. Not even close.
And it’s not likely that we will.
The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is at 5 minutes to midnight as I write this, but my own (sometimes arrogant) optimism tells me that Man is closer to the beginning than to the end of his days. The first fair day of history will be followed by another, and yet another before the weather begins to turn. And 25,000 years from now, who knows where we will be?
If I could see that day, so short a time and yet so far, I’m sure there would be this: an immortal sitting somewhere, waiting for doomsday, and doomsday not yet ready to come.
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