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The End: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival

The End: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival

5.0 2
by Marq de Villiers

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What is the fate of the world as we know it?

Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, pandemics, cosmic radiation, gamma bursts from space, colliding comets, and asteroids—these things used to worry us from time to time, but now they have become the background noise of our culture. Are natural calamities indeed more probable, and more


What is the fate of the world as we know it?

Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, pandemics, cosmic radiation, gamma bursts from space, colliding comets, and asteroids—these things used to worry us from time to time, but now they have become the background noise of our culture. Are natural calamities indeed more probable, and more frequent, than they were? Are things getting worse? Are the boundaries between natural and human-caused calamities blurring? Are we part of the problem? If so, what can we do about it?

In The End, award-winning writer Marq de Villiers examines these questions at a time when there is an urgent need to understand the perils that confront us, to act in such a way as best we can for the inevitable disasters when they come.

We can do nothing about some natural calamities, but about others we can do a great deal. De Villiers helps us understand which is which, and lays out some provocative ideas for mitigating the damage all such calamities can inflict on us and our world.

The End is a brilliant and challenging look at what lies ahead, and at what we can do to influence our future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Without discounting the very real impact of climate change, de Villiers (Windswept) steps back from global warming brinkmanship to suggest that, in fact, "we've been living in a little bubble of stability in a great sea of chaotic change" and that cataclysm is the universe's normal condition. He casts back billions of years to report that mass extinctions have at times wiped out 96% of all species living in the seas, the world has cycled through several monumental ice ages, collisions with comets and asteroids have altered life on Earth (in 1996 a three-quarter-mile-long asteroid passed within four hours of our planet) and land-shattering earthquakes have a transformed continents. More recently in known history, massive volcanic explosions have dramatically influenced global temperatures and human life half a dozen times, most recently Krakatoa in 1883 and Pinatobu in 1991, and notes that noxious gases, mammoth tsunamis, great floods, "vile winds, tropical cyclones and tornadoes," plagues and pandemics continue to threaten human survival. De Villiers's conclusion, contrarian and more controversial than calming, is that despite the fight against global warming, "the planet is always changing, and so must we." (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Unlike most books on natural disasters, this title, originally published in Canada as Dangerous World, focuses on disasters' human aspects. Award-winning science writer de Villiers (Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource; Sahara: The Extraordinary History of the World's Largest Desert) distinguishes between real natural disasters and those caused or worsened by humans. Human-caused deforestation worsens flooding, international travel spreads disease, and the catastrophe of overpopulation turns a small disaster into a major one. Of course, some catastrophes, like asteroid impacts, are not human-made, and de Villiers adeptly details the devastation they can cause. He also explains that just because a major calamity such as a gigantic volcanic eruption or an asteroid impact hasn't occurred in a long time does not mean one is overdue, an application of the gambler's paradox. This book effectively summarizes the latest scientific thought on disasters, and de Villiers's entrancing prose will hook even the most reluctant reader. Recommended for popular science collections.
—Jeffrey Beall

From the Publisher
“[A] scary and exciting new book … a clear narrative analysis that anyone without an ideological axe to grind will find beautifully presented.” – Chicago Sun-Times

“Readers… will be impressed by de Villiers presentation and prognosis of how humanity might survive the inevitable.” – Booklist

“De Villiers’s even tone and humor make what could’ve been the most depressing story ever told oddly inspiring, finding something like hope in life’s struggles to continue in the face of the worst of everything.” – The Onion AV Club

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  PART ONESo What’s the Problem?ONEDoomsday As a State of MindAll kinds of terrible things could happen, and the universe of terrible things is so large that some of them probably will.—Stephen Pacala, Princeton University ecologist

Well there it is, in a nutshell: doomsday as a state of mind. This is not to say that Pacala was wrong, exactly—he was in any case talking about climate change and its effects on the biosphere, and not about the End of Days—but the style of thinking perfectly matches the anxious modern mood. Consider how accustomed (though not inured) we have all become to the vocabulary of catastrophe. Tsunami, earthquake, volcano, hurricane, pandemic, cosmic and UV radiation, comets in collision—these things used to worry us, from time to time, and certainly they used to panic those directly affected, but they weren’t really part of the background noise of our culture. Now they are. The Christmas tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean in 2004 washed up directly into our living rooms and into our forebrains. We have all seen the hapless victims picking through the rubble after an earthquake in Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, Japan, Peru; the fallen Californian expressway crushing the cars below is replayed every time the Earth shakes somewhere; San Francisco (the “crack in the edge of the world,” Simon Winchester called it), Krakatoa, Mount St. Helens, hurricanes Katrina and Rita and Wilma and Dean, a deadly tornado ripping apart a small town in Kansas, the suffocation of all the people in a clutch of villages in Cameroon—we all know all these things, for we’ve seen them and heard them and watched the wailing and lamentation that inevitably follows, an intimate shorthand of calamity. As the number of intense hurricanes began to increase, as the earthquake-caused tsunami flattened coastal towns all around the Indian Ocean, as a massive earthquake toppled cities on the Roof of the World in Pakistan, as the weather turned more and more bizarre and flooding and droughts and heat waves increased, as the dire warnings kept coming of Avian flu, SARS, Ebola, and assorted pandemics, so the global anxiety levels continued to escalate. Consider how the jargon of meteorology has already become common currency—frontal systems, Category Four storm, Saffir-Simpson scale, isobars, extra-tropical cyclone, and the rest—who knew these things before? Global warming with its array of hitherto obscure gases—methane, chlorofluorocarbons, ozone—has seeped out of the scientific journals to become a basic part of popular discourse. Schoolchildren can now talk knowledgeably about antiretrovirals, bacterial infections, the collapse of immune systems … . A survey even showed, bizarrely, that more people were aware of the wandering asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs than actually believed the dinosaurs had their place in the evolution of planetary life in the first place.Calamity has become not just a state of mind but a majority state of mind. “The world can now expect three to five major disasters a year that will each kill more than 50,000 people”—when this piece of advice was published in 2005, as an analysis of natural trends by the insurance giant Munich Re, hardly anyone turned a hair. It seemed merely obvious—during the next twelve months, you are almost certainly going to be reading about one or two, perhaps three, natural calamities that each kills many thousands of people. The chances of your being one of the victims are still small, but the chances of there being many victims approaches 100 percent. It has become normal. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still keeps its doomsday clock, a dismal relic of the dismal Cold War and the prospect of nuclear winter, but when it solemnly advanced the clock to five minutes to midnight, a result, it said, of a worsening climate and increasing nuclear proliferation, most media outlets gave it a paragraph or two, no more. Ho-hum, another disaster forecast.

Perhaps it was always thus, but not in all cultures and not to the same degree. I once asked a member of the Dogon tribe of Mali, of all African tribes perhaps the one with the most complex cosmology interwoven into its religious beliefs, about this notion of the end of the world. I wanted to know how he thought the end would come; he was the grandson of the tribe’s most famous seer and would no doubt have something interesting to say. But he merely looked puzzled. Why should it end? People end, yes, so do animals, even the tricky jackal. Good times end, and so do droughts. But the world just is.Worlds populated by families or tribes of gods typically don’t end. The Haida of the American northwest, whose complex myths have been shown to have tracked, and then predicted, natural calamities like earthquakes and tsunamis (as we shall see) nevertheless were unable to imagine everything actually ending. The gods might make wars on each other, and throw each other down, and in their skirmishings people are battered and bruised, but the world persists. The ancient Greeks invented perhaps the most quarrelsome family of gods in world history, gods who could and did bring ruin to people in their battles (Vulcan’s forge was Vesuvius, rumbling the world as he made mighty weapons for the endless wars waged by his brothers and sisters), but the world itself was untouched. Self-evidently, cosmologies that included resurrection and eternal self-improvement (Hinduism, Buddhism) could make no room for the End, though they too were not shy of prophecy. For example, after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a religious leader named Mata Amritanandamayi, usually just known as Amma, attributed the increasing number of natural calamities to a radical decline in dharma, or righteousness; her advice was to instruct devotees to leave everything to the will of God and face all difficulties with courage, which seems helpful.It was left, then, to the mighty monotheisms to codify and attribute apocalypse: “And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the Earth is filled with violence through them and behold, I will destroy them with the Earth.” Well, he didn’t. But he did have a crack at it.Perhaps this attention to apocalypse is not so surprising. These theisms were born in the Levant and Mesopotamia (what we in our Eurocentric way call the Middle East), a crucible of planetary unrest: the earthquakes, floods, pestilences, and droughts that so frequently occurred there were preserved for millennia in folk memory. If the Jehovah of the Jews was a cruel and vindictive lord, perhaps he was a reflection of the landscape into which he was imagined. It is hard not to see something real in the gloomy recountings of the book of Revelation, the most apocalyptic, not to say paranoid, of all biblical texts:
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as if it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountain of the waters; and the name of the star is called wormwood, and the third part of the waters became wormwood, and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter; and the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise … .
Something very like these events did happen, from time to time—recorded not only in the long memories of human scribes but also in the very rocks of the Earth. The calamities they describe would have been profound enough to burn into long tribal memory. Just as the Haida remember the wars between Eagle and Wind, the Old Testament authors remembered the fury of Jehovah: “And lo, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the Earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken by a mighty wind. …” The fig tree is a nice homely touch, giving away this story’s Mediterranean origins; maybe this was a kind of reportage, after all.In the Arabic world, where rebellion against a duly constituted ruler is both common and anathema, prolonged strife, or fitnah, is easily mistaken for the imminence of the Day of Judgment, a dire notion Islam shares with the less worldly among the Christians:
When the sun shall be darkened
When the stars shall be thrown down
When the mountains shall be set moving
When the pregnant camels shall be neglected
When the savage beasts shall be mustered
When the seas shall be set boiling
When the souls shall be coupled
When the buried infant shall be asked for what sin she was slain
When the scrolls shall be unrolled
When heaven shall be stripped off
When hell shall be set blazing
When Paradise shall be brought nigh
Then shall a soul know what it has produced.1
Christian documents are punctuated by the conflation of disaster with divine wrath. Saint Paul’s writing are full of such fear, though he nevertheless rather looked forward to the End of Days, confident it would come in his own time and that he himself would be among the elect of heaven.Such writings persist into modern times, especially among thinkers less eminent by far than the great disciple. In fact, the most entertaining doomsday speculations come from pseudo-swamis and addle-brained reverends across a dozen cultures—no one is really immune to this stuff. Even in technologically sophisticated America, as Sam Harris points out in his Letter to a Christian Nation,“about half our neighbors believe the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue … .”2It should be no surprise that the wilder shores of the Internet are rife with conspiracy theories, doomsday scenarios, and the many ways in which scientists are trying to kill us all, or, rather more simply, with speculations that the world is going to end without any help from science—or from Satan, for that matter. There is no point cataloging them, for they are all similar enough in structure. It is interesting, though, that almost all of them, in these days, are underpinned by a “scientific” reading of some ancient or esoteric event.On the fringes of modern Christianity are those who firmly believe in the Rapture,3 the gathering up to Jesus of the faithful at the Second Coming, which of course is imminent (as it has been since Saint Paul’s day, although the term was actually introduced in the middle of the second century). Most mainstream denominations ignore the whole Rapture thing as a theological embarrassment; it appears in most concordances and biblical commentaries only as a curiosity, usually under a heading such as “eschatological events.” The fact that the fictional series called Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, has sold gazillions of copies without the benefit of bookstores is usually cited as evidence of the theory’s penetration—but then Harry Potter sold equal gazillions, and no one thinks belief in witchcraft is rampant.Still, in fundamentalist circles, the Rapture is a given, and comforting it must be, because this is the time in which each Christian will receive his or her resurrected body and “shall be caught up together … in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.” For everyone else, unbelievers, infidels, the unshriven, and the unsaved, tough luck. For them, Christ will return on a horse leading an army, who will exterminate one-third of the Earth’s population in a massive act of genocide.There’s one nice new technological wrinkle to all this. In October 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for human use a small rice-grain-sized device called an RFID (radio frequency identification device) produced by a firm named VeriChip, allowing it to be used for human implantation (it was already commonly used as an anti-theft device, in bookstores, for example) .VeriChips were intended for use in a number of health-care applications, allowing medical personnel to monitor patients at risk at a distance, through telemetry. Each VeriChip contains a unique ID number and can be tracked through the proprietary Global VeriChip Subscriber Registry. The technology also has obvious security implications. And what has all this to do with the Rapture? One of the precursor events is Satan’s marking of every human with the Mark of the Beast or, as Revelation 13:16-18 puts it,
And [the Antichrist] causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save [except] he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name; Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.
The modern Catholic church has interpreted this mysterious number as a coded reference to the Emperor Nero, through some abstruse reasoning that need not detain us here. For the Rapture folk, it is not really much of a stretch to conflate the number 666, Satan’s number, with VeriChip, although it represents something of a public relations blow to corporate marketing strategies.4

Once you start looking, you can see apocalyptic prophecies everywhere, resurgent now in these days of imminent ecological Armageddon, and as science is uncovering stranger and stranger under-levels to what was once thought to be reality.Even the newborn atheist Christopher Hitchens, in his polemic against religion and especially against the notion of intelligent design of the universe, expresses his own gloomy view of probable cataclysms:
[Our] vanity allows us to overlook the implacable fact that, of the other bodies in our own solar system alone, the rest are either far too cold to support anything recognizable as life, or far too hot. The same as it happens is true of our own blue and rounded planetary home, where heat contends with cold to make large tracts of it into useless wasteland, and where we have come to learn that we live, and have always lived, on a climatic knife edge. Meanwhile the sun is getting ready to explode and devour its dependent planets like some jealous chief or tribal deity.5
The end of the world is always nigh. Disappointed seers sometimes fade into oblivion, but most of them regroup. A nice example is the way modern fundamentalist Christian commentators have come to think that Saint Paul was not after all expecting Judgment Day in his own time—he can’t really have been wrong, can he? No, he was a saint, one of the biggies, surely infallible. He must really have been talking to the Christians of the twenty-first century, when the End is undoubtedly now scheduled.Scientists, ancient and modern, are far from immune. Isaac Newton, whose laws of motion are among the most famous in science and who is widely considered one of the great, if peculiar, scientific thinkers of all time, was also an alchemist and a mediocre theologian. In manuscripts recently discovered in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, the sage discussed his attempts to decode the Bible, which he believed contained God’s secret laws for the universe. He also predicted that the second coming of Christ would follow plagues and war and would result in a one-thousand-year reign by saints on Earth—of whom he would of course be one. The most definitive date for doomsday, which he scribbled on a piece of paper, was 2060.6Nor is modernity an antidote to this tendency to see looming disaster. For example, Sir Martin Rees, a former British Astronomer Royal at Greenwich and now a professor at Cambridge, recently published a book with the Revelation-style title of Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century—on Earth and Beyond. Whew! In it, he predicted the odds for an apocalypse in our time had shortened to 50-50 and were getting worse. How the cataclysm would happen he didn’t guess, though he had a few plausible candidates: a genetically engineered pathogen run amok, debris from an erupting supervolcano blocking the sun, scientists accidentally triggering a new Big Bang as a byproduct of some careless experiment—or maybe nuclear terrorism, deadly viruses, rogue machines, and genetic engineering that could alter human character, “all of [which] could result from innocent error or the action of a single malevolent individual.” Among Rees’s more modish hazards were nanotechnology (“If the field advances far enough, rogue self-replicating nanotechnology machines, feeding on organic material and spreading like pollen, could devastate a continent within a few days”) and particle accelerators (“Perhaps a black hole could form, and then suck in everything around it).”7Of course, science—or rather popular science—has never been shy about predicting disaster. The “lost summer” that followed the eruption of the Tambora volcano in the early nineteenth century was briefly blamed on Benjamin Franklin, who had been experimenting with electrical conductance by lightning rod—the lightning rods must surely have created a conduit for cold air from space.8 In 1908, there was a brief public panic (well, mostly in America, it is true) that the Earth was about to be swept by a deadly cloud of cyanide gas. It turned out that scientists had found cyanogens, a corrosive poison, in a fly-by comet called Morehouse. Put together with the fact that Halley’s comet was due to return to Earth’s neighborhood two years later—and that its tail was thirty million miles long and that it would pass by within fourteen million miles of Earth—and there you are: everyone would die.As recently as 1958 there were media speculations, pace the blaming of Ben Franklin and his lightning rods, that space probes, which blasted holes in the atmosphere, were letting in cold air from space.Somehow astronomers and cosmologists, whose life’s work is to peer into the deep heavens and its mysteries and to probe the Beginning, can be forgiven for their doomsday speculations. But these days chemists, biologists, Earth scientists, and even engineers get into the act. In the 1960s, in the still-paranoid days of the Cold War, a Soviet chemist named Nikolai Fedyakin found that water he had encased in thin glass tubes was mysteriously changing, transforming itself, metastasizing into an entirely new viscous form. His results were “confirmed” by an eminent member of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., Boris Derjaguin. The Americans, not to be outdone, were soon also finding anomalous water, and so did scientists across Europe. It was called polywater, the presumed mechanism being that ordinary water molecules were somehow becoming chained together as a polymer. It didn’t take long before speculations seeped into technical journals as well as the popular press that this polywater might spread, converting all Earth’s free water and ending life as we know it. I was in the Soviet Union soon afterwards and remember published pieces there suggesting it had all been a spoof to fool the Americans, but this was just an after-the-fact rationalization, for the early reports were deadly serious. I was reminded of polywater by Malcolm Brown of The New York Times, who pointed out that the scare was remarkably similar to a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, whose “Ice9” destroyed the world by the elimination of all liquid water.9 In the end, the end wasn’t so nigh after all, and polywater turned out to be just not-very-clean ordinary water.The inventions of nuclear physics, and the unraveling of the intricate structures of the universe first by relativity theorists, then by particle physicists and now by string theorists, have also liberated new, stranger, even more terrifying, and horribly plausible speculations about doom. Even before the first nuclear explosion was set off in New Mexico in 1945, there was speculation that the temperatures produced would be so high they would ignite the atmosphere, destroying all life. Not just lay speculation, either—some of it came from Edward Teller, the “father of the H-bomb,” who rather stunned his colleagues by speculating that very thing, forcing project director Robert Oppenheimer to commission an investigation. Enrico Fermi, among others, was diverted from his war work to produce reassuring calculations that this surely wouldn’t happen. Even so, there was some relief after the first hydrogen bomb went off without cosmic destruction.Particle accelerators, constructed to boost elementary particles to speeds approaching the velocity of light itself, have become another source of worry. The energies released by colliding protons and antiprotons, for example, approach two trillion volts, with associated temperatures exceeding those inside the sun. Might these titanic energies not tear aside the fabric of space-time itself? If our universe was conceived as a “singularity,” and if singularities did exist as theorized inside black holes, and if these singularities were somehow gateways to other universes, as string theory suggested, might not the energy from our universe leak into some other space, perhaps one where there was an absolute absence of energy, an action that would at once annihilate all matter in our space?10Such speculations are still with us, getting ever more arcane as our knowledge of the strange world of quantum physics deepens. In Scientific American late in 2005, a physicist named Walter Wagner could be found speculating that the new particle accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island (the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC) would create an entirely new kind of quark-gluon plasma. RHIC is an underground raceway 1.6 miles in circumference, and the object was to accelerate particles to 99.9 percent of the speed of light, at which state collisions would produce temperatures, for a trillionth of a second only, approaching 18 trillion degrees Fahrenheit and would register some forty trillion electron volts. The idea was to recreate for an instant the conditions that would have obtained just after the original Big Bang. Nothing had ever been tried at this scale and at these speeds before—the particles that collided wouldn’t even “realize” they had been destroyed, because time would move more slowly than they did. The scientists conducting the experiment didn’t really know what to expect, except that this new plasma would contain quarks and gluons, and perhaps other unknown particles, none of which they had been able to study directly before. They particularly wanted to find something called the Higgs boson, without which the Standard Model of the cosmos apparently doesn’t work.Wagner, for his part, suggested that the collisions might just create a new form of matter called strangelets, which would devour ordinary matter. RHIC, he said, may contain within it a strong possibility of causing (a) a transition to a lower vacuum state that propagates outwards from its source at the speed of light, thus consuming the Earth in a millisecond, or (b) a black hole or “gravitational singularity,” which would consume the Earth and the solar system in more or less that same millisecond, or (c) create “strangelets,” which would—big surprise here—essentially do the same thing. Wagner followed up his article with a lawsuit attempting to stop the experiments before they started, but did not prevail. Then Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper briefly inflamed things even more by running a banner headline: “Big Bang Machine Could Destroy Earth.”Unnervingly, the laboratory responded that Wagner’s calculations had been flawed, but conceded that the possibilities were “not zero.” “If strangelets exist (which is conceivable), and if they form reasonably stable lumps (which is unlikely), and if they are negatively charged (though the theory strongly favours positive charges); and if tiny strangelets can be created at RHIC (which is exceedingly unlikely), then there just might be a problem.”Well, it was the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke who once suggested that the novas and supernovas we see in the sky might not be ordinarily exploding stars after all. “They might be industrial accidents,” he said, some alien RHIC-equivalent consuming their world.

It’s easy to scoff. But there have been real catastrophes in human history, and some of them have been encoded in myth and legend. Kevin Krajick, in the journal Science, reported on the budding discipline of geomythology and has tracked several instances where real earthquakes and similar phenomena were encoded in folklore long before scientists discovered their on-the-ground traces. One of the examples he found was in Seattle, where in 1990 scientists discovered under the city a previously unknown fault that had ruptured about 1,100 years ago, producing a substantial earthquake that would have caused massive destruction in the modern city; the city’s infrastructure was reinforced as a consequence. This quake had been recorded in Native legends.Pre-Columbian peoples along the Pacific coast of South America once wore amulets, made from shells of the red spiny oyster, that they believed would protect them from adverse weather. Again, there was a link to real events: the species dies off as water temperatures rise, and so spiny oysters washing up on the beaches meant that heavy El Niño rainfall was imminent.Krajick quotes volcanologist Floyd McCoy, of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, as saying that “[until recently] discussing myth was a good way to sink your credibility,” somewhere up there with confessing yourself an Atlantologist. “But I’d be a fool to write it all off. There is a new realization that some myths have something to say.”“Myths can enrich the record,” Krajick writes. “Paleo-seismologist Brian Atwater, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle, who has done many studies of seismic events in the northwest, says that legends can reinforce the fact that people do lie in harm’s way. The trick is teasing out which myths carry kernels of truth that can be connected to data.”11And too much scoffing can obscure the stark fact that real calamities are possible. It wasn’t an invention that the asteroid Apophis narrowly missed colliding with Earth in 2004. It isn’t a fabrication that massive volcanic eruptions can change the planetary climate in an eyeblink of geological time (and that the lovely mountains of Yellowstone National Park may be the biggest ticking time bomb of them all); it isn’t just imagination to say that a million-casualty earthquake is now quite probable (and that even cities like Chicago, far from fault lines, are vulnerable); it isn’t a fantasy that a methane eruption could bring much more calamitous global warming and precipitate a sea-level rise of nearly thirty meters. Nor, alas, is it a fiction to assert that we may very well be bringing calamity on ourselves through reckless profligacy and obstinate denial of the facts of global warming. All these, and more, are entirely possible, as we shall see.

So where does that leave us? Before going on to look at what is out there, and in here, and underneath the surface—that is, at our hazardous cosmic neighborhood and our equally hazardous planet—I want to leave you with a little philosophical mummery called the Doomsday Argument. By logical trickery, you can “prove” that the human race is going to die out, soon.The Doomsday Argument has been the subject of heavyweight philosophical discussion,12 but I prefer the version by Jim Holt, who describes himself as a “low-voltage journalist who splits his time between New York and Paris [and writes] mainly about philosophical and scientific subjects, occasionally also producing what could charitably be described as humor.” In a piece for Lingua Franca magazine, Holt (from whom the actual argument set out below is drawn) suggested that “even as transcendental a priori arguments go, this one [the Doomsday Argument] is pretty breathtaking. For economy of premise and extravagance of conclusion, it rivals Saint Anselm’s derivation of God’s existence from the idea of perfection, and Donald Davidson’s proof that most of what we believe must be true or else our words would not refer to the right things.”13Holt led me to Brandon Carter, the popularizer of the Anthropic Principle, which says (if I understand it correctly) that the laws of physics are what they are because we couldn’t have evolved to study them otherwise, and that elsewhere—in other universes, or other pockets of this one—they may be quite different. Carter, in turn, led me to John Leslie, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. He’s a metaphysician who has been wrestling with, among other things, the neo-platonist idea that God, instead of being an omnipotent creator, is a need for the world to exist, a need that is itself creatively realized, or, alternatively, the notion that the world itself is just the manifestation of the thoughts of a divine mind.14 Leslie, as you might guess, is a strong defender of the Doomsday Argument.In any case, the Argument goes like this: if you assume that the human race will survive millions more years, perhaps for the remaining lifetime of our sun, say 5 billion years or so, and that the population of the Earth stabilizes at around 15 billion at any one time, then there would have been at the end of all that about 500 quadrillion humans. Since, at the most, 40 billion or so people have lived on Planet Earth to now, that means that we, you and I, would be among the first 0.00001 percent of all humans. In probability theory (using Bayes’s theorem, which essentially says that a hypothesis is confirmed by any body of data that its truth renders probable15), the chances of so unlikely an outcome are vanishingly small—ask any gambler. What makes us so lucky, or so special? On the other hand, suppose that humans are wiped out by some catastrophe in the next decade or so. That would make us 40 billionth out of a total human population of maybe 50 billion, much better odds, and therefore much more probable. Conclusion: scenario two is more likely to be true. Therefore: doom sooner rather than later.16If you think this is the sheerest piffle, that it is a position, as the psychologist Paul Bloom said in another context, “that is so intuitively outlandish that nobody but a philosopher could take it seriously,”17 consider the same line of thinking from another angle. The argument would tell you that the mere fact that the Earth has survived for nearly five billion years does not at all mean that planet-sterilizing disasters are unlikely. Why not? Because observers are, by definition, in places that have avoided destruction. The assumption that catastrophic events are rare fails to take this observation-selection effect into account. We are precluded from observing anything other than that we have survived to the point where we are doing the observing. “If it takes 4.6 gigayears for intelligent observers to arise, then the mere observation that Earth has survived for this duration cannot even give us grounds for rejecting with confidence the hypothesis that the average cosmic neighborhood is typically sterilized, say, every 1,000 years. The observation-selection effect guarantees that we find ourselves in a lucky situation, no matter how frequent such events.”18We’re lucky, then. Cling to that. That’s the good news.THE END. Copyright © 2008 by Jacobus Communications Corps. Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Dereck Day. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Born in South Africa, Marq de Villiers is a veteran journalist and the author of thirteen books on exploration, history, politics, and travel, including Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction), Sahara: The Life of the Great Desert, and Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather. He lives near Port Medway, Nova Scotia.

Born in South Africa, Marq de Villiers is a veteran journalist and the author of thirteen books on exploration, history, politics, and travel, including Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction), Sahara: The Life of the Great Desert, and Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather. He lives near Port Medway, Nova Scotia.

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The End: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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