Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

End of the World (Again)



Look on the bright side. When the world ends again this week, there'll be no more fiscal cliff, no more prurient tales from the CIA/FBI/Army, no more global warming, no more wars in Iraq/Afghanistan/you-name-it, no more obesity epidemic -- the pluses are endless. I'm not optimistic, however. When the world ended before, the problems didn't go away, and now my faith in end-of-the-world predictions is a bit jaded.

Take this current go-round. It's not even as if the poor Mayans predicted the end of the world (see Field Notes Aug. 20,/2009). What they did predict (if that's the word for it) is that their calendar would re-up exactly 1,872,000 days after it began on August 11 (or 13), 3114 BCE in our calendar. That's this Friday (or Sunday). Which is no more remarkable than going from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000, when not only our world didn't end (unless I'm really living in a fantasy), but computers kept running and traffic lights stayed working, despite predictions to the contrary.

The last time the world really ended, without too much exaggeration, was that fateful day 65 million years ago when a Manhattan-Island-sized rock came roaring through our atmosphere with the kinetic energy of a billion Hiroshima-size bombs. Atmospheric dust from the impact quickly blanketed Earth's surface, essentially shutting down photosynthesis for several years and causing the extinction of about half of Earth's species, including just about all the dinosaurs except the ancestors of birds. That singular event had a happy ending for mammals, who suddenly found themselves lords of the land, filling the ecological "niches" in which dinosaurs previously thrived. If the space-rock had missed, no World Series, no latte, no Twitter. Just boring old T-Rex and his bros in the 'hood.

The world will end, of course -- nothing lasts forever -- but the finale will probably be a drawn-out affair, T.S. Eliot's "not with a bang, but a whimper." In the long-term, when our star runs out of nuclear fuel some 5 billion years from now, this planet will be incinerated in the sun's last-gasp hurrah. But, self-centered and chauvinistic as we are, we may want to focus on the end of our species, rather than on all Earthly life. We humans are pretty vulnerable to all manner of plagues, metaphorical and literal. For instance:

  • The flu pandemic of 1919 wiped out about 40 million people, twice as many as the combatants had been able to kill off during the previous four years of WWI. One gnarly mutation of swine-flu, say, could do a similar number on us today.

  • With nine countries (some of which aren't exactly models of stability) possessing nuclear weapons, we could rather easily create a doomsday of our own making.

  • When super-intelligent computers move from science-fiction to reality (no more than a few decades from now -- some computer viruses already have "cockroach intelligence"), the game will really change. The new lords of the Earth may well see us an inferior, non-essential species, John Connor notwithstanding.

I've already submitted my Dec. 27 column, so I guess I don't think the world is going to end before the next issue of the Journal. Give us a few more generations, however, and I'm not so sanguine: Time really is running out for our kind. Maybe we should take another look at those Mayan stelae ...

Barry Evans ([email protected]) will be celebrating the winter solstice at 3:12 a.m. PST on Dec. 21, end of the world or not.

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