Lessons from the End of the World

Posted on May 14, 2013 by


1. We are lucky to be here.
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered — Shakespeare

The geese thing is probably a myth. The story is, a flock of geese somewhere up north was mistaken for Soviet bombers by radar operators in the U.S., and, just before we launched our atomic arsenal, somebody was able to figure it out. Like all myths, this story contains both a kernel of truth and object lessons for its audience. During the Cold War, we did have a number of false alarms that could have turned out badly: a burned out transistor here (as in Fail-Safe), operator error there. This apart from all the opportunities we had to nuke one another over misreadings of our opponents’ intentions, like the Cuban Missile Crisis or some real-life version of The Bedford Incident. Top-level investigations have been conducted into our nuclear safeguards now and again without finding fault, and I suppose you can conclude from that and the fact that we are still here that the system works. Or, alternatively, you can conclude that we just got lucky, or hope, with many UFO believers (and Ronald Reagan), that aliens are actively preventing nuclear war.

Of course, nuclear weapons haven’t gone anywhere. There are still alerts now and again, and experts worry that degradation of Russian early warning capabilities may cause them to overreact to false alarms. Meanwhile, the nuclear club keeps growing, and no one really knows how much of an exchange it would take to throw the world into nuclear winter and the privations that would follow that. Even though Americans have pretty much quit worrying about nuclear war doesn’t mean it isn’t still an existential threat, and no one knows how — heck, no one is really even trying — to put the genie back into the bottle.

Last February, just after the somewhat disappointing Mayan apocalypse, an asteroid, 2012 DA14, passed between the Moon and the Earth. The consensus is that, for the foreseeable future, this particular rock won’t hit us on subsequent passes. In fact, at this time, only two asteroids rise above zero on the Torino Scale (which rates the threat near Earth objects pose to human life), and both of those are thought to pose minimal risk of making impact with the Earth. Of course, there are many asteroids we simply haven’t seen yet, but, for the immediate future, we seem to be safe. Nonetheless, scientists believe that large asteroids have collided with the Earth at least five times, with catastrophic outcomes for the creatures alive at the time. It is inevitable that an impact will eventually happen again unless we develop the means to destroy or turn threatening objects. (I know: you’ve seen this movie, too.)

About 700 centuries ago, a bottleneck in human evolution (as evidenced in our genome) is thought to have been caused by a supervolcanic eruption at Lake Toba in Indonesia. The volcano caused a decade of winter, a long-term cooling of the Earth, and the number of humans declined to perhaps 1,000 breeding pairs. Like meteors, these sorts of events are inevitable, and, at present, there isn’t much of anything we can do about them. (But still: in the Western United States sits the Yellowstone Caldera, which, like Toba, is capable of world-altering effects. It goes off every 60,000 years or so. How long ago did the last eruption occur? About 60,000 years ago.)

There are other catastrophes that, so far, seem to have missed humanity: no species-ending virus has jumped from birds or pigs to wipe us all out. The Large Hadron Collider came online and didn’t blink us out of existence, or create black holes to suck up the Earth. No nearby supernovas — “nearby” meaning within 3000 light years — have irradiated us or torn off the ozone layer. We haven’t, yet!, poisoned the ecosphere sufficiently to make life here impossible, and genetically engineered crops haven’t yet wiped out the natural ones.

You have to conclude from all this: we are lucky to be here. We are lucky that the Earth is the right distance from the Sun, that civilization arose during a relatively quiet climatic and geologic period, that no natural catastrophe has reset evolution, that our own stupidities haven’t come due. “Luck,” of course, may not be quite the right concept: maybe we are following God’s script or some other sort of destiny. Perhaps our survival can be viewed through the anthropic principle: if things weren’t as they are, we wouldn’t be here to see them. But, you know, luck.

2. This will all end some day.
Not to hope for things to last for ever is what the year teaches and even the hour which snatches a nice day away — Horace

Looking ahead, things seem dire. No one really knows how bad the effects from global warming are going to get, but we all pretty much know that we aren’t going to get around to reversing them. Hope now seems to rest on technological fixes — carbon eating nanobots or whatever — since the very idea of moving away from fossil fuels is inconceivable. Politically, the Republicans propose “drill everywhere!” while the Democrats triangulate the oil sands pipeline and advocate clean coal. Meanwhile, we are suffering a nationwide drought, weather is getting weirder and wilder, and beaches are slowly disappearing. In the worst case scenarios, the present coasts — you know, where most of the people live — will become uninhabitable, the middle of the continent will become intolerably hot, once-in-a-century storms will become commonplace, the trees will all die (they just don’t move very fast), and so on and so on.

In a way, it’s kind of a race. Because, while we are burning fossil fuels just as fast as we can, promoting global warming, we also know that we only have a limited quantity of the stuff available to burn. So maybe we can run out of fossil fuels before we ruin the climate. Naturally, that has its own consequences: the great power-down that we are facing, what some optimists call “transition,” portends calamity as well. We simply have not developed sufficient alternatives to fossil fuels to continue our civilization, and the wars we fight now to secure access to oil are just warm-ups for the wars we will fight to keep the lights on. The fact that we seem to be discovering new reserves in the Midwest, under the Arctic ice, in the Gulf, is a mixed blessing: the discoveries don’t change the ultimate finiteness of the resources, but they will allow us to further amplify global warming. Honestly, I’m not sure what to root for.

Perhaps a deus ex machina. Some folks believe that the incipient development of artificial intelligence will lead to a “singularity,” a rapid technological advance that will solve all of these problems, cure all diseases, make us practically immortal, and grant us God-like powers to remake the world, ourselves, eventually the universe. (Indeed, some people propose that this has already happened for some other civilization, and we are living inside a simulation, Matrix-style.) There are lots of variations on the idea: Ray Kurzweil is the most optimistic, seeing a coming techno-paradise. Others see Forbin Project disasters in the making, where humans become essentially irrelevant to life on Earth as the machines pursue their interests. In fact, a group of philosophers and engineers have formed the Singularity Institute to try to ensure that any powerful A.I. we build remains under our control.

Naturally, if humans are irrelevant to the progress of intelligence, the machines may just want to do away with us. Plenty of recent books and movies have taken up this notion, and the military is cheerfully building autonomous battle robots of various kinds, from the drones already in service to soldier-replacement machines. Probably, really, we have more to fear from humans sending these things out to kill lots of people than we do from the robots deciding to kill things on their own. But, you know, it could happen.

If you don’t like the idea of a hostile takeover, perhaps a merger instead. Rather than the machines getting smart and making everything right, we could consider the trend toward making ourselves into machines. Runners with prosthetics will soon be faster than runners with their birth legs. Soon, senses will be augmented with all sorts of devices to extend them. Genetic modification and drug therapies can already control our moods, and soon will increase our intelligence. The human being is becoming plastic; we will be able to make ourselves into what we want to be. So, on the one hand, there will still be humans around; but, on the other, they won’t be human anymore.

Of course, before we can be saved by computers, or modify ourselves into posthumanity, we have to survive the other technologies we are inventing. Nanotechnology has inspired terrorists who are trying to prevent the release of nanobots into the ecosphere. The fear is that nanodevices will reproduce uncontrollably and crowd out things we need to survive, like plants or air. The grimmest vision is the emergence of gray goo, a nanomachine that transforms everything it contacts into itself.

Similarly, genetic modification is seen by some folks as having the potential to run out of control in a variety of ways: bio-weapons that escape into the population; crops that displace natural species; pesticides that kill more than they were designed for. These fears are dramatized by films like  28 Days Later and games like Resident Evil, where biological agents that transform humans into killing machines get loose in the population. Some fringe folk believe that FEMA is working on a variation of rabies that will turn Americans into zombies. You know? Probably not. But the underlying anxiety is rational.

So I guess we should hope for the benevolent computer, eh? But I am forgetting that about 40% of Americans believe in the imminent Christian apocalypse, the Rapture and Christ’s return to Earth. Another group, probably not so many, believe that alien invasion is right around the corner, or has already begun in secret. Sometimes these are the same people. For them, we should remember the wisdom of R. D. Laing, that people believe irrational things for good reasons, that beliefs solve problems for people. The question is, what problems are being solved?

Looking at the endings we have managed to avoid so far (none of which have really gone away), and looking at the narrow straits we have to navigate ahead, we have to acknowledge that all of this will someday end. Like our own deaths, we can see that our civilization will eventually fail, and, farther off, hopefully, humanity in general faces, like all species, extinction.

3. Apocalypses assert meanings for human life.

There are four kinds of apocalypses (one for each horseman!), distinguished by whether they could be true or not (the “reality” axis), and by whether anyone really believes in them (the “sincerity” axis). (This system owes much to Thomas de Zengotita.) When you cross the two axes, you get the four types:

sincerity/reality pretend real
pretend pretend pretend pretend real
real real pretend real real

The pretend pretend apocalypse, which no one believes in, and which couldn’t happen, is best exemplified by zombies. There are people who pretend to believe in zombies, and those folks I mentioned earlier who think government scientists are trying to create zombies, but no one really believes in zombie zombies (“pretend pretend zombie zombies”) where the dead rise up after dying to eat living brains. And they are right: whatever our problems are, undead are not among them. This provides the zombie apocalypse with a useful function: since zombies are not a real threat, we can use them to safely explore how we might respond to catastrophes. Indeed, FEMA and the CDC both use zombie scenarios in their public preparedness campaigns. Zombie films and books — at least the better ones — explore how people behave toward one another in extreme situations. We can get scared, think about hard choices, and wonder how we would act “if it came down to it,” all within the realm of fiction.

The opposite category, the real real apocalypse, provokes a whole different kind of response. Real real apocalypses include events like space impacts, pandemics, and other such events that originate (mostly) out of our control, and once they get started we can’t do much except react. (Certainly, it should be said, smart people are working to solve these problems. I am talking about the relationship of an ordinary person to the event.) The overall emotional response to the real real is resignation: “Ehh. What can you do?” Real real apocalypses do not offer any moral critique (how we act once they get going is a different matter, of course): they represent what it means to live in a hostile universe.

The real pretend apocalypses are those which at least some people fear (or desire), but which could not really occur. You could think of these as the classic version of apocalypse: the original literary genre of apocalypse, as exemplified by the Revelation of John, is a call for justice and revenge. Apocalyptic fantasy wish-fulfillment. Often, some entity is visualized as coming to Earth to set things right, punish the wicked, and, at least sometimes, raise the faithful to the status they deserve. The “pre-millennial” version of the Christian apocalypse, as promoted, say, by Left Behind, functions this way for contemporary believers. Proponents of the Singularity seem to follow the same script: the A.I. is going to fix it, and raise the computer geek to his or her rightful place in the hierarchy. (Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross named their novel of the Singularity The Rapture of the Nerds.) I would be inclined to throw alien invasion in here as well, although the aliens usually offer nothing benevolent for humans. Nonetheless, believers in alien invasion can take (fantasy) pleasure in the “I told you so” part of the story. Real pretend apocalypses offer very different rewards than the other kinds.

Finally, the pretend real apocalypses offer endings that people don’t believe in, but that could really happen. The “don’t believe in” part I mean in a particular way, because belief is a funny thing. For example, global warming: Of course, it could happen. It is happening, although it may or may not be finally apocalyptic. And, of course, there is at least a small group of people taking the matter very seriously, just like there is a, sadly, much larger group of people denying the whole thing. But setting those folks aside for a moment, let’s consider someone who represents more of the norm. Yes, I believe that humans, through careless burning of fossil fuels, have created global warming which threatens our whole way of life. And yet, I still drive my car, heat my house with gas, and, really, aside from worrying and bringing my own bags to the grocery, I do little to adjust my own contribution to the crisis (and that as an American using five times the resources I am entitled to), and I am not seriously politically active on the issue (yes, I vote right). It is very much like I’m living in some kind of dream where these issues aren’t pressing. The question is, “how would I act if I really believed in global warming?” The answer is: very differently than I do. Nuclear war is much the same way: it could happen, but we do not act as if it were so (say, by demanding an end to the things). The inconvenience and disruption of my life as a consumer — really, the extreme privilege of being an American at this time — keep me from doing the things that obviously need to be done. And besides, if it’s just me, it won’t make any difference. It is some societal species of learned helplessness. We had better figure it out.

The four kinds of apocalypses position us in distinctly different moral universes: the ruthless, tough, resourceful zombie survivor (or hapless victim); the existential fear of a fragile being in an uncaring world; the faith in a final reckoning and recognition of my worth; the guilt of my own participation in bringing about catastrophe. What they share is that these stories tell us what our lives mean, that our choices matter (or don’t, as the case may be), that our actions can have consequences. Apocalypses assert (or argue against in the real real) that humans have a meaning for our lives, that, underneath it all, there is a narrative to human history.

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