Science says we’re all doomed. Neatypoos.

We’re all doomed, apparently. A NASA-backed science study says so.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Apocalypse: if Earth’s hit by that white beam, we’re dead. D-E-A-D. Dead. Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

That’s more credible than stupid ideas about Mayan calendar dates (the world ended on 21 December 2012…didn’t it?) or the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (world’s end in 2010), or the deranged spoutings of former French pharmacist, Michel de Nostradame (1984 or 1997, depending on how you read it). I could go on…

We don’t have to look far to realise why this happens. Human fear of apocalypse seems universal – and as old as humanity. Stories flow through mythology. It’s cross-cultural; most societies seem to fear sudden destruction of all they know.

Certainly it’s rife today. We have the irrational doom-sayers – the ones who think it’ll happen tomorrow, without warning, let’s say courtesy of four ‘blood moons’ (that’s this year, apparently). Or we have the rational ones, who use mathematics to show that current civilisation is teetering on the edge.

That’s where the NASA-backed study comes in. Drawing on ancient Rome and the Mayan experience – when an apparently robust society suddenly collapsed – they’ve concluded that modern global civilisation is on the same course. The causes, apparently, are to do with iniquitous income distribution and climbing resource usage.

The idea’s not new; Jared Diamond pointed out, in Collapse, that humanity has a habit of exploiting environments to the ragged edge, then destroying them.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Couple that with meta-stable systems (systems that look stable, but actually sit in an easily disturbed equilibrium) and you have a recipe for trouble. A lot of the socially mediated systems we create do this, and that, in essence, is the current problem. Apparently. But I wonder.

It seems to me there are two sides to this. First, there’s our apparent common fear, as a species, that doom lies just around the corner. We all seem to think that way – the ‘apocalypse’ keys directly into our psyches in ways that other ideas don’t. Look at the popularity, today, of post-apocalyptic stories. It’s not just built into Western cultural philosophy. Indeed, it seems to be hard-wired into us.

That thinking gives credence to studies like the NASA one. It also cultivates idiot scare-mongering about mystery rogue planets. But where did this sort of thinking come from?

I have my suspicions.

The irony of all the scaremongering silliness is that from the science perspective we are staring down the barrel of a very real apocalypse in the form of another Carrington Event. But it never hits the popular doom radar.

The other issue is the credibility of the argument that we are, in fact, on course for doom by our own mis-doings or constructions. Longer term, I think we are. It’s obvious; humanity can’t keep on expanding without limit, exploiting resources and polluting the planet forever. We have to find another strategy. But I think we’ve already seen this one coming.

However, as for the idea of a catastrophic collapse – the abrupt demise of the social, political and economic systems on which western (and, of course ‘developing’) civilisation pivots? Somehow, I doubt it’s on the cards. Mostly.

Is belief in the apocalypse hard-wired into the human condition? How did that hard-wiring happen? And how can we think reasonably – dare I say ‘rationally’ – about it when we’re apparently hard-wired not to?

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

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21 comments on “Science says we’re all doomed. Neatypoos.

  1. GarryRogers says:

    I enjoyed your article Matthew. There are lots of optimists that believe we will solve our problems. But are they a boatload of grinning fools expecting a paddle to float by? Whatever, I think I will reblog your article.

    Thank you.

    • I like to think there are optimistic answers to humanity’s problems. Alas, human nature being what it is, we probably won’t be able to cooperate together on sufficient scale to make it happen. That’s not pessimism…it’s realism. Alas…

  2. When I was growing up we lived next to a SAC base. Every few weeks the whole wing of B-52 Stratofortresses stationed there would roar off to the north — and I’d be certain it was World War III.

    Over the years it’s been the energy crisis (we were pretty sure we were running out of oil in 72-73), then global cooling that morphed into global warming, various imminent ecosystem collapses — well, you know the drill. Let’s not forget Y2K (!) and the millenialist predictions that somehow kept forgetting to ask WHICH calendar the millenium was based on.

    But it’s not just my own experience — for thousands of years humans have learned the story of Noah/Utnapishtim/Deucalion and how the whole world was destroyed in a flood. Christians learn the next time it’ll be fire (which put a little extra spin on those B-52s armed with megaton-range H-bombs!)

    What about the recent (last ten years) discovery that, at one point in the last few hundred thousand years, homo sapiens was reduced to a pitiful remnant of a hundred or so individuals living in a cave in East Africa? (I remember reading this, just not where or the exact figures.)(So don’t take my word for it!) I also remember reading that the decline in numbers was attributable to unspecified climactic changes.

    If the above is true that might be a starting point for humanity’s fascination with the apocalypse — because humanity lived through such an experience.

    Don’t know how you feel about Immanuel Velikovsky but if you’ve read Earth In Upheaval, for example, he makes an interesting argument for the solar system not being as stable a place as we tend to believe. The point I would make by bringing Velikovsky up is simply to introduce possibilities of past disasters that might account for why, psycho-sociologically, we are so apocalypse-happy.

    Children who grew up in abusive environments tend to have different neural architectures than children who grow up in loving environments. A generation that lived through “Earth in upheaval” as in a bombardment by small (they’d better be!) asteroids might easily become convinced of a capricious, inimical universe constantly threatening total destruction. So an alternative theory might be that, in our wicked past, abusive families were the norm; given that, a belief in a vengeful, world-smiting deity doesn’t seem so much of a leap. The corollary to that would be a belief that the “end is nigh!”

    • I agree with your point about family. I think the last couple of generations are particularly prone to apocalyptic thinking. The baby boomers because many of them were born into chaos,death, destruction and scarcity. Baby boomers have not been the most attentive parents (generalisation of course and much too vast a discussion to get into in a blog comment) and their children are often fearful and anxious about the world as a result.

      I also think we’re as dogmatic about ‘science’ as any previous civilisation were about God/gods. Science is god now and will surely tell us continuously that we will be destroyed!!

      • I think the baby boomer generation definitely had that apocalypse mentality. The Cold War threatened it in a very real way. Nuclear armageddon was not just a wild prediction by a fringe thinker. It was a very real probability. To this day I don’t quite know how the world avoided it. The effect of this looming tragedy unquestionably shaped the thinking of a generation.

    • You’re right. It’s well established that humanity went through a population bottleneck (the genetics are clear…everybody outside Africa is incredibly close), and it could well have had an impact. Toba c70,000 BCE is often put down as the culprit. Possibly it was more insidious than that in terms of establishing a sense of incipient doom – especially during the ice ages when climates were under stress. It wouldn’t have taken much to knock a hunter-gatherer community into starvation – even a single bad season, maybe – and if that risk of sudden downturn was a constant accompaniment then maybe it had a shaping effect on the way we think?

      As you say, this might have had a direct effect over time – I read some material recently along those same lines. I guess we’ll see as research continues.

      The flood story is so widespread through Middle Eastern culture that it’s tempting to assign a common event to it – the one I’ve seen is the alleged filling of the Black Sea around 8500 years ago. But I’ve also seen evidence to suggest that it didn’t fill all THAT fast. Either way, there’s no question that Neolithic peoples were forced to migrate in the face of rising waters and I suspect there’s something to that in terms of impact on mythology.

      I’m aware of Velikovsky – scientifically his stuff was profound nonsense. However, the notion of planetary motions being meta-stable is certainly established in physics, for totally different reasons. I believe the likely culprit will be Mercury; Jupiter (even at that distance!) might destabilise Mercury’s orbit, turning the solar system into a kind of giant billiards set. It hasn’t happened in the life of the solar system, but it’s mathematically possible – and there’s some disturbing evidence that in other systems, similar events seem to have happened. Umm.

      I can’t finish without saying, from the viewpoint of plane-spotting, how utterly cool it must have been to live next to a SAC base, in some ways…obviously it wasn’t in others… :-)

  3. hmunro says:

    Forget about our species, or even our planet … the entire *universe* is doomed! Everything our tiny minds can grasp will one day end — so I think it’s natural that the fear of some impending apocalypse is indeed hard-wired deep into the human psyche. But HOW we react to this idea is a far more individual (and dicey) proposition. That’s why you get some people who are so terrified of gamma rays / aliens / tornadoes / superbugs that they stop living long before they’ve actually been zapped / abducted / sucked up / infected. Fortunately, there are still plenty of cool heads out there that focus on the risks humans actually can control (for example, watching solar activity and shutting down power grids and nuclear reactors before unusually strong flares occur). For my part, I try not to worry too much about the future: If there’s an asteroid out there with my name on it, at least it’ll make for an interesting obituary. :) Thank you for a wonderfully thought-provoking post!

    • You’re right. There is a major difference between a society’s response to armageddon and that of the individual. In the end, of course, it won’t matter when set against the wider span of the universe. Whether that goes by big rip or big crunch depends, I guess, on dark matter. Possibly.

  4. bevrobitai says:

    Actually, *puts hand up modestly* the Carrington Event HAS hit the popular doom radar in the post-apocalyptic novel Sunstrike. (I use ‘popular’ in the sense of ‘potential future popularity just as soon as the wider reading world discovers it’.) I wanted to explore what would happen if after a severe solar storm the power went off everywhere at the same time, and simply didn’t come back on. How would ordinary people cope with being busted back to Victorian technology without the low-tech infrastructure of those days? What would be the up-side? Neighbourly co-operation? Healthier life style? Improved social interaction? There could be a positive side to the apocalypse, especially if zombies, viruses and terrorism aren’t part of the equation. We don’t need them. Science is quite scary enough for this scenario.
    You’re right about the popular appeal of doom – Sunstrike was outselling my cosy crime novels by 50 to 1 when it first came out and is still my best-selling title. I have plans for several more books in the series and am really enjoying my technology-free world!

  5. Lemuel says:

    I think you are bang on the money with regards to the potential for a Carrington-like event. I once attended an astronomy lecture on the subject and the impact that such an event could have on civilisation is scary!

    Humans are very good at under-estimating the impact of events that they haven’t personally experienced. Even here in New Zealand, despite a history of earthquakes, the reality of the risk really didn’t seem to hit home for many until the recent tragedy. I still feel that many coastal communities here completely underestimate the risk of a tsunami – simply because a life threatening event hasn’t happened here in living memory – and if anything, we might be even more complacent because the Christchurch earthquakes didn’t trigger any damaging waves. Archaeological records be damned, because we haven’t seen it happen then the risk isn’t real.

    One interesting story that emerged in the wake of the 2011 Japanese tsunami told of ancient stones that warned communities not to build too close to the shore – an early attempt to install inter-generational understanding of legitimate threats. – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/21/world/asia/21stones.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    I think that society is slowly getting better at transcending the need for personal experience. For example, I feel that globally there is an increased appreciation of the risks presented by natural disasters now that events on the other side of the world can unfold live in our living rooms – and there are genuine opportunities to learn from them, ingrain a false sense of personal experience, and maybe be better prepared for it should it happen closer to home. Not in an over the top way, but in a ‘the water is receding dramatically, I need to get to high ground before it comes back’ kind of way. But the Carrington Event. There is no precedent. There is no memory. There is no video footage or even photographs. Just old stories of gold miners waking up early and cooking breakfast – all a bit of a lark really. Canadians might remember the 1989 solar storm, but the impact of a storm the size of the Carrington Event, or dare I say it, a storm even larger – yikes – that would hit us right in our Achilles’ heel. The odds of this happening in our lifetime is significantly larger than an asteroid strike or supervolcano, yet this is a scenario that has barely entered our public consciousness.

    • I agree on all counts. The Carrington event especially. We missed a second one by a whisker in 2012. And here in NZ, of course, we have earthquakes…even as evening draws on today, ripples from the Chilean quake are engulfing our coasts. And earthquake consciousness was lulled by the downturn in the late twentieth century. As for tsunami here…well, the words are ‘Hikurangi trench’, and ‘Mw 9.0′. The risk is high of the subduction fault ‘unzipping’ from just off Wellington and ripping north, with waves slamming the coastline.

      I am doing my part, actively. I have a book under way on New Zealand’s seismic reality, for the general public. It’ll be published later this year, and I hope will raise awareness. Yup, I finally managed to blend my history training with my underlying science geekiness… :-)

  6. I really dislike it when humanity is doomed. It’s so awkward. Of course, the possibility of doom is certainly a motivator, all the more so in present times when mass media can spread the latest theories in mere seconds. I guess that acts as a counter to our supposedly being more enlightened and educated.

  7. Not trying to self promote but I just wrote about this. Haha simply amazing.
    http://wp.me/s4kGJc-cosmos definitely check it out.

  8. ” iniquitous income distribution and climbing resource usage” Absolutely.

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