Countdown to Extinction

How I quit worrying and learned to love the apocalypse

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According to the online website The Death Clock, a man born on my birthdate can be expected to die 20 years from now in 2036. This assumes, however, that the entire human race does not become extinct before the estimated date of my demise.

In a February 9, 2012 post on the blog Arctic News, Malcolm Light writes there will be “Global Extinction within one Human Lifetime as a Result of a Spreading Atmospheric Arctic Methane Heat Wave and Surface Firestorm.” Light predicts “This process of methane release will accelerate exponentially, release huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere and lead to the demise of all life on earth before the middle of this century.” For those interested in more specific dates, Light has done the calculations:

The absolute mean extinction time for the northern hemisphere is 2031.8 and for the southern hemisphere 2047.6 with a final mean extinction time for ¾ of the earth’s surface of 2039.6 which is similar to the extinction time suggested previously from corrrelations between planetary orbital mechanics and the frequency increase of Great and Normal earthquake activity on Earth (Light, 2011). Extinction in the southern hemisphere lags the northern hemisphere by 9 to 29 years.

This certainly sounds scientific, doesn’t it? Light’s blog post is complete with charts and graphs and seemingly-precise figures. But his analysis has not undergone peer review by scientists or publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Not that any of that matters if we’re all about to die!

“If it bleeds, it leads,” the saying among editors goes. Predictions of imminent human extinction by scientists, or people who pretend to be scientists, are sure to be picked up during slow news cycles. “Humans will be extinct in 100 years says eminent scientist” screamed the headline on June 23, 2010 in Phys.Org. Frank Fenner, an emeritus professor of microbiology in Australia who had helped to eliminate smallpox, predicted that the human race would be gone within a century, thanks to climate change and overpopulation.

Fenner told The Australian he tries not to express his pessimism because people are trying to do something, but keep putting it off. He said he believes the situation is irreversible, and it is too late because the effects we have had on Earth since industrialization (a period now known to scientists unofficially as the Anthropocene) rivals any effects of ice ages or comet impacts.

Fenner passed away at the age of 95 in the same year, 2010, in which he made his apocalyptic prediction. But belief in the near-term extinction of the human race is a hardy perennial. “Steven Hawking Warns Humanity Could Destroy Itself in the Next 100 Years,” according to a headline of January 19, 2016. The culprits? The usual suspects — global warming and/or nuclear war — plus genetically-engineered viruses. On a previous occasion he suggested that intelligent machines “could spell the end of the human race.”

It should come as no surprise that there is a Near Term Human Extinction movement (not to be confused with the anti-natalist Voluntary Human Extinction movement). Among its leaders are a retired natural scientist at the University of Arizona named Guy McPherson, who runs a blog called Nature Bats Last. In an October 4, 2014 blog post McPherson portrayed himself as a spurned prophet:

I abandoned the luxury-filled, high-pay, low-work position I loved as a tenured professor to go back to the land. I led by example. Vanishingly few followed. I’m reminded of the prescient words attributed to American existential psychologist Rollo May: “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”….I no longer communicate with most of those colleagues, friends, and family. It’s too difficult to justify the occasional conversation.

He is not the first to feel this way:

But Jesus said unto them, a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. (Mark 6:4, KJV).

The method of many near term human extinction believers is to take the worst case scenarios from numerous projections, without treating them as low-probability events. In the case of my own extinction, it is possible that I will be killed, as Valerius Maximus reported that the Greek poet and playwright Aeschylus was killed, by a passing eagle that drops a tortoise on my head, but the odds are very low.

The near term human extinction movement has been subjected to devastating criticism by scientists and well-informed journalists, many of whom think climate change is a genuine danger. Critiques are easily found on the Internet and I will leave them as an exercise for the reader.

What I want to focus on here is the psychology of the apocalyptic mind. It is a subject which has fascinated me since my childhood in Texas, where I enjoyed listening to radio broadcasts by evangelical Protestant interpreters of “prophecy.” Every Sunday a preacher could be heard, interpreting current events in light of the Book of Revelation. This or that nation in the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union, was one of the ten horns on the seven heads of the dragon in Revelation. For those who could read the Signs of the Times, it was clear that the latest crisis in the Middle East or in the Cold War proved that the Last Days were about to begin. In the next few years the seven-year Tribulation would begin, complete with the Battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom of Christ on earth. It was all great fun.

My introduction to the secular environmentalist version of apocalyptic thinking occurred when I, at the age of 10 or so, received a letter from the great marine biologist Jacques Cousteau, whose television program about undersea exploration mesmerized me and countless other young viewers. “Dear Michael,” the great man began. I was very excited until my parents explained that it was a fundraising form letter.

According to Jacques Cousteau, pollution was destroying the world’s environment (this was in the 1970s, before global warming had displaced pollution as the greatest danger to humanity in Green thinking). By 1984 all of the plankton in the oceans would die, the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere would become extinct, and . . . well, you know. Disaster might be averted by a tax-deductible contribution to Jacques Cousteau.

I don’t remember whether I sent money or not. But I do recall being extremely anxious on New Year’s Eve, 1983. After the ball dropped in Times Square, I took a deep breath . . . and discovered that there was still oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere in 1984, notwithstanding the prediction of my childhood scientist-hero.

The structure of apocalyptic predictions is similar, whether they are religious or scientific. Timing is everything. The apocalyptic event, be it the Second Coming or human extinction as a result of nuclear war, Peak Oil or climate change, has to be in the near term future, to generate excitement. Nobody is going to join a sect whose prophet claims that Jesus will return on May 2, 4158 A.D. And no news outlet in search of eyeballs is going to publish this headline: “Scientist predicts human race will become extinct within the next 10 to 20 million years.”

If the apocalypse can be averted or postponed by individual or collective repentance, then you need two futures: the near term future, in which human action can avert the catastrophe, and the medium term future, in which catastrophe is inevitable if human action is inadequate in the near term future. Much environmentalist writing takes this form: If humanity does not act within the next X years, then global disaster will take place in Y years.

Frequently X — the short term period in which action may still be effective — is 10-15 years, while Y is around 30 years. These numbers make psychological sense. Arguing that we must act in the next decade or so can inspire people more than insisting that something must be done in the next half century. And global doom in the next three decades creates a greater sense of urgency than global doom in the next three centuries or the next three millennia or the next three hundred thousand years.

Examples of the 10-year rule and the 30-year rule were provided by Al Gore in 2006, in an interview with the Associated Press accompanying a screening of his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

First, the 30-year timing, if the apocalypse is not averted (“a few decades”):

If the pace of pollution continues, Gore’s projections for carbon-dioxide levels are off the charts within a few decades.

Among the worst-case consequences: A new ice age in Europe, and massive flooding of regions in India, China and elsewhere that could make refugees of tens of millions of people.

Then, the 10-year rule for effective, short-term action:

And politicians and corporations have been ignoring the issue for decades, to the point that unless drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gases are taken within the next 10 years, the world will reach a point of no return, Gore said.

10 years have now passed since Gore warned that we had only ten years to avert “a true planetary emergency.” Humanity failed to unite and act in time. So I reckon there is nothing to be done, except to reconcile ourselves to the coming global catastrophe “within a few decades.”

Will the human race in the near future be wiped out by a methane-caused firestorm — Malcolm Light’s prediction — or, at least in Europe, by a new ice age, as in Al Gore’s 2006 prophecy? Like Robert Frost, I would prefer the former:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But it doesn’t really matter — if you’re extinct, you’re extinct. And extinction may not be as bad as people make it out to be. To quote the humorous verses that Ogden Nash wrote to accompany the section of “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens entitled “Fossils”:

Amid the mastodonic wassail

I caught the eye of one small fossil.

“Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked —

“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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  • check out Guy McPherson, Bill McKibben, Jill Stein, Gary Snyder, Derrick Jensen, and others in The Cross of the Moment; crossofthemoment.com

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