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Some people have been predicting the end of the world or some part of it probably since Ur. However, the first time I really encountered doomsday or the end of the world (or Judgement Day if you prefer) was when I was around six years of age. Our landlady was a Pentecostal and she told me that she had seen a vision that the city in which we lived would fall into a giant pit (she did not say what would happen to the rest of the planet), but that she had prayed and her house and ours would miraculously be saved.  My mother, who had her own problems with reality, was not happy when I told her and she visited our landlady and demanded that she not say things like that to me.  Of course the day arrived and (as I soon realized about such faith-based predictions) nothing happened!  Since then we have had a number of doomsday predictions associated with the arrival of comets, visions from God, convergence of planets, and most recently the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. Such predictions are likely to continue, but one would hope that fewer people will pay attention except to read the dire headlines on the tabloids and smile.

Still what had a beginning is likely to have an end.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics will probably not, in the end, be denied. However, humans will most likely have made the planet uninhabitable by the time the sun expands and engulfs it. Eventually the universe itself ends, or so we think. Jocelyn Bell Burnell answered a question posed by a young scientist at the International Science and Technology Fair (I was attending as a judge) a few years ago, that the ultimate fate of the universe is thought to be heat-death, when maximum entropy is reached.  In any case, this will happen long after the earth is absorbed by the solar expansion. We simply don't know what such an event means. We have only been around since the Pleistocene and have never experienced an event of this magnitude (if one could see it and survive!)  This is the stuff of the mysterious that lends itself to all sorts of fantastic interpretations.

This is not to say we cannot develop hypotheses and at least test what is testable about the future of our planet.  We just cannot get too attached to even scientific ideas, as in the ultimate some are not truly falsifiable and a few ideas may be not much more creditable than apocalyptic religious predictions. Still a few scenarios are real enough that we should not ignore them.  These include effects of global climate change, massive volcanism, and possible asteroid strikes, all of which could cause considerable damage to the planet and perhaps destroy civilization. A major plague might also curtail much of the human activity on the planet. Thus we are at risk and always have been. However, as our population has grown, so has our capacity to do ourselves harm. Obviously past civilizations have fallen, but not all over the entire earth. The global threats posed by anthropogenic global climate change and air and water pollution are self inflicted wounds that are unpresidented.  Recent reports from the World Bank, a group of climatologists and the UN (the reports and data are available on the Internet) are not at all encouraging and yet there are people in all countries who deny that anything is happening. Unfortunately our country seems to have a surfeit of such deniers, some of whom have the power to keep any concerted effort from being attempted. It is a damnable conundrum to solve, but solve it we must, if civilization is to survive into the 22nd Century.  Thus, though doomsday will not occur on December 21, it may simply be delayed and also be more protracted then we would wish, as much suffering will be involved.

Vulture over Carlsbad burn

A Turkey Vulture flies over the charred landscape on the edge of the Carlsbad Caverns fire, 2011.

Indeed, I would like to be more optimistic.  However, it is hard to be so, based on our political inaction that will likely lead to the continuing of nasty droughts, cataclysmic forest and brush fires, superstorms, and sea rise.  In essence I am of the opinion, based on the current analysis of empirical data, that we are in for a rough ride even if we start to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now and we have only minor signs of anyone doing anything significant in this regard. We are going to have to change our ways (and I am just as guilty as anybody - I drive a car, etc.) just to get through the next century, let alone the 22nd. I know that this diary is a real downer, but I really don't know how to make it more hopeful after thirty years at least of discussion, leading almost nowhere. We cannot even get better gas milage standards for automobiles!

In the face of the mounting evidence it seems amazing that there would be so many people in denial, although after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York there is a majority who now accept the reality of man-caused global climate change.  It remains to be seen if this cold new reality will cause we humans as a group to actually tackle this difficult challenge, instead of being at each other's throats as the planet moves more rapidly toward a dystopian hell. As I am soon to be a grandfather and would wish my grandson a better future, I hope that we do.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Thu Nov 22, 2012 at 06:16 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech.

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