It’s a hallmark of human psychology that we are always ready for disaster. Not disaster in the personal sense – that always sneaks up on us – but disaster in a larger, apocalyptic sense. You only have to give a cursory look to the world’s religions to see that ultimate disaster is a cornerstone of most faiths. Judaism scripture predicts the end of days when the resurrection of the Tsadikim will usher in the end of the world. Christian and Muslim eschatology has a similiar theme: the for the former, the second coming of Christ will signify the absolute end of God’s creation, while the latter promises the arrival of al-Mahdi on a white horse, beginning the Yawm al-Qiyāmah. Buddhism and Hinduism also have similar dire predictions. In fact, the only major faith to not promise a dire ending to reality is Taoism, a personal favourite of mine, which offers only a vague shrug and a, “hey, who knows, right?”. Regardless of faith, the one thing that many religious people can agree on is that things will get terrible really quickly and then God will step in and rewind the tape, so to speak.
Another essay! This time not a jovial one. Or maybe it is. Let me know what you think. As usual, the pictures have no context.
Douglas Adams satirized this attitude with a fictional cult called the Jatravartians who believed that the universe had been sneezed into existence, its members waiting in dread for what they called “The Coming Of The Great White Handkerchief”. Even those with little or no faith are convinced that the world will end messily. If it’s not terrorists, or the impending eruption of Yellowstone, or asteroids, those more scientifically-minded can easily cast around for something to terrify us with. In university I composed a list of all the things the news had promised me would bring about the end times. My memory pre-1993 is a little hazey, partly because I was a baby and partly because during that time I was drinking mouthwash out of the bottle (true story). But here’s the list:
AIDS, E-Coli, The Gulf War, SARS, GM foods, the IRA, Hale-Bopp, Artificial Intelligence, Chechnya, the Mujahideen, super-AIDS, The India/Pakistan showdown, Kosovo, H5N1, Al-Quaida, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Solar Flares, Black Holes, Global Warming, the MMR vaccine, Yellowstone, The Big Crunch, China, The LHC, MRSA, Eyjafjallajökull, North Korea, the Recession, blah, blah blah.
Much to be terrified about. As is always the case with the news, predictions were dire. And don’t get me wrong: some of these things were terrible. Chechnya in particular. Jesus Christ. But each of them failed to ignite the mass deaths / global thermonuclear war/ etcetera that was inevitable. Most conservative statisticians believe that mankind is headed for an apocalyptic scenario in the next century. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, wrote a book in 2003 called Our Final Hour that puts our survival rate beyond 2100AD as 50%. Those are not good odds. Flip a coin: if it’s heads we survive, if it’s tails, well whoops: bye bye mankind. Bye bye Duran Duran, Amsterdam, hot coffee, the AFI, Marks & Spencers, glycemic index charts and soft-top sports cars. Last one to die turns all the lights out.
Allow me to paint a different picture – a picture of hope, if you like – and it’s a picture derived from only one fact. I think mankind has the capacity to survive, not just this century, but the centuries that follow and possibly to the end of the universe itself. This hopeful scenario comes, as I said, from a singular truth about the human race: we survive. That’s what we do. Homo Sapiens evolved in the forests of southern Africa and, when the oxygen content of the air dropped and the forests turned into scrub, we moved into the scrub. When the scrub became savannah we moved north. We persevered through deserts and dry riverbeds until we found the lush riverbeds of the Euphrates, and there we settled. This is where civilization began. And when the world turned cold and Mammoths roamed as far south as France, we were there. When changes in global temperature forced the extinction of the megafauna – the Mammoths, the giant Sloths, the Saber-Tooth Tigers, and the Auroch, we adapted. It’s speculated that to survive the ten-thousand-year ice age we ate our closest relatives- the Neanderthals – out of necessity. At each change in selective pressures, we survived. In fact, we triumphed. Human civilization now covers every continent. There are seven billion human beings alive today.
My point, if I’m not making myself clear, is that when we arose randomly out of tree-climbing apes, evolution stacked the odds against us. We were the only two-legged animal for five thousand miles in a land where it pays to keep your head below grass. We had no scales. We had no sharp claws. We had no wings. We didn’t have a single thing going for us in the standard paradigm of evolution. What we did have were two thumbs and a cerebral cortex bigger than any other ape. In short, it was only a matter of time before we were eaten by Lions.
That was close to a million years ago, and the world that was wouldn’t recognize the world that is. There is nowhere in the world you can go that doesn’t bear some trace of our existence. Sure, in many ways that’s not a good thing – there’s ten thousand miles of floating plastic crap in the Pacific, and the Niger delta will never bear life again – but these are products of a greater struggle: the struggle by man to overcome the pressures of the natural world. And to a large extent we’ve succeeded.
There are those who consider the huge scale and number of human beings as a horror in itself, and there are a lot of people. Seven billion is seven thousand million, or seven thousand thousand thousand (as they used to write numbers). At that scale, with that diversity, the human race’s future is assured. Let’s look at some numbers: assume that 99% of the human race is wiped out by a mystery plague, or an asteroid, or the arrival of little blue meanies from Mercury. That leaves seventy million (70,000,000) human beings left alive – that’s the population of the UK. Up the extinction rate to 99.9% (a more likely figure) and you end up with seven million, or the approximate population of Hong Kong. With each iteration the numbers become shorter, but not so short as to preclude a complete rebuilding of civilization. It’s only when you up the extinction rate to 99.9999% (in a scenario where, for example, everyone without an extremely rare AB-subtype blood group dies off) that you approach the approximate figure of 7,000 survivors. At the end of the last ten-millennia ice age, a time when there was no summer and a third of the planet was covered in ice, that was the approximate population number of human beings. Within eight thousand years they numbered seven billion. You might say that, by numbers alone, the human race is too big to fail. It would take a very specific and total form of apocalypse – rampant nano-machines, or a necrotizing AIDS that is passed via mosquitos – to knock us out of the game completely.
Of course, numbers alone don’t explain my lack of fear about the future: after all, it is theoretically possible to devastate the earth’s ecosystem to a degree where it would never recover. They used to joke that cockroaches would be the survivors of a nuclear war. I firmly believe that the last survivors of the human race would eat those cockroaches. Within a millennia, there would be cockroach cafes lining the streets of New Paris. We were built, by the vicissitudes of fate and the pressures of natural selection, to last. Come the nuclear winter, human beings will survive. It’s what we were built to do. Our descendants, huddled in their shelters of recovered plastic, would look up at the abandoned metropolitan skyline and tell stories about the world before the end of days, and they would look to a future of convenience and control. They might not enjoy the struggle to get back to civilization, and it might take thousands of years, but it would happen. Inevitably, implacably, inescapably, the human species will survive. And maybe they would learn something from it that we’ve failed to grasp.