The Ends of the World (2007)

“SF is a genre more afflicted by doomsayers than most, with poor old Gaia getting a rough rogering from the human race on a regular basis. But, Guy Haley asks, is it finally time for the Apocalypse now?” As I wrote in 2007 in the piece below, another from Death Ray‘s ‘Deep Thought’ column section (as most of the articles here under this ‘Opinion’ heading are). This one is from issue 9. (Man, did we write a lot back then or what!) I wrote this after reading Evolution by Stephen Baxter. It is a great book, but kind of depressing. This column was almost therapy for it.

Famine, Plague, War and Death get regular trots round the SF paddock. Numerous authors, from Mary Shelley onwards, have had a crack at the collapse of civilisation, the end of the human race or even the total destruction of the Earth itself. None of it’s happened of course, but given the young age of SF and the long, long life of the Earth, one or all of these scenarios are likely to come to pass eventually. We could survive, or our more depressive writers may prove to be right. But how right, and how soon?

End of the world doomsaying – millenarianism – is a given aspect of the human psyche. It’s a consequence of our evolution. On the one hand, it’s our monkey-like fear of death writ large and shared with our fellows. On the other, our causally-primed brain is a handy asset for surviving and making tools, but it does mean that we have to have a reason for everything. When something is beyond our immediate understanding, this has led to some mighty peculiar logical leaps. In the absence of science, terrible occurrences are explained as divine acts (most often punishment, because guilt plays a large part in doom-mongering). We feel bad for being, so disasters are all our fault, a punishment for our sins. God could be back to finish the job any time, so be good.

Basically, people have been fretting about the end of the world since the beginning of time, we literally can’t help it.

And though we now take a different view of the way the world works, the faulty reasoning of “Bad things have happened because we are bad, therefore bad things will happen again, and they will be worse,” is as true in Soylent Green as in The Book of Revelations. Only God has been removed from the equation. Now it’s our own petards that will hoist us.

The environment’s our current bete noir, it has been for forty years, with a brief break for nuclear terror. Global warming? Soylent Green, The Drowned World, The Space Merchants… all feature this most modern of worries. Other well-worn paths to doom include volcanic activity, global cooling, environmental collapse, war, plague, death of food crops, moral degeneracy, and of course, alien invasion.

Barring the alien invasion, all of these events are feasible. Looking at it, there are so many ways for mankind to be snuffed out it’s amazing we’re still here.

But we are, and we aren’t going anywhere. It’s easy to regard these entertainments are prescient. The disasters may be plausible, but their consequences are not. They aren’t warnings, they’re worries.

Cast your mind back at the 1980s. SF books and films predicted the nuclear destruction of the Earth as if it were an inevitability. The chilling drama Threads (Sheffield flattened by an atomic bomb, mutant babies, the horror) was regarded as a palpable truth. But this madness did not happen precisely because both sides in the Cold War knew that nuclear war would be madness, they even called the doctrine behind the arms race MAD (mutually assured destruction – a doctrine of immediate retaliation predicated on everyone dying if one side attacked).

Peer behind your own fears and you’ll see that there’s an assumption of the worst in all millennial thinking, your own included. The planet, we’re told, is overdue a supervolcanic eruption, and that would be very bad. But that assumes that there will be one soon, that we won’t do anything about it, and that our civilisation will be so battered by the event that it will inevitably collapse. That’s a lot of assumptions. The same for a modern plague, or for an asteroid strike or anything else. The case has been made that we’ve become overspecialised as individuals (come the end, how many of you would know how to catch, skin and cook a rabbit?) and that weakens us. But complex societies have undergone cataclysmic events many times before and survived.

Mayan temple cities wreathed in jungle are the poster images for apocalypses. True, the Mayans suffered several severe setbacks, but were they wiped out? No. The Mayans were in fact the last Amerindian civilisation to be vanquished  by European invaders, their final city falling in 1697. As a people, they’re still there today. The Roman Empire may have collapsed as a political entity, but civilisation did not cease to be. And the Black Death, which killed up to two thirds of the population in Europe, far from seeing the end of the world, actually helped kickstart the Renaissance by redistributing wealth.

Those fearful of the future may counter that our society is too complex, but surely a complex society is more able to develop complex solutions? Our culture, which is as alive we are, cushions us from fate. In a flood an animal will drown. We’ll make boats. If we don’t know how, we’ll be able to ask someone who does, or read how to. Culture is such a crucial aspect of our being that Stephen Baxter, in his book Evolution, had to fudge its removal in order to have mankind once more subject to the raw power of natural shaping. Culture insulates us, to a degree, from such forces. And, if the worst came to the worst, and no cultural transmission survived, we’d still be able to figure out how to build a boat from scratch.

Don’t get me wrong. Things could get worse. Much worse. People could starve, die of superflu, choke on pollution and a myriad other things. But there are six billion of us now. To destroy all modern learning and cast us back into a dark age would be difficult, to kill us all would require a catastrophe of stupendous proportions. We might well be facing our biggest challenge yet with our rapacious need to all have bigger fridges and cars and sod the whales, but do you seriously think that, collectively, we’ll let it get so bad we’ll die out? We point to our governments as being useless, and we are thus doomed, but that makes the assumption we’re stuck with them, or powerless. Modes of governance do change, and people act without them. Hell, rising fuel costs alone will make you change your life. You probably already have.

Perhaps there is an alternative path we will tread. Nothing in nature occurs in isolation. Why should life? But we see none nearby. Perhaps our fate is not to ultimately extinguish life here, but to actively spread it elsewhere. Perhaps that is why intelligence evolves in the first place. All life is is a complicated way of allowing some quirky chemistry to continue replicating itself. To conquer the sea, life grew fins; the land, legs and lungs; the air, wings. Nearly every part of this world heaves with life, but to get life more developed than a tardigrade (these tiny ‘water bears’ are so hardy they could survive a trip through space) off-world requires something more sophisticated than the asteroid bagatelle proposed by some panspermia theorists. Maybe humanity is not a cancer. Maybe we’re the gonads of the Earth… One day, perhaps, an alien Von Däniken will be writing books about us.

If on the other hand Christopher, Wyndham, Wells, Baxter, Matheson et al are right, within centuries it’ll be like we never were, and in 30 million years new species will have evolved to replace the ones we hurried off to an early grave. We’re surfing a wave of life, and if we fall off, well, it’ll be the job of the squids to take Earth’s seed to the stars. They’ve got 3 billion years to do it in after all, until the sun swallows the world, and that is unavoidable.


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