(Repost) On the insignificance of the traditional predictions of the end of the world


There’s been a whole lot of brouhaha about Dec 21, 2012, and the Mayan calendar.

Sorry, folks, but that’s something I regard as a crock.  And not just because I have my own version of the end of the world.  T.S. Elliot came much closer to summing up the ambiance of my prediction in Hollow Men with the famous lines

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Not that I actually have a specific picture of the world ending.  I don’t.  My view covers only the aftermath.

In fact, “it’s a crock” is my reaction to almost any traditional “end of the world” scenario, including”the rapture.”  As far as I’m concerned, they all have little more than hope and fear behind their popularity.

I do, however, have enough of an image of the precursor events bringing about Earth’s demise that I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include anything that happens in an instant.

I’m sure the end will come in a much shorter time than most scientists are likely to predict, though.  After all, the odds of our planet being hit by an object large enough to end all life on the planet is really quite small, and of something like that sneaking up on us much smaller still.

But, barring that small possibility, virtually none of my scientific colleagues have any concept of a tragedy so great that the end of all life would result.  Most, I’m fairly certain, would even deny such an alternate tragedy is remotely possible.

Sadly, this reflects more on the strength of their cultural training than on their devotion to the principles of scientific inquiry.  While life is astoundingly resilient, it’s also relatively rare in the universe.  At the very least, it’s certainly not very dense.  There must be some reason for that.

Whatever that reason may be, it does not argue well for the premise that life on Earth will outlast all tragedies save huge asteroidal impact.  True scientific curiosity would want to look at that possibility.  And looking, even only slightly, exposes vast areas for scientific inquiry.

For example, the current predictions relative to global warming speak ominously of positive feedback loops which will continue to drive ambient temperature higher long after we’re gone.  Yet, the underlying cultural assumption that only the future of humankind matters prevents our looking at the truly important question: how hot must it become to kill all life on the planet?  Or, just as importantly: what unexpected consequences, such as globe encircling equatorial wind storms, might lead to conditions in which life could not survive?

That these are not universally viewed as being more important questions than “how will it impact humans?” is the clearest indication of the putrefying effect of our anthropocentric culture.

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3 Responses to (Repost) On the insignificance of the traditional predictions of the end of the world

  1. Hank Raymond says:

    Well George, I think you need to define “end of the world” more precisely. Unless the Earth gets hit with a planet-sized asteroid, this rock called Earth will continue to orbit the sun until the sun blows up. Life may end before that of course. I suspect the core will cool before that and that will cause the magnetic field to die and then the atmosphere will disappear, just like it has on Mars….

    • George says:

      i’m speaking of the end of life on the planet, and i’m not a believer in our having to wait for the core to cool or the sun to expand, or even for a planet sized asteroid to hit us. the axiomatic assumption that life on this planet can’t be eradicated by consequences of our growth is so central no one thinks to question it. have you?

      • Hank Raymond says:

        Fair enough. But when you say “End of the World”, I think you should somehow indicate that you mean the end of life on the planet and not the destruction of the planet. Those are 2 very different things.

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