by John Mattingly
Homo sapiens has a long history of durable histrionics when it comes to the End of Times. Before science de-mystified many of the most frightening cosmic events in our world and universe, ancient humans understandably saw apocalyptic potential in earthquakes, volcanoes, comets, eclipses and so forth. Today, even though humans understand much more about how the universe works, a significant population is preparing for some sort of catastrophe, encouraged in many cases by religions that thrive on the necessity of an apocalypse for the final reconciliation of prophesies. In the Bible Belt, eternal life is a product available for a remarkably small donation. I received a mailer the other day offering me eternal life at the End of Times, and all I had to do was send in $25 to an Oklahoma preacher.
A series of recent films have given us a virtual look at sudden ices ages, mega-volcano eruptions, disease outbreaks and gigantic earthquakes. TV series have run specials on gamma ray bursts, solar flares, alien invasions, and NEO (Near Earth Object) collisions that could conclude all life on Earth. There are survival kits for events like an electromagnetic pulse that would wipe out electricity and probably lead to the death of most advanced civilizations as food rotted and human waste spread disease and destruction. For the billionaire demographic, there are subsurface condos stocked with five years of meals and workout facilities. After five years, apparently, the Earth will be ready for the wealthy to return, perhaps to provide jobs for the rednecks and survivalists who headed for the woods after the grand calamity, together with large stocks of beans, bullets and bullion. For most of us in the workaday world, we can hope for a quick death when the catastrophe hits.
The morbid fascination with catastrophe has one foot in prophesy and another in probability. Most judgmental religions prophesy some sort of final assessment of human activity, requiring that the obvious and persistent evil in the world be eliminated and the faithful rewarded. When the faithful are consistently spanked, abused and beaten, even when they have done nothing disobedient to their ideology, it is understandable that these people would find themselves hoping for a righteous apocalypse.
And there is a particularly odious feature to the Judeo-Christian End of Times, requiring a final battle in the Middle East. The Bible Belt of the U.S. is a regular and major contributor to Israel’s territorial expansion, which amplifies tension in the entire region while potentially forcing the end game of a final holy war. To atheists (who, by the way, are the largest and fastest growing – but unrepresented – demographic in the U.S.), the evangelical devotions to Israel are provocatively irrational.
As for probability, while science has demystified some threats to our planet and species, science has also revealed new threats and clarified old ones. We now understand how delicate and precarious our survival actually is: one shift in the magnetic belt around Earth and we are bombarded with gamma rays and NEOs, or one angstrom shift in the Weak Atomic Force and the very construct of matter disintegrates, or one blow of the Yellowstone mega-volcano and the Western U.S. becomes a pit and New York City is covered with twenty feet of ash.
The fossil record, together with various proxy analyses of life on Earth, reveals that Earth is actually a rather dangerous place when looked at over long time periods. The last five thousand years on Earth have been favorable to large mammals who have developed defenses against their predators, large and small, but the conditions favorable to humans are not going to last forever. Earth certainly is not eternal or immortal.
The sun can do nasty things to Earth before it burns out, our galaxy is going to collide with the Andromeda galaxy in a few billion years, and the cosmic forces of Dark Matter and Dark Energy (which comprise about 90 percent of the universe) may contain devastating surprises. Five mass extinctions have been documented over the last 3 billion years on Earth, and we may presently be in the middle stages of a sixth mass extinction caused by, and very possibly including, Homo sapiens. Mass extinctions take several thousand years to unfold, so population fluctuations in the interim are seldom obvious in the span of one human lifetime. An excellent book, The Sixth Extinction, is a worthy read for biological details on this subject.
Perhaps the most odious feature of apocalypse fascination, or “disasterbation,” is that it distracts the human species from doing the very things that would most likely increase our chances of survival.
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Poncha Springs.