Monday, July 30, 2012

Existential Threats To Mankind Multiply

At this point it can be lost on no one, whether of a religious or secular bent, that the end of the world is at least a possibility in our own lifetimes. Of course, “the end” is perpetually “nigh” for a certain breed of doomsaying prophet, and they’ve been consistently wrong up until now...or we wouldn’t be here to worry about it today!

But the more powerful science has made man (who retains his flawed nature...just read any version of the Faust legend for a pretty incisive look at the trade-off we’ve made), and the more it’s enabled him to see the universe as it is, the more aware we become of what a fragile miracle life on this Earth is. Here are just a handful of the ways it could go down:

1. Thermonuclear war

This is the one that defined the era from 1945 (when the U.S. first “demonstrated” the bomb) or at least 1949 (when the rival Soviets, thanks to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, showed off theirs) to the ostensible end of the Cold War in 1991. For fifty years, the world lived under the constant shadow of atomic holocaust. Thank God we survived. Yet is our complacency, since the bipolar conflict gave way to chaos, really warranted? Nuclear weapons did not go away, and the U.S. and other countries remain locked in the logic of endless competitive new weapon development. Who even knows what they’re up to now, in our own country or abroad? Someday, surely, all these technological wonders of murder will be used.

2. Environmental collapse

Here is an issue that has been absurdly clouded by our left/right paradigm, the ridiculous “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic that divides us so neatly into two parties. You’re not supposed to be a conservative and care about the environment. Well, it doesn’t take an etymological genius to see that “conservation” and “conservative” share a root. Personally, I’m an agnostic leaning toward believer in global warming. But to me that’s almost a moot point; we’ll certainly find out the truth if we just hold on.

The larger question is: even if this particular catastrophe is a false alarm, will there ever be any externality created by the behaviors of every-man-for-himself capitalism that will kill us if we don’t regulate it? If so, and the global warming debate is the dress rehearsal, I don’t want to see the show. We need to take the idea of “freedom” more seriously by soberly considering its limits. The tragedy of the commons is a real problem, and there must be some middle ground between Big Brother and anarchy.

3. Supervolcano / Meteor strike / Solar event

I have refrained in this post from postulating a Biblical apocalypse per se because I don’t pretend to be qualified to assess such a possibility. But it is possible to imagine a TEOTWAWKI scenario without invoking religious paradigms, that involves no direct human cause and is unpreventable. If the supervolcano under Yellowstone were to erupt, or a giant meteor were to appear and no Bruce Willis to stop it, or a solar flare lashed out and fatally irradiated our planet, it would mean that, whatever your beliefs, for all practical purposes, God had ended us. And it’s not only possible, it’s inevitable, especially now that the dream of human spaceflight is being mothballed: the sun will eventually (though we’re talking about billions of years here) engulf the planet, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Rather than letting this fact, or the equally incontrovertible small-scale equivalent of our own certain death, cause us despair, we should allow it to throw into relief the tremendous preciousness of our lives, and live them as if they were fleeting, for they are.

Melissa Miller is a blogger and freelance education reporter. Bewildered by the proliferation of accredited online associate degrees? Melissa can help break it down for you. Send any feedback to

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