Nothing lasts forever. We certainly don’t. The oldest fully documented human lifespan (that of Jeanne Louise Calment) was 122 years: 1875-1997. There have been claims of longer lives. Tom Parr of Shropshire supposedly died at 152 in 1635 after overindulging as a guest of Charles I. Odds are, though, he had claimed the birth record of his grandfather as his own because he enjoyed the notoriety of being old and hale. Record-keeping was hit-and-miss in the day, so it was an easier deception to pull off then. Even if accurate, however, 152 is short enough in the scheme of things.
Many people externalize fears about our own personal deaths by contemplating the end of humanity instead. Hence the popularity of apocalyptic literature, which in religious and secular forms is as old as literature itself. In his book The Day It Finally Happens, Mike Pearl writes, “But a certain breed of science nerd seems to take actual comfort in an ultimate and inevitable apocalypse – or if not comfort, per se, then a certain gleeful, misanthropic relish.” Indeed. Pearl doesn’t relish such thoughts, but they do preoccupy him. Pearl describes himself as suffering from an anxiety disorder that prompts him to be a writer: “it fills my head with ideas but I hate the ideas.” As a “coping strategy” he writes a Vice column “How Scared Should I Be?” for which he researches the actual risks of his various fears coming true and what the consequences would be. He finds the process soothing somehow even when the risks turn out to be rather high. The Day It Finally Happens discusses a score of those hateful ideas.
Some of his chapters truly do involve high order calamities such as nuclear war and the next supervolcano eruption. Others do not: for example “The Day the UK Finally Abolishes Its Monarchy.” That day, which he gives a 5 out of 5 plausibility rating, will not herald the end of civilization in the UK or anywhere else. (I avoid the subjunctive in deference to his possibly debatable 5/5 rating, at least anytime soon.) It will end the name “UK,” which will be replaced by a United Something-Else, but other peoples have survived the transition to a republic, and so will the Brits. Also unlikely to be world-ending is “The Day Humans Get a Confirmed Signal from Intelligent Extraterrestrials.” Whatever one thinks of his 4/5 plausibility rating for this one, such a signal most likely would be a stray indecipherable transmission from hundreds of light years away (or much much farther) thereby making any meaningful two-way communication impossible. More Heaven’s Gate-style cults might spring up here and there (invest in Nike?), but it is doubtful much else would change. Some chapters discuss two-edged swords, such as “The Day Humans Become Immortal.” This is a pretty good day from an individual standpoint, but were it to happen (he gives it a 3/5 plausibility rating, though not in this century) even a tiny fertility rate would crowd out the planet in short order. Actually, even if we somehow ended all deaths from aging and disease, we would not be immortal. Assuming we otherwise remain human (no cyborgs or engineered invulnerabilities), we will have fatal accidents, and sooner than one might think. Actuarial tables show that it would be the rare human who survives much beyond a millennium. (Population still would be a problem even so.) 1000 years is pretty good, though, Voltaire’s warning about lifespans in Micromegas notwithstanding. I’ll take it.
As mentioned, some of Pearl’s scenarios are legitimately scary such as “The Day Antibiotics Don’t Work Anymore” and (given the dependence we already have on it) “The Day the Entire Internet Goes Down.” Yet, Pearl is (despite, or because of, his anxiety disorder) fundamentally an optimist. All of his scenarios would be hard on at least some of us. A few would be widely horrific. Yet, none is an utter extinction event. His researches show that nuclear war, climate change, and supervolanoes are all survivable by some. This comforts Pearl. “I feel a very strong sense of revulsion when I imagine my entire species literally going extinct,” he explains. “Don’t you? If you don’t, I’m not sure we can hang…”
I’m not sure we can hang. I don’t dispute his survivability assessments for his scenario list. I just am sure there will be worse days than the ones about which he writes – including one that ends us all. Whatever we do or don’t do to our climate in this century, for example, earth in the longer term has lethal plans of its own. There was once a mile of ice piled on top of where I am sitting right now, and there will be again one day. Civilization will be a little tough to maintain in this spot. (No jokes, please, about whether civilization exists in New Jersey at present.) Astronomical events have all but wiped the slate clean on earth in the past and will again. The sun itself has a limited life span, and the planet will become uninhabitable long before the end of it. I don’t really worry much about it, and not just because probably none of these things will happen in my lifetime. If there were some way to collect the bet, I would bet our machines will outlive us. They have a better chance of surviving off-world for the long term – though, again, not forever. That’s OK. We accept our own ends. Why not Our own End? We’re here now. That counts for something – maybe everything. Right now, I quite literally smell the coffee. I’ll go pour a cup.
Skeeter Davis – The End of the World