Thursday, December 27, 2012

Retirement Plan B

The world didn’t end on the 21st of December, which was a major disappointment to some folks. “It was my only retirement plan,” one friend grumbled.

Well, don’t despair. There is always another catastrophe around the corner. There is a one-in-1,000,000 chance of a civilization-destroying asteroid hitting the earth within the next 100 years. Many lotteries have far worse odds. There is a 1-in-50,000 chance every single year of a super-volcanic eruption on the scale of Toba, which nearly wiped out humanity in its prehistory. There are several technologies (not all of them military) that potentially could end civilization, though it is harder to put odds on these than on natural events. The possibilities for destruction are endless. The risk of each one individually might be low for any given year, but all together the risks add up. Besides, there is bound to be some ancient calendar somewhere that bodes ill for 2013 if we only examine it closely; maybe that one has it right. So cheer up.

Of course, there is always global warming to worry us, and that threat won’t simply vanish the way the Mayan Apocalypse did. The Wire recently noted, “The really inconvenient truth: We’re toast.” The author was referring to the less-often-mentioned scientific consensus about global warming: because of lag times in climate response to CO2 levels (mostly due to ocean temperatures), changes already are locked in place. Cutting current emissions back to 2000 levels and capping them (however advisable and laudable for the longer-term effects) would not slow warming noticeably in the lifetime of anyone alive today, much less stop it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims that warming is irreversible for the next millennium. Even James Lovelock, British chemist and climate activist with the IPCC, remarked about the chance of changing the trajectory in the 21st century, “Not a hope in hell.” With regard to the UK’s contribution, he no doubt made his colleagues cringe by saying, “Everyone could burn coal all day and drive around in 4x4s and it would not make a scrap of difference.” Apparently, it’s time to start building Dutch-style sea walls as ice melts and oceans rise. True, none of this need end civilization directly, but related economic and demographic dislocations are imaginable which could do it. It’s not as satisfyingly simple an end as an asteroid strike or the pole-shift depicted in the movie 2012, but it’s something.

Still, the more I write of the time frames of all these threats, the more advisable it seems to prepare an alternate retirement plan.

While that last thought is a downer, I’m just as happy the world didn’t end of the 21st anyway. 17 guests at my house on the 25th arrived and departed at various times between 3PM and 3AM. (Actually, a few stayed over, but they turned in by 3.) Two were family and the rest were friends. It was a pleasant party with good conversation, and I wouldn’t want to have missed it. I think it would be cool if the world doesn’t end before our next get-together, too.

If It’s Not One Darn Thing It’s Another

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