“The 20th century gave us nuclear bombs and weaponized smallpox. The 21st will surely deliver a greater variety of bioweapons. The prospect of a natural killer like the influenza virus adapting to a globalized world of 7 billion people is worrisome. The machines we have built our civilization upon—computers, software, networks—contain the seeds of destruction for the simple fact that we have come to depend on them, and they are vulnerable to manipulation. We are always figuring out new ways of bringing apocalypse on our heads.”
Yes, we’ve all heard it. The doomsayers that predict the end of mankind and our inevitable self-wrought annihilation. We seem to have been waiting for our ending since we began. All through the centuries, from virtually every culture, there have been stories of humanity’s destruction, from Ragnarök to Y2K. Maybe it has to do with some death drive, like the one Freud theorized. More than likely it has to do with a recognition towards self-destruction in the human psyche that gets expressed in grand scenarios of species extinction or divine wrath with fire and brimstone. In all the stories, theories, and myths of humanities’ destruction there’s one common thread: it’s our own damn fault.
What’s new recently in the predictions of “The End” is that the overwhelming majority are scientists, not religious zealots or cult leaders. But this is all old news too. For over a decade, or at least since Al Gore’s famous book/film (and probably much earlier), the world has been privy to scientists’s worries over a possible impending catastrophe. Climate change has been the main “threat” with quite obvious effects already occurring.
Guterl cites many other concerns that may be more pressing. Namely, possible super-diseases and epidemics which have plagued humanity for much of its existence and have occurred in the not too distant past. Also he cites the ever-present danger of nuclear annihilation. Yet the most interesting aspect of Guterl’s small piece is his non-homo-centric view on the matter. Indeed, extinction isn’t all about us. Well it is, but not about our species depletion:
“Many scientists believe that there may now be a new mass extinction event under way, caused by Homo sapiens. Ever since humans fanned out from Africa and began to take over the world, many species have disappeared. The mammals that inhabited the Pleistocene until about 11,700 years ago—the wooly mammoths and the saber-toothed tigers—died most likely at the hands of human hunters. The carrier pigeon, which once numbered in the billions, is gone. The rhino’s days appear to be numbered, as do the bluefin tuna’s, and so forth. The current rate of species loss, by some estimates, is 200 a day, but nobody knows with any precision.”
I find it nice that he puts our own possible extinction in context with the general mass extinction that is occurring. Gives us a little perspective on the whole thing, don’t you think? Actually, once we finally do kick the bucket the planet will probably heave a much-needed sigh of relief.
Our purported end is sure to come. As any philosopher or George Harrison fan knows, all things must pass. However, as Guterl points out, what are the odds of total annihilation: “For Homo sapiens to go extinct—for every last man, woman, and child on the planet die, once and for all—it seems that something fundamental would have to give.”
We are a pretty tenacious species. Highly adaptable and inventive. Even if in the year 2100, when our estimated population with be above 10 billion, an epidemic comes and decimates humanity, killing 99% of us, there will still be 100,000,000 of us to adapt, to evolve, to survive. Yes, civilization as we know it will surely be kaput, but the species will more than likely carry on. We will probably take most of life on earth with us on our way down, but as Faulkner said: “when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”
Unless of course something happens which puts the future of life itself in jeopardy. Something cosmic like the collision of planets in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Or maybe something a bit smaller, like a big asteroid–bigger than the one that killed off the dinosaurs. But those things don’t really happen anymore, do they?