Sole Focus

News, Views, Rantings & Ramblings by Carey Parrish

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Location: Georgia, United States

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The End of the World?

Why is it that seventy-five percent of the time, whenever I turn on National Geographic or The History Channel, there is some show on where they’re speculating about the end of the world? Movies like 2012 are also fueling this obsession with doomsday and people seem to be devoting countless hours toward finding ways in which the earth can be destroyed or mankind can be driven to extinction. What is it with this fascination the population seems to have right now with our apocalypse? I just don’t get it.

There is a lot of attention being paid these days to the ancient Mayan calendar…which incidentally comes to an end of December 21st, 2012. So many people seem to be absolutely convinced that on this date either we or our world will cease to exist. They point to events that are now happening in our lifetimes that seem to be fulfilling ancient prophecies, heralding the coming end of the world. I find it amusing to a great extent to watch this getting so much attention.

Why? Well, for starters, this is far from the only time in the history of our species on this planet when terrible events have befallen mankind. It is also not the first instance in which people were convinced that the end was on hand. If you look back at the not so distant past, nightmarish happenings like the Holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unnamed hurricane that decimated parts of the New England coastline eighty years ago all fit the same bill that most of the tragedies we’re now experiencing also exhibited. There was the great San Francisco earthquake of 1907. The tsunami that ravaged the region of the Indian Ocean in 2004 also comes to mind. And people thought the world was ending during those times too. But it didn’t.

In the ancient world there were other natural disasters like the volcanic eruptions that devastated and destroyed cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum and the Minoan civilization that must have seemed like the very end of the world to those who experienced them. Krakatau in the 1880’s wiped out thousands and thousands of people and completely transformed that part of the world where it blew its top. Seventy thousand years ago there was the supervolcanic eruption of Toba that almost drove our species to extinction. We know this because of the fact that in our DNA there is an ancient link called the Mitochondria that tells us every human being on the planet today came from about twenty or thirty healthy females around the time of the Toba disaster, suggesting a population bottleneck at that time when people almost vanished. Again, however, we did not.

All over the world there are scars from catastrophes caused by asteroids and comets slamming into our planet. One, sixty-five millions years ago, is believed to have caused the dinosaurs to go extinct. We now know that all species of dinosaur didn’t vanish. We have crocodiles and some bird species that are directly related to dinosaurian ancestry which survived whatever happened all those millions of years ago. We have Meteor Crater in Arizona where, just fifty thousand years in the past, another extraterrestrial rock slammed into Earth. One hundred years ago there was an explosion over Tunguska, Siberia where an asteroid or a comet destroyed over eight hundred square miles of undeveloped forest. Had this occurred over a major city like London or New York, the death toll would have been in the thousands and these cities would likely have been decimated to near nothingness.

Plagues have also dogged us throughout the millennia. The ancient Egyptians and civilizations like them were routinely reduced by outbreaks of smallpox. In the 1300’s and then again in the 1500’s, bubonic plague raged across Europe and the Far East, killing millions as it swathed its path of death. Ninety years ago the Spanish Flu killed almost equal numbers around the globe in 1918 and 1919. We have, in recent years, seen modern pandemics like AIDS and Swine Flu threaten to bring the ugly visage of the killer plague back to us yet again. So far nothing of this sort has caused humanity to go extinct. There are just too many of us for that to be plausible.

The threat of nuclear war has hung over our heads for the past fifty years. As President John F. Kennedy so eloquently put it: “Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear Sword of Damocles.” The end of the Cold War did not eradicate this threat either. Now there are rogue nations like North Korea and Iran that have nukes which could be put to devastating use. If any threat to our species really concerns me, it is this one. There are currently enough nuclear warheads in the world to kill eight billion people. There are only six billion of us living today. Kind of makes you shiver in your shoes to consider this, eh?

Which brings me back to my original question. Why is it that people are so fascinated with the concept of the end of the world right now? Almost every conceivable scenario, save nuclear war, that could wipe us out has already happened without causing the Earth to become sterile. Life has proven to be extraordinarily resilient when it comes to bouncing back from the brink of total extinction. I think this current fad of doomsday predictions has more to do with the fact that science is explaining away so many of the things people have long been afraid of that the true nature of these events is now not only conceivable but also understandable. People know how it could happen. 'Could' being the operative word in that sentiment.

Throughout history men have warned of a coming apocalypse. This is nothing new. Our kind has always wondered how and when we might disappear from Earth. The one reality we cannot escape is the knowledge that ninety-nine percent of all species that have ever lived on this planet have indeed gone extinct. Just because we are the most intelligent and the most adaptable one to ever emerge does not guarantee our place in this world for the remainder of its time in existence. This is what really captures the imagination, I do believe. To take an inventory of the events that have already occurred in history, and to project into the present with more dramatic results, causes us to consider the very mortality of our species.

I think it is worth pointing out that worrying about and prophesying the end of the world will neither hasten nor put off the inevitable. We have no way of knowing when or if our kind will vanish into history. We also cannot possibly know what life form will take our place as the top predator either. While it can be somewhat morbidly fascinating to consider the possibilities of how we’ll make our ultimate exit, to devote so much time and energy toward its arrival is really no more than a pass-time in the grand scheme of things.

Oh, and to go back to the Mayan calendar ending on December 21, 2012, I’d like to point out that this date is the annual Winter Solstice. People have known about it for thousands of years. The Mayans included. I don’t think it’s worth setting a lot of store in the last date on their calendar being this one. Not even the Mayans themselves, nor their descendants living today, believe this will be the end of the world.

And that is my sole focus for now…