By Stephen Knapp
“How will we earn our daily dred?”
People are funny.
When global calamity threatens, we keen and wail, wring our hands, gnash our teeth, rend our garments. But when we actually get a small taste of it, we eat it up with a fork and spoon. To a great degree, the fear and loathing we publicly profess is, in fact, the thrill and satisfaction we will never confess.
The way psychologists tell it, Big Trouble gives us a sense of Larger Purpose, of common cause in the face of a shared crisis. Whether or not the Doomsday of the moment actually poses an existential threat, that perceived potential makes us feel connected as a species, expands our small and routine lives to all corners of the Earth, makes each of us a Brother in Arms, a gallant knight on holy quest. The way sociologists tell it, that’s probably an inherited response, a cooperative instinct that’s helped fragile humans survive all manner of climatic catastrophes and tectonic tantrums. Given our social natures, it’s small wonder that we tend to see Doomsdays everywhere we look.
Comets have been harbingers of doom from time immemorial, and have caused public panic right into 20th century. When Halley’s Comet made its regularly scheduled appearance in 1910, a team of American scientists announced they’d detected deadly cyanogen gas in its tail, and newspapers published predictions that the extraterrestrial toxin would “impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” Alarm was general, sales in gas masks and residential bunkers were brisk, and all life on the planet made it through unsnuffed.
But before we start feeling too 21st century smug, just remember Y2K. And as recently as 2009, there was considerable anxiety within scientific communities that firing up the brand-new Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland would create a Black Hole that must surely swallow the Earth whole. And nobody who lived through it will ever forget the somewhat over-sold Mayan Calendar cataclysm of 2012.
As Doomsdays go, COVID-19 is pretty good. It’s a manageable sort of doom affording ample opportunities for vicarious involvement and melodrama, but comfortably small odds of actually dying. As global citizens, we get to link arms in solidarity with the World, and as warriors for humanity, we can demonstrate our mettle by the simple and inexpensive expedients of wearing masks and social distancing. Coronavirus is Apocalypse Lite, and therein lies its fatal flaw. With all the vaccines flying around the place lately, the days of the easy Doomsday are numbered, and when mask-wearing and distance-keeping are no longer deemed necessary to our survival as a species, we’ll be left with only ourselves, our families, our friends, our jobs, and fully functioning travel, entertainment and hospitality industries to sustain us. How then will we feed our need for collective camaraderie? How will we earn our daily dread?
Global warming has been a Doomsday mainstay for years, but frankly, it’s become routine. The chances of a world laid waste by a Manhattan-sized asteroid are so low that it’s hard to work up any genuine distress. And nobody’s uptight about the Yellowstone Supervolcano anymore, assuming anybody ever really was. We can do better. We must do better.
Space bugs are better. Researchers have identified any number of Earthbound extremophiles, microbial organisms that thrive in Mercurial heat and Plutonian cold, shrug off salinity, aridity, acidity and radioactivity, and seem to do just fine without conveniences like light and oxygen. It’s not impossible that such organisms exist elsewhere in the cosmos, scientists postulate, and if they do, it’s not unlikely that one could hitch a ride hither on a hurtling chunk of space debris; and if one did, it’s not unreasonable to assume that terrestrial life forms, including us, would have no natural defense against it. Virtually all life on the planet could be wiped out by the alien sniffles.
Back here on Earth, a lot of mycologists think we have more to fear from molds and fungus than from germs. Every now and then, they warn, an exotic fungus will pop up and lay low an entire biological stratum. Should a fatal fungus enter the human population, it could be curtains for our kind because we’ve never developed an effective response to fungal infection. Under this Doomsday scenario, of course, heroic mycologists are humanity’s best hope for survival, and since those who spend their days in the company of molds and fungus receive little public notice, the whole concept could be nothing more than a nerdy cry for attention.
More poignant are those Doomsdays we may engineer ourselves. Even now, scientists working in the field of molecular electronics are furiously competing to create self-replicating nanobots, microscopic machines that can manipulate matter at the molecular level and could conceivably be designed to fight cancer, slay viruses and repair damaged flesh. Under the “Gray Goo” theory, however, those same useful tools will keep right on self-replicating until they’ve gobbled up all matter and reduced the Earth’s surface to a squirming sea of voracious nanotechnology.
Anybody who’s ever tried to fix a “check engine” problem by themselves will understand why many climatologists are losing sleep over growing international interest in weather control. The fact is, there’s a lot more we don’t know about how the climate works than what we do know, and fumbling human attempts to reverse global warming, or even to just make Timbuktu more temperate in August, very well could, and very probably would, do more harm than good. We shouldn’t expect the horrors of anthropogenic climate change to be less horrible just because they’re on purpose.
The trouble with all of these semi-plausible End of Days hypotheses is that they’re purely speculative, and it can be hard to get one’s Kumbaya on without a definite disaster in view. Happily, there are three of them in plain sight right now, and they’re all as dead sure as modern science can certify.
In about 7 billion years, our nearest star will go cold, taking with it any chance for life in the solar system. We won’t be around to see the icy end, though, because 2 billion years before that, the sun will begin running out of fuel and go nova, growing in size and fury until our Big Blue Marble is a smoldering charcoal briquette. We won’t be around to see that, either, because just 1 billion years hence, our cooling planet’s tectonic engines will grind to a halt and stop pouring subterranean carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. All plants will die, and with them the animals that depend on them, including us. At last, a Doomsday worthy of the name.
Given our curious affinity for Doomsday, the ironclad certainty of it should make us feel better. But it probably won’t, because there’s exactly nothing we can do about it. Social distancing won’t thaw a planet’s frozen plates. Reusable grocery totes are no shield against a dying star, and nuclear disarmament can’t reignite a dead one. In the psychological game of Doomsday, being “part of the solution” is half the fun.
We’re funny like that.