The End of the World for Beginners
I’m not an expert on anything, okay? Let’s get that out of the way up front. I’m not an expert on Global Warming, water shortages, radiation poisoning, famine or nuclear terrorism. I’m not an expert on epidemiology, genetic engineering or waste management. I’m not an expert on silviculture, nor did I even know it meant the science of managing trees until just a minute ago, and I’m neither an expert on the Arabs, nor the Jews. In fact, I find New Yorkers hard to understand, and I grew up on 49th and 3rd.
Why would I dare write a book that touches on all these subjects? Because it needed writing, I guess. Bob Dylan says he only started writing songs when he realized he wanted to sing a certain kind of a song and that it didn’t yet exist. Well, I’m not Bob Dylan, but I am a dad, and I realized earlier this year that I wanted to know how we were doing with the long-term problems we’ll be leaving to our kids, and that I didn’t want to read 15 different books to find out. My kids are the reason I’m interested but they also keep me pretty busy, and what I wanted to read was some condensed little report on how the future was looking. I found out that if I wanted to read one, I’d have to write it first.
So I thought I’d go ahead and do so. I did some research on our current state of readiness to deal with the problems I named above and with some other equally serious problems as well, and I assembled it into this tiny little book, designed to be read by those of us who don’t have a lot of time to devote to such global questions as whether or not the world is about to come to an end because we’re too busy doing what we’re supposed to be doing.
Will I oversimplify some of these complex subjects? Or even misstate a problem or two? Yes, of course. Inevitably so. Or wait, do you mean more so than they’re regularly oversimplified or misstated by politicians, corporate PR people and the TV news? Are you kidding? I’m just a private citizen. I don’t have the resources to make mistakes that big.
A is for Armageddon.
Armageddon is a word that’s changed a lot over the years. It started out as the name of a hill about 80 miles from Jerusalem- not even a mountain, just a hill- but soon it came to mean the place where the last battle between Good and Evil would be fought, then to mean the battle itself, in which God would finally face off against the Beast, ushering in the Day of Reckoning and the end of the world. More recently, it’s come to mean any catastrophic conflict or event likely to destroy us all. Well, this little book is only about that latter meaning. It’s not about the Day of Judgment or the Day of Standing. I’m not interested in Moses or Muhammad, Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. I never read Nostradamus. I didn’t even see THE DAVINCI CODE. I’m only interested in reality.
This book is about the many real threats to the planet and the race that exist right now; what they are, how we plan to defend ourselves against them, and in cases where it’s already begun, how the battle is going. This little book is about the real end of the world.
It’s little so you can digest it quickly, between hands of Hold ‘Em, say, or on the john. For those of you who can’t spare even the few minutes that might take, I can pretty much boil down its conclusions to a sentence or two for you. If there’s one place you always wanted to see before you died? Make reservations.
B is for the Bang and the Whimper.
In THE HOLLOW MEN, T.S. Elliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” As a poetic description of the end-of-the-empire ennui of the educated Englishman- and by extension of the Anglophile; Elliot was born in Missouri- it’s eloquent and sad. But as a prediction, I’m afraid it’s no more accurate than the mumblings of my local street-people here in Santa Monica.
In fact, this is the way the world ends: in approximately 7.5 billion years, the earth will come so close to the sun in its dwindling orbit that it’ll be burned to a crisp and absorbed into the sun’s mass. That will be the end of the actual planet. But the era of plants and animals will have come to an end long before. In 500 million years or so, it’ll be so hot on earth that no living creature of any kind will survive. That’ll be the end of the human race.
Or will it? I guess that’s the real question behind this inquiry. Will the human race survive until its previously-scheduled appointment with extinction in 500 million years? Or will it pass into nothingness- of its own doing- much sooner? In our children’s lifetimes, say? Or in our own?
C is for the Tragedy of the Commons.
“The Tragedy of the Commons” is the name of an essay written in 1968 by a man named Garret Hardin. It describes the dilemma of a group of herders who share rights to a common field; it’s in each herder’s individual interest to put as many cows as possible onto the field, but if all the herders make this individually rational decision, the commons will be destroyed, and all the herders will suffer. It’s essential to an understanding of this little book- and to an understanding of the apparently suicidal behavior of men- that one come to terms with this dilemma. As Jack Kerouac said in ON THE ROAD, “This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.”
If you’re one of the herders- or one of the loggers, or one of the fishing fleet owners, or even a manufacturer of plastic bottles- and you’re doing well, chances are you’re forging ahead with plans for expansion. Which is perfectly rational. If you’re one of the people committed to preventing the destruction of the commons- and by extension of the planet and the race- chances are you think these people are dangerously shortsighted and thus a threat to the entire group. Which is also perfectly rational. How to resolve the dilemma?
Our best hope, of course, is the ubiquity of knowledge in the modern world, of communication, of consciousness. Knowledge changes everything. Once the herders know they’re destroying the very resources that keep us all alive- once their college-age kids start working on them at home- they’ll hammer out some kind of an arrangement with each other and the rest of us that acknowledges our common fate. They have to. They may be shortsighted but they’re not crazy.
D is for Deforestation.
Scientists used to call the forest “the lungs of the earth” because it takes air we can’t breathe and turns it into air we can. More recent research suggests that the Brazilian rainforest, for instance, is far more important to man as a buffer against Global Warming and as a source of 25% of the medicines currently in use in the world than for its oxygen-making capacities. Either way, when 1700 of the world’s most prominent scientists, including virtually all the living Nobel Laureates in science, signed a Warning to Humanity in 1992, they included the destruction of the world’s forests on their list of 6 critical threats to the earth’s ecosystem that “may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” Hmm. That wasn’t our first warning, either. In fact, for what it’s worth, it was abundantly clear that deforestation was a danger to the species by 1980. So let’s see if that knowledge worked the way we hoped it would when we talked about Hardin’s essay.
Well, in the 5 centuries before 1980, about 4% of the Brazilian rainforest was destroyed. In the 30 years since, about 40%. New research by the Smithsonian, using satellite imaging and computer modeling, suggests that at current rates, by 2028, 95% of it will be gone. And instead of curtailing their work elsewhere when they learned how dangerous it was, logging companies around the world ramped up production. They’re now cutting down between 100 and 200 trees a second, or 1,000 trees in the time it takes to read that last sentence out loud. At current rates, by the year 2020, China’s forests will be gone- largely because they need so many of those disposable chopsticks- and by the year 2060, there will be no forests left on earth. So if the 1700 scientists were right, we may already have stumbled onto a possible target date for the beginning of the end of man- 2060- and we’re only at the letter D. But let’s go on, anyway. Maybe we’ll find cause for hope in some other letter.
E is for Ecocide.
Ecocide is a relatively new word. It means the destruction of the physical environment, especially when caused by man. It’s a word that aims to connect the idea of harming the environment to murder. Now, that’s a hopeful sign, don’t you think? That such a word exists? Someone seems to have an idea of what the stakes are, at least. I certainly do. My wife died last year at the age of 43 after a long battle with cancer, during which I learned far more than I ever wanted to about the disease, but I’ll share just a few facts with you. One is that in 2005 cancer passed heart disease as the number one killer of Americans under age 85. Two is that according to the International Hippocratic Foundation, a worldwide cancer epidemic is underway, resulting in more than 8 million new cases a year. Three is that cancer is widely considered to be an environmental disease, meaning that most cancer is caused by things in the environment that shouldn’t be there called carcinogens. In their Consensus Statement on cancer and the environment, the IHF in the year 2000 concluded both that “the majority of these cancers could be avoided and prevented by reducing exposure to environmental carcinogens” and that “regulatory methods should be based on the principle that protection of health takes precedence over economic considerations.” You’d think that last bit would go without saying, wouldn’t you?
But it doesn’t. In fact, that’s the problem in a nutshell. Economic considerations take precedence over protection of health. For instance, the 7-year-long Italian study that found that aspartame in low daily doses shows a statistically significant increase in breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma in rats was dismissed by the FDA. Why? As the NY Times dryly noted in an article on the study, “New regulatory action on aspartame would…jeopardize the billions of dollars worth of products sold with it.” Translation? If you’re waiting for Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi to change sweeteners, don’t hold your breath. Of course, aspartame isn’t causing the end of the world. I mention it only because it shows us that the way things work out here on the Commons is a little more rough and tumble than you might think. The herders are out there herding, and the soda guy is selling soda. If you try to tell him that the experts say the soda he’s selling is causing cancer, he‘ll just hire some experts of his own to heap ridicule on you and on your study, too, and go on about his business. And then have his people discreetly look into investment opportunities in cancer research.
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