Life After “Us”

Crazy people have been predicting the “End of the World” ever since they invented crazy people. This puts modern doom-and-gloomers at a disadvantage, because we’ve all “been there/done that” with apocalyptic predictions and because our culture is replete with notions of a kind of divine continuity. Our best measure of what the future will bring is the past, right? Past is prologue. What has come before presages what is to come. The sun rose yesterday, it will rise tomorrow. All’s right with the world.

And the most salient argument of all: The world never ended before, when all those crazy folks throughout history predicted it would. So what makes you think it will end now?

Add to that the natural human tendency to ridicule radical notions. They made crazy fun of the Wright brothers and their wacky “aeroplane” – until it flew. Galileo went to jail for discovering that the earth revolves around the sun. And gleaned from a conversation in 1995: “The Internet will change the world? Ptah! It’s just like TV only less interesting.”

So something as biblical and monumental as the “End of the World”, frankly, just seems impossible. It’s just too much. It’s overkill. It’s cliched.

And it is impossible, at least in the near term.

But cataclysmic change – hoo boy, THAT’s not impossible. We have had ice ages, and continental drift, huge asteroid impacts, and massive worldwide extinctions, all throughout history.

But our entire civilization – from Assyria 4000 B.C. to U.S.A Today – has existed, in geological terms, within the wink of an eye. A mere tick of the clock. None of that super-cataclysmic stuff has happened in the last 6,000 years. Why? Chance. Odds. Luck. (However, we can be fairly certain there’s a big old asteroid out there with our name on it – just a matter of time.)

No world cataclysm has ever happened to us, the collective “us” of the modern era, the “us” that believes we embody the whole of man’s existence and represent the apex of evolution. So we think it never will.

We are wrong.

And the irony of our wrongness is rich, because this time we are creating the cataclysm and setting it off in slow motion. This allows many to deny it is even happening, like that famous frog in the stew pot. But the facts are undeniable – we are bringing about a new age of mass extinction, all on our own, through habitat destruction, over-fishing, monocultures (i.e. lots of corn/beans/rice/wheat and cows/pigs/chickens growing, not much else), genetic manipulation, basic air and water pollution, and now climate change brought about – this is a fact now, not a theory – by human industrial activity over the last century. And it’s all either steadily ongoing or, in the case of climate change, rapidly intensifying.

I remember reading several articles on climate change in the late 1990s. These were not in obscure science journals but in magazines like the Atlantic Monthly. Already, climate scientists had working models of the kinds of changes that were coming about – general warming of air temperatures; shifted seasons (early Spring, late Winter); melting glaciers, ice caps and permafrost; more frequent and more intense weather activity; increased droughts and flooding events.

I also remember talking to my college-educated colleagues about it, as I was quite alarmed at the prospect. But by way of reply I got mostly confused looks, like I was one of those guys with the two-foot beards holding the sign saying “The End is Near”.

After a few more attempts to talk with “business” people on the subject, I finally realized “Global Warming” (now termed Global Climate Change since warming is not the only feature) had gone instantly into the “taboo” category of topics to discuss in the workplace. It was not long before the battle lines were drawn and concern for the climate was relegated to the “environmental” crowd. (You know, the extremist hippies.) Pundits like George Will fought fiercely against the notion, repeatedly subjecting it to ridicule by comparing it to the media’s “Global Cooling” story of the 1970s (FYI – Global Cooling was never a scientifically accepted theory, it was a media event only, set in motion by a single crackpot who had no institutional backing or peer-reviewed evidence to support his unscientific theory).

Conservatives lined up on the “skeptics” side of the argument, but they were the only ones on that side. The entire scientific community had meanwhile reached consensus – climate change is real, it’s happening now, and it’s being caused by human activity.

But that revelation changed nothing, except to act as an accelerator for the right wing’s hostility toward science. As you now know, in the intervening years conservatives have developed a full-blown “conspiracy theory” that posits the scientific community is “in the pocket” of “liberal activists” who want to “destroy the economy”. So they are “making up” their thousands of scientific measurements, experiments, data, and peer-reviewed studies – they are “undermining their very profession” by “cynically promoting a leftist agenda by skewing the research”. I know, that’s a lot of scare quotes, but they have to be there since these notions are so incredible, implausible, etc. – and yet these are in essence the beliefs of Ted Cruz, currently within striking distance of the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

So no, the world won’t end. But given our Congress and its head-in-the-sand attitude, not to mention all the growing economies who will want their own slice of the “technology/productivity pie” the West has enjoyed for 100 years, our civilization might very well end.

Civilizations come and go. Rome’s global empire lasted 1,500 years (counting Western and Eastern empires). Western Civilization, as we call it, has dominated the globe for only about 500 years, fueled by European colonialism and empire-building in the Renaissance and later eras. Rome was eventually brought down by its own internal chaos: in-fighting among its leaders and a pampered, clueless populace eventually led to a weakening of the borders of empire. Barbarians at the gate found a way in. Eventually the gates themselves were torn down.

But climate change is not at all political, except in that the fact of its existence is currently influenced – in America at least – by one’s political party affiliation (a condition that will change soon, but not soon enough). It’s also not part of some human narrative – climate change is not a “story” someone is telling about humanity, not one of many possible futures described by our competing religions or nativistic cosmogonies. No, it’s just science. It’s just happening because that’s what chemical reactions do – they just happen. The world will not end. The apocalypse will not happen. But the world’s habitable surface will change dramatically, affecting every living creature on it, in ways we can’t predict, ways we don’t yet understand.

The world will continue, but civilization will likely be rocked, and again the irony is thick. Because whoever is left will miss our fossil-fueled civilization once the flood waters pour into the coastal cities (where 90% of the people live today). But the world, whose progress is measured in epochs – not election cycles – will live on, and will not care that our new reality is harsh. Because nature favors no particular species. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Life will continue, probably it will flourish as human activity – which tends to crowd out nature – recedes. Humanity will continue also, in some fashion, just as it must have struggled and endured during the last major ice age some 10,000 years ago. Long before that last big freeze, humans had migrated across the land bridge that is now the Bering Strait and settled in northern North America. During the ice age, humans would have migrated south from northern locations (Mexico, say, on this side) and north from southern locations to escape the encroaching glaciers. This time, at some point in the next century, I suppose our descendants will migrate away from the coasts, toward more stable and temperate climates in the continental interiors of northern and southern latitudes. But of course it’s impossible to know if things will be any better there.

Our near future won’t be as simple – or as impossible – as the end of all things. Life will continue, and certainly the world will continue. But we – actually our grandchildren – will have to kiss the Escalade, DirectTV and those Friday afternoon McDoubles goodbye. It will indeed be a brave new world, and the people in it – those struggling to eke out an existence in a harsh and unpredictable climate marked by droughts, floods, and cataclysmic storms – I wonder what they’ll think of us. Will they marvel at the former “greatness” that humans were capable of? Will they strike out in their boats and visit the flooded coastal cities, telling their children that the skyscrapers poking through the waves once held thousands of busy people, that the submerged streets once hummed with thousands of automobiles? Will they share memories of polar bears and penguins, of snowball fights and sleigh rides and the beauty of a white Christmas?

Or will they have nothing but contempt for their greedy, short-sighted ancestors? If they instead curse our names for watching the world slowly transform into a wild new place when we knew we could stop it – can we blame them?


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