Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, December 31, 2010


I believe we're supposed to look back and look forward today, but instead I'm going to look at those people who look forward a certain distance and see a blank wall, at least in ethical terms.

I don't know if it's peculiar to the U.S., particularly, but we certainly are well endowed with eschatological movements. Eschatology and "end times" don't have to mean the end of time -- the dictionary says the terms can also refer to beliefs about radical transition from one age to another. Obviously such transitions have happened, whether we're talking about the universe, the planet, or humanity. We Homo sapiens are undoubtedly in one right now, and we're dragging the planet along with us.

But I'm talking about believers in change so radical that we owe no obligation to the future. Christian millenialists generally fit this definition. God is going to end history, Jesus and the Beast are going to battle it out, supernatural forces will bring about a future which, according to various interpretations, may or may not include the earth in some form but in any case, what we do to it today doesn't matter. Believing in the right mumbo jumbo might influence our personal fate, but that's all we have to worry about. Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, was of this opinion, and used it to justify unrestrained exploitation of natural resources. What did it matter? The world would end soon anyway.

But it takes many other forms. I remember back in college a guy telling me I was foolish to worry about what to do with my life because the planets were going to align on March 10, 1982 and wipe out civilization. A couple of wacko charlatans named Mark L. Prophet and Elizabeth Clare Prophet told their followers in the Church Universal and Triumphant that World War III would occur on April 23, 1990. The people disposed of their possessions and moved to the Church's ranch in the Grand Tetons to wait it out in fallout shelters. You won't be surprised to learn that the CUT (weird acronym, huh?) has sailed on just fine ever since, despite the perfectly ordinary day that passed.

Then of course civilization was going to end on January 1, 2000, either because of Jesus or because the computers would all freak out. As it turned out, the state of Maine erroneously issued some antique license plates. We could go on but much of this is familiar.

What inspires me to write today, however, is a conversation I recently had with a friend that I found a bit disconcerting. He's a pretty well-known writer and he's very insightful. His new idea is that predictions of global climate change are a modern form of eschatology, and he very much wanted me to concede that we are living in the end times. I must say that I find that locution inaccurate, and unhelpful as metaphor.

I agree that it is too late to prevent profound change, and that times of great strife and woe lie ahead. However, we are not running up against a blank wall. The perils we face do not mean that there is just nothing on the other side. That would abolish all responsibility, which as I said at the top (tell 'em what you're gonna say, say it, tell 'em what you said) is characteristic of what we generally mean by eschatological thought. The crisis we face is very different from end times prophecies in many ways.

First of all, it is protracted and gradual. My friend agrees with that. Just as important, and I'm not sure everyone who should be is on board with this, it is highly uncertain. Many people make all sorts of exact predictions but in fact we can only speak in terms of probabilities of various direct effects on the climate system and indirect effects on humanity and the ecology. We don't really know exactly how matters will play out meteorologically, oceanographically, ecologically, demographically, or socially.

Most important of all, we do not face the end of civilization or the extermination of humanity. I can see no remotely probable scenario in which our species disappears in the foreseeable future. We are just too adaptable. What's going to happen is that the weather is going to change, some coastal areas will be inundated, and biological productivity may become somewhat less. Some number of people will figure out ways to keep going.

That will likely mean fewer of us, and a different way of life, but that has happened before. Europe not only survived the Black Death, but emerged into a great flowering of science and culture. One key difference today is that those of us who are willing to see have a basic understanding of what is happening and can plan and act to protect the future as best we can. The planet will still be here and so will its currently cancerous Homo sapiens. With luck our uncontrolled replication and rapacious metastasis will be cured, and we can carry on with the next age of history.

That's hard times, but it's not the end times.

No comments: