Sunday, February 6, 2011

Should We Fear the End of the World?

As I'm sure all my readers know, we're about a year away from the end of the world. The Mayans figured this out a long time ago, don't ya know. But I shouldn't pick on the Mayan calendar and all the hysteria around it. My own religion has a whole book about the Apocalypse, and too many people have spent big chunks of their lives worrying about when exactly the four horsemen were going to start riding. Add to that the secular speculations about global warming catastrophe, and it's clear that a huge subset of mankind can't help but speculate that our cushy existence is going to come crashing down around our heads.

It occurred to me to write about the topic of Armageddon (man, we have a lot of words for this) when I stumbled across this piece on the super-storms and mass destruction that will be unleashed by the Earth's rapidly moving magnetic field. On the face of it, the piece is absurd, and like all such pieces it takes controversial and in some cases half-baked theories and presents them as settled fact. I won't pick on the article too much: if you're interested, do a little Googling and check out what is being written elsewhere about magnetic field shifts.

What is interesting, though, is that even though most scientists don't seem to think the end is near, they do acknowledge that sometimes the Earth's magnetic field does shift or even reverse, and this will likely have serious consequences. It's just darn hard to know when this is going to happen: the geological record of past events shows the timing is highly variable. What this means is that at some point, if we don't nuke ourselves to death first, mankind probably will face one of these calamities.

Despite the thrill we get at speculating about the destruction of Earth, or at least the conditions in which civilization can endure, we generally tend to assume that life will go on as normal indefinitely, with nothing worse than the occasional earthquake or hurricane on the scale we're used to. But think of it this way: mankind's historical memory only goes back, at best, five or six thousand years. That's a blink in geological and astronomical time. If we had, say, a 1,000,000 year historical record, or perspective on disasters would probably be much different. Our distant ancestors would probably have filled volumes with their accounts of this worldwide calamity.

And, just maybe, they actually did so. Think of the Noah story. Almost every culture in that part of the world, and some in other parts as well, have an ancient flood story. Perhaps this wasn't mythological whimsy, but an attempt to record and understand something terrible that had happened during the time of ancient man. We may, as a species, find ourselves worrying about the end of the world in part because some distant ancestor survived just such an event.

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