It's always good fun predicting how our world will end. So many of us engage in this sport, I'm hoping we can somehow harness the considerable intellectual energy that goes into this question. For example, recently my friend Brian Deagon forwarded an article from USA Today, "Recession prompts bird flu concerns", and summed up his apocalyptic vision this way:
1. Global depression - leading to...
2. Bird flu pandemic - followed by...
3. Global warming - resulting in...
I like the fresh, unorthodox way Brian organized his world-ending themes...but "Anarchy" suggests enough people will still be around to be anarchistic. Brian's doomsday scenario seems more optimistic than most. An April 2006 "Doomsday poll" by TNS Market Research revealed nearly all Americans believed that some doomsday scenario could realistically destroy us. More than three-quarters of Americans polled believe such a scenario is likely to be man-made.
The one uncertainty about our certain demise is the way it will come. Robert Frost pondered just two theories in "Fire and Ice":
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Indeed, our world is filled with world-ending possibilities: comets crashing; pandemics spreading; super-volcanoes erupting; global warming; glaciers melting; poles reorienting; solar-rays a'blasting. I'm afraid I've left a hundred other possible apocalyptic visions out. (Feel free to submit your personal apocalyptic vision below!)
It would be difficult to attend conferences like TED, the World Economic Forum, The Clinton Global Initiative, etc., without there being at least a few mesmerizing and terrifying lectures about exactly how our little lives will disappear and soon. After many years of attending such conferences, the brilliant philosopher, Dr. Yossi Vardi, suggested cutting out the middleman. Why not hold our own conference: "The End: What's Your Apocalypse?" Our proposed forum of despair would give prophet-pundits an enthusiastic forum to argue for our most likely exit scenario. Yossi's idea is we would declare a "winner" based on whose catastrophic vision is biggest.
With potential disasters waiting over this earth with dark-wings, I'm trying to calibrate how terrified I should be of global-warming. Scientists, by in large, are a cautious bunch: timid on making clear predictions. Yet, politics aside, scientists who study greenhouse gases no longer equivocate: they are overwhelmingly certain we face this problem. What argument remains is between ideologues; not with scientists.
Yet, much as I fear one day the Wall Street subway station might be underwater, I am terrified of a more immediate threat. For simplicity sake, let's call my apocalypse "Global Kaboom."
For decades, many have been waiting for communication from distant stars for what mathematically should be obvious: statistical probabilities suggest other forms of life must be out there. But all we seem to hear back from the Great Beyond is noise from the Big Bang. With the "billions and billions" of stars and their attendant planets, surely some form of photosynthesis and/or chemosynthesis would occur out there. Where these and other factors that nurture life could exist, isn't it probable, even likely, that some sentient beings would emerge from their version of nutritious ooze?
Some of these creatures...probably unlike anything we would recognize as life-forms...might well have progressed to achieve what could be identified as intelligence. They, like we, might start finding things out about the universe they inhabit. They possibly would discover and contemplate particles that constitute matter and energy...understand methods in which energy travels...identify waves of radiating energy...and perhaps would come to a point in their history, as we have come in ours, where they chance upon ways to manipulate these waves and particles...modulate them...and create methods of sending patterns extraordinary distances.
Then, they, like we, somewhere in the billions upon billions...might realize that such modulation could be used for communication...between themselves and other life-forms that conceivably may exist light-years away.
Reasonable, even likely, to assume we should have heard something yet. So far: no answer. Perhaps we are not capable of receiving their message? Are we like dogs -- patiently hearing the master explain simple mathematics -- yet, cursed with limited capabilities, sitting there instead wagging tails of incomprehension?
I don't think so. I have another theory...related in a way to a more dramatic form of "global warming." The reason we have been knocking and haven't heard anything answer is not that something wasn't home out there.
Instead, whatever "intelligence" emerged out of the galactic ooze -- the chemo -- or photosynthetic bath that brings forth life...even intelligent life...brought our fellow travelers in the universe the same fundamental discoveries. Once they get to understand particles and the basic building-blocks of the material universe, they discover, as we recently did, that you can move atoms around...releasing them from their bonds...as they are naturally released every moment in the stars around us...as they were released beginning in those first milliseconds of whatever keeps this great big universe expanding so rapidly.
And, like us, these smart guys check it out...they see if they can release energy when they want to. In the same blink of an eye as it took us to discover radio waves can be sent through the air, we (and they) also discover a corollary phenomenon: perfectly good atoms ripped apart release lots of energy.
After that hard step comes the easy one: perhaps it comes with anger, bellicosity, or just a silly mistake. After a few moments of sending radio-wave notes to faraway places, they blow themselves up.
It might look something like this...
As we on earth wonder why no one returns our calls, it is probably because those who once could have, can't. The way we are going on Earth, I think it's fair to expect we are going to be off-line sooner than later. While it is interesting and horrible to watch Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands sink because of global warming, I fear long before flag-poles are fully submerged, a select few of our species will unleash a bunch of those home-made nuclear global-warmers... just like some must have done over and over again in places far, far away.
It is comforting to note that while there won't be much up topside worth living for, with clouded skies blocking out the photosynthesis we've come to expect, along the tectonic plates of this Earth, underwater creatures that look nothing like us will most certainly thrive. They'll still live off the synthesis of hydrogen sulfide and water and life (as we hardly know it) will merrily continue. Until whatever emerges next discovers again how you can send signals long distances or how you can rip atoms apart.
Well, that's my personal apocalypse. What's yours?