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Seth Shostak

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The Real End of the World

Posted: 05/22/11 06:37 PM ET

It's late afternoon on May 21, the Day of Rapture, and despite repeated gazes through my window, I've failed to see bodies headed skyward to confound local air traffic and rendezvous with the angels.

This admits to only two explanations: Either none of my neighbors qualify for salvation, or Harold Camping is wrong in predicting that the countdown to the end of the world begins today. I vote, without surprise, for the latter.

Forecasting Armageddon has become trendy of late, with a great deal of attention being given to an interpretation of the Mayan Calendar suggesting that mother Earth is destined for doom in December of 2012. So even if the 2011 rapture-cum-apocalypse is a no-show this weekend (presumably the case, if you're reading this cynical screed), you can always regroup for planetary calamity 18 months down the road.

Of course, that won't happen either.

It's easy to be flippant about all this, not simply because the rationale is suspect (the cycles of a Mesoamerican calendar or the crummy moral behavior of naked apes), or even because the mechanisms of worldly destruction are goofy (the Sun lining up with the center of the Galaxy). No, the motivation for my disbelief is something else. Precedent.

The Earth has been lawned with life for something over 3.5 billion years. That's a span of time great enough to encompass some honest-to-goodness catastrophe. For example, 700 million years ago Earth underwent a planet-wide deep freeze, with ice covering the oceans from the poles to the equator. Snowball Earth, as this chilly episode is termed, lasted for millions of years. It wasn't pleasant, and it wasn't brief. But it also wasn't fatal to life, which recovered and thrived.

And, of course, 65 million years ago, a rock the size of Philadelphia slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, and annihilated the dinosaurs and many of their beastly brethren.

In both cases, habitats changed, and species were shuffled. But life recovered and thrived. Indeed, our planet and its DNA-based biology have survived every catastrophe. So how credible is it to suggest that disaster on the scale predicted by the doomsayers should occur now? It's like living in a house for decades, without ever having an errant airplane crash through the roof. Now suddenly your neighbor tells you that you'll be picking pieces of fuselage from the carpet next week. Sure, it's possible, but historical precedent suggests he's likely to be disappointed.

In other words, unless there are special circumstances in play, something that hasn't happened for a long time is unlikely to happen in the very near future. But according to Harold Camping, it seems there are special circumstances in play, namely clues to the Apocalypse he gleans from biblical text. Humankind has reached some sort of moral crisis, and God is taking action.

The egocentrism of this point of view chafes, however. Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years. Is it only now, during the last few percent of our species' existence, that we've become sufficiently dissolute to justify obliterating the planet? Were the inhabitants of Olduvai Gorge, or for that matter, the Neanderthals, all sweetness and light -- charitable to their neighbors and respectful of their environment? Or does modern man hold a very special claim to brutish behavior? Yes, it's fashionable to argue that today's evil is of a caliber unmatched by any of our predecessors. I suggest that those who believe this should consider what their lives would be like in the time of the Roman Empire.

Of course, as any astronomer can tell you, there really will be an end to the Earth, or at least the life upon it. But if this is any comfort, we won't cause it. Today's voguish threats, including climate change, population growth, massive war, and resource depletion, are all amenable to a fix if we act prudently. And even if we don't, these problems are incapable of obliterating all of humanity, let alone destroying the Earth.

No, the real End of Days will happen slowly, as the Sun ages. Every day, the temperature of Sol's surface increases by five billionths of a degree, a change of no consequence for thousands of millennia to come. But a few hundred million years from now, barring a fix by our descendants, this relentless heating will substantially change Earth's biosphere in ways that might not be survivable for us. In five billion years, the Sun's swan song begins in earnest, causing it to swell up into a huge, ruddy parody of its present self, boiling away our oceans, and changing our planet's orbit.

That's the end of Earth-as-we-know-it.

But even this far-off fate -- the final chapter for life on Earth -- need not conclude the narrative of all its inhabitants. In this distant, dystopian future, any intelligent beings still strutting the planet would have the incentive, the time, and (presumably) the technical capability to move to other worlds, and continue their existence.

Frankly, circling a calendar entry as the final date for planet Earth is about as sensible as insisting that pigs will soon be airborne. My recommendation? Don't quit your day job.