April 21, 2005

The End of the World as We Know It

Posted by Mary Madigan

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people. It killed more people than World War I. More people died of that flu in a single year than in four years of the Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" the 1918 pandemic was a global disaster.

During the 2001 anthrax scare, after an elderly woman in Connecticut died after having been exposed to “lingering” anthrax spores, I started to worry about my 90+ year old grandmother’s habit of ripping up junk mail. She laughed about that, saying that she had survived the flu of 1918 and she’d survive the anthrax thing.

And she did.

On the other end of the disaster scare spectrum are the Armageddon groupies, people who believe that God, or the earth will use any small excuse to get rid of the majority of the annoying, sinful, wasteful human race. They don’t need a massively fatal flu to launch into their Armageddon dreams. A vague prophecy or an unusually warm winter will suffice.

These Armageddon fans have funded Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LeHaye’s outrageously profitable "Left Behind" industry. Environmentalists’ various end times prophecies fund a series of NGOs. These Armegeddon groupies don’t agree about how the world will end, but they do agree on one thing – the end of the world as we know it is coming, and there’s not much that we can do about it. Oh, we can prepare a little, but, human nature being what it is, we’re doomed.

The funniest example of this attitude was Bill Moyer’s essay Environmental Armageddon, where he raged about how unfair it was that conservatives’ end times scenarios were taking precedence over his end times scenarios.

The least funny example was from 'Critter' Marshall, an activist currently in jail for bombing a Chevy Dealership, who said this about our environmental problems: (NY Times)

..there is no easy solution..for life to survive as we know it, millions of people are going to have to die. It's sad to say that, but it's true. Millions of people are already dying - it's just gonna have to start happening here.
On Winds of Change, 'Cicero' analyzed James Howard Kunstler's predictions that 200 years of modernity will be brought to its knees by an energy crisis. 'Cicero' concluded that “What is truly worrisome is not that there will be an energy crisis in our future; it's that so many of our best and brightest can't positively imagine a future that we can all live in.”

I’ve been wondering about that kind of self-destructive behavior too. As usual, science provides an answer, from Stuart Blackman, a Shakespeare fan and science writer who described the research of Stuart West & collaborators at the University of Edinburgh on the use and results of the tactic of suicide bombing in the E. coli community:

Take bacterial suicide-bombing: Why should an E. coli bacterium go to the bother of blowing itself up to release toxins that kill its closest competitors when it kills itself in the process? Part of the answer is that the spiteful gene can proliferate in the martyr's clonal relatives. But it also requires very intense competition on a local scale to allow sufficient benefit to accrue to those kin. Therefore, spite tends to occur in parasitic species, where host resources are limiting, and where the sphere of competition is confined to the host organism rather than the whole population.
He also asks, “What happens..when mankind perceives that we are outgrowing our host?
Environmentalists would perhaps argue that publicising worst-case scenarios spurs people into action. But the question is: what sort of action will it spur us into? Will it make us more inclined to cooperate to sort out problems, as environmentalists no doubt intend, or will it push us in a different direction - one that is detrimental to our collective survival? Will we be more inclined to use (or refrain from using) resources for selfish (spiteful?) reasons rather than cooperative ones? In which case, is there a self-fulfilling element to those worst-case prophesies?..

..For those sections of the green movement that view humanity as a plague or virus, this might be a welcome prospect. But for those of us who prefer to see Homo sapiens as a remarkable species whose cooperative endeavours have got us through many a tight squeeze in the past, and who are optimistic that, when presented with the best available scientific evidence, we can do the same when faced with the problems that inevitably await us in the future, anything that makes us more like nasty, spiteful, self-destructive Iago is well worth resisting.

The theory that optimism helps us stay alive and healthy has already been proven by history and science many times. We may as well work with it.

Posted by Mary Madigan at April 21, 2005 12:51 PM

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