As you should have already guessed from some of the references to time and events of the past, I was around for a prior proclamation that the entire world was going to end. Or turn into a steaming pile of droppings. End of world predictions tend to vary in terms of severity. In fact, during the dizzying heights of the Reagan administration, predictions that the world was going to end tomorrow came so thick and fast that people almost stopped paying them any mind.
The one that set a whole new level for Human stupidity, however, was the proclamation that all computers were going to go berserk on January 1, 2000. Given that I was working in Information Technology (or at least, that was part of my job description) at the time, I hardly need to tell you how amusing this really was. Granted, the process of applying patches and services packs to Windoze computers was a laborious and tiring one that entailed a lot of beating one’s head against a wall, but the world kept on turning as it had done for at least a couple of million years prior. The class war kept raging, the banks kept piling up their money, and my face continued to develop an unusual sore spot that refused to heal. Business as usual, in other words.
Of course, there are ways to tell how credible end of world predictions really are. The more fanciful and elaborate a claim is, the less believable it becomes. It is like the great Carl Sagan said. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. But computer apocalypse believers went one step further in the unbelievability stakes with some of the details of their claims. For example, one attempt to explain the problem to the peons had it that computers in banks would suddenly think it was January 1, 1900. Following on from that, this would-be journalist wrote that the computer would decide that since your account was opened at least fifty years after that point, your balance must be zero. And on it goes. Of course, anyone who has so much as touched a computer already knows the biggest difficulty this scenario has in terms of seeming plausible to an infant. During the earliest phase of my days on a Commodore 64, I attempted to “program” on this machine. When you are a six or seven year old boy, trying to form your own programming statements only to be greeted with the message “SYNTAX ERROR” again and again tends to give you the shits in a figurative sense. So I typed exactly that into the computer: you give me the shits.
Unless you are like my grandmother or “blessed” with an IQ below 90, you already know the Commodore 64’s response: SYNTAX ERROR. I never did fully understand exactly what the computer was trying to tell me with that rather open to interpretation statement, but I did understand something very fundamental about the computer itself. Specifically, it only “knew” what I told it, and absolutely had no capability for abstract thought. Even the simple joke made by one of the other children in a school “play” that two plus two equals twenty-two would be lost on the computer.
If you are still wondering when I am going to get to the point of all this, then you should quit reading now, because that was it. Humans are capable of filling in “blanks” in their knowledge using guesses, suppositions, superstitions, or even flat-out lies. Computers are not. So when you give it a record of an account that was opened in October 1978, and it suddenly thinks the date is January 1, 1900, it is not going to suddenly decide that since your account is not open “yet”, your balance must be zero. That requires the Human instinct of filling knowledge gaps by any means that produce “satisfactory” results, as well as the necessary capability for abstract thought required to produce information that the rest of the brain will accept as filler. Whilst it is true that asking a computer to calculate interest and debits on an account that will not be opened for what it thinks will be another seventy-eight years will produce some interesting results, simply proclaiming that the computer “decides” your balance must be zero does everyone a disservice.
Which brings us to the latest lot of cock-barf from doomsday predictors. The Mayan calendar has been the subject of a lot of speculation and blathering, but one thing that the doomsday predictors conveniently forgot is that it is based on an imperfect understanding of the universe and our position in it. The reason the modern calendar has an extra day every four years is not simply for fun, but rather to account for the fact that the Earth takes slightly more than 365 days to revolve around the sun. About a quarter of a day more, in fact. So, once every four years, modern society adds a day to the calendar in order to account for this. The Mayans were not aware of this curiosity about Earth’s orbit, and failed to account for leap years. Hence, if the Earth really was going to expire on the last day written into the Mayan calendar, or even the day after, it probably should have done so in 2011.
There are, of course, other holes in the idea that the Mayans knew exactly when the world would end. One of these is the subject of a plot thread in a Doctor Who serial titled The Aztecs. Yes, I am well aware that the Aztecs are a different tribe from the Mayans, but the point remains the same. Although Human sacrifice was rarer in Mayan than Aztec civilisation, the fact remains that the Mayans shed Human and animal blood in amounts that would make blood banks cry, and this did nothing to influence patterns that modern meteorologists can explain in breathtaking detail. I do not know about you, but when I turn to anyone for a prediction concerning when the rock I am standing on will cease to exist, having some knowledge of how weather patterns work is a prerequisite. And when I am asked to believe that a civilisation is or was able to see thousands, or even hundreds, of years into the future, their still being extant tends to work in their favour, too.
So what does this mean for the future of doomsday predictions? Well, sometimes looking into the past helps provide a way to predict the future. Irony, thy name is prediction. Anyway, one tale I read about in a comic book reproduction of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! had it that an ancient church was erected for the sole purpose of assuring the people that the world was not going to end in the year 100 A.D.. No matter how many times doomsday predictions come and go, many people are going to need to be reassured that this toilet Earth will keep on rolling no matter what they do.
Key to the confusion of a lot of doomsday predictors is that the Earth and the Human species are not interchangeable. This confusion was very prevalent during the rash of doomsday predictions that came during the constant threat of nuclear war. The Greenpeace line had it that the world powers had enough nuclear weapons that they could just push a button and the Earth would be no more. Of course, when your own founder (Patrick Moore) describes you as being a mob of “scientific illiterates who use gestapo tactics”, you have a lot of credibility problems. But a vital point to understand is that there is a difference between rendering a planet uninhabitable and destroying it. The latter requires an amount of energy that is only expended without great deliberation in B-grade science fiction fantasy films. The former, as we are on the path towards learning the hard way, is pretty damned easy.
There are three places in the world that will be dangerous for Humans (and indeed, most other animals) to inhabit for thousands of years. The most talked-about one is the Japanese city of Hirsohima, which had an atomic bomb dropped on it in 1945. The Japanese city of Fukushima is the most recent example of a nuclear disaster leaving a formerly populated area dangerous for most living things to inhabit for thousands of years hence. And of course, there is also the Chernobyl disaster, which will leave much of the Ukraine dangerous to inhabit for thousands of years. These three sites leave a much more realistic picture of what the world will look like after a nuclear war. Not only would we not be fighting future wars with sticks or stones, we would be too busy coughing our guts out to fight one another.
Nor do we need to irradiate the surface in order to make it uninhabitable. Even with only three sites in the world uninhabitable due to nuclear disasters, our world was showing serious problems long before the latest disaster. The extinction rate of other species is climbing, and dramatically at that. Regardless of what the rates are, one can only look at the rate of species going extinct due to Human causes each year and how it has climbed with the Human population before concluding that if this rate continues to climb in this fashion, the eventual result will be the worst mass extinction since the dinosaurs.
Which is a point worth thinking about the next time you have two or three children running around the house, and begin to think you could stand to have one more. A sad fact of life is that every living creature from the humble rodent to the mighty whale requires a certain amount of resources to sustain, leave alone keep comfortable.
Our world is going to end, and by world I mean the “world” that we, the Human species, has built around itself through years of combining science, engineering, and bullshitting. It will not end through the intervention of mystical forces, or through aliens beaming down and zapping it out of existence. It will end through our efforts, and only our efforts. Or rather, the lack of effort on our part to change habits that once served us, but now only serve to make our lives difficult.
Many predictions have been made many, many times during the life of the Human species. The ones that have proven inaccurate, such as the world ending after the last date on a calendar designed by some animal-sacrificing folk who did not even understand one of the most important eccentricities of the solar system, have been guided by emotion rather than educated guesswork. The ones that may yet prove to be accurate, such as the prediction that Human overbreeding will render the world nearly uninhabitable to Humans by the end of this century, are guided by hard science.
I wish I could conclude this year in which all was supposed to end with good news. Even a catastrophic environmental event that reduces the Earth’s Human population by six billion would be good news in this context. I would be happy to go in such an event. But no matter how we look at it, the inescapable fact is that Humans and the societies that they have built to keep themselves a step above the hunter-gatherer level are in very deep trouble.
Planets themselves are as hardy as their size and surface composition suggests. That is, we could unleash all of the destructive force we have at our disposal upon them, directly, and in terms of the planet still being there and still spinning, nothing will change. In fact, the only thing this planet has to worry about in terms of its continued existence is when, maybe millions of years from now, the star that it orbits will expand outward in the process of dying and swallow it up, thus essentially erasing it from existence. Even if Homo Sapien continues to exist up to that point, miracles of science and social engineering that make the Industrial Revolution look like recent developments in the music industry by comparison would have to take place before enough Humans old enough to remember the way things were more than a century ago will be there to witness the event. So if you were too young or non-existent to remember predictions that the world would descend into chaos come January 1, 2000, then take this as a lesson.
The more monumental the predicted event is, the less likely it is to really occur.