02 November 1994

Apocalypses Now

Nuclear war, overpopulation, global eco-catastrophe, asteroid impacts, exhaustion of the sun, the final crunch, rip, or heat-death of the universe. Science holds that ultimately, we are doomed. Christian Fundamentalists seem to gloat, judging from the apocalyptic "literature" in bookstores. But "eco-guilt" and religious end-game fantasists1 may be in for a disappointment. The end may be rather dull. Here are some possible scenarios.

See/hear also REM's TEOTWAWKI

Coyotes, Mosquitoes and Rats, Oh My!

Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud. — Boyle Roche: Speech in the Irish Parliament, c. 1790

Every now and then I read in some magazine (most recently Natural History at the optometrist's office) about a wonderfully adaptable species that has managed to thrive despite the onslaught of human numbers. This time it was about the coyote;, an adaptable predator that, it turns out, doesn't kill cattle, but takes smaller prey. It seems that coyotes have made a determined comeback in the west, and have now spread east into Vermont and New Hampshire, with the eastern coyotes being noticeably bigger than their western cousins.

Why go east, young dog? Lured by the call of the tamed? Nobody knows yet, but it is certain that the coyotes are not moving into the ecological niche left by wolves. The wolves disappeared from most of this country because their niche disappeared -- moose, deer, and other large game lost their habitat to farmland, and were hunted heavily besides. No forests, no game, no wolves.

No, the coyotes are moving into a new niche, one created by us. They eat the discarded carcasses of the 10% or so of calves that don't make it every spring at dairy farms and cattle ranches. (The ranchers take the dead meat out to the back forty and dump it. The coyotes just couldn't leave it to rot.) They also eat rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles, and the occasional domestic cat. In addition, coyotes have learned to use abandoned cars as dens, and to trot calmly along the sides of major highways.

Now human overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, and plain old inefficient land use are causing species to go extinct as fast as they did when the dinosaurs vanished. We are becoming a force of "natural selection" as powerful as an Ice Age. At this rate, only those species that adapt themselves to us, like coyotes, will survive. On the other hand, those that adapt themselves to us like pigeons, cockroaches, lice, and rats; will thrive. And in a world in which parasitism of human civilization is the only key to survival, God forbid that any of these parasites should become intelligent!

My fear is not that we may destroy all life on this planet. I'm afraid that we're turning the entire natural world into the equivalent of a giant smart rat, who can't wait to figure out new ways to get us. Imagine a picnic in a really hostile environment -- no big, dangerous things, just little annoying ones like clever mosquitoes who always bite in well-coordinated teams and who've learned to love insect repellent. Everywhere you go there will be a myriad creatures absolutely delighted to see you!

But so far it's still a wonderful world out there, with all sorts of intricate life and death struggles going on that we're not part of. Let's keep it that way. Let's leave more of it alone.

Birth of a Species

And they shall no more teach one another saying, know the Lord: for they shall all know me... —Jeremiah 31:34

Imagine the consternation of Oog and his fellow early modern humans at the strange new behavior of their teenagers. They no longer give a good old fashioned threat scream before a status or mating fight. They make little noises among themselves, and then act as a group, overcoming even the strongest Old Ones. The old ways are forgotten, the old order destroyed. It is the end of the world. Or at least it may have seemed to be the end of the world to the early humans, when some small group first started speaking true language;.

Much later, when the wasichus overran North America and displaced the original inhabitants, the world ended for many Native American tribes. They measured their humanity by adherence to their cultural values (some of which were nice, some of which were nasty -- they were neither more nor less saintly a people than anyone else). Thus when their cultures died, they believed there would be no more real people left on earth.

Now human culture seems pretty well entrenched. What could possibly make it die without tremendous upheaval? A change in perception, perhaps? Remember Oog?

Elsewhere I have conjectured that there may be more to the mind than the brain, and that some of our (un)consciousness may reside in patterns imposed directly on the quantum (gravitational and other) vacuum oscillations of the "empty" spacetime within and around us. If that were true it might be possible for some of us to learn to perceive or communicate via these oscillations -- which might amount to something like so-called telepathy. If such telepathy became the preferred mode of communication among a group of people, and if the talent for it were inherited, it could provide the basis for what would at first be a sub-culture of people for whom ordinary language might be lost. Eventually, since communication plays an important role in human relationships, and therefore in human reproduction, such an ability could provide the basis for the division of humanity into distinct subspecies -- the telepathers and the talkers. If the telepathers had enough other abilities going for them, or if telepathy enabled them to outwit us sufficiently, they might eventually supplant us talkers. But rather than build on our historical achievements, they would start over, because our history would be irrelevant and incomprehensible to them. The new Adams and Eves would begin as a tribal community, not knowing where they came from, and perhaps never discovering who we were. Rather than being a glorified version of ourselves, the Superior Race would be completely alien to us.

It wouldn't be the end of the world. Just the end of our world. Of course, once a new door of perception is opened, who knows what may enter -- a more direct awareness of God, perhaps? Don't panic, it's only a scenario and a ridiculously far-fetched one at that (I don't actually believe in telepathy -- but so many science-fiction writers speculate about it, that it's hard for me to resist). The point is that the extinction of our species, just like our own individual deaths, may come in a manner and at a time other than we expect.

But then, life is like marriage - you get into it for how it is, rather than how it ends.

That White-Hot Morning, Revisited

Everything that is done in the world is done by hope. — Martin Luther, 1569

It looks like dawn, but the sun comes in the wrong direction, blinding bright, flashing the wallpaper opposite the window into flame. Your heart sinks, you grab your loved ones and dash for that protected closet. As you close the door the blast wave hits, a sound so loud it's more like silence. The building leans and shudders, the beams crack, and then tense stillness, waiting. Suddenly the walls reverse their lean, shaking under the impact of flying debris. Again stillness, except for beams groaning as the building settles. You open the door to thick dust clouds, which clear to reveal torn roof and walls, empty window frames, broken crockery, shredded books, smashed furniture. The power is out, the phone is dead. You find your portable radio, miraculously in working order, but no one is broadcasting. You search the rubble for some blankets, which you find smeared with blood -- yours. Just a cut on your hand from broken glass, but you know how you're going to die now. Weakened by hunger, thirst, and radiation sickness, and without antibiotics, you're going to die of infection.

Impossibly, the phone rings. You pick up the receiver, but your tongue is so thick you can't speak. The voice on the other end says, "This dream has been brought to you by Nuclear Nightmares, Incorporated. It's TIME to wake UP."

Fairly accurate effects, I thought. Just like they taught us in the Nuclear Weapons Orientation Advanced Course. The NWOA is a week long training session conducted by members of the Armed Forces for a number of organizations. At my National Laboratory, it is part of the orientation program for new employees. The lectures on Blast and Thermal Effects ("The Shake 'n' Bake Lecture") and Medical Effects were given to us by a Marine who seemed to evaluate his effectiveness by the dent he made in the cafeteria's business that day. So the concerned public needn't tell us about nuclear weapons effects. We know, even those of us who didn't write the book on them.2 Nuclear world war, if we have one, will make movies like "The Day After" and "Testament" look like a party. Even "Threads" will seem mild. Our species will probably survive, but our culture won't -- it's too complicated to be maintained by people with short lifespans.

As it says in the dream, it's time to wake up. Passivity just encourages bullies, while aggressiveness encourages us to become bullies ourselves. It's time to use our relationships to enfranchise and empower others, and to be assertive in deterring them from abusing us, should they try. It's time to include everyone in "us" rather than to pretend that some of us are "them." It's time to use our religions to open ourselves to God rather than to close ourselves to each other. It's time to engage in management as a human enterprise rather than a dominance/submission ritual. It's time to trust what little we know and yet to admit how little it is, and to open ourselves to the new. It's time to turn from making war on war to making peace. Or else time will run out for us sooner rather than later, whether or not I do research related to weapons which, thus far, are only a reflection of ourselves.


  1. I think the apocalyptic tradition in the Bible is provided for us to take comfort in tough times, rather than for us to treat as some sort of sorcery for making specific predictions of the future (an activity which Scripture condemns).
  2. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd edition, edited by Samuel P. Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, US DOE and DOD, Washington, DC, 1977.

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