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Every so often someone reads one of my posts. And sometimes this same person will even talk to me about it afterwards. Most often this happens with something I wrote recently, but every so often it happens with something I wrote quite a while ago. This makes the discussion somewhat difficult because whatever I wrote is fresher in the mind of the individual I’m talking to than it is in my own mind. That difficulty aside I’m delighted that something I wrote several months ago is still being consumed, and I’m overjoyed when they point out an idea, or a refinement or even a criticism that I hadn’t considered. Which is what happened a couple of days ago.

As it turns out, the actual episode he listened to doesn’t matter that much, because the discussion ended up covering a topic which appears in many if not most of my episodes. And while it’s a topic that has made a lot of cameos in previous episodes, after this recent discussion I think it has at last solidified to the point where it’s finally ready for a starring role.

The subject is endings. Whether it’s the ending of death or the ending of civilization, or even the ending of all life on the Earth. But my subject is also to a certain extent about extreme thinking in general. We might even give it the title “Thinking About the Middle is Difficult.” We might, but we didn’t because, whatever it’s accuracy, that title is kind of lame. The actual title I choose is cooler as evidenced by the fact that it actually has “cool” in the title.

To begin with, bad events come in different forms. I have, on many occasions, talked about various cataclysms, catastrophes and disasters. All of which are bad, but not equally bad. I’ve talked about a peaceful dissolution of the United States into fiefdoms; I’ve speculated about a jobless future where people have lots of time, but little meaning; I’ve spoken about how hard it is for a nation to remain intact; I’ve dissected global warming; sounded the alarm about nuclear war, and examined the probability of earth being struck by a comet. All of these are significantly different in their impact, (no pun intended) but if you’re a fan of the status quo, and are happy going to a job, collecting a paycheck and binging The Big Bang Theory on the weekend, then it’s easy to lump all catastrophes into a single category of, “Well I sure hope that doesn’t happen!” Those who are a little bit more sophisticated might have two categories, catastrophes which are survivable and catastrophes which aren’t survivable. But even here things get fuzzy. Many people automatically equate lots of people dying with everyone dying, but when you’re talking about humanity’s extinction the difference between most and all is entirely the point.

And it is here that I would like to introduce one of the major themes of this post. People want their catastrophes to be simple. They don’t want cataclysms that require numerous demanding sacrifices, but which, for someone with sufficient resources who makes all the right choices, are ultimately survivable. They want cataclysms where it doesn’t matter what they do. They want to be able to sit on the couch and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones secure in the knowledge that TV, or something better, will be around forever, or, alternatively, they want to know that one day it will all end suddenly and they’ll be dead and free of care without ever having to actually exert themselves in between those two points. Perhaps this portrait of the average individual is a stretch, but if it is, it’s not much of one.

As an example of what I mean by this, let’s look at global warming, if it’s going to be a disaster people want it to be a true apocalypse. Something which scours the Earth of the wickedness of humanity. Though actually, as I already pointed out, this vague longing for global warming to wipe out humanity is really not about whether people are wicked or not, it’s about the fact that it’s far easier to toss up your hands and say, “Well we’re all going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Then it is to really figure out what you should be doing and then do it.

John Michael Greer, who I reference frequently, described the state of people’s thinking about global warming in this way:

It’s a measure of how drastic the situation has become that so many people have fled into a flat denial that anything of the kind is taking place, or the equal and opposite insistence that we’re all going to die soon so it doesn’t matter. That’s understandable, as the alternative is coming to terms with the impending failure of the myth of progress and the really messy future we’re making for those who come after us.

All of which is to say that people don’t really like doing hard things. And they don’t want to consider a messy future, they want a simple future or no future at all, which, as it turns out, is pretty simple. As I have already pointed out, any plan for preventing global warming is ridiculously difficult, meaning, as Greer said, most people default to one of the two extremes. Specifically, there’s no plan which grants the truth of global warming, but also allows us to prevent it, while still continuing to live as we always have. Lots of things are going to continue, just about regardless of what happens, but sitting on the couch, enjoying the bounty of technology: watching TV, being cooled by central air, and distracted by your iPad, is not necessarily one of those things.

What will continue? Or, to frame the question in a form closer to my subject, what won’t end? To begin with, life, almost regardless of the catastrophe, will continue. From the simplest microbe to most complex water flea (31,000 genes as compared to humans 23,000), life is remarkably tenacious. The poster child for this tenacity is the Tardigrade, also known as water bears. Allow me to quote from Wikipedia:

Tardigrades are one of the most resilient animals known: they can survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms. They can withstand temperature ranges from 1 K (−458 °F; −272 °C) (close to absolute zero) to about 420 K (300 °F; 150 °C) for several minutes, pressures about six times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human, and the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for more than 30 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.

You may be thinking that this is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t matter, how tough the tardigrade is, if the Earth itself is destroyed like Alderaan in Star Wars, or more realistically by some giant comet, the tardigrades will perish like all the rest of us. While that would certainly slow things down. It by no means guarantees the end of life. To illustrate my point, one of the big worries about any trip to Mars is contaminating it with earth-based bacteria. Given how tenacious life is, most scientists think Earth-life gaining a foothold on Mars is more a matter of when than if. There are some, in fact, who will allege the exact opposite, that life started on Mars and then spread to Earth. Either way, the point is, many scientists think that life spreading from one planet to another is not only possible, but very likely, particularly when you consider that it has had billions of years in which to do so.

Before leaving this topic, it’s instructive, and interesting, to describe how this sort of thing happens. The details are fascinating enough that they could easily form the basis for completely separate post. But, essentially, every time there’s a large enough impact, material is flung into space, and if the impact is big enough things can get flung all the way out of the Solar System. You might be skeptical at this point, and that would only be natural. I mean even if material from Earth gets ejected all the way out of the Solar System, how much material is it really and how much of it would actually end up on an exoplanet as opposed to floating in the interstellar vacuum forever? Because unless you can show that a significant amount actually ends up on another planet, then you’ve just moved the extinction of life from the end of the Earth to the end of the Solar System.

Well, as it turns out some scientists decided to run the numbers, with respect to the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And what they found was very interesting.

The scientists wanted to know how much of the ejecta from this impact would have ended up in various locations. Among the locations they looked at were the Jovian moon Europa (a promising candidate for life) and a super-earth orbiting Gliese 581.

For the answer to the first they discovered that almost as much material would have ended up on Europa as ended up on the Moon, because of the assistance Europa would get from Jupiter’s gravity. The scientists estimated that 10^8 (100 million) rocks would have traveled from Earth to Europa as the result of that explosion. But what was more interesting is what they discovered about the Gliese 581 exoplanet. According to their calculations 1,000 Earth rocks would have ended up there, though after a journey of a million years. A million years is a long time, and astrobiologists generally think even the most hardy life can only last 30,000 years, but given all of the above do you really want to bet that life is confined to the Earth and nowhere else?

That ended up being quite the tangent, but the impact/ejecta stuff was too interesting to leave out. The big thing I wanted to get across is that whatever the cataclysm it probably won’t wipe out all life. Also given its frequent appearance in this space I should also point out that this is another reason why Fermi’s Paradox is so baffling. (Well not for me.) All of this is to say that even if all life on the Earth is completely destroyed, whether in 5 billion years when the Sun expands or in 7.5 billion years when it engulfs the Earth or whether Earth’s surface gets completely sterilized by a high energy gamma ray burst, life will find a way, as they say.

But when people imagine apocalypses what they are mostly worried about is the end of all humans, not the end of all life, and admittedly humans are not as resilient as the tardigrades. Unlike them we can’t handle hard vacuum, or temperatures from 300 °F to −458 °F. Even so humanity is a hardy species, with lots of tools at its disposal. Humans have survived ice ages and supervolcanoes and that was when the most technologically advanced tools we had were fur clothes and flint spears. Now, we have vast amounts of knowledge, and underground bunkers, and seed vaults, and guns and nuclear power. Of course the last item is a double edged sword, because in addition to (relatively) clean power it has also given us very dirty weapons.

In the past I have used nuclear war as something of a shorthand for THE apocalypse, as an event which would mark the end of current civilization. And consequently you may have gotten the impression that I was saying that nuclear war would mean the end of humanity. If you did get that impression I apologize. What I intended to illustrate was that large enough disasters are just singularities of another sort.

As you may recall when people started to use the word singularity, in this context, they were borrowing an idea from astrophysics, specifically the idea that you can’t see past the event horizon of a black hole, singularity being another word for black hole. And this is mostly what nuclear war is, something, past which, it’s impossible to predict, but while it’s the case that a post nuclear world would be difficult to imagine, there are some things we can say about it, and one of them is that humanity would survive. It might be only a small percentage of humanity, which makes it an inconceivable tragedy, but nuclear war all by itself would not mean the end of our species. As I said, you may have gotten a different impression in previous posts, and if so I apologize, mostly I was just using it as shorthand for a very, very bad thing. In fact if you only take one thing from this post it should be this, nuclear war would not mean the end of humanity.

Why is this important? Because it’s another example of the same thing we saw with global warming, people assume that it’s either not going to happen or that if it does they’re going to be dead so it doesn’t matter.

Though, there also seems to be a third group who feel like if it does happen and they do survive that it will be awesome. That it will be one long desert chase scene involving impossibly cool cars with flame throwing double-necked guitar players attached to the front, like in Mad Max. Or that it will involve lots of guns and zombies like in the Walking Dead. Or perhaps that it will be some sort of brutal, all-encompassing dictatorship, like in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But if it is, they always imagine that they would be part of the resistance. What they don’t imagine, as part of any apocalypse, is slowly sinking into despair and eventually overdosing on heroin. Or standing in long bread lines, waiting for a small amount of food, with no guns or glamorous resistance fighters any where to be found. Or unemployment at above 20%, and being homeless and hungry. And of course all of these things have already happened or are happening in decidedly non-apocalyptic situations. It’s sheer madness to assume that things would be better during an actual apocalypse. But once again, people assume it either won’t happen or they’ll be dead, not that they’ll have to wake up every day with an empty stomach, not knowing where their next meal is going to come from.

You may have noticed that this post has been largely free about discussions of specific apocalypses or catastrophes. And in that way I have contributed to the problem I’m trying to solve, though in my defense I’m going to say that it was done intentionally to illustrate the point. Also there are so many potential unforeseeable disasters, that the one’s we can name and describe might not be the ones to worry about. But perhaps, as we’ve been discussing it, you can see that visions of the future end up in one of three categories. Either the future will be awesome, or it will basically be the same (TV, couches and central air will all still exist) or the world will end, and we’ll all be dead. What this post is trying to point out is that far more likely than the world ending suddenly and irrevocably, is the world continuing, but going through some kind of crisis. Whether that’s temporary or long term, whether it’s nuclear war, or something like the 2007 crisis, in all of these situations there would be a good chance you would survive. Even in a nuclear war you would have a better than even chance of surviving. The question is not would you survive, but how long would you survive. My go-to disaster book, Global Catastrophic Risks, illustrates the point, in a quote about the effects of an all out war on America.

In addition to the tens of millions of deaths during the days and weeks after the attack there would probably be further millions (perhaps further tens of millions) of deaths in the ensuing months or years. In addition to the enormous economic destruction caused by the actual nuclear explosions, there would be some years during which the residual economy would decline further, as stocks were consumed and machines wore out faster than recovered production could replace them… For a period of time, people could live off supplies (and in a sense, off habits) left over from before the war. But shortages and uncertainties would get worse. The survivors would find themselves in a race to achieve viability… before stocks ran out completely. A failure to achieve viability, or even a slow recovery, would result in many additional deaths, and much additional economic, political, and social deterioration. This postwar damage could be as devastating as the damage from the actual nuclear explosions.

Notice that this assessment is not just a repeat of Private Hudson’s quote from Aliens. “That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over!”, but rather a very sober assessment which points out that a lot of people would live and it would be really horrible.

In bringing this up, my primary point is not that people are inadequately prepared for the eventuality that they might survive a nuclear war, preferring instead to believe that they would be instantly killed, though that statement is certainly true. My primary point is that people are equally unprepared for smaller catastrophes.

I started this post off by mentioning a conversation I had had with a friend, and a desire to talk about endings in general. In that conversation we didn’t talk about the end of life, or the end of humanity, we talked about the eventual end that comes to us all, death. Which even more than the end of life or the end of humanity is an end everyone should be worried about.

Specifically the conversation was about how non-religious people dealt with death, and he, being a non-religious person, claimed that they don’t ignore it, that most of them have come to terms with the fact that they are eventually going to die. I replied that I was unconvinced. That if this was really the case, how many had taken some concrete action to illustrate that fact? If I were to survey the non-religious and ask them whether they had come to terms with their mortality, how many would say yes? If I then asked all of those people whether they had life insurance, or a graveyard picked out, or if they had a living will? How many of the group who answered yes to this first question would answer yes to the second? And maybe that list is too bourgeois for my non-religious friends, particularly those who don’t have any dependants to worry about, but if they don’t like that list what other concrete evidence would they offer to show that they had really grappled with death other than them just saying that they had?

It’s easy to say, whether it’s the possibility of our own death, or the possibility of global warming or nuclear war, well it won’t matter, I’ll be dead. And perhaps with the first that’s true, but that doesn’t mean you’ve come to terms with it. But also, there are of course lots of catastrophes and mini-apocalypses which could happen which won’t kill you, and if your view of the future is limited to: its going to be awesome, it’s going to be the same or I’m going to be dead. I think there’s a good chance you’re going to be very alive, and very disappointed.


You know what’s not disappointing? Donating to this blog. I can personally vouch that several people who’ve done it have described it being followed by a warm satisfied glow. Though It may have been indigestion. Apparently my blog causes both.