The Human Condition:

Never the Devil You Know – October 14, 2012

We live in the age of The Scream. Edvard Munch’s iconic melting person, paralyzed and destroyed by a nameless terror—that’s us, folks. This psychological condition, which seems to pervade the subconscious of all of western civilization, is more than simple alienation, malaise, or a free-floating anxiety brought on by the increasing complexity of technology and stresses of modern life. It’s the innate sense that the sky will soon rip open and the fire rain down upon us.

I’ve lived with this sense my entire life. I was born in the lull between the fission bomb based on uranium and the much more powerful fusion bomb based on hydrogen. My birth year coincides with the death of Gandhi and the birth of the State of Israel—both momentous psychological events. In the first grade, at six years of age, we practiced “duck and cover” as a defense against a nuclear explosion. We knew people who dug fall-out shelters in the backyard—not bomb shelters, because no one was expected to survive the initial blast, but places where you could live for two weeks or so while the radioactive dust blew over.1 But, of course, Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach, and the Gregory Peck movie made from it, proved that no one could survive the cloud of radiation that would ultimately sweep across the planet.

Ask anyone of my generation how the world was supposed to end, and the immediate answer would be “Nuclear fire!” We all knew the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were just sparring in Europe and were itching to obliterate the world many times over. We all went on some kind of twenty-four-hour warning over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962—after hearing Kennedy’s nationwide address on October 22, I remember at age fourteen thinking that this was it, we were all going to die before morning—and only narrowly drew back from the brink. The danger of nuclear holocaust remained right through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.2

But even before the collapse of global Communism, a new end-of-world scenario had raised its head. Through my work at a public utility, I attended Energy Daily’s conference on national energy issues in 1987 and heard one of the early presentations by James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies on global warming. The amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere by the human energy infrastructure was going to tip the planet into a runaway greenhouse effect with catastrophic results. By the middle of the next decade, Hansen said—meaning the mid-1990s—the change in climate would be obvious to the man in the street. He also said that the immediate effect might not be rising temperatures all over but falling temperatures in some places, as the Earth’s climate went through an initial period of disruption.3

But even before the catastrophe of global warming played out in the 21st century, we had the impending doom of Y2K. Because the creators of the COBOL business language allowed only two digits for recording the year in all transaction dates (after all, it was going to be 1900 forever, wasn’t it?), all sorts of financial and commercial software installations, and the businesses that depended on them, were going to collapse at the stroke of midnight in the year 2000. Computers would be unable to distinguish between new transactions and those booked a century earlier. Calculations of interest earned and owed, rents due, and future deliveries to be met would go haywire. Civilization would fall.4

A couple of years later we had a spate of movies, some appearing back to back, about a comet hitting the Earth and wiping out humanity just as the Chicxulub asteroid took out the dinosaurs. In both movies, we benefitted fictionally from having a fully developed space presence and the ability to go and deal with the comet—something we don’t, in reality, happen to possess. Still, our ability to averting catastrophe before the closing credits was a near thing.5

Today we have the prospect of financial collapse, “the fiscal cliff.” And, as if the implosion of the Housing Bubble in 2007 and the five years of Recession-That-Might-Be-Depression since then were not bad enough, we are generally offered a future in which the democracies of western civilization, chronically unable to live within their means, haplessly tax and borrow and spend themselves into bankruptcy, penury, and dissolution. No one knows exactly what the doom will be. It’s not as easy to predict the effects of a financial collapse as it is to imagine nuclear fire and rising sea levels. But it will be grim: 1932 squared, selling apples and picking rags, perhaps aggravated by a hyperinflation like the Weimar Republic’s. Money will at once deflate, or perhaps it will inflate. Banks will fail, or maybe they’ll end up owning everything.

The apocalypse foretold in movies, novels, and comic books—er, graphic novels—has been part of the culture for so long that a writer today barely needs to provide any backstory at all. What do you care? Things went haywire. Money was no longer any good. Electricity—even if you could get it—became all hand cranks and windmills. Everybody broke out the guns and went tribal. But the upside is that nobody has to pay a mortgage or show up at the office on Monday—and you get to kill anyone who looks at you cross-eyed. You might miss the clean food, digital movies, and hot showers we enjoy today, but you’ll absolutely love the manly thrill of freedom and adventure.

Yeah, the world is going to end and it will be terrible—except for the bits that will be exciting and wonderful.

It’s said that western civilization went through something like this before. As the year 1000 AD approached, people anticipated the Second Coming of Christ, Judgment Day, the rise of the Antichrist, and the collapse of public order with riot and fire. Whether or not the rioting and the penitence actually occurred—because the first written accounts of this millennial fever didn’t actually surface until about 1500 AD6—the notion of millennial panic is one of our civilization’s memes. And in truth, going back beyond Christianity and its dating system, the pattern of human history has been that civilizations really do fall. Various empires—Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians—chased each other up and down the Fertile Crescent. Egypt’s dynasties collapsed several times—as did China’s. Rome grew, flowered, dominated the known world, and collapsed. Why shouldn’t the collective democracies and commercial superpowers of Europe and the New World follow Rome down the rat hole of history?

Like stories of a worldwide flood—found in almost all cultures and obviously representing some kind of species memory of rising sea levels after the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago—so the human consciousness expects that, whenever things get too good for too long, a collapse is not far away. The 19th century began with the wars of Napoleon but quickly became, for the western world, a time of peace, prosperity, and technological advancement. That glide path toward a better future was interrupted in the early 20th century by two world wars with a global depression in between them, but the inexorable rise of technology and improvement in living standards proceeded without missing a beat. Now, like people who’ve been partying for twenty hours straight and have yet to see the lights go dim and the booze run out, we’re wondering what comes next.

Nuclear fire, global warming, financial collapse … each bogeyman rises up, waves its all-too-real arms in our face, and then subsides. I’ve seen that pattern repeated often enough in my own life that I just don’t believe it anymore. The world might end one day. It will surely end in about five billion years when the sun proceeds along its inevitable Hertzsprung-Russell life cycle and balloons into a red giant, and humans will go with it unless we find a way to get ourselves off this rock. Until then, I’m betting that the premature end of the world and life as we know it won’t be from any pattern we can predict and subsequently spend dozens of years and millions or billions of dollars agonizing about.

It’s never the devil you know who shakes your hand. Perhaps the world will end in a burst of gamma rays from a supernova exploding too close nearby. Perhaps we’ll freeze in another Ice Age brought about by another fading of the sunspot cycles.7 In any case, and until then, the best course both for individuals and for society as a whole is to pay our mortgages, show up at the office, and live each day with patience and fortitude.

1. I remember seeing shelter designs that had no elaborate seals to keep out the dust but did have a short cinder block entrance tunnel that made a single right-angle turn—presumably so the radiation, which followed straight lines, could not penetrate the living quarters. Pure magical thinking.

2. The psychological pressure remained, despite the fact that no one had ever exploded two nuclear bombs simultaneously, let alone hundreds of them over one hemisphere. The theory of fratricide—that either the electromagnetic pulse of one bomb would destroy the firing circuits of any others above its horizon, or that the initial wave of radiation would change the fissionable characteristics of the nuclear material in their triggers—suggested that a full-scale nuclear war was physically impossible. As a theory, it was never tested. But the risk was averted by changes in geopolitics and socioeconomics, rather than strategic considerations. While isolated nuclear exchanges from one country to another might still take place, a rain of fire across all the world remains only a distant possibility.

3. And yes, we’ve had some hot summers as well as some cold snaps. The Arctic sea ice is melting, while the Antarctic land-based glaciers appear to be growing. (I’m reminded that we’ve only been watching the world’s weather—and the icepack in particular—in real time with geosynchronous and polar-orbiting satellites for about forty years. Hardly time to establish long-term trends.) It’s a wonderful prediction that is to be proven by winds that blow both hot and cold.

4. And yes, a lot of programmers and accountants worked long into the night in the two or three years before 2000 to apply patches and workarounds. Did spending all that time and money save the world? We’ll never know.

5. I contributed my own bit to this futuristic folklore with my first novel, The Doomsday Effect, first published in 1986.

6. For a general overview of the controversy, see this article from the New England Skeptical Society about the more recent source, and debunking, of millennial panic.

7. Solar Cycle 24—which began in 2008, after a prolonged sunspot minimum, and will peak in 2013—is expected to be one of the weakest cycles in a hundred years. Since the sun’s energy output is greater during periods of high sunspot activity, this doesn’t bode well for a warm climate. It was the utter lack of sunspots during the Maunder Minimum between 1650 and 1725 that brought on the Little Ice Age in Europe and the freezing of the Thames. One might propose that the increasing temperatures since then were—at least in part—a product of the renewed and increasing solar activity that coincided with the Industrial Revolution.