It could come from an asteroid slamming into the Pacific Ocean, vaporizing millions of tons of water and sending tsunamis to flood the coastlines of scores of nations. It could come from some unknown, genetically modified organism, escaped from its test tube to run amok through the biosphere. It could come from the innocent tinkerings of scientists in a particle accelerator deep underground, who accidentally create a black hole that annihilates the whole planet. Or, as some claim, it could come from the death rays of an invading alien armada. So how likely is the Apocalypse? If Martin Rees, a professor at Cambridge University and British Astronomer Royal is correct, the odds are 50-50.
The way he sees it, mankind’s meddling with nature, combined with our historically irresponsible use of technology, can only lead to disaster. From the slash-and-burn deforestation of the Amazon to the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would seem that any new way of affecting our world will inevitably destroy us.
Belief in the Apocalypse
The Indian Vedas and Mayan texts from ancient Mesoamerica describe a cycle of creation and destruction, death and rebirth. Similarly, in ancient Persia, the Zoroastrians saw the universe as a cosmic battlefield between the forces of good and evil. Christianity quickly picked up on this theme.
For instance, according to many historians, medieval Christians were seized by fears of the coming Apocalypse. In fact, Dr. Richard Landes, director of Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies, believes that the great spate of cathedral-building in the 11th century followed the “terror of the year 1000,” in which entire villages made pilgrimages to repent for their sins before what people then believed was Christ’s imminent return and the ensuing battle between Good and Evil.
This obsession with the Last Judgment continued through the Renaissance, when the artistic and intellectual light that shone in the city of Florence was dimmed in the 1490s by the would-be prophet Savonarola, who preached a message of repentant austerity. Even as late as the 1600s, scientist Sir Isaac Newton was obsessed with trying to calculate the coming of the End Times, as promised in the Book of Revelations.
However, as the Age of Reason gained ground, and thinkers sought to improve life in the here-and-now, interest in Armageddon declined. In the 1800s, the holy men in western European countries were more interested in Christianizing heathens in Africa, China, and the South Pacific as a means of justifying their competition for imperial power than they were in preparing for the world to come.
However, the New World, which had been the refuge for the apocalyptic faith that had proven unpopular in Europe after the Reformation, was fertile ground for such beliefs. For instance, the Millerites of rural New York State, as well as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believed that the end would come in 1844, a notion based on the lifespans in Genesis and a division of history into a 6,000-year “week” (beginning with Creation) followed by a 1,000-year “sabbath.”
However, as the optimism of the Victorian era was replaced by the post-World War II dread of chemical and biological warfare and the nuclear angst of the Cold War, so, too, has fear of the End regained its popularity—albeit in a different guise. For just as technology has replaced religion as our means of explaining the world to ourselves, so, too, have the various end-time scenarios assumed a modern façade. Today, it is believed that asteroids and biological disasters will bring about history’s grand finale. Such fears may reflect a deep ambiguity that many feel about the world that we have created for ourselves—and, of course, there is the danger that the Apocalypse will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Modern Doomsday Scenarios
The mechanisms of which modern prophets warn vary wildly. Some scientists warn that an experiment in nanotechnology could result in a horde of tiny, self-replicating robots that transform everything they touch into “gray goo.” Other harbingers of doom feel that genetic tinkering with more mundane viruses and bacteria could create a super-plague that would make the Black Death seem like a bad cold.
Another type of doomsday scenario is the specter of a titanic meteorite hitting the earth. Such a disaster is generally believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous age. And certainly, such life-shattering impacts are not unheard of in modern times. (For instance, in 1908, what is now believed to have been a meteor leveled 830 square miles of Russian evergreen forest.) Though large meteor impacts are rare, the frightening aspect is that science has no means of destroying such a threat if it should arise.
Then, of course, there are intentional bringers of doom: terrorists or disgruntled souls who feel that the world might be better off without people. Such a person or organization could unleash a chemical or biological plague that would kill thousands, or even millions, before it was stopped. Even worse would be a nuclear bomb set off on California’s San Andreas Fault, an event which would set off devastating earthquakes in the region. When one considers the multitude of groups and individuals who might want to cause such a disaster, the real question becomes not their possible motivations but who is closest to developing the means.
Keeping the End at Bay
So how does one prevent the End? Our best defense, it would seem, would be knowledge. By keeping close watch on the scientific projects now being undertaken, potential threats could be identified before they reached the stage where they might pose a threat to life on Earth.
Yet at the same time, civil libertarians and scientists warn against such a system. The only way in which the boundaries of human knowledge can be expanded, they feel, is through free scientific inquiry, unregulated by political concerns and what government or organization could be trusted to keep such monitoring completely impartial?
Another suggestion for avoiding disaster—and one long championed by those who feel that the human race’s best chance for long-term survival is to move outwards to the stars—is to devise an early-warning-and-interception system for incoming asteroids. Such a system would do more than serve as a security blanket for those who lie awake at night contemplating cosmic doom; it would also push forward the frontiers of space technology, putting us one step closer to establishing a base on the Moon, Mars, or Alpha Centauri.
Indeed, perhaps the human race’s best strategy for surviving the end of the world is not to tie our own future to that of the planet Earth.