The future, it’s out there waiting for us. And it’s wide open.
The only thing certain about it is that it will be as different to today
as yesterday was from today. Only more so.
Even here, now, caught up in your life, tomorrow is a legitimate subject for speculation. Because, wake up in the morning and it’s there, it will happen. Open your diary, flip through the blank pages of weeks and months to come. This is a forward projection of future-time that has yet to happen. We plan birthdays, holidays, anniversaries on the assumption that tomorrows tend to arrive pretty much on schedule. But this progression of days changes things too. Ten years ago, you were different, your circumstances, your appearance, your income, the music you were listening to, the movies you were watching. In ten years time you will be different again in ways unable to exactly predict, and which would surprise you if you knew. Marriage, divorce, accident, redundancy…? But move outside that personal space and – one hundred years ago the world was functioning pretty well without you. In a hundred years time it will do again.
Fiction can be a useful laboratory for running future-time projections. What if this, what if that…? Chances are we’ll be around to check out the changes in ten years. But what about a hundred? What about a thousand… or even a million? Will the next decade and the one after that be simple replays of now, with only fashion-novelties and style-accessories to mark it out? Some of it will be. But past evidence suggests otherwise.
Change can be gradual. So gradual you’re scarcely aware of it. Or it can be as abrupt as 9/11, as assassination, or war, or tsunami. But it will happen. Fact is we are all precariously clinging to a rock hurtling through space, within a thin band of breathable air, between a tolerably narrow range of temperature extremes. These things are subject to change. And they could kill us.
We – those fortunate enough to live in the western hemisphere, exist in a time of unnatural excess. Our problems are the problems of wealth over-indulgence. Supersize obesity and bulimia from too much food-calorie intake, binge-addictions from rich over-abundance of stimulants, pollution from greedy fuel over-consumption, stress due to mass-population densities which are themselves by-products of hygiene, housing, diet and medical advances. Yet, this is all a brief and momentary window in stark contrast to the vast majority of people who have ever lived on this planet, to whom life was nasty, short and brutal.
We are unnaturally insulated from truths that much of our world, and most of our species know, or knew as an everyday reality. That life is a precarious and transient accident. A fragile thing without meaning or purpose. And that life doesn’t give a rat’s arse who lives it.
What we think of as human history has happened across a stretch of convenient environmental stability. As the last Ice Age receded people began making use of survival skills they’d been forced to develop in order to deal with the hazards of more hostile conditions. Things like fire, weaponry, language, co-ordinated hunting packs. Unleashed in more friendly climes they allow the naked apes to multiply exponentially and assume dominance of a planet that more-or-less behaved itself. The fossil record indicates that long periods of stability such as this are by no means uncommon. But they also indicate that extinction-level events tend to occur with some unpredictable regularity, bringing that stability to violent and messy terminations.
Evolution tells us that 99.9% of species that ever existed are extinct. That includes all of our hominoid and anthropoid antecedents. Nothing lasts for ever. Including us. One day – be it sooner, or later, there will be no humans. The world may… or may not continue, host to some new as-yet un-evolved organisms that may, or more probably may not resemble us, physically or intellectually. As smart animals we are so far unique in that we realise this. We can contemplate our own personal deaths, and our own species extinction. We can even – possibly, utilise the full resources of our scientific and technological ingenuity to postpone it. But not indefinitely. Eventually something will threaten us that is beyond our control. And then we die out.
This is not scare-mongering. This is cold hard fact.
So that’s it, we’re all gonna die. In the long term. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice – according to poet Robert Frost. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, adds W H Auden. But whatever our fate is to be, it could be even earlier than you think. Read ‘Nature’ magazine (March 2005 issue). A piece by Professor Richard Muller and Robert Rohde, of the Berkeley campus. According to them, scientists have been analysing the eradiation of millions of fossil records left by ancient species, and they’ve discovered a mass-extinction cycle of 62-million years – give or take a million here, a million there, in which life-forms get zapped from the planet’s surface in awesome numbers. It happened during the Permian era, 250-million years ago, when 70% of all existing species abruptly disappeared. The last – when dinosaurs and thousands of other life-forms vanished, was 65-million years ago. Not unpredictable and random, but part of a regular pattern. So we’re overdue and, research suggests, humanity is facing an (un)clear but present danger.
The generally accepted theory that dinosaur’s died out as a result of a massive asteroid strike is far from conclusive, and is challenged by some scientists who claim that the ten-km crater in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula – believed to hold clues to the event, might not even be old enough. Even the extraction of samples from deep within the rock fails to settle the debate. Other alternative theories put forward accuse dramatic climate change of playing a part.
It’s been suggested that a galactic near-vicinity ten-second gamma-ray burst radiating from two colliding neutron stars, or maybe the sudden solar-implosion that result in a Black Hole-detonation could have deluged the world 450-million-years-ago causing the Ordovician 60% extinction event. Most life-forms effected were sub-aquatic. Life had only the most tenuous of footholds on land. And of course, in terms of stellar distances, ‘near-vicinity’ is relative
And beyond asteroid collision we’ve got the species-hopping mega-pandemic…?
“You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying. Like you’re going
to get killed by eggs or beef or Global Warming or asteroids. But you
never take the time to imagine the impossible. That, maybe… you survive”
Christopher Eccleston as Doctor Who ‘The End Of The World’
(BBC1 – 2 April 2005)
lllustration Nick Victor