Thursday, December 20, 2012

What if the World Ends Tomorrow and No One Notices?

LINDSEY: It's been here all along. Underneath. You're just too damn stupid to see it.
ANGEL: See what?
LINDSEY: The apocalypse, man. You're soaking in it.
SPIKE: I've seen an apocalypse or two in my time. I'd know I one was under my nose.
LINDSEY: Not an apocalypse. The apocalypse. What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys.

-- Angel, Season 5.17 "Underneath", by Sarah Fain & Elizabeth Craft
What if those predicting that, because the remaining ancient Mayans need to order their next world-cycle wall calendar now,* the world is ending, are right?  And no one ever notices?

I mean, is there some reason to think that the world has to end all at once?  Must it be over in seconds?  Can the actual sounding of the trumpets take a few minutes?  A few weeks?


Does it matter, as long as the ending really begins -- say, becomes irreversible, so that there is no longer anything to be done about it -- on the starting date?  Can't we say world, in some sense, ended on that day?**

I refer, of course, not to the penny-ante mystical apocalypsi that various adherents of internet conspiracy theories, but to the apocalypse, the one that we're sitting in, that we're perpetuating, day in and day out.

Climate change.

Because, yeah, if we don't change course, the world -- by which I mean the human race, since our "world" is the one with our feelings and thoughts and interpretations in it: mere rock and tree don't, in my view, make a world -- will end.  It'll take a while -- two centuries?  Three? -- but it'll happen.  The warming process will eventually become self-sustaining, and will go on, even as the industrial processes which began it crumbles, and our lives along with it.  And it will get hotter and hotter, until no grain can grow in it, no one can stand outside in it.  Until it's all over.

Unless we change course in time.

But what's "in time"?  We don't really know.  It's too complex, too big.  There are too many factors.  There's good reason to think it's soon -- terrifyingly soon -- but we don't know precisely when.

In fact, we'll never know.

If we stop it in time -- if we control our emissions enough that world civilization survives well enough to mitigate and adapt -- we won't know how close we came.  All we'll know is that we came very close, but swerved at the almost-last instant.  Even if we could -- and we almost certainly won't be able to, technically, it's just too hard -- who goes out with a ruler to measure precisely the distance from the tire to the cliff?  At most you gaze, with a shiver, at the depth of the skid marks.

And if we don't stop in time, we'll even less be able to know. As things crumble -- as the waters rise, as crops fail, as refugees in search of a nonexistent safe haven -- who will have time to look back, measure, calculate, ruminate, and figure that, yes, up until this date, there was still a chance to change, up until just this moment it wasn't too late, but after such-and-such a date the inertia was too great, and no effort could have stopped it.

"Such-and-such a date."  Such as, perhaps, December 21, 2012.

Oh, there's no reason to believe it will be then -- the Ancient Mayans didn't even believe the world would end on that day, let alone have any actual grounds for that belief.  But it seems far more important to note that it might be that day.  That things are happening, right now, that will ensure that, sometime, sometime soon, it will be too late.

Surely the blithe reassurances that the world will not suddenly end today are almost beside the point when we know for a fact that the world is on its way to ending?  Perhaps instead of telling people not to worry, we should instead tell them that, yes, they should worry -- but that it's not yet set, and that perhaps action now can still turn the tide?

Because -- since we can't know for sure, since we'll never know, either way -- the only sensible thing to do -- the secular Pascalian wager, that looks not at the odds but the stakes, at what there is to be lost and won -- is to fight on as if it isn't too late.  Since acting as if it is would, after all, be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But to believe there is still time -- warranted or not -- is not the same as to say there's no danger.  The calendar is turning, and we'll be long past the end of the world by the time we are certain that there will, in fact, be one.

So run, fight, work, as if we can still escape.  Because maybe we can.  But one thing we do know is that we won't be able to always, nor even for very long.

* Although, in fairness, it was a really good calendar -- IMS, better than the Gregorian (which is to say it diverges from the sun's cycle by a tiny fraction of a second less than the Gregorian does, and thus drifts off season slightly more slowly).

** Actually, this was (very, very roughly) the response to the Great Disappointment of 1844 -- when hundreds of thousands thought the world was ending -- which eventually led to the Seventh Day Adventists.

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