Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Apocalypse Now, Later

When my eight year-old son heard about the Mayan apocalypse that was supposedly going to take place on December 21, 2012, he started making jokes about it. They were nervous jokes. I could tell he wasn't 100% certain that the world would still be around on December 22. So we researched just a little and discovered that not only was there no scientific evidence of a world-ending disaster ocurring on that date, but the ancient Mayans hadn't even predicted one. The whole thing was based on a misunderstanding of how the Mayan calendar worked. Soon my son's jokes were tinged not with nervousness, but with derision. (A nice summary of the science here. Thanks, Phil Plait.)

But if I were a different sort of parent, I might instead have said "World ending on December 21? Sure. So what? It's ending right now. And it will keep on ending on December 22, and every day for centuries." That's essentially the thesis of Craig Childs' Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth. In it, Childs contends that the world is indeed coming to an end. But, it's not something that happens all at once and it's hardly the first time. When we think of the planet as some static place that's been essentially the same for forever, we're thinking all wrong. Every so often the Earth changes until it becomes completely uninhabitable. Then, it slowly recovers.

What's happening now with climate change seems to be one of those every-so-often world-ending events. So is the current end of the world a big deal, or just another ho-hum cycle for the planet? In some sense, it's still a real big deal. While the planet will probably ride this apocalypse out like it has all the other ones, humans very well may not. If, by the end of the world, you mean the end of humanity, that's the sort of thing that happens only once.

To explore the apocalypse, Childs visits locations where the end of the world is already well underway: the spreading arid deserts of Sonora, Mexico, the melting glaciers of Patagonia, an Alaskan village slowly swallowed by a rising sea. He explores what the end has looked like for past civilizations, like the Hopi communities buried beneath the city of Pheonix. He visits volcanic disasters and marks the disappearing of species. His observations are not all gloom and doom, not all pleading with humanity to change its ways, though there is plenty of that. But Childs is honest enough to also record the beauty of this ongoing apocalypse, the awesomeness of a crumbling glacier or the powerfully isolating expanse of a desert. He writes in a rambling style that reflects his rambling journey, moving haphazardly from the trivial details of his travelling clothes or the jokes his companions tell to the specifics of geo-paleontology and the science of climate change.

The science will convince you, if you weren't convinced already, that what we are doing to the planet is real. The rambling you might find annoying or charming. Either way it will remind you that what is happening at the end of the world is not just happening to sea-levels, atmospheric chemistry and tectonic plates. It's happening to people. People who tell jokes and change clothes, and find things astonishing and have mothers and girlfriends and children.

So, maybe it's not appropriate to say "Welcome to the end of the world." You, after all, have been here all along.

1 comment :

Man of la Book said...

As humans we think in terms of set variables. The Ice Age, the Iron Age, the Jurassic Period etc. That is all something that we, as humans, define, but really doesn't exist. Nature keeps on moving forward leaving those that cannot adjust behind.