August 01, 2008

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | We Shall Overcome

It may be troubling just to think about the end of the universe or the cataclysms humanity might face. But surely it is better to know than to blithely ignore?

By Wilson da Silva

WITH CLIMATE CHANGE in the news every day, and the potential calamity it might bring in the century ahead weighing on all our minds, you might wonder why we’re running a special double-feature on the end of things: from the certain demise of the universe to the potential calamities civilisation might face.

Well, one reason is to highlight the latest science, which now makes it possible for us to quite accurately forecast how the universe – and everything in it – will come to a slow, cold, dark end billions upon billions of years in the future.

Thankfully, it’s a long, long time from now – longer than any period of time we can possibly imagine. So we have many billions of years yet of stars shining and new planets forming before it all goes rather pear-shaped.

Despite this, it is troubling just to think the universe will one day come to an end. There is something about a slow grind toward oblivion that seems ultimately dispiriting. And it is sad to think that no matter what we do, all of the high ideals, noble ambitions and treasures of human thought and effort will ultimately vanish.

It’s something that has troubled writers for millennia, from the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus in “The World Is Not Eternal” to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”. It’s found in the prophecies of many faiths. The end of time is something that all cultures have at some stage considered.

It’s ironic that we’re more certain about the end of the universe than we are about our fate as a species and as a civilisation. Today, many people are worried that climate change might bring about the extinction of humans.

There’s no doubt we face some major challenges ahead, and that the need to reduce emissions is quite urgent. But there’s already enough heat trapped in the atmosphere that changes will come even if we cease burning all coal tomorrow. How severe climate change will be depends on what action we take over the next two decades. The sooner the better.

But to say we are facing extinction is, I think, alarmist in the extreme. As a species we have survived many catastrophes throughout history, and I believe we will survive even the worst ravages of climate change.

The worst that could happen is that our modern economies might collapse, and our technically advanced, globalised civilisation might teeter on the edge for some time. But we will survive. And we will rebuild, and hopefully learn from the experience.

It may be hard to believe, but much worse things could happen: like an asteroid impact or a supervolcano eruption; even a deadly global pandemic could bring civilisation to its knees – at least, ecoomically. Extinction events could well push humans over the edge, and are frightening and awesome to contemplate (if less likely to occur).

Reading through the list of calamities, a salient point arises: there may be little we can do to prevent an asteroid strike or a supervolcano eruption. But climate change is something we can do something about. It is within our power to turn it around and avoid its worst effects. So let’s get on with it.