Last blow-out: Times Square, New York, on 21 December 2012. Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters


Bang or whimper?

We’re still here, which means we have a vacancy for an apocalypse scenario. The one we choose could be revealing

by Ed Lake + BIO

Last blow-out: Times Square, New York, on 21 December 2012. Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

In the end, the end of the world passed without incident. If anything, people seemed to enjoy it, going by the number of parties thrown in its honour: there may be something perversely cheering about the thought that we’ll all go together when we go, every Hottentot and every Eskimo. Magazines ran ‘what to wear during the apocalypse’ features. One young man on Twitter promised to run down the street naked except for body glitter. In Russia they were stockpiling tinned goods, which is a different sort of good time. Presumably, few of us were taking it very seriously, although the distinction might lose meaning in this context — what could qualify as a non-frivolous response to Armageddon? Besides, whether you really buy it or not, perhaps there is something festive about the thought that the end of the world is in the diary, something you can turn up to and see how it goes, like speed dating.

And now it’s over. If the world did change, it must have done so in rather subtle ways. There’s an extensive literature on the behaviour of disappointed millenarians, and they by no means all take the hint. Nevertheless, the precise coalition of eccentrics that formed around the ‘2012 phenomenon’ seems difficult to replicate. So, since the next big date in the Meso-American long-count calendar isn’t for nearly 400 years, let’s assume we have seen the last of the Mayanists and the Timewave Zeroists and the welcoming committee for Planet Nibiru. In the meantime, if we want to jolly ourselves with visions of general conflagration, we shall have to discover new ones. Try to see it as an opportunity. We don’t have to rush into anything; we can shop around for an apocalypse that works for us.

To achieve significant popular interest, a number of elements have to be in place. Firstly, there must be precision about timing. Without that, it is difficult to get the hype cycle up and running (the Y2K bug is the one to beat, here). Some vagueness about the nature of the threat helps keep a big tent of interests together, and a largish helping of supernaturalism — in the classic case, a divine plan­ — dulls the terror and sense of arbitrariness that commonly mar the prospect of mass death. Alas, if we insist on all these conditions, the pickings look slim.

St Malachi, the 12th-century Bishop of Armagh, prophesied that there would be only 112 further popes before ‘the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people’; we are now on the 111th, so I presume it’s a straightforward actuarial task to determine how much time is left. Alternatively, there’s a window from about 2018 to 2028 when Jesus might return, if you agree with Dr F Kenton Beshore, president of the World Bible Society in California, about what one Biblical generation after the foundation of Israel amounts to. After that, the prophets seem to have nothing in the diary for about a century. Rather late for me, as Philip Larkin said.

Could we settle for an unscheduled extinction event? They are, by definition, tough to plan for, and they don’t offer much by way of eschatological consolation — which might be another way of saying that they never sound very organised. Still, at least there are always a few of them skulking on the horizon. Late last year, as if anticipating my requirements, Fred Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American, published a selection of apocalypse scenarios under the title The Fate of the Species. He began with superviruses, ended with the rise of the robots, and didn’t waste time on anything that might reasonably be deemed out of our hands (giant meteors, for instance).

That was a good decision. A self-inflicted apocalypse seems much more meaningful than some blind accident of the skies. There might be nothing supernatural in the ordinary sense about climate change, but it still offers some of the same satisfactions as the great cosmic morality plays: a familiar pattern of crime and punishment and ominous weather. That sense of dramatic logic holds even though, in many visions of man’s hubris, the sin and judgment seem to be practically indistinguishable. There’s a line, apocryphally attributed to the Buddha, that one is not punished for one’s anger so much as by it. I used to read it as an attempt to domesticate moral psychology, to relieve it of its mythological apparatus, but you could rewrite the sentence with ‘nanobots’ in place of ‘anger’ and all the fateful terribilitá comes rushing back: ‘You will not be punished for your nanobots…’ Perhaps it’s scale that does it. Destroying your species with technological hubris feels like a proper story in a way that banging your knee on your desk doesn’t, though both are just pratfalls, seen from a sufficiently lofty point of view.

A friend once said she woke up each morning half-hoping for a small apocalypse so that she wouldn’t have to go to work

Speaking of which, here’s a curious thing. The notion of humanity as a true collective, however feeble and implausible at the best of times, never seems so compelling as when picturing its collective chastisement. It’s as if, when imagining ourselves through the eyes of an exterminating angel, we forget who we are and perceive our own tribe as a homogenous outgroup, alike in guilt. We become racist against the human race, railing against a stereotype of hubris and greed. Call it the Avatar effect. What could account for it? Some version of Stockholm Syndrome? Very rapidly internalised oppression? Freud associated the capacity to accommodate reality with the symbolic presence of the father. Perhaps a big enough clash with reality makes us conjure up an imaginary father figure, one we instinctively try to placate by washing our hands of one another. Not a very admirable trait, to be sure. But this brings us to the brink of a minor moral paradox — denouncing humanity for the crime of denouncing humanity — so let’s move swiftly on and find a quiet place to think.

That, of course, is one area where blind existential threats have the edge over divine judgments. Their very haphazardness provides a loophole for furtive little daydreams of escape, and still more furtive daydreams of life in the silent ruins. You don’t even have to be saved; you could just be lucky. Project Ear-Worm escapes from the lab; everyone else falls into a state of feverish automatism and starves within a week, yet you, tone-deaf since birth, can’t even whistle it. One day, the horse-dancing sickness will pass and you will be the only one left to relate what befell the rest of your kind. It’s a fate both terrible and weirdly inviting.

It’s possible to picture oneself rather enjoying life on the other side: foraging among the detritus of civilisation, discovering troves of a favourite confectionery, preserved in their wrappers like the incorruptible toes of saints. A friend once said she woke up each morning half-hoping for a small apocalypse so that she wouldn’t have to go to work. To survivors of some of last year’s small apocalypses, its barrage of hurricanes and floods and human malevolence, the idea might seem rather callow. But if the catastrophe is just big enough to leave you, essentially, on your own — no tiring struggles to get back on your feet, rebuild the community and so forth — you could spend the rest of your days quietly pottering about. Tell me there aren’t times when that sounds attractive.

The further ahead you look, the more certain our ultimate doom appears, and the more the fun goes out of it. You don’t avoid anything tiresome, and everything you’ve done up to that point looks futile. Like the nine-year-old Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, you just don’t feel like doing your homework. It’s depressing.

For what it’s worth, here are the prognoses. Within 100 million years, a lump of rock 10 kilometers in diameter is overwhelmingly likely to strike Earth, killing everyone. In about 800 million years, carbon dioxide levels will most likely drop to the extent that photosynthesis is impossible, at which point multicellular organisms will die out. In 3 billion years, the sun will have expanded to consume life’s miserable remainder. It’s only 20 billion years until the end of the universe, at least according to the ‘Big Rip’ scenario, one of a couple of cosmological possibilities presently on the table. Alternatively, there might be a ‘heat death’, whereby matter will spread out into the vacuum of space and grow too cold to do anything. Scenarios in which the universe doesn’t come to an end appear to enjoy only minority support among cosmologists, which might be another field, along with politics, where François Mitterrand’s ‘bleakness of the soul’ confers a competitive edge.

I’ve always found it difficult to get comfortable with these prospects. It wasn’t until I’d read Stephen Cave’s book Immortality (2012) that I could fully articulate why. After all, what difference could they make to me?

To be clear, I always knew that I didn’t want to die. Some people claim not to worry about dying, but I am quite certain that they have just conned themselves into thinking that it won’t happen to them. They have bought into one of the four ‘immortality narratives’ that Cave identifies as the engines of human civilisation. Perhaps they believe that they can postpone the event itself, using potions or peculiar exercises. Perhaps they believe that it is reversible, or that their minds never needed their bodies much anyway (the ‘resurrection’ and ‘soul’ narratives, respectively). Perhaps they think they will live on though their children or their works. It would be an exaggeration to say that all these options collapse under scrutiny; after all, not all scrutiny is equal. But, as Cave points out, it is definitely easier to believe in immortality if you don’t think about it very hard.

Depending on the narrative you have fixed upon, different apocalypses will seem threatening to different degrees. If you flatly insist upon the reality of an immortal soul, I suppose none of them will seem very serious, provided you keep your immortal part in acceptable condition. If, on the other hand, you were simply planning to keep living indefinitely, or to be resurrected in your original body (via cryogenics, perhaps), the destruction of the species would appear not only as a universal tragedy but also as a significant personal setback.

However, all might not be lost. The advent of virtual reality and the notion that minds are just a special sort of computer program have, between them, ushered in new visions of eternal life inside digital simulations. Some of these might be proof against quite large apocalypses; after all, you can make a computer out of more or less anything. The more adventurous speculations in this field of digital soteriology — for example, the physicist Frank Tipler’s ‘Omega Point’ proposal, which involves the resurrection of the dead, or the ‘dust’ theory in Greg Egan’s novel Permutation City, in which chronology loses all importance — suggest that you can make a computer out of everything. Both of those proposals also imply that you can keep it running forever, provided that the ultimate geometry of the universe is cooperative. At this point, the young Alvy Singer might perk up.

Now, if someone were to come right out and ask whether this was what I was counting on, I would deny it. (I might look bashful, though.) If pressed, I would probably say that computerised immortality of some kind was ‘serious’, or ‘couldn’t be ruled out’, or somesuch impersonal fudge. The idea gets harder to stand by, however, when I read about the Big Freeze or the Big Rip, the universe bleeding out into a frozen waste or tearing its component particles asunder. For some reason, those distant, nearly unimaginable eventualities have the power to touch me in a sensitive spot. It feels somehow shameful to admit this. I can’t tell you exactly what I was hoping for, much less explain how it was meant to come about. Hope is like that, though; it runs far ahead of us, racing into the depths of night quicker than anything else in nature. No matter how vast our universe, a glimpse of the edge can change a great deal. In short, I don’t care whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper; I’d rather it didn’t end at all.