Notes From a Curmudgeon


Feb. 10, 2010        

In these days of gloom and doom, so much of humanity seems incredibly stupid–abandoning responsibility for the future because, well, who gives a damn? And, anyway, some deity will take care of everything, now or upon admission to a promised hereafter.  

Some of us curmudgeons have a secret spark of careful optimism, hoping that with knowledge and effort, humanity will save itself. Unfortunately, in order to use any optimism productively, you must give up pretending.  You must try hard to find out and understand what you're up against, accept the evidence and deal with it the best you can. This is called modern science.

We can't pretend that Planet Earth is a safe place. It never was, and we're making it worse for ourselves–thanks to our overpopulated and greedy species doing things that contribute to global warming, loss of drinkable water and arable land, rising sea levels, etc.

Some people know the problems, and put effort into saving the environment for ourselves and for the ecosystems upon which our lives depend. They are recycling, repairing water mains (200,000 of them break every year in the U.S.), planting trees, limiting greenhouse emissions, relocating important things away from shorelines and using alternate sources of energy.

Unfortunately, only a small minority of the population is working on how to survive potential disasters that, amazingly enough, are not caused by human activities. Most of these disasters will be much worse if fundamentalists insist that they are sent to punish us, or to bring about the rapture of the devout, or whatever.  

These disasters are real. Back when I was writing a bi-monthly science column, I called one, "At Least We Missed the Permian Catastrophe." About 250 million years ago, most of life died. We weren't even evolved at the time to cause it or do anything about it. Now major disasters could destroy cities or even civilization, if not all life. There will still be bacteria somewhere, but remember how long it took some bacteria to get a nucleus and be on the road to multicellularity and, millions of years later, hominids…

For example, disasters from space:

1. We've found some asteroids and comets that could impact Earth, but we have to find more. We must be able to push aside (not nuke) the dangerous ones.

2. As far as I know, we can't prevent incoming radiation from a solar flare.

3. Or a nearby supernova. Our galactic neighborhood hasn't had a supernova since the invention of the telescope, so we're probably overdue. I think we should stockpile radiation suits and medical treatments. And build very shielded cities under the surface of the moon—you can't hedge your bets if you keep living in only one place.

Or disasters from underneath:

1. Quakes. Every day I look at an Internet page that shows current earthquakes across Earth, which is riddled with geological faults and hot spots. There's always at least a tiny quake near New Madrid, Missouri, where the worst American quake happened in 1811.  There are always big and little quakes around the Pacific's "Ring of Fire," and then there's the recent major quake in Haiti, which sits on another fault. We all know that quakes must be anticipated, prepared for and built for. Buildings that collapse in quakes are inexcusable these days. 

2. Volcanoes. Many active ones on Earth, some signaling with quakes that they are getting more active. So, to keep disasters of all sorts in perspective, I worry about Yellowstone, a giant caldera in which the frequency of small quakes is currently increasing. If Yellowstone blows, the destruction will be immense, and the fallout will cover the planet. Civilization will totter, they say. I assume the surviving fundamentalists will shoot all the surviving atheists.

No matter what some people believe and preach, humanity is one species, part of the web of life that we—who hold so much power over Earth—must protect.  Do nothing, and we are doomed.  Nobody else now or hereafter is going to save us. 

Of course, I have this little fantasy that a powerful alien species will visit, take one look at human folly, remove all the fundamentalists of every religion and political party, and put them on a distant planet that has one undivided continent . . . .

Well, I told you I was a curmudgeon.  Enjoy your day.

(Janet Jeppson Asimov, M.D., a retired psychiatrist and children's science fiction writer, is the author of twenty books and many short stories and articles.)