The End Is Here!

The End Is Here!

There's plenty of cause for concern, but the media mostly worries about the wrong stuff.

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“We’re All Gonna Die!” by Gregg Easterbrook, in Wired (July 2003), P.O. Box 37706, Boone, Iowa 50037–0706.

Nowadays, just reading the daily newspaper can give you the willies. The bad news: We’re all going to die. The worse news: There’s no limit to the things that can kill us. Where we go wrong, writes Easterbrook, a senior editor with The New Republic, is in separating the real, imminent threats from perils that are just too remote to worry about.

Consider the smallpox scare, for instance. “Weaponized smallpox escaped from a Soviet laboratory in Aralsk, Kazakh­stan, in 1971,” reports the author. “Three people died, no epidemic followed.” A similar incident killed 68 people outside Sverdlovsk (now Ekater­inaberg) in 1979. Again, no epidemic. Although it’s possible that “some aspiring Dr. Evil will invent a bug that bypasses the immune system,” the fact remains that, even including the Black Death, “no superplague has ever come close to wiping out humanity before.”

The potential threat from chemical weapons seems similarly overplayed. While movies and the news media focus on “noxious clouds of death” floating across cities, in reality “a severe chemical attack likely would be confined to a few city blocks.”

Are there doomsday scenarios we should worry about? You bet, chief among them the eruption of supervolcanoes and collisions with large asteroids. The U.S. Geological Survey has identified a supervolcano ripe to explode beneath the smoking geysers in Yellowstone National Park, a cataclysm that could make the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption pale by comparison. Such eruptions in the past have sometimes triggered global climatic changes and, perhaps, mass extinctions. That’s what may have done in the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But other evidence points to the impact of a huge asteroid striking near Mexico. Such mega-asteroids strike the Earth with alarming frequency. In 1908, an asteroid “250 feet across hit Tunguska, Siberia, flattening trees for 1,000 square miles and detonating with a force estimated at 10 megatons, or 700 times the power of the Hiro­shima blast.” Scientists estimate that there are 500,000 similar sized asteroids wandering through Earth’s orbit. None are known to be on a collision course with our planet, but many have yet to be charted. But why worry? Can’t we just send up a crack team of oil drillers, à la Armageddon, to blast that hunk of rock to smithereens? Well, no. NASA, says Easterbrook, “has no technology that could be used against them and no plan to build such technology.” This may be a mistake. As former Microsoft technologist Nathan Myhrvold has written, “Most estimates of the mortality risk posed by asteroid impacts put it at about the same risk as flying on a commercial airliner. However, you have to remember that this is like the entire human race riding the plane.”

Easterbrook breezily dispenses with a few other technorisks. Some scientists, for example, worry that some of the newest generation of supercolliders might inadvertently open a black hole, sucking the universe out through some graduate student’s science experiment. Or that a naturally occurring black hole might wander into the neighborhood (bad news, since we wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it). But Easterbrook reminds us that while the White House was fretting about the kind of supergerm threat depicted in a recent thriller, The Cobra Event, real terrorists were in the final stages of plotting the attack on the World Trade Center with old-fashioned jetliners. Yes, Easterbrook concedes, the world could end tomorrow. But “it makes far more sense to focus on mundane troubles that are all too real.”

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