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Malachi O'Doherty

Why are we such doom-mongers fearing that the human race will be exterminated?

Malachi O'Doherty


Life has never been better, argues Malachi O'Doherty, and we should take comfort from all the positive developments that have taken place

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The planet itself is incredibly stable in its spin, wobble and revolution

The planet itself is incredibly stable in its spin, wobble and revolution

The planet itself is incredibly stable in its spin, wobble and revolution

Why are we such a pessimistic species? I thought the prevailing anxiety about the end of the world would leave us after the turn of the millennium. Then we had the prophecies of Nostradamus to tell us that the human race would run out of road about 1998.

The evangelical Christians were anticipating the fulfilment of the Book of Revelations, the coming together of Gog and Magog at Armageddon.

Most religions presented human life as a burden relieved only by death and the promise of eternity.

And, lately, we have been well equipped to destroy ourselves as we had not been when Revelations was written.

It seems we can't quite get it out of our minds that this life on this planet is a temporary arrangement.

Who'd bet on the human race lasting another thousand years? Our place in the history of the Earth planet would then have been just a blip and no one would write it. The dinosaurs lasted 170 million years. We've had two million so far, not that you'd have much to say to an early human coming down from a tree.

It used to be that the dread of destruction was a religious idea but the fear of something like that overtaking us is much more resilient than religious belief has proven to be, for even among the secular atheists there is a gnawing worry that the human race has limited time.

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I would like to posit against that a reminder that we are a hugely successful species. We have taken over this planet in just a few thousand years.

The planet itself is incredibly stable in its spin, wobble and revolution.

Photographs that have come back from neighbouring planets and moons show them to be pockmarked with meteor strikes. This planet is a pristine jewel. Most meteors just bounce off our atmosphere if Jupiter's hoovering gravity lets them anywhere near us.

Yet discussions about how little time we are likely to have left proliferate throughout the internet and inform much of our sci-fi.

There is a website called Quora through which people address questions to the wider world and it is remarkable how many of these questioners worry about our cosmic vulnerability.

What if Sirius explodes? We'll be caught in the blast.

What if the Yellowstone volcano erupts? The north American continent will become uninhabitable?

True, the mechanisms by which we might be eradicated, even without our collusion, are well-known.

And then there are the daft things we do to ourselves, building nuclear arsenals and lining the upper atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

We breed cattle on a scale that produces so much flatulence that it traps heat in the air and warms the ground.

That our future was threatened by bovine digestion is one of the doomsday scenarios that was explored in no science fiction that I ever read, but there you are.

And now we have the coronavirus, apparently nurtured in the body of an undetermined animal in a Chinese market and working its way from human to human around the world.

I have no doubt that this is a dreadful development, but what also bothers me is that we are a little excited by this, as if it confirms that we are entitled to our dread.

People are now marvelling at the Chinese ability to shut down cities that are 20 times the size of Belfast and to build a hospital in a week. That's what you can do in a dictatorship.

Aside from the fact that human life is insecure, which it is, there is also a strange preoccupation with that insecurity.

It probably derives in part from human culture being such a recent development.

Blinkered evangelicals have it that the world was created only 6,000 years ago. Clear nonsense. Yet that is about as long ago as the emergence of agriculture. Six thousand years ago is a fairly decent guess at the date at which the modern human started organising societies and developing writing.

So perhaps we have a sense that it has happened too quickly.

My grandfather was born before the aeroplane was invented. My father died never having seen an iPad.

He was born into a world which had not yet discovered penicillin. Most families in our street when I was 10 years old did not have a car, a television or a fridge. I was in my 30s when I first lived in a house with central heating.

Along with change comes an uneasy sense that the whole thing could fall apart.

And that might be right.

Just as a virus can jump out of a Chinese chicken and hitchhike around the world in a week, there may be some perfectly simple glitch in our technology that will obliterate us.

Some boffin with a test tube will say "Ooops" and that will be the end of the lot of us.

Except that there is another possibility, that we will survive.

I used to read a lot of science fiction. I watched every episode of Doctor Who from Christopher Ecclestone until, with Jodie Whittaker, they changed it into a children's programme.

And the whole drift of our efforts to imagine our future depicts it as either not there - we all die before then - or insufferably bleak.

These stories are the dreams of the human race. If we lay down on a sofa and told them to Dr Freud he would say that we are depressed, that we are living without hope, that we expect to be blasted out of orbit by an asteroid or taken off line by our own robots.

He would ask us why we don't believe in ourselves, don't believe in technological innovation making us healthy and happy. All the evidence is that it can do that. That it already has given us a healthier and more comfortable world than most of us were born into.

And what would we tell him? We'd tell him that the dangers are real.

They always have been. My mother in her 20s nursed soldiers in a war in which 55 million people died.

The coronavirus is scary but so were diphtheria, polio, smallpox and tuberculosis, all of which we defeated as recently as a generation ago.

So perhaps in the midst of the doom-mongering and the realistic urgency to face climate change and artificial intelligence, asteroids and Vladimir Putin we should pause occasionally to remind ourselves that the human race has been doing rather well.

Perhaps we need a humanistic vision that replaces the dread at the heart of most religion with a vision of a happy human future, here on Earth.

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