Top Five Things we should be doing to avoid the end of the Earth instead of defaming the Mayans

The silly hysteria over the world ending December 21, based on a misinterpretation of a Mayan text, should have passed by now, or maybe someone will keep it going until midnight. What amazes me is that you can get people excited about dangers to their world by twisting some text from an ancient civilization, but you can’t get them worried about an actual set of threats that really do have the potential to threaten human existence.

What are the real threats to the world as we know it? Here are some:

1. Nuclear warfare. Recent research has confirmed that a nuclear exchange among enemies of sufficient numbers of warheads [pdf] would result in a nuclear winter, throwing so much particulate matter into the atmosphere that it would obscure the sun long enough for plants to die, and then for the animals that feed on them to die (including us). The great Carl Sagan was among the first to spill the beans on all this to the general public (I can remember seeing Henry Kissinger attack him for talking about it publicly). There are now debates in the US about whether civilians or the military should be in control of its massive nuclear aresenal. Although tensions have subsided among most nuclear-armed states, they could always revive. India and Pakistan almost went to nuclear war in 2002, though they probably don’t have enough bombs to do more than substantially cool back down the earth for a while (and to kill 12 million people in Delhi and Rawalpindi and elsewhere). If people are really worried about the world ending, why aren’t they pushing for further US and Russian mothballing of warheads? Why aren’t they joining in the call for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East? (Yes, that would start with Israeli nuclear disarmament). Why isn’t anyone upset by, or even talking about the collapse of a planned major conference on making the Middle East a nuclear free zone?

2. Climate change. We are now heading pretty surely toward at least a 4 degrees Centigrade increase in the average surface temperature of the earth (7.2 degrees F.). It is being caused by human beings dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Almost no one besides Germany is doing enough to reduce their emissions in order to avoid this scenario. The US and China are the major culprits here, and they are both carbon-poisoning the atmosphere at a major rate. There are real, practical steps that can be taken to avoid the serial catastrophes awaiting us in a Four Degree World. Instead obsessing about the Mayans, let’s rescue the tax credit for wind turbines– put pressure on your congressional representative and senators.

3. Viral contagions. The AIDS epidemic should have been a wake-up call that we need more and better medical research on viral threats, which doesn’t come cheap. The “Fiscal Cliff” and similar scenarios have the potential to make deep cuts in Federal support for scientific research, and to take away the tax break that encourages people to donate to such research. But if people really worried about, like, real threats to human existence, they’d prioritize science, medicine and research.

4. Energy crisis: The world’s thirst for energy is increasing at a dizzying rate. There is no way for us to fuel the world in 2050 with inexpensive fossil fuels of the 20th century variety, even if that weren’t ruinous to the climate and environment. Not only are solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy important as means of mitigating climate change, they will be necessary if the new billions of people who will be born between now and 2050 are to have a decent life.

5. The danger to the earth from an asteroid or comet collision is small in percentage terms, but significant over the long term. The earth is in a bad neighborhood, with the asteroid belt just beyond Mars. It is extremely unwise for the US to have mothballed its space program, which is woefully underfunded at $18.5 billion a year. The US government gives the oil companies roughly $50 billion a year in subsidies at a time when their product is poisoning our atmosphere. Tell you what: cut the fossil fuel subsidies out of the budget, and fund NASA at $50 billion a year at least, and let’s get back into space. It will be a while before we control our immediate space environment well enough to avert a meteor or comet strike, but it is desirable that we get to that point as soon as possible. Better government funding of astronomy is also highly advisable (a lot of well-trained astronomers have difficulty finding a job, which just floors me). I’m an old codger who remembers Jack Kennedy’s moon speech, and I just cannot understand why this generation has abandoned the exploration of our near space environment. I view it as a form of laziness and decadence. It is looking as though the Chinese may be our hope here.

And, by the way, imagine you were a young anthropologist or archeologist who wanted to study Mayan language and civilization and then get a job in the field. Wouldn’t all the energy spent on this calendar hysteria be better invested in science and international studies? Yet Congress is poised to cut the funding for such research drastically. Once you could hope to get a Fulbright in the Yucatan. Decadence. Anti-intellectualism. Hysteria. Those are the biggest threats of all to the world.

10 Responses

  1. Thanks for making the point that preventing nuclear war, and further nuclear arms reductions is better to focus on than the Mayan prophecy. Towards that end, people are working to take the step of making these unacceptable, indiscriminate, disproportionate weapons illegal- for everyone- and demanding their elimination. A conference in Oslo in March 2013 will be focused on this: Oslo2013.org. It would be great to see you there.

    As per the Middle East zone, and steps towards creating a zone in the region. Dozens of academic, civil soceity and informal intergovernmetnal exchanges have taken place in the last few years to promote this (both the conference in Finland and the zone itself). At the end of the day, the decision to issue invitations to talk about it are the responsibility of the US, the UK and Russia. I agree that they need to take this responsibility seriously, or face what Kofi Annan called a potential “cascade of proliferation”.

    Towards that end, the Israeli Disarmament Movement has been working tirelessly to get the issue discussed in Israeli society, with results like the Defence Minister posting a picture of their “Don’t Bomb, Talk!” demonstration on his facebook page. They’re working hard, and could use your support.

    Thanks again for raising this important issue, and maybe I’ll see you in Oslo?

  2. Personally, I find Bill Haydon’s diagnosis of Western civilization’s ills (in John LeCarré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) to be dismally apt, 40 years on:

    “Greed and constipation.” Political, cultural, economic, etc.

  3. That is a pretty good list. I’m not sure if “rogue asteroid” belongs in the top five though. I probably would have put something to do with industrialized agriculture: all the toxins we are dumping on the land and into the sea, soil erosion, unrestricted and out-of-control genetic modifications of plants and animals. Of course, we have trapped ourselves into that system in order to feed too many billions of us on the planet and it’s hard to see any way out.

    I also kind of wish people would stop calling it “climate change” and go back to saying “global warming.” “Climate change” was coined, focus-tested and promoted by Frank Luntz because it was less scary-sounding. The global-warming deniers told everybody to start saying “climate change” and the media and everyone else went obediently along with it.

    Still, a good post, thanks.

  4. Just a few thoughts: NASA has relied on a special isotope of plutonium to power spacecraft for five decades. Unfortunately, the supply is running out, since the production is not in vogue. Also, the supply of some medical radioactive isotopes necessary for important aspects of modern medicine is in danger. But most of all, global warming is to a significant degree a result of a large-scale rejection of new civilian nuclear power among Western nations.

    Germany is certainly devoting enormous amounts of money to combat its CO2 emissions, but it is using that money extremely inefficiently to very little effect. Had they used the money for nuclear power, they would have already gotten rid of their coal combustion. As one of the worst per-capita emitters of CO2 in Europe, Germany is certainly not a role model. My own Sweden has an economy at least as strong and we have half the CO2 emissions.

  5. The US has substantially reduced its carbon emissions lately, by replacing coal with natural gas. American carbon emissions are at their lowest level in 20 years, despite the fact that there are more Americans now. There’s a long way to go, and a high price has been paid (pollution caused by fracking), but China and India are rapidly increasing their use of coal. The US and Europe could drop their carbon emissions to zero and we will still see a 4 degrees C increase if China and India don’t restrain themselves.

    • The US hasn’t reduced emissions nearly enough. Don’t blame India!

      Country CO2 emissions[11] Emission per capita[12]
       World 33,376,327 4.9
       China 9,700,000 7.2
       United States 5,420,000 17.3
       India 1,970,000 1.6
       Russia 1,830,000 12.8
       Japan 1,240,000 9.8
      International transport 1,040,000 -
       Germany 810,000 9.9
       South Korea 610,000 12.6
       Canada 560,000 16.2

  6. hey…. where’s number 1 -Plant trees, restore vegetation and wetlands and ecosystems.. duh

  7. In the film “Melancholia”, a meteor collides with Earth. Kirsten Dunst’s character somehow knows that there is no other intelligent life in the universe. She says “We’re alone… Life on Earth is evil. No one will miss us.”

  8. What about corporate control of everything, starting with water?

Comments are closed.