Opinión: Por qué el mundo probablemente no va a terminar este año - o en los miles de millones que vienen

Por Jonathan Bellot

Los seres humanos tenemos una fascinación por los desastres, especialmente por los que pueden ser mortales. Incluso ahora que tenemos telescopios que puedan detectar los desastres naturales en otros planetas dentro de nuestro sistema solar - el más espectacular de las cuales fue, probablemente, el impacto del cometa Shoemaker-Levy-9 con Júpiter en 1994, que dejaron cráteres tan grandes como nuestro propio planeta, y en el que cada pieza golpeó con la fuerza del impacto producido por en Chicxulub que llevó a la extinción de los dinosaurios - aún es frecuente que nos encontramos en un lugar incierto cuando ocurre un desastre, sobre todo cuando el desastre ocurre cerca de casa. (Texto en inglés)

(Fuente Caribbean News Now!)

In the Caribbean in particular, we tend to transform disasters into portents and signs, to mythologize the rumbles, growls, howls, and flashes of the natural world. It is almost inevitable, in fact, that a few Caribbean people will take almost any natural disaster that occurs anywhere in the world -- even one that occurs every year, like tropical storms during hurricane season -- and start chanting that the world is going to end. What is truly extraordinary is that the failure of the world to end does not put these people off in the least; they simply wait for the next disaster to occur and, as if the previous had never occurred, start chanting that the world is about to end anew.

I don’t have any problem with people believing the world is going to explode or implode or disintegrate one day (perhaps like certain economies). No, my concern is with how some of those persons seem to never learn from their previous errors, from history, from science. After all, if these people understood better not just how these natural disasters work but for how many thousands of years people have been saying the world will end (unsuccessfully, I might add), they might, if nothing else, keep their apocalyptic thoughts to themselves.

“History,” the American author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slapstick, “is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised again. Please write that down.”

And, as eminent historian of Dominica, Lennox Honychurch, wrote of an earthquake in 2004, “While there is great concern at the experiences and damage caused by the earthquake on the morning of Sunday 21 November 2004, we should not see this, as so many radio callers seemed to think, as an isolated incident designed as some form of divine retribution on Dominica. It is part of the nature of the place where we live…. Earthquakes and volcanoes have been occurring here for millions of years and in fact these are what created our islands. We human beings just happen to be in the way while Nature is going about her business.”

Indeed. We are better people than that. Or we should be, at least.

The Caribbean is an intensely Christian archipelago, though there are prominent concentrations of Hindus and Muslims, among other faiths, and there is a small-but-growing number of skeptics, as well. The apocalypse -- the end of the world -- is a strong tradition within Christianity. Because of this, it is easy to assume, if one is a strong Christian, that any unusual image in the night sky or shake of the earth might be a sign of that apocalypse. But it is worth noting that one of the most vocal supporters of this belief, Paul, believed himself that the world was going to in fact end while he was still alive. Two thousand years later, this has still not happened (unless, of course, I’ve missed something rather big).

The fear of the world coming to the end often leads to bad behaviour. One such instance of bad behaviour attended the First Crusade of 1096 - 1099, as Jay Rubenstein demonstrates in his recent study of the crusade, Armies of Heaven, since the Christian crusaders -- vast, loosely organized bands of knights, aristocrats, pilgrims, and captured slaves who traveled to Jerusalem with the intention of taking it by force from the Muslims who then occupied it -- often massacred people who stood in their way, be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim, out of their belief that they had to show their faith as strongly as possible because the world would soon end.

Jumping far ahead, we find the astonishing religious group of around forty persons called Heaven’s Gate, which committed mass suicide in 1997 because they believed that the world was about to be destroyed according to the words of the Book of Revelations and that it was only by killing themselves that they could escape the Earth.

It is unquestionable that some people thought the end was coming during Hurricane David in Dominica in 1979. Some probably thought the same of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 in Galveston, Texas, which killed around 8,000 persons and was the worst natural disaster to hit the United States, or -- skipping through time again -- during the astonishing Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which destroyed the capital of Portugal and made literal waves as far across the Atlantic as Barbados.

Many proclaimed the end of all things in the year 2000. In 2011, we saw the prophecies of Harold Camping, who claimed the world would end on May and then October 21. Camping’s followers were sometimes so fanatical that they sold all of their belongings, believing they would no longer have need of worldly possessions. Naturally, they were in for a shock when nothing happened, and Camping predictably fell silent. It is worth noting how quickly the world seemed to forget about Harold Camping and his prophecies, making way for new or older ones, like the ridiculous Mayan 2012 “prophecy.” It is also worth noting that Mr Camping had predicted the end of the world a number of times prior to 2011 -- but why, after all, should doomsday prophets care about the past?

But seriously, we must wake up the fact that natural disasters are two things: natural, and commonplace. If nothing else, it helps no one to go around yelling, online or in person, that the world is ending and that one must convert to this or that or that or this.

Now, with all that said, here is a real scenario to chew on. There is a small chance the world will face a significant threat from outer space in 2036. The possibility is truly tiny, but it exists nonetheless. Asteroids -- which this particular threat is -- pass by Earth frequently, many of which could cause devastation if they hit. But we can detect many of them, and, as technology improves, we may soon be able to safely deflect large ones.

Here is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the looming threat in his new book, Space Chronicles:

On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communications satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death. If the trajectory of Apophis at close approach passes within a narrow range of altitudes called the “keyhole,” then the influence of gravity on its orbit will guarantee that seven years later, in 2036, on its next trip around, the asteroid will hit Earth directly, likely slamming into the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. The five-story tsunami it creates will wipe out the entire west coast of North America, dunk Hawaiian cities, and devastate all the landmasses of the Pacific Rim. If Apophis misses the keyhole in 2029, we will have nothing to worry about in 2036.

Depressing as that scenario undoubtedly seems, note a few things. That terrible asteroid will only be a danger to us if it passes through a tiny zone of space at which it will be sufficiently influenced by Earth’s gravitational field to come back to hit us later. But the likelihood of that happening is tiny. If it does, we have tools at our disposal (of varying effectiveness) to destroy or push it away. And -- most important of all -- this is no special asteroid. This is simply another big rock that might slam into our planet, as has happened to us many times in our planet’s violent past. And for clues as to how often collisions happen on other planets and their moons, just look at our own moon’s cratered exterior. As serious and unpleasant as it would be if Apophis did pass through that keyhole, it would also not be anything worth seeing as an omen, since it is nothing new in our planet’s history.

And that is the point: all too often, we turn what is commonplace into something significant and foreboding. We turn seasonal storms and earthquakes into signs that the end is coming -- even if the end never actually comes.

It is worth bearing in mind, too, that any threat to our planet is a threat not simply to humans, but to all other organisms as well. What kind, loving god would obliterate not only all of humankind, but most or all animal life, as well? But, then again, if you believe the Noah myth, you must believe that this supposedly loving god did just that. Beyond that, of course, there are the endless extinctions, natural and human-caused, that we must then ask this god to account for, since, after all, 99% of all life that has ever lived on Earth may be extinct today.

When, in the nineteenth century, geologists began really piecing together the evidence they had uncovered and were uncovering of the fossils of extinct creatures buried in rock strata, they realized that more life had been lost in the past than they had ever imaged. As Bill Bryson writes in his masterful A Short History of Nearly Everything, these discoveries “confirmed that God had wiped out creatures not occasionally but repeatedly. This made Him seem not so much careless as peculiarly hostile.”

Joke though that is, there’s something serious in there. If we envision the end of the world simply as death, rather than a literal destruction of the Earth, it should become clear that the world has indeed ended not simply for individuals many trillions of times in the past, but also for nearly every species that has ever existed.

Take a moment to think about that. When you talk about the world ending because the windows start to rattle from high winds or a tremor sends shivers through the floorboards, think about your own place among all other organisms, plant and animal. We are organisms, like every living thing around us; we, too, will die away, as individuals and as a species, one day.

But what is more likely -- that we will slowly die off over thousands to billions of years through poor choices, war, or environmental changes, or that we will all suddenly be obliterated? Surely, if god wished to indicate his world-destroying wrath, he would do it more clearly, in ways not so confusingly similar to the ordinary natural disasters we have been living through for millennia.

At any rate, unless we shuffle of the stage of the Earth soon and can find new planets to live on, we’ve only got until our sun explodes or fades, which will be in perhaps five billion years. And, then, of course, our neighbour galaxy is on a slow collision course with our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The end for us all will likely come in billions of years -- not this afternoon because of a distant tremor.

Finally, I have to ask: what does it even mean to say the “world” is going to end? Just the Earth? What about the other planets in our solar system? What about the 760 planets we have discovered outside our solar system -- and the billions of undiscovered planets that likely exist, some of which may harbour life? What of the billions of other galaxies, each filled with stars, planets, nebulas, and vast stretches of empty space? What of the black holes? Are they all going to be destroyed, too? If so, why? How?

It is fine to hold onto your beliefs. But it is better to examine and question them. And when you do, you will likely find that more questions emerge. And if your belief is that the world is about to end because of a recent quake or storm or nightmarish vision, keep in mind – please -- that you are not the first, by thousands of years, and you will likely not be the last, to have such visions and ideas. Why?

Why, because the world has not ended, and likely will not, for a long, long, long time to come. As scary as our planet’s future may look for a variety of reasons, from politics to wars to shortages of resources, it is reassuring that our children and grandchildren will not have to worry about the world blowing apart, at very least. Let us cast doomsday prophecies aside and live, love, and struggle on into the murky future, wherever it may take us.

Jonathan Bellot is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Florida State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Transnational Literature, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, Belletrist Coterie, Black Lantern Publishing, and The New Humanism. He was born in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio to Dominican parents, and has lived since nine in the Commonwealth of Dominica.