Doomsday: Your end of the world in art, science, mythology, and prophecy

I'd better start by defining exactly what I have in mind with the phrase 'the end of the world' as 'the end' can take several forms.

Firstly though to the time it takes for an the end of the world event: A real end of the world scenario will be a short term event, lasting from mere seconds (say a gamma ray burster) to several months (say a pandemic, all out nuclear war, a super-volcano). I'm not talking multi-decades to centuries here as per global warming and rising sea levels or the coming of the next Ice Age.

The End of the World = the Destruction of Planet Earth ("When Worlds Collide" scenarios). That is, Planet Earth and obviously all and sundry on same go down the gurgler.

The End of the World = the Destruction of All Life on Planet Earth - a sterile Earth. Planet Earth survives, to a greater or lesser extent, but nothing biological survives.

The End of the World = the Elimination of All Human Beings on Planet Earth ("On the Beach" related scenarios). Planet Earth and most life forms, excluding humans, survive. Now the survivors might amount to only bacteria, cockroaches and rats, but all that matters here is that 100% of all members of the human species are no more. Welcome to Planet Earth: Human Population Zero.

The End of the World = Drastic Alterations to the Status Quo of Human Beings on Planet Earth. There's drastic chance of ending humanity, but ultimately not enough to wipe us all off the floor.

I think for most of the populace, the 'end of the world' means the demise of the majority of the human population, excluding them of course. In other words, it's akin to the "drastic alterations of the status quo of human beings on Planet Earth". It's 'Armageddon', 'the apocalypse', the 'end of days', the 'second coming', 'the rapture', or, stripped of any religious connotation, some sort of nuclear war, global pandemic, a combination of nasties caused by global warming, an asteroid strike that cataclysmic but not too cataclysmic, say it only wipes out 99.9% of humanity - that still leaves some six million odd bods and sods inhabiting the globe. Heck, with that number of survivors coupled with a 'be fruitful and multiply' scenario, Planet Earth will again be overpopulated with human beings pretty quick-smart. I mean we lost millions in WWII, but still the population expanded.

The End of the World in the Arts: A whole book could be written (and probably has been) on the end of the world theme in the movies and in literature, especially the science-fiction of the last 150 years or so. If someone can envision doomsday by one means or another, it's been turned into a film or a TV series or a novel or short story, sometimes with, sometimes without, a happy ending. The end of the world theme in the arts might not be as popular as romantic fiction or crime fiction or even westerns, but it forms a pretty solid subgenre block of the overall disaster film or novel nevertheless.

The End of the World in Mythology/Religion: In mythology (or religion) there is no permanent end of the world. There's always a rebirth, be it the Christian Armageddon or the Norse Ragnarok or within the Hindu mythology in India or even the various cyclic Mesoamerican cosmologies.

Take the Christian version: Well there's no disputing the Biblical (tall) tales that 'document' some sort of domestic disagreement between 'God' and some sort of entity we call today 'Satan'. If you believe those Biblical tall tales, the end result of that domestic dispute, Armageddon, isn't in fact in dispute. There's a decided element here of "This ain't over till it's over; this ain't finished yet; I'll be back"! However, if you believe the Bible and the Book of Revelation, then you realise that Armageddon should have taken place over 1900 plus years ago, at least according to Jesus Christ. He said that the final battle between good ('God') and evil ('Satan') - I bet he was biased in deciding who was what - would take place within a generation or two of his utterances. So, if it took place way back then it took place off planet and out of human sight - a real life 'Star Wars'. But if it hasn't happened yet, assuming 'God' and 'Satan' are really real extraterrestrials instead of mythological entities, then it probably isn't ever likely to. I mean you can only hold off a grudge match so long. Maybe they've kissed and made up, or...

If God or His scribes wished to make crystal clear the ideas and events and chronology central to 'the end of the world', Revelations, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming, etc., He or they failed - miserably. Any dozen Biblical scholars will give a dozen different interpretations of the 'end of days', from the literal to the metamorphic. The Book of Revelations, apparently that is, was intended for those of that era; that it was intended for generations far removed from those times is apparently not the case according to Biblical scholars. If you're not going to make your point clear, well, what's the point? How many hundreds upon hundreds of times have Biblical scholars prophesied the end of the world, or the end of days, or Armageddon, or the Second Coming, or Final Judgment (take your pick of relevant phrases) based on the Biblical verse? Well, we're still here! We are indeed still here, so, so much for the reliability of The Bible, or God's word, and/or the competence of so called Biblical experts. So, the next time some Bible-thumping Fundamentalist tells you that the 'end is nigh', take said message with a proverbial grain of salt and don't lose any sleep over it!

Now the Biblical tale of the global flood is in fact global! Cultures from around the world tell similar tales to the Biblical flood. The argument is that therefore the story must be true as these diverse cultures had no contact with each other. My answer to that is related to bovine fertilizer! End of the world tales, or myths, the concept of Armageddon, punishing the wicked with total catastrophe was as common and popular then as now. We all love a good 'end of the world' story that has a moral attached. Alas, the choices or mechanisms available for said end of the world stories to myth makers' way back then were rather limited. They had no knowledge of supernovae or gamma-ray bursts or massive solar flares or nuclear war and resulting holocausts or killer asteroids smacking into Planet Earth, etc. All they had to work with was the day-to-day sorts of routine natural events part and parcel of their daily lives. In fact, many tale-spinners might not have been familiar with, say, volcanoes, and while most relatively violent weather phenomena, like tornadoes, may be destructive, they aren't destructive enough to wipe out the wicked that populate a wide area. However, everyone would have experienced rain, heavy rain, even torrential rain say from hurricanes, etc. that resulted in minor flooding, or say witnessed storm surges from the sea that inundated the land, and/or witnessed rivers, ponds and lakes overflowing. It doesn't take that much imagination to notch up minor real events, in the guise of story telling, to mega disaster proportions. If it rains heavily for one day and there's some local flooding, up the ante to 40 days. It's difficult to imagine any story teller from 5000 years ago coming up with any other sort of end of the world scenario!

The one point to the end of the world, mega disaster stories is that there must be at least one survivor to tell the tale! I gather in this case that includes survivors such as Noah and kin.

I have read of one other explanation for universal flood stories. If I recall correctly, a student of Freud came up with the idea that the tellers/inventors of flood tales got the idea from dreams in their sleep. And they dreamed the dream all because they were asleep with relatively full bladders. Personally, I think that's a piss-weak explanation!

Then there's the Norse Ragnarok. The gods and the giants battle it out and the gods come out second best. But, there are survivors who start things up all over again. It's reflected in the Richard Wagner conclusion to his epic four linked opera series "Der Ring Des Nibelungen". The final opera, "Gotterdammerung" ("Twilight of the Gods") ends with the destruction of the gods, but a rebirth and a new beginning. The very characters who started off the whole Ring Cycle are the very same and only survivors at the end. Will history repeat itself?

The End of the World in Science: How can I destroy thee? Let me count the ways! Well, when counting up the possibilities, it could be a 'bang', a 'whimper', or anything in-between.

The End of the World in Science: Astronomy: There's the obvious cosmic connection. I mean the greater Universe out there isn't all that peaceful and tranquil. A great big rouge asteroid/comet could slam into us. A 'nearby' star could explode showering us with intense and deadly radiation. Even from quite a distance, a gamma ray burster could fry us. Perhaps a near invisible Black Hole could wander past just a wee bit too close and down the gravitational hatch we go. Closer to home, super-ultra one-in-a-billion-year solar storms could microwave us to oblivion. After that, things calm down a bit.

The End of the World in Science: Geology: Planet Earth can be pretty violent too, but nothing geology throws at us can cause out 100% extermination - probably. Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, tsunamis, can all create total destructive chaos, but each is too local to be of global concern - except, maybe a super-volcano. Super-volcanoes, which have erupted and will erupt again, might only affect several hundreds-of-thousands to maybe millions of square miles directly vis-?-vis lava, etc. but the ash ejecta can quickly enter and traverse the entire atmosphere, blocking solar radiation causing global cooling and total disruption to the food chain. Then too there are the natural swings and roundabouts that now and again cause the Ice Ages. The saving grace there is that the transition from global normalcy to global Ice Age takes thousands of years - time enough for humans to adapt, even if not loving it.

The End of the World in Science: Biology: Lots of things can kill us - tigers and crocodiles and sharks, and related beasties, even invertebrates like certain species of spiders and shellfish and octopuses and jellyfish and wasps/bee stings and swarming army ants, etc. Still, we're more threat to them than they are to us. But, it's not the macro life forms that are going to do us in, it's the micro forms. We all get sick now and again. Bacteria and viruses have their wicked way with us or our bodies. Ultimately, we win every battle against them, except the last battle. They always win the war. In the end, they kill us, and to add insult to injury, feast off our remains! History is not without case studies of humans on mass (pandemics and epidemics) being slaughtered by these micro-beasties. There's nothing in the cards to guarantee that history won't repeat yet again. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that bacteria and/or viruses, caring not one jot for our high IQ's and medical technology, won't exterminate us.

The End of the World in Science: Astrobiology: Then there's the old chestnut of alien invasion! That an alien (from space) might wipe us out might depend on whether the alien was or was not intelligent. If non-intelligent spores from space (panspermia) landed on Earth, well, it's alien invasion never-the-less. If said spores took a liking to our biochemistry, well, the 'alien' diseases of smallpox etc. had quite an effect on the native Mesoamericans post European contact. Of course those European invaders weren't exactly friendly as macro-beings either. In the similar, but extraterrestrial context, Planet Earth has attracted the attention of alien invaders near a zillion times in films, TV shows, novels and short stories. Most guys and gals would love to be as popular as Planet Earth is to the extraterrestrials! Still, invasion by extraterrestrial intelligences is highly unlikely. It's going to a heck of a lot of expenditure of time and effort for relatively little gain. I mean if you're a resident of the Big Apple, why would you, invade Paris for a loaf of bread when the necessary bakery ingredients are available in your local corner store. What could we have that the aliens couldn't find a lot closer to home, be it gold or water? No, the least likely end-of-the-world scenario is alien invasion - at least by intelligent aliens. And if aliens did want Planet Earth, they wouldn't have to fire a laser shot or even show up close and personal. All they need do is chuck a few large asteroids our way. There's nothing we could do about it and when the dust settles, Planet Earth is theirs.

The End of the World in Science Fiction: Apart from the above, there have been various proposals put forth about potential ways and means that Earth could meet doomsday that have very little scientific credibility. Some would argue that alien invasion is one such implausibility. What I have in mind here are somewhat 'mad scientist' schemes, say the creation in particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider of mini Black Holes that would eat us up from the inside out. Or somehow scientists could accidentally via weather modification experiments set off global storms that last for months, or trigger geological faults that would crack the world in two or more pieces. Then there are nuclear bombs that could send the planet careening out of orbit heading either into the Sun or out into the depths of interstellar space. Then there's the creation of artificial intelligences (robots and related) who eventually take over as the Top Dog life form. Then there are all those exotic super-weapons like neutron bombs or weapons with invented techno-babble names that sound impressive but mean absolutely nothing. Then there are those weird scenarios where one wakes up to find oneself as the last man on Earth for no apparent reason (albeit there are a very few others otherwise you're plot's pretty thin on the ground), though sometimes a plague turns 99.99% of humans into zombies and you're the near lone normal human fighting off the mob.

The End of the World in Social Fiction: Then there's the total worldwide breakdown of society, of government, of financial institutions, of law and order for no real logical reason (unlike say society in a post nuclear WWIII scenario). But, perhaps a super Global Financial Crisis, a GREAT DEPRESSION that makes the Great Depression look like the good times, or we finally exhaust our oil and gas supplies, might be a potential trigger. However, even in a society of total chaos, as witnessed by many such societies that have undergone such upheavals, there would be many survivors.

The End of the World via Terrorism: As opposed to military actions by entire countries and associated governments, terrorists and terrorism are small scale events, hardly global in nature. But it would be wrong to dismiss terrorists as having no end of the world potential.

There's only one plausible way IMHO that terrorists could bring about the end of the world. See the section 'End of the World: John's Best Guess Scenario' for the details.

*Terrorist suicide bombings - too local; no end of the world way.
*Terrorist chemical attacks - too local; no end of the world scenario.
*Terrorist nuclear weapons & related - nasty, but overall no way that would be an ultimate end of the world event.
*Terrorist biological warfare - where there's a will there's a way.

The End of the World in Prophecy: All that really needs to be said for the end of the world in prophecy - religiously themed or otherwise - is that there has been a 100% failure rate by end of the world prophets despite literally thousands of such predictions over thousands of years. Hardly a week goes by without some soothsayer predicting not only that the end is neigh but giving exact dates, even times. So, hands up please for all of you who have total conviction that the next end of the world prediction will bear fruit, say 21 May 2011 or 21 December 2012, the later currently on top of the prediction pops. Thought so!

There are several downsides to end of the world prophecy. It's not the same sort of harmless fun as consulting your daily horoscope in the paper. Firstly, there's the letdown, trauma, disappointment, humiliation, etc. suffered by the true believers when their idiocy is revealed for the entire world to see. There's the often bizarre behaviour of true believers before-the-fact - the break-up of family units, giving away all worldly goods and possessions, joining doomsday cults, sometimes to the tune of ritual suicides.

Then there's the lack of moral, ethical, law and order constraints - I mean if you really wanted for once in your life to live the good life, the best foods, the best wines, the most expensive resorts, the best women money can buy, all the fantasy dreams of the great unwashed, and you truly believed you only had a week to go before The End, well there's this bank down the road just begging to be robbed and a certain snooty little teller who's been asking for an extra hole in her head right between the eyes - how dare she turn you down for a date - well, why not? You're dead in a week anyway, so nothing much to lose is there?

Now extrapolate that up to a true believer who does hold some high position of real power. What if you could manipulate foreign policy in such a way as to ensure or bring forward Armageddon? Or, if the world's going to end tomorrow anyway and you believe that with all your heart and soul that's going to be the case, well you may as well press the nuclear button now. The leader of your most hated foreign power is laughing at your stupidity, so you're going to want to make sure it's doomsday for them too!

The End of the World: John's Best Guess Scenario: Okay, here's my best guess prophecy for our demise. Firstly, it's going to be at the hands of our fellow nutters. Now you'd have to admit there are all sorts of evil genus types out there. Fortunately, most lack the actual guts and finances to do any actual dirt on us. However, there are a number of highly motivated, highly educated, well financed 'mad scientist' terrorist types out there. As noted above, there's not much they can accomplish with bombs, even nuclear bombs, or explosives or chemicals at least in terms of eliminating humans from the face of the Earth. But, there's the ultimate in terrorist weaponry - the humble bacteria or virus that's been genetically or bio-engineered to cause a global pandemic can be a nasty threat indeed. It's not a Manhattan Project sized operation to bioengineer viruses and bacteria. A well equipped sophisticated lab, perhaps the size of a normal house would do. Several people well acquainted with genetic engineering techniques of micro-organisms, coupled with such information already readily available in the scientific literature, easily available via the Internet who have some sort of super-ultra hatred for humanity and who don't care a fig about themselves (as per suicide bombers) might be tempted to induce a global pandemic, wiping humanity once and for all from existence. I mean their motto might be: "Kill them all; God will sort out the mess". If people are willing to die in order to kill a relatively few others, like say the plane hijackers of 9/11 or your run-of-the-mill suicide bombers, then I can easily imagine some people would be willing to along for the doomsday ride if it meant taking the rest of the world with them - what a legacy, even if there's nobody left to read the obituary. Now a variation would be to destroy via an agricultural plague all food crops, but it's really easier to target just one species (i.e. - humans) than many dozens.

An ideal bio-weapon might be some bacteria or virus that had an incubation period of say 60 hours which gives it plenty of time in this age of jet travel to spread around the globe before anyone's the wiser that there's trouble brewing; the microbe would have an easy transmission means from human to human, probably airborne so actual human-to-human contact wouldn't be necessary; and most important it would be as close to 100% lethal as could be conceived. I imagine that no matter what a few will always have some sort of natural immunity, so wishing for total annihilation might be a stretch. Maybe, maybe not.

The End of the World for Absolute Certain: Now, to end on a downbeat note, let's return to scientific prophecy. Our world will end! That's 100% certain! At the very least it will end when the lifespan of our parent star, the Sun, ends. Just like your car has a limited supply of fuel in its gas tank, so too our Sun has a limited supply of fuel that keeps it burning forever. When the Sun exhausts its fuel, well you can kiss life on Planet Earth goodbye. However, least I scare you into losing a good night's sleep, that's still some roughly five billion years in the future, or so modern astronomical prophecy dictates. Even if that's off by 10%, well that still gives you plenty of time to enjoy the good life, including a good night's sleep.

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