I’ve Been Thinking About the End of the World

 

An image has haunted me since at least some time after my eleventh birthday when a school chum gave me a lovely one volume copy of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells:

A steady twilight brooded over the earth. And the band of light that had indicated the sun had, I now noticed, become fainter, had faded indeed to invisibility in the east, and in the west was increasingly broader and redder. The circling of the stars growing slower and slower had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat. The work of the tidal drag was accomplished. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

The Time Machine (1895 version)

This image of the ancient sun, “a vast dome glowing with dull heat” rests forever on my mind and returns for me in readings as an instant image of the last days of a world, if not devoid of life, emptied of living humanity and, most likely, cleansed by time even of human artifact.

Wells, of course, as a man of science, grounded his description in rational predictive extrapolation from known geological and astrophysical principals. But even such a hopelessly unscientific fellow as C. S. Lewis (his Cosmic Trilogy notwithstanding) conjured this same bloated sun when he needed a bit of shorthand for a world on its death-bed. Consider Chapter V of the penultimate Chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of the withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

So many echoes of Wells. But here is added the dead, empty city. A world at its end, humanity and, indeed, life wiped away, but still humanity’s works stand mighty.

Almost a century before Well’s Time Machine and far in time from Lewis’ dead city under a swollen sun, the poet Shelley and his friend Horace Smith challenged each other to compose a sonnet on the subject of some newly discovered bits of Egyptian statuary. The result of the challenge was, on Smith’s side, a sadly overshadowed and forgotten poem, and on Shelley’s, Ozymandias, one of the world’s greatest elegies to humanity’s doomed striving against entropy. “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” Despair indeed, for these great works, intended and expected to last an eternity, have been reduced to dust in a few dozen lifetimes. One can almost see the red giant sun looming over Shelley’s antique land, as it looms over each of us, doomed to age and die on an aging Earth.

And Smith’s sonnet more explicitly tells us to consider our entropic future:

. . . some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London Stood, holding the wolf in Chace,
He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think of an inversion of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness sitting on the deck of the Nellie and intoning into the London night “This too [again will be] one of the dark places of the earth.” Smith’s hunter stands like John in New York, in Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, like Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes. So many apocalypses.

Most often at the ends of these worlds there is a survivor to observe “the lone and level sands.” The Time Traveler sees the final snows of Earth’s condensing atmosphere; Polly and Digory look on the bloated sun and empty city of the Witch’s world; Matthew Arnold and his unnamed love stand at the window hearing the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith in “Dover Beach”. But there is one notable but little-noted work in which not a single human observer survives in the landscape of apocalypse. In 1920, the dark shadow of the trenches still brooding on Europe’s collective mind, Sara Teasdale gave us a beautiful and hopeless little poem usually titled “There will come Soft Rains”:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The first septet (save the fence wire) is all wild nature. The wire in line 6 and the war in line 7 are the pivot of the piece. Most of the last three couplets is about absent humanity: “war”, “mankind”, “we”. But “we” are not in the landscape. We have left the landscape to nature, and nature is indifferent. Unlike so many other imaginings of human autumn and winter, Teasdale allows of no survivors in her vision. Where Horace Smith imagined a future hunter, Shelley a traveler from an antique land, Wells a traveler in time, Lewis children with world-jumping magic,, and Arnold a meaningless meaning of faithfulness to a companion in a faithless world, Teasdale does not shy away from a world with neither humanity nor human meaning.

Teasdale’s audacity is a rare thing. Think of Ray Bradbury’s post-nuclear-holocaust story titled after Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury’s 1950 “There will come soft rains”, part of his The Martian Chronicles, tells the story of the final days of an automated house, emptied of humanity by nuclear war. As in Teasdale’s poem, the landscape contains only nature and humanity’s artifacts, no humanity. But Bradbury does not allow himself to fully face humanity’s extinction. In the universe of The Martian Chronicles, humanity survives as a small colony on Mars, and , Bradbury expresses an extreme optimism in the title of the next and final story of the Chronicles: humanity’s stay on Mars will be “The Million Year Picnic”.

Evidently it is a difficult thing to imagine, as Teasdale somehow has, the absolute extinction of ourselves. As I’ve been considering this essay, I’ve looked back at a number of works and I found that complete pessimism is a rare thing. I made a little list of works, each with a flippant précis appended:

“Ozymandias” (Shelley/Smith, 1818) Fortune’s Wheel turns.

The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826) We are excruciatingly done!

The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) – It’ll be done a long, long, long time in the future and we’ll have an unimaginably long run.

“The Machine Stops” (E. M. Forster, 1909) There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There will come soft rains” (Teasdale, 1920) – We’re done and the birds don’t care.

“Twilight” (John W. Campbell, 1934) We’ll be done eventually, but we’ll build android replacements for ourselves.

Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clark, 1948/1956) Same tunnel as Forster’s, but a whole lot longer.

“There will come soft rains (Bradbury, 1950) – We’re done for on Earth, but we’re picnicking on Mars!

The Magician’s Nephew (Lewis, 1955) It’s done in that other place but we’re okay.

Wall-E (Disney/Pixar, 2008) – Everything’s going to be okay in the end!

 

I won’t draw any conclusions from the fact that the two totally pessimistic works on my list, the two utterly without the offer of hope, are the two written by women. I expect I could look through my library a moment and find something hopeless by a man and something hopeful by a woman. What I find more interesting is the apparent need to provide light at the end of the existential tunnel.

As I was pondering the end of the world, I came across philosopher John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996) which discusses at length the likelihood that a particular individual – you or I, for example – would be kicking around closer to the beginning or the end of humanity’s run on the planet. I won’t get into the argument in any detail at all, but basically Leslie demonstrates that we’re most likely living close to the end of our run on earth. But, interestingly, Leslie still seems to find hope for our future, that we will outwit probability. Even after a few hundred pages of careful argument of mathematical probabilities, the philosopher desperately clutches at the straws of optimism.

As I read Leslie’s book I came to realize that his probabilistic argument rests on a continued expansion of human population to 10 billion and it remaining there until 2250. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing pages of Colin Tudge’s The Time Before History (1996) in which he argues that if humanity could drastically reduce its numbers by a voluntary two-children-or-less policy, then humanity’s run on earth could last indefinitely and with a high standard of living for all. Such a future would offer far more individuals a happy life than would continued population increase to the point of crash and/or extinction. Again there is hope, if we can control our disastrous drive to spawn large numbers of children.

I also, sadly, found myself reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), ostensibly a scientifically grounded speculation into what the world would be like if humanity disappeared as in Teasdale’s poem. What a hopeless piece of writing! As well as being rife with factual error and bad writing, this is a book with a social agenda that is not susceptible to argument. It pretends to be “What if?” but is actually, “This, Gentle Reader, is NOW, you selfish pig! You’re the problem! And when it really comes down to it, I don’t care about science!” A toxic Trojan horse of a book. And, to top it off, on page 272, in a typically ill-constructed (and cruelly compulsory) sentence, Weisman paraphrases Tudge, whom he never once cites:

 

“. . . henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Compare Tudge’s hopeful argument, an optimistic argument based not simply upon a dread of Wells’ “huge red-hot dome of the sun” glowing over an empty future earth, but rather on humanity’s better angels:

In practice, common sense plus the experience of the past few decades shows that several preconditions must be met if the two-child family is to become the norm worldwide, all of which are difficult in practice, but are conceptually undramatic. First, all efforts must be made to minimize infant mortality. People must know that two children out of two are liable to survive. Second, everyone worldwide needs a pension, so that they do not need to rely upon their children when they stop working. Third, the trend in rich countries toward earlier and earlier retirement must be reversed, for if people retire earlier and the birth rate goes down, then within a couple of decades or less, we will find there are too few young recruits for the job market and indeed that only a small minority of the population is actually working. . . . As modern family planners say, the point is not to coerce but to empower. Coercion is obviously undesirable, but modern experience shows that it is also unnecessary.

The Time Before History, p. 320.

Tudge’s hopeful vision is awfully attractive: A world in which couples are happy with one or two or no children, where being single carries no stigma, where society smiles equally on all the small, happy, healthy, prosperous families, where humanity and nature both have a long life ahead of them on a green and pleasant Earth.

I hope there will come soft rains to that Earth, falling gently on both birds and humans. And I hope, in that fine future, and in this difficult present, every human will very much mind if any bird or tree perishes utterly, whatever the birds and trees might think about us.

 

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A Shout Out to the Planetary Society

It’s been about half a year now since I started throwing my thoughts out from Behind the Hedge (someday I may explain the blog title) and apart from a few hints and passing references, something fundamental has been missing:  Science.

When I was just tiny, a few years before watching Neil Armstrong smudge his way down that shadowy ladder with the really big step at the bottom, I poured over my father’s National Geographic Magazines, enthralled by two things:  the explorations of the sea, mostly by Jacques Cousteau, and the planned exploration of space, mostly by NASA.  When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I did, remembering the excitement of my childhood, was to get my own subscription to National Geographic Magazine.  Sometime later, my father handed over all his back issues stretching back to the mid-1950s.  Now I have almost sixty years of the things and I remain subscribed, although the sense of adventure has faded quite a bit.  Over and over I say to each month’s issue “You climbed a whole mountain!  Wow!  Did you know there’s a bunch of old men over there who WALKED ON THE MOON before you were born?!  And they got there in what amounts to little more than a  Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of big bombs strapped to the back of it!!”

Shortly after the moon landing, I took Charles Coombs’ Project Apollo out of the school library and then made my father order me my own copy from some bookstore in downtown Sudbury, Ontario.  I still have that book.  I spent my days making.  I made sharks out of plasticene and (strangly square) Saturn V rockets — complete with lunar module concealed in the top of the third stage — out of Lego.  And I craftily built the lunar module upside down so that it could dock with the command module.

Guess how I was turned onto the poetry of Yeats when I was in junior high school.

An epigram to a chapter in Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii was a bit from Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus”:

Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands
I’ll find out where she has gone
and kiss her lips and take her hands
and walk among long dappled grass
and pluck till time and times are done
the silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun

And wither the threads from that poem through my life?

I reverently lifted one line for one of my few published (very obscurely published) bits of verse:

. . . on broken roads which lead nowhere
I search for unknown goals
through hollow lands and hilly lands
sun burning on my back . . .

I suspect that Yeats, together with a well timed visit to the banks of the River Wye, lead me to Wordsworth who was so obviously a pleasant uncle (but not a “funny uncle”, despite Ken Russell’s Clouds of Glory which quite probably led me to Tom Stoppard, charmingly guided by Felicity Kendall) to the child who was the father of the man I am.

And what about art?  I suspect that a strange meeting in my adolescent mind between Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and David Hardy’s The Challenge of the Stars put me on that road.

As a barely-past-tween, when I privately decided that painting was to be one of my lives, my first purchase was a big tube of Mars Black, because all I was going to paint was David Hardyesque space scenes.  Now I buy huge jars of titanium white and very, very rarely buy a small tube of some very traditional earth pigment, and hardly ever use black.  On the surface, my painting owes more to pre-modern traditions than to the Space Age  But, when I honestly consider things, scientific exploration — which I consider art- and literary-criticism to be — is the only thing that makes me passionate. High School acquaintances told me later in life that they thought I’d follow a science path.  Nope.  Anglo-Saxon poetry for me.

Where did that come from?

A long, long time ago I held a copy of  The Lord of the Rings in my hands in a Public Library in Windsor, Ontario and said to myself “This looks like a cheap rip-off of the Narnia stories.”  In hindsight, I was an idiot at that moment, but, fortunately, my mother reintroduced Tolkien to me for a third time — I had, without making the connection, spent a moment with “Smith of Wooton Major” in some elementary school classroom.  Tolkien made me learn Old English and learning Old English vastly improved my understanding of language and poetry.  After five years, two degrees, and a couple of publications, I left formal academia behind, again to the surprise of professors and colleagues.

Now, decades later, I subscribe to five publications:  The Old English Newsletter, which arrives at odd intervals; Canada’s History (formerly the Beaver) which comes bimonthly as near as I can figure; the comfortable old National Geographic; Scientific American; and the increasingly infrequent Planetary Report, which is a part of the real point of this post.  Except for the Old English Newsletter, I read every issue of these magazines from cover to cover.  In fact, I first subscribed to Scientific American after reading Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ mention that he, too, read that magazine from cover to cover every month.  To me, all five magazines are about understanding the world and my place in it.

But, the Planetary Report is a voice from and to my childhood.  If you haven’t heard of this wonderful little publication, it is the newsletter of the Planetary Society, a think tank/lobbying organization/fanclub/cult/bunch of really varied and smart people founded by one of the smartest, Carl Sagan and two friends three decades ago with the sole and noble purpose of teaching people that space exploration is beautiful, inspiring, artistic, fascinating, gobsmackingly neat and absurdly inexpensive considering the wonders, both practical and human, it returns and, even more, considering the insane obsenities we spend obscene amounts of our labour and humanity on.

Early supporters were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury, before his death intervened, was scheduled to be a part of a little Planetary Society get-together in a few days.  The Planetary Society is perhaps the ultimate geek club — “I’m making space exploration happen!!!”, but for over three decades this bunch of ordinary and extraordinary people has quietly, soberly, and doggedly pushed governments to push the boundaries of knowledge and pushed the boundaries of knowledge themselves during times when governments have been remarkably loathe to learn much of anything.

Today the Planetary Society’s CEO is Bill Nye (yeah, that Science Guy) and has a remarkable  board of directors, including Niel deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and the coolest astrophysicist ever (“that black guy from PBS” as one friend of mine describes him.  Sometimes Canadians can be a little too blunt.)

Some of the Advisory Council of the Society are artists, writers, Star Trek actors and, yes, one of them is an old man who has WALKED ON THE MOON!! After travelling there in what amounts to a Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of bombs strapped to the back!!

The latest issue of the Planetary Report closes with a poem and a beautiful piece of art of the sort my thirteen year old self dreamed of painting.  Inside there are stories about urban Dark Skies efforts, about the Mars Science Laboratory which should land on Mars in a few days (it’s about the size of a Volkswagen Kombi, but the technology has advanced a bit), about near-Earth asteroids and extra-Solar planets.  And there are projects for kids.

Projects for kids.  One of the finest things the Planetary Society has done over the years, finer than sending digital copies of classic Science Fiction literature and art to Mars, finer than launching member-financed space missions, finer even than sending my name (and those of thousands of other Society members) to Saturn — about the finest, noblest thing the Society has done is to encourage young people to dream, to learn, and to achieve.  The Planetary Society provides grants to young scientists, to amateur scientists around the world.  The Society has provided brilliantly creative teenagers the opportunity to conduct real scientific investigation with robots on mars — hands on!

Although U.S. based, the Planetary Society is Planetary, with members around the world and making efforts to work with space agencies of all countries.  The societies grants are available to any nationality, its student outreach is global.

And, once a year they have this thing they call “Planetfest” in Pasadena and at science centres all over the planet.   A whole huge crowd of dreamers, scientists, poets, artists, writers get together to look up at the sky and say

“Wow.  Just Wow.”

And

“Thank you, Carl.”

This year Planetfest happens in just a few days, August 4th and 5th, timed to watch the landing of The Mars Science Laboratory.

I’ve never attended as I am, perhaps ironically in the context of the Planetary Society, a bit of a homebody, but if there were ever a crowd I’d have a laugh being a part of, it would be this one.  I’m not recruiting for the Society.  I’m not suggesting that anyone who might read this should run out and buy a membership (although that would be fine, if the fit is right).  What I am interested in doing is letting people know that the Planetary Society exists, what it’s for,  and what sort of person ends up as a member.

I am a working artist, a lover of theatre, a reader of poetry, and absolutely the most inspiring thing I can imagine is exactly what the Planetary Society was created to do and exactly what Art, Theatre and Poetry are for: to help us all to understand where we are in this inconceivably huge existence.

It’s a perfect fit.

Update, September 4, 2012:  A few days ago I was having a silly conversation about googling one’s self and I came across this brief blog post by Charlie Loyd in which Carl Sagan and I are associated through a fairly obscure aspect of Old English poetry.  It seems I have come full circle, in a sense: inspired to poetry  by Carl Sagan as a child and then associated with him through poetry much later in life.  It is a funny old Cosmos, isn’t it?