Archive for the ‘fear of the future’ category

Are we safe? Maybe, sort of…

March 27, 2012

“Are we safe?”, I was asked last week. The question was a discussion starter for an enjoyable panel which closed the Oxford Literary Festival’s Saturday afternoon look at science and the future – an event which ranged from cosmology to climate change.

The event was a conversation (with the always apocalyptically cheerful Anders Sandberg and writer Sara Wheeler)– generally a  better way of doing these things than getting panellists to speak separately. But, in the way of conversation, it provoked some second thoughts. So here are a few of the things I said, or thought I might have said, in some sort of order.

Are we safe?

No, of course not. We are mortal. We live in a peculiarly fortunate culture where, for quite long spells, many of us can forget about this. But, in Larkinesque fashion, it is a truth which always comes back.

But what of existential risk – in the sense of threats to the whole of humanity? Individual responses to this tend, in my view, to be determined by a combination of temperament and circumstance.

How so? Well, we are talking about the probability of lots of inevitable individual deaths happening all at once, adding up to the death of a species (ours), or extinction.

We do have some information that bears on that, but not enough to give a very clear answer on how likely it is. So the way we feel about it tends to reflect our intuition about some related questions: is human life fragile or robust, the cosmos friendly or unfriendly, hospitable or inhospitable?

At the moment, we can find reasons for answering that question about equally convincingly either way.

Good things: the constants of the universe are tuned to just the right combination which allows life to exist. (The Goldilocks principle). We seem to live in a cosmos which is disposed to allow the emergence of  complexity – in ever more wondrous forms. In some sense, perhaps, we are meant to be here. In Stuart Kauffman’s phrase, we’re at home in the universe.

Notsogood: one of the main processes which allows that complexity to emerge – natural selection – is rather scary when you look at how it works. I don’t mean Nature red in tooth and claw: evolution has a place for co-operation as well as competition. However, although natural selection sounds neutral, or even benign, the agent of selection is death – of individuals and, on the larger scale, the death of species. Extinction is just what happens to species, in the end. Endurance beyond a few tens of millions of years is very much the exception, and those species that have lasted for a few hundred millions years are heroic survivors. (Afterthought to the afterthought – I wonder if that is true if you include the microbial world, where the concept of species is in any case pretty hard to apply…)

Of course, a species can leave descendents on the path to extinction, as we may do. But in its original form it has still quit the scene. At our current point, where culture – in the shape of technology – is a more powerful evolutionary force than natural selection, that seems an increasingly likely outcome. Whether you terribly much mind that idea depends on whether you think Homo sapiens in our present form are such an adornment to the cosmos we ought to be around for ever, or if it is OK we are just a stage on the way to something else. That something has a post-human form we cannot quite define. But we’ll know it when we see it.

Aside from how evolution actually works, other features of the cosmos suggest that a middle of the road position is justifiable. The universe is more or less hospitable, but risky.

It is interesting to contemplate the latest results on star systems with planets, for example. Amazingly, our observations now have such fine resolution that we can detect planets orbiting distant stars, and not just gas giants but even smaller, possibly Earth-like ones. It looks more and more as if there are an enormous number of solar systems out there, and a heck of a lot of Earth like planets. That surely makes it more likely that there is complex life spread, however thinly, through the galaxy, maybe all galaxies in the observable universe.

Then consider gamma ray bursts. We don’t understand them very well, but we do know by observation that, occasionally, there are absolutely enormous energy releases, with no warning that we know how to register, that rip through large regions of space.

So if life, even intelligent life, is ubiquitous, every now and again one of these gamma bursts takes out a civilization. (Oliver Morton wrote about this eloquently in Prospect a decade or so ago, when the search for extra-solar planets was less well on than it is now.) The universe, if you like, is welcoming to life, then takes random shots at it for sport.

Against that background, the risks we face on Earth at the moment seem relatively manageable. Bad things will happen. Perfectly terrible things may happen, in the future as in the past. A person who predicted that the sky would fall 65 million years ago, before an asteroid impact caused a mass extinction, would have been right. A person who predicted crop failure, pandemic and the death of between a third and a half of the population of Europe in the 14th century would have been right. Those who foresaw a a terrible conflict in Europe in the late 1930s (read Louis MacNiece’s Autumn journal for the atmosphere) were correct.

On the other hand, plenty of possible dire events did not come to pass. No nuclear holocaust (yet). No billions starving before 2000, pace Professor Ehrlich.

So, there will be good and bad. But, assuming gamma ray bursts are not coming our way, the end of humanity is not coming any time soon, probably…

(Thanks to Georgina Ferry for the invitation to Oxford.)

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We’ll all go together…

May 20, 2011

Approaching a couple of events in which I’ll be talking about attitudes to the future, not to mention the advent of the Rapture (due sometime this weekend – May 21 – I gather), I’m put in mind again of how difficult it is to recapture that time, not long ago, when people really did think the world was about to end.

There’s an eloquent brief evocation of this in Richard Hoggart’s fine book Promises to Keep, on which he reflects on life, age and ageing. One of the great changes he remarks on is the end of the Cold War, which had politics in its grip when he was raising his children. He writes:

The ever-present Soviet threat has, more or less, gone away…  Yet for more than four decades it hung above us; and for those bringing up children it could be felt as a constant threat. One wife of a professor, not in any way a congenital worrier, confessed that she never settled down to sleep without wondering whether her four children would survive to grow, marry and have children as she had. On some evenings, before driving to my adult class, I had time to bathe the children. Every time this happened it crossed my mind to wonder if I might see them again. For those, relatively few, who saw the film The War Game, the likely effects of a nuclear strike shown there, were as of something which might well happen any day. 

This threat, this fear, lasted then for almost half a century, and like a curse hung over those who recognised it.

At the same time, he emphasises that these night thoughts were only part of the mood. They (he, and I’m guessing this went for many people)  also hardly believed it would happen – and that everything would somehow turn out for the best – a belief which has in a way turned out to be true…   I still think there are things to try and understand about the effects of all this. Do people who lived through this period think that the thing to do with worst case scenarios is to learn to live with them? Does that have corrosive effects on the culture, or is it the only feasible response, or both? Does it have anything to do with our response to climate change now?  

 I don’t have answers, but the questions make studies of cold war culture more interesting to a 21st century person. The best one I’ve actually read is Margot Henriksen’s brilliant Dr Strangelove’s America: Society and culture in the atomic age, from 1997, but there have been lots more since. And this recent effort looks especially interesting. Now on order…

Meanwhile, a bit of Tom Lehrer evokes the mood I’m worrying away at here. The combination of gleefully apocalyptic rhyming and the uneasy, muted  laughter of the studio audience here still sends a shiver down my spine, at least.  

Optimism vs pessimism: er, no thanks (part 1)

February 3, 2011

While on the subject of reviews (see last post), a few thoughts which developed slowly from one I wrote about that other book with optimism in the title, Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future. I was fairly positive about the book, and even about the idea of cultivating an optimistic attitude – not always my temperamental inclination.

I’m still pondering some of the recent discussion of optimism though. It goes slowly as I mainly want to resist the implication that optimism vs. pessimism is a particularly useful way to discuss ideas about the future. I’m definitely with Bruce Sterling there – in terms of what will actually happen, optimism versus pessimism is beside the point. The future will be more history –  a mixture of good and bad, like the past. Lets turn up the gain a little. The future will most likely be a mixture of the amazing and inspiring and unspeakably dreadful, like the past.

Other reasons for not wanting to sign up to the idea that everyone is too damn pessimistic now, and we ought to do something about it:

1) I’m not sure what difference it makes. Is there any definite connection between being optimistic and trying to do stuff to make the future better than it might otherwise be?  One can imagine (and occasionally meet) optimists,  call them witless, who just think things will probably be OK and they can ignore any potential problems. On the other hand, taking those problems terribly seriously can lead to action of a kind. I suppose the author of the Transition Towns Handbook, whose take on the future could not be more different from Matt Ridley’s, is a kind of optimist, though I don’t personally find his vision of the future either optimistic – or, for that matter, remotely plausible.

2) As indicated above, the optimism/pessimism frame is a poor way of illuminating real issues. Look at the analysis in Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change, for example. That is a more thoughtful, more wide-ranging  and, I think, a wiser book than The Rational Optimist.

3) Obsessing about pessimism is culture bound – while there may be a fixation on gloom and doom in some quarters just now in the developed world, I have a strong impression that it is a minority view globally. Reports from China and India, for starters, suggest that in countries where life has got demonstrably better recently for many millions of people there is plenty of support for the idea that it can go on improving.

4) Obsessing about pessimism also tends to generate bad history, ignoring the fact that the opposites always co-exist. Indeed the optimistic tradition – from, say Francis Bacon, through Condorcet up to Herman Kahn – is well known. And it is, on the face of it, shared by most public leaders, at least in their public utterances. All politicians, all the time, more or less, assume that economic growth is the way of the future (assuming that that itself is optimistic…). For confirmation, see any newspaper reporting on the current state of the economy.

All that said, you have to admit that there is a fair bit of pessimistic sentiment around in the countries whose mediasphere I sample (as a monoglot Englishman). And some people seem very attached to their pessimism, to the extent that they treat any suggestion it might not be warranted with scorn or sarcasm. Not sure why that is. As I’ve said before, we’re not looking nuclear megadeath in the face week after week any more (are we?). Things may well get a bit worse for a lot of people, and – as ever – turn out terribly for some. And the slope of the curve does seem crucial, so that even a slowing of growth throws some people into a panic. Then again, I don’t get why the idea that material standards might decline is always seen as such bad news, either. Is it a by-product of capitalism’s own incessant self-advertisement, generating a conviction that a faltering growth machine means the end of all good things?  But  lots of the pessimists are also social critics of the sort who believe we’re all more unhappy than ever or even, like the reliably ridiculous Oliver James, that we’re all sub-clinically depressed by “affluenza”.

More to say on all this, but long enough for a single post, so I’ll save for part 2.

Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you! (unreliablefutures.wordpress.com)

Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you!

January 6, 2011

Sometimes, you just have to rise to an author’s bait. I’m just pondering a couple of books espousing optimism: Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future (of which more anon), just out, and Matt Ridley’s polemical Rational Optimist, published last year.

The latter is fascinating, and its main thesis pretty persuasive – life has generally got better and better over the last 50,000 years, even as humanity has proliferated, and this is due largely to trade, especially trade in ideas. The more exchange of ideas there is, the more innovation happens, and the more exchange of ideas follows, in a virtuous circle accelerated by ever more refined division of labour. It is a bit one-dimensional as a thesis to explain the dynamic of all human history, but a trade book like this needs a Big Idea, and this one follows through well, and is smart and well-written as all Ridley’s books are.

The reason he advances this thesis is that it justifies a belief that things will go on getting better (there is more exchange, and more innovation capacity now than ever before). This idea also has a lot going for it. But in order to identify himself as the uber-optimist – the natural successor to Julian Simon – Ridley adopts a pretty wide definition of pessimists, which is pretty much all the rest of us. Thus:

“The bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism. The airwaves are crammed with doom. In my own adult lifetime, I have listened to implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad-cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification, and even asteroid impacts that would presently bring this happy interlude to a terrible end. I cannot recall a time when one or other of these scares was not solemnly espoused by sober, distinguished and serious elites and hysterically echoed by the media…”

I think this is weak rhetorically (ooh, get those untrustworthy “elites”, and tut at the hysterical media) and the attempt to lump all these items into one categoery is unconvincing. As my lifetime overlaps with MR’s pretty well, lets see how my recollections run down here, off the top of my head:

Predictions of growing poverty – not sure who this refers to: Limits to Growth and Ehrlich’s Population Bomb would qualify I suppose, but they come up later so that might be double counting.

Coming famines – an unequivocal direct hit. There were truly dire predictions, and they were dead wrong. We also now understand the causes of famine much better.

Expanding deserts – well, I think they have expanded in some parts of the world, if not as drastically as some foresaw. Soil degradation is certainly a problem in many farming regions (but see famine).

Imminent plagues – there has been a fascination with the possibility of a new pandemic, which given the mark of past diseases on world history does not seem that surprising. Then again, there were plenty of, with hindsight, over-optimistic predictions in the decades after World War 2 of the end of infectious disease. Antibiotic resistance is real, and there are some newly-emerging and re-emerging diseases. Laurie Garrett and Richard Preston did hype up the prospect for mega-outbreaks, but there are real public health concerns about epidemic spread in a globalised world which it would be unwise to ignore.

Impending water wars – my perception of both books and media reporting on this topic is that it may lean toward alarm but is fairly balanced. When I have researched it myself, a little, I soon found as many people who argue that water shortages tend to induce co-operation as often as conflicts as those maintaining that water will be the new oil.

Inevitable oil exhaustion – well, it is inevitable (unless there really is oil in the deep hot biosphere which I am inclined to discount). When, of course, is open to discussion. And there is plenty of dispute with those who are convinced that peak oil is imminent, and plenty of reporting of the sceptics, I think.

Mineral shortages – OK, another famous case where past predictions have been proven wrong, and a fairly basic case of not understanding the economics of extraction and substitution. Shortages make it worth recovering the hard to get stuff, and looking harder for alternatives (see also peak oil). But this is hardly news. The story has been told innumerable times with exactly the moral I just summarised.

Falling sperm counts – this was not exactly a prediction of doom, in my view, more a concern founded on some quite good results which indicated that sperm counts were actually falling. Not far enough to produce infertility, but an odd finding, to be sure. It ties in with the sex-change fish, and the notion that some chemicals in wide use are endocrine disruptors. That wasn’t a crazy, or doom-mongering tale, in my reading, more an issue worth highlighting so we could do something about it if we needed to.

Thinning ozone – this was an actual problem, which is now most often (I’d say) used as an example which gives cause for optimism. When it was identified, and the evidence established to most people’s satisfaction, there was international agreement on measures to nip it in the bud. Were the people who argued that if no action was taken things would get worse silly pessimists? Not sure why that categorisation fits.

Acid rain – this is a complicated one, but the little I know makes me incline to accept Ridley’s view that the problem, and its consequences (forest destruction) were overblown.

Nuclear winters – this strikes me as a particularly daft inclusion on a list of unwarranted doom scenarios. Obviously it was not simply the product of a pessimistic temperament to fear a major nuclear war in the years from, say, 1950-1990. The wonder, if anything, is that the fear has abated to such an extent. Nuclear winter was an added ingredient, which was based on evidence and modelling which left scope for argument. But discussing the hitherto neglected short and medium-term atmospheric effects of nuclear war still seems prudent, does it not?

Mad-cow epidemics – not sure why these are plural. But there surely was a new, completely unexpected disease, whose biology was apparently unprecedented and is still imperfectly understood. Once its transfer to humans was established, there was enormous uncertainty about the incubation time before symptoms appeared. So while there were widely varying scenarios, a mass outbreak of new variant CJD was not an impossibility by any means. The fact that it did not happen may well just be dumb luck.

Y2K computer bugs – a particularly interesting case, to my mind. Probably a special case, too, as it chimed with Millennial fears. And remarkable, too, I think because it has been so little discussed since. Did we avoid IT meltdown because the problem was always exaggerated by money-grubbing software consultants, or because of all the fixes which were put in place before the date of doom?  I dunno, but the whole thing says something about our collective unease about dependence on complex systems, which is a bit more interesting than the simple “pessimism” on the Rational Optimist’s charge sheet.

killer bees – don’t recall them (assuming this doen’t mean bees dying off…)

sex-change fish – see falling sperm counts

global warming – well, the big one, and too big to start in on here, except to say that it is not just a prediction: global warming is clearly happening. And while it is not a harbinger of imminent doom, it will go on for quite a while whatever we do and could still turn out to be the one thing which makes the prediction made in the several editions of The Limits to Growth – of a major downturn in economy and ecology around the middle of this century – somewhere near correct. I don’t personally think that is likely, but the consequences in the second half of the century remain radically uncertain and fearing they will be severe does not make one a chronic pessimist, I my view.

Asteroid impacts – these got lots of attention because of our fascination with the death of the dinosaurs, which it emerged was (probably, at least partly) due to a big hit. It did then seem worth looking into how many near earth objects big enough to do real damage there are. Suggesting that they could do real damage was part of the case for getting the relevant surveys funded, and that also seems to me a good thing. Turns out there probably aren’t any posing a large risk any time soon, but that is good to know and again seems to produce an optimistic twist to the story in most current tellings.

I haven’t looked anything up to verify these recollections, and there may well be things in the detail which need correction. But this expansion of Ridley’s list does at least convince me that he has pulled together very different things under one much too simple heading – one classic technique, in other words, for building a straw man argument.

 

 

 

Death, where is thy sting?

December 17, 2010

When people suggest that the mood of the times is uncommonly pessimistic – as happens quite often – I tend to think of the depths of the cold war and the months and years before World War Two as the most obvious counter-examples. OK, there are real concerns now about climate change, food supply, biodiversity and WMDs, not to mention the economy. But a little reflection suggests there was more cause for immediate worry during the Cuban Missile Crisis, say – when it was reasonable to believe that civilisation was going to destroy itself within the next few days –  or in the longer period before the outbreak of war in 1939, when there was a pervasive sense of things moving inexorably toward a terrible, necessary conflict. Sample Louis MacNiece’s brilliant Autumn Journal for a sense of what a life lived in that mood was like.

A better example, though, might be the later Middle Ages, because people were not just in fear of apocalyptic times, they were living through them. The fourteenth century, in particular saw a truly dreadful combination of recurrent famines, the Black Death, and the Hundred Years War, a conflict marked by a shift toward wider population involvement in wars and higher mortality rates. In Europe, the net result was a massive die-off, accounting for around half the population.

The population loss is often put lower, but John Aberth’s compelling From the Brink of the Apocalypse argues convincingly for the higher figure. And that is just the average. In many places, it was higher – near total wipe-out. Only the remotest corners of Europe, such as Finland, escaped lightly.

Aberth’s book, first issued in 2000 but republished in a second edition in 2010, is interested in the cultural effects of all this mayhem and mortality. What did it produce? Well, eventually, the Renaissance. European society, by whatever means,  reconstituted itself, gained a new cultural and economic momentum, and invented the idea of progress. That all took another century and a half or so, but still seems remarkable when you read of the devastated towns, mass graves, incinerated villages, and dormant croplands of the great age of disaster which went before.

How did they manage it? The answer Aberth explores relates to a crucial difference between then and now. It might explain, not how our forebears created the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, but how they coped with the daily reminders of mass mortality. They believed in the afterlife. The culture, as he illustrates at length, was proccupied with death to an unusual degree – understandably so. The image of the times, as featured on the book’s cover, is Breughel’s Triumph of Death. But in art and much other commentary it was usually depicted as a necessary prelude to the life to come. That did not make it welcome, and the century majored in some of the more horrible ways to die, but did perhaps make it easier to bear.

This is a description, not a prescription. Aberth declares there is no possibility of going back to a widespread belief in the afterlife (even in the US). But it offers a connection with another, slimmer, volume I’ve been dipping into again. Robert Heilbroner’s admirably succinct Visions of the Future (1995) also charts the rise and then decline of the belief in progress. He ends with a suggestion that the twentieth century’s interest in futurology is basically a substitute for belief in the afterlife. It is, as he puts it, a “secular analgesic”.

The phrase comes in a passage worth quoting at length:

“It is to find some secular analgesic for what the theologian Paul Tillich called “existential anxiety” that people…  seek to foresee the future. At a primal level it is simply to assure ourselves that human life will go on; at a more rational level, to depict its contours and design as best we can; and at a level that stands in for religious faith, to express what hope we can for the life of humankind.”

Hmm, seem to have arrived at a Futurist thought for the day there, so I’ll stop.

Surviving the future – with computers…

December 9, 2010

A recently aired documentary about the future from CBC is now accessible on the net (there isn’t a YouTube link to the whole thing which I can find, but someone cleverer than me has embedded it here).

Surviving the Future a fascinating document, beginning with a focus on the tension which grabbed me when I first started thinking about the Rough Guide to the Future – rather a long time ago. That is, isn’t it strange to live at a time when the two opposed discourses of apocalypse and utopia are both so prominent. Sure, they are both perennials, but in their current forms – climate catastrophe versus techno-optimism which will both solve global warming and usher in an age of abundance and, possibly, unlimited lifespan or even computer-mediated paradise – the opposition seem especially pronounced.

It is short (40-odd mins) and packs a lot in, so there’s plenty of TV-doc compression to make fun of. But to do these topics more justice you’d need something much longer, like a book (even). The first half, at any rate, does a pretty good job of laying out the futures landscape, emphasising the stark polarity of views, and with the likes of Jamais Cascio and Paul Saffo giving good soundbite – Cascio in particular on screen quite a lot.

Once it has you hooked, it even allows Saffo to say that “visions of the future are always more dramatic than reality”, which sounds hopeful in the context.

The narrative unravels a bit in the second half, I think. Having dealt rapidly with climate change, regenerative medicine, and in vitro meat (uncritically in all three cases – again no time), it turns to computers as both the harbingers of bad news and the potential saviours.

How does that work? Well, the computers, not the people who wrote the models, “began to bring us bad news” around the time of The Limits to Growth. Now, they have got more powerful, natch, so they can give us “ever more detailed models of the coming ecological catastrophe”.

We deal with “evidence gathered by the most powerful computers”, again – rather oddly – granting them agency – and this is what makes the “new futurism” all about survival.

There is a whole progamme here on the topic they canvas in brief, namely predictive simulation as an extension of the human mind. I’m sensitised to that because I’ve just been trying to write a feature piece for a UK newspaper on modelling and policy-making, and been reminded just how much of it is going on., But even without digging around in flood control, epidemic planning, climate models or even economics it is pretty clear there is a lot of computer simulationhappening in crucial areas of science and policy.

The doc then  takes a slightly odd turn, though, after a good bit on the Chevy Volt, by arguing that the change which will really matter is something called the “cognitive computer”. This will, apparently, “give us the best chance of survival”. And it will go along with sensor networks which mean “the planet itself will function as a computer interface”. That will just give us better information, surely? No doubt that is a useful adjunct to better handling of global problems, from managing ecosystems to more efficient agriculture and monitoring and perhaps charging for carbon emissions – maybe even a prerequisite, But here it ends up sounding like a straghtforward technical fix. I suspect that is because the demands of a major channel documentary in North America call for an upbeat ending rather than because there is any very persuasive logic to it.

Still, an interesting document, and well worth watching all through. I see the same outfit have just made one on geo-engineering but not sure if that is available outside Canada…

Human extinction: appalling or appealing?

November 25, 2010

The Australian author Clive Hamilton’s recently published a book-length analysis of the roots of resistance to the truth about climate change, and why this makes it harder to do anything about it. It is a pretty convincing look at the reasons for denial. But Hamilton’s sobering essay is marked by one key miscalculation, its title.

He calls it Requiem for a Species. That is a misjudgement not because it is over the top (though it is) but because, it seems, some of us quite like the idea. The extinction of Homo sapiens is a gloomy prospect, on the face of it. Yet there is plenty of evidence just now of its appeal.

The end of all things, or just of all humans, in a flaming finis, is a fictional staple with recognisable roots in myth and religion. But the titillation of extinction is not quite the same thing as apocalypse as entertainment. I have in mind stories in a rather different mood, in which the end is, usually, more gradual. The long fade allows a few protagonists to stay around and animate the story, but this is a distraction from the main interest, which is depicting what the world would be like if we went away.

This tradition of, if you like, Last Man novels (Mary Shelley’s being the first notable example) is epitomised by George R Stewart’s great science fiction tale from the 1940s, whose titles evokes just the mood I am trying to pin down: Earth Abides. Strictly, it is not about extinction, but about the removal of civilization by a disease which does for the vast majority of humanity. But what stays in the mind are the elegiac descriptions of what happens to the world with hardly any people in it, related from the point of view of the ecologist who is the main witness of what follows.

This ambiguous mood, a kind of dark euphoria to borrow a phrase from the futurist Bruce Sterling, is also found in, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where there are some people left but it is pretty clear their days are numbered. And it animates the attention-grabbing thought experiment of Alan Weisman’s (sort of ) non-fiction book of 2007, The World Without Us. As one reviewer put it, Weisman’s book is a kind of pop-science ghost story, in which the haunted house is the Earth. The same idea was explored soon after in a two-hour documentary for the History Channel in the US, Life After People.

All these stories fascinate. And those who try and stir us to action by warning of the danger of extinction, or near-extinction – as when Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner asserts there is “no hope for humans” or James Lovelock envisages humanity reduced to “a few breeding pairs” by extreme climate change – need to consider that some may embrace the vision they want us to react against. But what, exactly, is the appeal?

**********

The most recent depictions of Earth after human extinction tend toward the Edenic. The moral of such tales appears to be that an intelligent, upright primate that uses technology to reshape its environment is an unwelcome intrusion in a natural world that would get on much better without us.

But this contemporary twist, understandable at a time when anxiety about human-induced global change is high and we are shamefaced but mostly passive witnesses to the end of innumerable other species, is a variant of an older story. That is still modern, I think – no need to go back to Ecclesiastes, or even Mary Shelley. It begins with the Victorians, and with Charles Darwin.

There were two great blows to Victorians’ belief in progress and the pointfulness of life. One was the second law of thermodynamics, put forward by Sir William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) in 1852. Its inescapable implication was that the universe would move gradually toward “heat death”, becoming old, cold and inhospitable to life. Although this dispiriting prospect was unimaginably far off, it still set a cosmic limit to progress.

Within a decade of Thompson’s unwelcome announcement Darwin put extinction in a new light in The Origin of Species. Fossils had already shown that there were creatures roaming the Earth in the past which no longer exist. Darwin made their disappearance a cornerstone of his work. Evolution by natural selection, biology’s grand unified theory, is an essentially tragic framing of the story of life. Although Darwin himself figured evolution as progressive, on occasion, others were quick to point out that it ain’t necessarily so. At best, it is a theory of creative destruction. New species supplant old ones, and the price of their appearance is extinction. Speciation can occur simply via expansion into a new niche. But equally often success of one type is at the expense of some competitor. In time, now estimated at around ten million years on average, new species become extinct in their turn. Some go on far longer than this, but overall simply disappearing is a constant possibility.

This was not an immediate threat to human hopes, but was certainly closer to home than the heat death of the universe. Darwin’s most eloquent disciple, Thomas Huxley, put the point forcefully in his classic lecture on Evolution and Ethics in 1893. There, he described human existence as precarious in a way which combined the thermodynamic and evolutionary hazards: “nature is always tending to reclaim that which her child, man, has borrowed from her and arranged in combinations which are not those favoured by the general cosmic process.”

One of Huxley’s students, H. G. Wells, showed what this meant a few years later in his great evolutionary fable The Time Machine. The most striking scenes today are not the battles between the degenerate future Morlocks and Eloi, but the glimpses of the far future of Earth which the time traveller explores when he escapes from their era. In ten intense paragraphs Wells offers snapshots of a desolate world, populated first by monstrous crab-like creatures wading through algal slime, then flashing forward to a time when even they have vanished and all that is left on an otherwise deserted beach are lichen and liverworts and “a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about”.

It is an unforgettable vision, dark and peculiarly enjoyable. Is that because it shows the ultimate futility of it all? Maybe. There can be relief in the idea that there will be an end to human striving. But there is also comfort in imagining things going on after us. That has led to many more such visions, whether of worlds where we are simply absent, or have been succeeded by creatures no longer recognisable as human. To take just one example, consider Kurt Vonnegut’s great Galapagos, another evolutionary fable shot through with his trademark black humour and featuring an aquatic species, descended from a remnant of humanity that escaped a global plague, happily bereft of higher intelligence.

Whatever the details, all these variations on extinction have one thing in common. They play on the thing we all have to try and imagine, hard as it may be: how the world will carry on after our own death. But they expand it to a larger vision of the future, in which there is a time after the death of our species. Good or bad, imagining human extinction partakes of a particular, bittersweet quality which needs a name – post-Darwinian tristesse seem to fit.