Memento Mori

The modern tradition of disaster-forecasting has become a part of the fabric of the developed world.  An author sits calmly, I imagine, at his (in this case) desk and click-clacks out a presumptuous and disquieting headline declaring something like, Insects Are In Serious Trouble.  And the report or article the author churns out may be based on solid evidence that portends a real trend.  Or not.  The lay reader likely will never know.  But so stands the article: full of fear and foreboding.

On a routine basis, publications across the globe, in paper and online, coming from big metros and tiny towns, all seek to be the first to state ecological Armageddon is upon us.  And these kinds of declarations occur with some frequency.  But, I take umbrage with a certain word and its role in these revelatory prophesies of doom and dismay: “will.”  As in, “If they disappear, ecosystems everywhere will collapse.”

The trouble I have with “will” is a person’s stark inability to predict the future.  “Will” implies “must,” “definitely going to happen,” “a certainty,” and “death and taxes.”  The problem then with using “will” in announcing the end of ecosystems “everywhere,” you might ask?

Nothing “must,” in this world.  That is, there is just no solid, measurable reason why anything is the way it is on this planet or in this universe.  Things are, events happen.  They are good to us or others, bad to us or others, or, like unsweetened tea, they just sit there.

To say that, “if X, then the world will end,” or, “if Y, the ecosystems of this planet will dry up, die off, and cease,” is to do a foolish thing: namely, to make these statements is to predict the future.  But not just any future–to predict the end of life.

Few people fully understand evolution, evolutionary biology, or biology.  Fewer still, if any, understand why we have any life at all.  Why is there something here that stirs or grows rather than the void?  Perhaps, this was the question the author(s) of Genesis arrived at before putting pen to parchment.

And if we do not understand the beginning of the story, how is it that we feel confident, in the middle of the story, to take one observation (i.e., there are fewer insects now than there once were) and extrapolate to the apocalypse from there?  Moreover, why declare the disease terminal so soon?  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that what is an essential cog in the Earth’s biological apparatus will (see there I go prophesying) be replaced by some other living creature?

There are obvious reasons.  If it bleeds, it leads, but if it portends the end of times, it will make the headlines.  In addition, you can sneak some unsuspecting reader a healthy dose of science if you get their attention by shouting, “the world is at the brink!”

Still, my main issue is that the world’s end–or the nearness of that end–is always “news” or “motivating information” for people.  Surely, no one reading this believes things will go on forever?  You do not believe you are immortal, do you?

All the life on this planet will, someday, no longer be “alive,” in our understanding of that term.  What’s more, this planet will someday be inhospitable to life as we recognize it, whether we accelerate that process or not.

Life is precious because it is fragile and fleeting.  This has always been the case.  But, life is also mysterious and resilient – points modern-day doomsday prophets neglect or bury somewhere towards the bottom of their articles.

It is important to know and remember that someday we will die and that life is shorter than we believe.  And, perhaps, the modern practice of announcing the inevitable end of some species or other is part of the clunky ritual of reminding us to remember this truth.  Still, I think it is a better practice to tell people, calmly and with as much sober reason as one can muster, that death is natural and that some creature or kind of creature has played its final role on this planet.

We, humans, are blessed with much.  One of the greatest of those blessings is awareness.  But that awareness does not give exempt us from fate.

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