Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice… I hold with those who favor environmental disaster.

October 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

The scenario is not an uncommon one.  It is X years into the future, and the world is about to end.  But how?  Many authors would descibe a “zombie apocolypse,” some with a more scientific approach to a virus or a disease that wipes out the human race; others describe nuclear fallout, a more plausible way we could cause Armageddon since we seem to have the technology to do it; but ultimately some of the most plausible scenarios for the end of the world involve much less violence, at least at first.

The idea of an environmental disaster bringing about apocolypse is found widely in much literature, most noteably in that of science fiction.  The notion is one that fits the genre; the science behind this kind of apocolypse is interesting and easily understood by readers, plausible enough to seem to never invoke the “tooth-fairy” response more than once.  The variety availiable in environmental disasters is also a draw to writers, as who doesn’t want to be able to choose from a wealth of interesting and equally plausible scenarios for their plot?  The plot could focus on crop failure due to the genetic homogeneity  of the plants leading to suceptibility to a single devastating disease; it could highlight a disastrous disruption in the biosphere ecology and subsequently the world economy due to global climate change; the story could be one on the effect of water shortage due to overuse and pollution of the hydrosphere; it could be like that of Gregory Benford’s Timescape and focus on toxic algal blooms due to eutrification caused by agricultural runoff leading to economic disaster and death; or it could focus on one of the many more examples of disaster, all leading to world panic, likely war over resources, and ultimately bringing about a death toll higher than what we have ever seen.

Such plots draw our attention as readers because we know they could easily become real.  Such plots are less fiction to us as they are an omen of the future, and that both terrifies and intrigues us.  Every event named is one that could easily occur in the modern era.  We grow our plants in genetic monocultures, meaning they are basically clones of one another, all grown together in neat rows, ideal for a virus to target the plants and easily be transferred to entire fields overnight.  If one plant has no reistance, none of the plants will have any resistance.  We are dependent upon these monocultures to allow us to make food crops in the amount currently necessary to sustain the population.  If a staple crop such as corn collapsed, it would lead to starvation and the scarcity of resources would ultimately lead to war and death.  Chaos and apocolypse because of one virus.  Global climate change is an issue known and accepted by most, and its effects can be catastrophic.  The overall warming of the Earth’s atmosphere can lead to melting of global ice caps which in turn leads to raised sea levels, submerging coastal cities where much of the world’s population lives.  Further, the global climate change will disrupt the biosphere ecology.  These two issues combined would lead to scarcity of resources, economic disaster, war, and death.  Water shortage is an issue many in the world are already dealing with.  Besides the shortage in California, the Middle East has always dealt with water shortage issues and wars have occured many times for water rights.  We seem to use water like it is an infinite resource, though water is considered a nonrenewable resource in many states of the U.S. Water pollution and overuse around the world has caused many problems already and, especially when combined with any other of the issues mentioned, could contribute to world catastrophe.  Eutrification is an issue in itsself without the neurotoxic blooms being added in.  A normal algal bloom of algae with no neurotoxic effect will still lead to economic disruption due to the death of fish caused by hypoxic conditions created by the spike in algae and their decomposition.  When neurotoxic organisms are added into the mix, blooms become terrifying.  The infamous neurotoxic “red tides” caused by dinoflagellate blooms have occurred throughout history, but with the mass amount of runoff from fertilizers and other chemicals currently occurring the issue of their increasing frequency and severity is a real concern.  The subsequent effect on the world economy and the death tolls that would be associated with a great increase in blooms would be devastating.

The reason why works with these kinds of disasters always hit home is because they are so real, so plausible.  We as a species cause more stress on our environment than any other species combined.  We have created these issues for ourselves, but even when we see these issues in the books we read or movies we watch and recognize them as so plausible and realistic, we hardly change our actions.  We deal with the here and now and do not plan for the future, just as the society in Benford’s novel.  It seems every day we are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole and its harder and harder to get out.  It is not going to be zombies that bring about the end of the world; we are going to kill ourselves.

-Cassie Woolley

CRW

Red tide off the coast of La Jolla San Diego, California

Red tide off the coast of La Jolla San Diego, California;”La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780″. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780.jpg#/media/File:La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780.jpg

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