Monday, February 4, 2013

The End of the World

I’ve been reading — rereading, actually — Our Final Hour, a fascinating and depressing little book by Sir Martin Rees, a cosmologist and the British Astronomer Royal. The subtitle, A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century ­on Earth and Beyond, pretty much says it all. 

Rees believes that civilization has no more than a 50-50 chance of making it through this century, and he gives those who are so inclined an impressive list of things to obsess about. There are the usual suspects: nuclear war, asteroid impact, nearby supernova, massive volcanic eruption, pandemic, nanotechnology run amok, and evil computers. There’s also the highly unlikely but disheartening possibility that physicists fooling around with subatomic particles and high energies might accidentally unravel space-time itself. The upside of this particular scenario is that the destruction would propagate at the speed of light, so there wouldn’t be much time for regrets.

I don’t think I’m the only one intrigued by this sort of thing. The book was published, after all, and it’s just one title in what might be thought of as the apocalyptic non-fiction genre. These books are written for an adult audience, which raises a question: where are the dystopian non-fiction books for children?

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim makes a convincing case for the therapeutic value of those gruesome Grimm Brother’s stories. The witches, evil stepmothers and monsters give young children a vehicle for acknowledging and externalizing their own dark impulses — feelings that they are just becoming aware of. Older children are certainly exposed to many of the catastrophic possibilities that Rees discusses, which might help to explain the popularity of YA dystopian fiction, much of which is as dark as any real-life scenario we could imagine. Personally, I would have appreciated some factual and unpatronizing information about the consequences of all-out nuclear war back in the duck-and-cover days, when we were advised to turn away from the windows and get under our desks when we saw the flash.

It’s interesting that children’s non-fiction doesn’t shy away from dreadful episodes in the past — plagues, wars, natural disasters and genocides get plenty of attention. Unless there are titles I’m overlooking (a definite possibility), I don’t see children’s non-fiction that speculates about really bad scenarios in the future. I did come across a frightening volume titled A Kid’s Guide to Understanding the End Times, by the authors of the Left Behind series, but I don’t think it qualifies as non-fiction (no link for this one — you’ll have to dig it up on your own). There are plenty of books that deal with serious social and environmental issues that lie ahead, but their tone tends towards “here’s what you can do to help fight global warming.” I don’t have anything against optimism and positive action, but if that asteroid we failed to detect does hit (giving us, Rees says, about three seconds warning), recycling won’t make much of a difference.

I’m speculating that it is reluctance on the part of the adult gatekeepers rather than a lack of interest on the part of young readers that explains the absence of these books. It makes a certain amount of sense — we are more comfortable learning about terrible things in the past, because the fact that we’re reading about them means we probably weren’t directly affected.

Now, here’s a segue I could only get away with in a blog (i.e., with no editor to point out what a stretch it is). I’ve been playing with a concept about what life might look like at some point in the distant future, and it’s occurred to me that — like attitudes toward Armageddon — opinions about evolution are not symmetrical with regard to time. (I couldn’t write a blog without some reference to this subject. Sort of like Gail Collins and that dog strapped to the roof, at least until last November). I have no real evidence for this observation, but here it is: if asked whether at least some living things might change over time and be different in the distant future, I think many of the 40-odd percent of Americans who deny that anything has evolved to this point would accept the premise. If it’s true, it offers the possibility of presenting an important scientific concept without the fear and loathing the subject normally inspires. Unless, of course, that asteroid makes the whole subject moot.


JK said...

Kids at my school would go ape for a kid-leveled book on this topic, and I'd be pretty interested myself.

Fortunate One said...

I broached the topic of a future world and the bleak possibilities with a fifth grade class last year, and that got their attention, but they didn't seem to know whether to believe me. I got the impression that those topics weren't being talked about at home. I found reluctance on the part of teachers to address these topics except in very vague or brief terms. A handful of students recalled the Deepwater Horizon event and its immediate consequences but didn't connect it to anything they were learning.

I think students should be informed rather than protected from nasty things. I think we under estimate them, and patronize them. If we treat them like the future leaders of the world they will become, perhaps they will avoid the catastrophic mistakes my generation has made.