The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Get Ready! the World Is Coming to an End [Chalice]
-- Or Is It?

This service was also recorded live.
30:20 minutes - 12.2 MB - Get Ready! the World Is Coming to an End -- Or Is It? .mp3 file.

Presented October 14, 2007, by Paul Miller

Get ready! The world is coming to an end! I know because I occasionally watch local Channel 16, the Jesus Channel. I get a kick out of Reverend Jack Van Impe and his big-haired consort, Rexella, gleefully foretelling the end times. Jesus is coming, and the battle of Armageddon is near! Every generation has its prophets of doom. The apostles thought the world was going to end in a week or two. Some still think so.

But this heathen is more interested in what the scientists say. Is there any reason to expect an imminent global catastrophe?

In our planet's 5 billion year history, we've already had 4 mass extinctions, most famously, the dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago. We're pretty sure that one was caused by a big (really big) meteorite. There are still plenty of asteroids crossing our orbit that could do the same thing to us, but let's don't get our knickers in a knot. The chance of a doomsday asteroid impact in the next thousand years in extremely low.

A more clear and present danger is climate change. I'm not as freaked out about global warming as Ozone Al, but it is a real problem. The most important variable determining our climate is, of course, the output of the Sun. Astrophysicists tell us that stars like our sun get brighter and hotter as they age. 4 billion years ago solar output is believed to have been 25% less than now, and the atmosphere was 10% CO2. (500 times what it is now) That's a heck of a lot of greenhouse gas. The earth was 14° C warmer than now. Since then, the Earth has cooled as plants lowered atmospheric CO2 to the present level of 380 ppm.

So do we really need to worry about a lousy few hundred ppm of CO2? If the Earth is to stay close to its present mean temperature as the Sun gets hotter, CO2 will have to decrease, eventually to zero, 100 million years from now. However, we are already close to the minimum CO2 level for plants to live. Plants like it warm, however. Plants could keep growing on a warmer Earth for another billion years after we all die from heat stroke, or move to Antarctica, or maybe to Mars. After 2 billion years or so, the party is over for even the extreme thermophiles. The Sun will go nova, swelling to engulf the inner planets, including Earth and Mars. Maybe whatever life form replaces us by then will have the technology to emigrate to the moons of Uranus.

Come what may, a billion years hence, I am personally more concerned with more immediate threats. What global catastrophes may befall us in out own lifetimes?

Nuclear war is far less likely than it was during the cold war. Sure, we can expect the occasional nuclear terrorist attack, but not a nuclear world war.

The literal end of the world seems pretty unlikely, but what about the next worst thing, the collapse of modern civilization? It has happened to many civilizations before us, for many of the same reasons. Our civilization faces many of the same threats that destroyed previous societies. Let's look at one example, the Anasazi American Indians. Why the Anasazi? Just because Sam and I visited their ruins this summer. Hundreds of years ago, the Navajo Indians found these ruins, and they named the vanished people "Anasazi" meaning "ancient ones". The Ancient Ones thrived and built an advanced society in the American Southwest, which supported a much larger population than the area does now. Then they disappeared from their farms and cities. Why did their society collapse? For many reasons, all of which apply to us.

If you are ever in Southwest Colorado, I recommend a visit to Mesa Verde National Park, and I recommend you do it on a motorcycle. Just the ride in is worth the price of admission. It is east to see why the Anasazi wanted to live there. As the name implies, the mesa is green with pinyon pine and juniper. It is dry compared to Quincy, but it is relatively wet for the area. Most years, crops can get enough water from summer thunderstorms. (Like the storm that soaked us on the motorcycle.)

About 50 miles south, in New Mexico, you can visit other Anasazi ruins at Aztec and Chaco Canyon. These are in real desert. (We got rained on there, too, but not soaked like at Mesa Verde.) I was impressed to see the arid landscape, and to know that 1000 years ago, their ancient agricultural system was sophisticated enough to feed a large population. How did they do it? They had several ways to get enough water for farming.

One was dry-land agriculture, which means planting at high elevations where there is enough rain to grow crops without irrigation. This worked in places like Mesa Verde, but it is not only wetter on top of the Mesa. It is also colder, so in a cool year, crops might not grow.

A second technique was to plant near the bottom of canyons, where the water table was close enough to the surface that plant roots could get to groundwater. This worked for a while. Then, as population grew, farms extended uphill into more marginal areas during wet years. Then when dry weather returned, the ground water got used up, and crops failed.

The third technique was to build dams and irrigation ditches. The Anasazi had the most extensive irrigation system in the Americas outside Peru, with hundreds of miles of secondary canals branching off a main canal 16 feet deep and 80 feet wide. Thus, it was possible to grow lots of food, even in dry years. But what happens in a wet year? The huge amount of water rushing through the canals scours out a deep channel. Now the water level is so far below the field, that irrigation is no longer effective. Advanced though they were for their tine, they had not invented irrigation pumps. Besides, the topsoil had been washed away.

Deforestation was a problem, too. At the Aztec ruins in New Mexico, we saw stone houses made with beams of pine, shingles of split juniper, and poles of aspen. Where did they get the trees? There is hardly anything growing around there but sagebrush. That question has been answered with the help of our friends, the packrats. Packrats have little to do with end-of-the world scenarios, but I find this interesting, so I beg you to humor me for a moment.

Everyone knows that packrats bring things home and pile them in their nests. They only travel a few dozen yards to collect their treasures. They build nests, or middens, of stuff like sticks, pine needles, food remains, small bones, and their own feces. Having the hygienic standards of rats, they urinate in their own nests. The urine dries and cements the midden to a brick-like consistency. After a few decades, the upwardly-mobile packrat family moves out, and builds a new nest. In the arid southwestern climate, a packrat midden can remain intact for thousands of years. Thus, the helpful packrat has provided us with a time capsule containing local vegetation collected from a small area over a period of a few decades. Middens dated by radiocarbon analysis before AD 1000 contained lots of pine and juniper needles. Middens dated after 1000 had none. By then the area had been completely deforested, and it remains so today.

Timbers used in construction were dated by dendrochronology, which is a $20 word for the pattern of growth rings in the log. Sure enough, all the pinyon pine used in the buildings was cut before AD 1000. Thereafter, they were built with ponderosa pine, spruce, and fir imported from mountains 50 miles or more away. A housing boom started in 1029. About 200,000 logs weighing up to 700 pounds each were carried to the city to build houses for their expanding population.

Deforestation meant not only less building material. Forest also provides fuel, and 2 important sources of protein; pinyon nuts and deer. Trash piles and caprolites (that's a polite word for preserved feces) indicate diet changed as trees disappeared. People ate less deer and more rabbit. Then less rabbit and more mice. Remains of complete headless mice in human caprolites suggest people were catching mice, pulling their little heads off and swallowing them whole. May I never be so hungry as that!

By the year 1110, houses were being built with defensive walls. Apparently, civil order was deteriorating. Things had already started going bad when a drought began around 1130. We know from tree rings that they had survived similar droughts around 1040 and1090, but this time there were too many people in an area that was marginal for food production even in good times. The forest was gone. The soil was depleted or washed away. Irrigation canals had become canyons.

Many people starved to death, and some killed each other

How bad did it get? It must have gotten very bad, indeed. In one house ruin, the bones of 7 people had been scattered about. Some of the boned had been cracked as though to extract the marrow, and some bones had smooth ends, indicating they had been boiled in pots. Dried human feces (excuse me; caprolites) on the house's hearth contain human muscle protein. Oh for the good old days when they could get their protein by swallowing decapitated mice.

By the time Columbus landed in the West Indies, the Anasazi people of Chaco Canyon, Mimbres, Mesa Verde, Hohokam, Mogollan, and others had perished or deserted their once prosperous cities and farms. The survivors fled to other areas. They are the ancestors of modern pueblo Indians like the Zuni and Hopi.

I could tell the same sad story about Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, the Greenland Norse, the Maya, or any one of many collapses societies. They were destroyed by a combination of such factors as overpopulation, environmental damage, climate change, and fighting. The lessons are the same for our modern world.

What are the biggest threats to our modern civilization? Jared Diamond lists 12 of them in his excellent book Collapse. The first 7 items could broadly be called resource depletion.

The next 3 items involve things we introduce to the environment.

The last 2 involve population growth.

Wow, it looks pretty bleak, doesn't it? Are we sufficiently depressed? Were I a quitter, I would suggest we sing one more dirge and go cry in our coffee. Is there any hope? Before we give up, let's review the list of problems and ask if anything can be done before we go the way of the Ancient Ones.

Perhaps technology will save us. Technology has done much to help. Higher crop yields and cleaner cars, for example. Technology also enables us to destroy our environment more efficiently. One man with a chain saw and a bulldozer can wreak more environmental havoc in a day than an Anasazi farmer could do in a lifetime.

New technology will help, but only if we have the wisdom to use appropriate technology appropriately. Knowledge is abundant, Wisdom is scarce.

So, what can be done? Natural habitats can be protected. NGO's, like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund are particularly effective at constructive solutions benefiting both environment and business. Deforestation can be reversed, and we can continue to supply our forest product needs if timber production is properly managed.

NGO's can't do it all. It will take cooperation from developing world governments and money from developed world governments. In 2000, about $6 Billion was being allotted annually from combined government and private sources to sustain all of Earth's ecosystems. (Source: The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson) A one-time investment of $30 billion could permanently protect 1.2 million Km2 of wildlife habitat, containing an estimated 70% of Earth's plant and animal species. $30 billion is a lot of money, but it's a lot of bang for the buck, compared to the $200 billion our president wants to fund his war for one more year. I know where I would rather spend my money.

We are depleting our fisheries, not because we eat too much fish, but because we mismanage, or fail to manage our fisheries. Eliminating perverse subsidies would be a good start. The estimated market price of the world's fish catch in 1989 was $70 billion. The cost of catching the fish, including subsidies was $124 billion. (source: Perverse Subsidies, Myers and Jennifer Kent) Second, international cap and trade fishing quotas could ensure everybody gets enough fish because nobody takes too much. New Zealand has already been successful at protecting their fisheries and their fishermen with cap and trade quotas. It really works.

Soil can be preserved by smarter agriculture. Smart farmers are already doing it. Slash and burn farmers will go broke and starve.

Our dwindling fossil fuel supply will be used more frugally when the price of gasoline rises to $10 per gallon. We already have the technology to make cars go 50 miles per gallon. Here, again, perverse subsidies must be eliminated. Worldwide subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear energy were $110 billion in 1998. Instead of being subsidized, fuel could be taxed so that the pump price reflects the actual cost to society and the environment.

If you think pollution in the US is bad now, do you remember the 60's? For example, the river in my hometown of Hinsdale, N.H. was grey and foamy with paper mill effluent. Now it's clear and clean. Levels of the 6 major air pollutants have declined 25%, even though energy consumption has increased 40%, and vehicle miles driven increased 150%. Increased use of clean technology can continue to reduce pollution while the economy grows.

Governments have shown that they can work together to address global environmental threats. For example, the Montreal Protocol has worked to reduce, and will eventually eliminate, excess CFC's, which deplete the ozone layer. The Kyoto Protocol, addressing greenhouse gasses, has taken off like a lead blimp, but if the US and China get on board, the problem of global warming can be addressed, maybe even before Florida goes the way of Atlantis.

Birth rates in the developed world are slowing to replacement level or less. Birth rates in the undeveloped world are still high, but much of that is because women who want birth control can't get it. This could improve if our next president supports the UN population fund. Maybe the next pope will endorse contraception, or at least accept it as a lesser sin than making more starving Catholic children. Education and economic development lead to lower birth rates as women no longer need to rely on their uteruses for security.

The population will decrease, sooner or later, by one means or another. I hope it will be by voluntary family planning. Or, given the proliferation of drug resistant germs, and the speed with which we travel around the globe, carrying our resident microbes with us, a plague may solve the problem for us. Even that would be better than the fate of the Anasazi.

Scientists are working on some outrageous global remediation plans. For example, Most of the deep ocean has no plant life because the nutrients are on the bottom, and the sunlight is on top. Huge vertical tubes could be floated in the ocean, and use wave motion to pump nutrient-rich water to the surface. This would enable algae to flourish and remove huge amounts of CO2 from the air. Schemes like this sound wacky, and some won't work, but some will. Scientists are experimenting with them now in case we need them later.

The threats to the modern world are severe and imminent, but not insoluble. All of us in this globalized, shrinking world are in the same boat as the Anasazi at the peak of their civilization. But we have one very important advantage. We have knowledge of past failures and the reasons for them. We can learn from the mistakes of collapsed societies. There is hope that we can correct our own mistakes before we repeat the Ancient Ones' ultimate failure.

The modern world's problems can be solved, and the future can be even better than the present for all of nature, including humankind. Time is short. Is the world coming to an end? Surely not, but our decisions in the next few years will determine whether our civilization will come to an end.

©2007 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul. 2007. Get Ready! the World Is Coming to an End -- Or Is It?, /talks/20071014.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.