Will We End with a Bang or a Whimper?

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I’ve been following hurricanes for a number of years and I’ve kept up with other weather-related issues as well. One thing that I have learned is that peope with a casual eye towards science and weather are often fond of predicting gloom and doom much the way Hollywood does it on a semi-regular basis.

Some predictions of the destruction of the human race (some say “destruction of the planet,” but we all understand that the earth will likely survive long beyond us) fall into the category of documentary. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” or Discovery Channel shows about killer volcanoes and asteroids would meet this criteria.

They play on our fears in order to spur us to action – better care of the environment, vigilance over the potential dangers in the natural world, etc. But, at their core, they are about taking the facts and giving us a spin that scares into the belief that not only are we destroying ourselves, but that we stand to go out in a blaze of glory.

Big budget movies from aliens to weather events to nuclear holocaust take that idea to a far greater level showing us the fragility and incomprehensible capacity for humans to destroy ourselves.

With all the death and destruction inherent in all this, I’m often reminded of Shelly poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Here’s this mighty king who thinks so much of himself that he builds a great monument to his kingdom to demonstrate his ferocity and stand as a telling homage to his fortitude. Years later, however, no one even remembers his kingdom, let alone the king, and all that remains is this shattered visage that once was a great and vast domain.

We humans have an over-inflated view of ourselves. We see ourselves burning up in a massive solar flare or destroyed by killer hurricanes spurred by global warming or wiped out in nuclear oblivion. It’s as if we need to see our end as fantastic and almost other worldly in order to consider ourselves important. We need our destruction to be greater than our creation – assuming you go with Darwin’s version rather than the Biblical version – something to look upon ye mighty and despair.

On the other hand, we are just as likely to die off like other species – through the slow, cruel hands of time. No fanfare. No parade. No fire in the sky. Just a slow, fateful extinction that claims a race of people just as it has claimed civilizations and worlds before us.

Maybe a more appropriate poem is TS Elliot’s “Hollow Men,” in which he calls us “quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass.” Like Elliot, I sometimes wonder if our existence will end much like his poem…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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