The guy down the street is talking about militias. He sees the signs of the coming anarchy everywhere. Especially, I’m thinking, on Fox News. But even without Fox’s fear mongering, it would be easy to become discouraged about the future of the world. Every day, the inescapable images of Jihad bombard us, new school shootings, carried out or just threatened, besiege us, and random acts of carnage seem to surround us. The moral fabric of humanity appears threadbare, on the verge of ripping apart.
It has happened before. I’ve just been reading Barbara Tuchman’s remarkable study of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror. A combination of the Black Death, which wiped out as much as 40% of the population of Europe, and endemic corruption in the Church and aristocracy, made people despair of anything good coming of the human race. They were convinced that, somehow, they had so revolted God that he resorted to torturing them willy-nilly, without regard for who was righteous and who was not. It was not God, of course, but themselves to blame, but in a way, that just makes it worse. In comparison with those troubled times, ISIS seems just a dim reflection.
But we were beyond all that barbarism, weren’t we? Or, at least, we thought we were. Taking a realistic look back at the 20th century, the standard by which we seem to be measuring the 21st, maybe not. The two world wars alone accounted for nearly 70 million official deaths, and who knows how many more were missed by the official tallies. Stalin was reportedly responsible for 50 million deaths all by himself. Add all the sideshows, and you might add half again as many. We forget the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, I suspect, mostly because they didn’t behead Europeans and Americans on TV.
All of that notwithstanding, as Stephen Pinker demonstrates in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, the world is less violent now than at any point in our history. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the daily news, and therein lies the answer. A combination of our all-news-all-the-time media and direct threats made from distant places by religious fanatics creates the impression of impending doom; reality is undoubtedly not as horrendous as it seems.
But don’t take that deep breath just yet. The other day, I noticed my internet connection having trouble, and a couple of IOT things had to be reprogrammed. It happened that this coincided with a rather lusty blast of solar radiation. A few years ago, a stronger one messed with GPS and caused all kinds of problems, but the worst instance was in 1859, something called the Carrington event. Telegraph wires were so electrified that the service was completely shut down; one operator was reportedly killed by a surge coming down the line. People could read, it was said, by the light of unusually bright Northern Lights.
More troubling from our standpoint was solar storm that occurred in March of 1989. That one fried the electrical grid of Quebec and caused a massive blackout, and it was a fraction of the estimated strength of the Carrington event. It is a certainty that something of the intensity of 1859 will happen again, sooner or later. It’s probable that even stronger solar storms have occurred before the world was wired, and they could very well return with a vengeance now that we’re virtually (pun intended) dependent on little electrons behaving the way we want them to. In short, it is possible that not only could our electrical grid get fried, but all of the data we have stored magnetically could be erased permanently. Computers, which now inhabit everything from nuclear weapons to cars to toasters would be, well, toast. I leave the full consequences to your imagination.
On the bright side, however, we will probably be done in by climate change long before any of that happens. Cheer up!