Is the Planet Earth Living on Borrowed Time?

On Saturday, February 17, 2024, an article in the New York Times online edition by David Sanger and Julian Barnes reported that the United States has evidence that a new satellite designed by the Russians when launched may contain a nuclear weapon. Their assessment was based on top secret information now being shared with high-level Chinese and Indian officials, who have closer ties to Putin and the Russian government, presumably to convince the Russians to stop the launch. The primary purpose of the weapon would be to destroy the satellites of its adversaries, primarily the United States. Should this happen, virtually all communications we routinely rely on would be destroyed such as cell phones, the internet, radio, and television, and many other things which rely on satellites. While this act would be a violation of international law and the nuclear arms agreement we have with Russia, there is little question that Russia has the technology to do this as does the United States and many other advanced countries. If Russia goes through with this, how long will it be before we launch our own nuclear-armed satellite or that China or North Korea or India will follow? Welcome to Star Wars!

Does this situation remind you of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Here we go again. One more horrible thing to think about. Don’t we have enough on our plate already with climate change and global warming, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the massive migrations to our southern border by persons seeking a better life, the rise of authoritarianism,  all the threats that A.I. is likely to bring, and the thought of another Trump Presidency?

At what point does all of this become too much for our small planet to handle? The match that ignites the haystack may not even be intentional. Some mistake by a technician somewhere punching the wrong button which signals a message of Armageddon to his country’s adversaries, which must respond in kind. Or maybe the villain is A.I. Remember Hal in “2001 Space Odyssey”?

I can hear some readers objecting, “Will you stop all this negative, doomsday thinking and relax? There is nothing we can do about it, so why bother? Just enjoy the life you have now and the beautiful planet you live on. There is so much to be thankful for. And surely at your advanced age it will not affect you.”

Well, you have a point. But I can’t help thinking that at some point, the weight the planet is bearing will simply be too much. Something very bad will happen. Not in my lifetime and hopefully not in the lifetime of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, but sometime. Unless we humans can change our nature, conflict will continue to be part of our existence, and so far just about every weapon we humans have created has been used.

In previous posts I have been obsessed with how old our planet is and how short the time we humans have been on center stage. Our sun and solar system are over four billion years old. We human-like creatures have been around only a few million years and we Homo sapiens only a few hundred thousand. Modern humans only a few thousand. Afterall, written language was developed only about 7,000 years ago, and the size of the human population remained steady in the low millions for many thousands of years until a few centuries ago. The human population explosion began in the Industrial Revolution and has now reached over eight billion.

While I do not want to be a doomsday fanatic, I can’t see the path we are on continuing for a whole lot longer without serious calamity. Afterall, if you have been reading my blog you know that our planet has already had five mass extensions where over 80% of all planet and animal was wiped out. These have occurred on average every 130 to 150 million years. It has been about 130 million years since the last mass extension, and scientists say that we are now entering the Sixth Mass Extension due to loss of animal habitats—due mainly to us humans.  What are the chances that we Homo sapiens will we be part of the Sixth Mass Extension?

Unsettling questions to be sure but as they say in Washington, “above our pay grade” to answer. Better just to forget about the possible disasters and get on with our lives.

But there are people who do keep track of such things. Have you heard of the “Doomsday Clock”? A group of nuclear scientists came up with the idea in 1947 as a warning to the world as to the dangers of nuclear war. The group publishes “The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,” which has updated the time left before “midnight” every January since its inception when the atomic scientists voted to set the clock at seven minutes to midnight. When the minute and second hand hit midnight, it essentially signals the end of the world—at least the end of the world as we have known it. In the early years, the major fear was nuclear catastrophe, but the threats have been expanded to include climate change and, recently, artificial intelligence. Note that the clock has fluctuated over the years  with the most optimistic estimate of 17 minutes before midnight in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was updated in 2023 to show 90 seconds, with no change in 2024, the closest to doomsday that it has ever been. Of course, this is only a metaphor of where the world stands regarding existential threats, and the scientists do not say exactly how long a “second” is—a year, a decade, a century?

But still. Is there any doubt that the fragile planet we inhabit is in danger? It is one thing to cry “the sky is falling” like Chicken Little without doing anything to avert the looming catastrophe and another to take decisive action now to move the hands on the clock back. This is the existential challenge of our era. The stakes have never been higher.

5 thoughts on “Is the Planet Earth Living on Borrowed Time?

  1. And in the Henny Penny tales from Europe early on, the character representing the character we call Chicken Little in the U.S. is eaten by the fox.

  2. Yup! And we are the problem: so how do we get the message through that unless each one of us accepts personal responsibility – e.g the votes we cast (if we’re in a democracy), the choices we make (including the cars we buy , the holidays we take, etc) , the sacrifices we’re prepared to make (spending less on self and more v poverty etc) nothing will change.
    What’s your take on all this, Joe? More detail would make it more real.

    1. Alas, good friend, I have no answer beyond what you have pointed out in your excellent comments.What more should the faith community be doing? This is your field, Reverend.

  3. I recommend that you watch ‘Resident Alien’ (an American science fiction mystery comedy-drama television series created by Chris Sheridan, based on the comic book of the same title by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse) now on Netflix. It will a) help you stop all this negative, doomsday thinking and relax, b) notch down your fear-factor a bit and get back to worrying about a Drump presidency, but mainly c) give you a good laugh waiting for some alien to blow up the world.

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