“We’re all going to die!!!”

“We’re all going to die.”

One of these two statements is always true.  This post is about the other one.  The one with the exclamation points, the warning and recognition of some impending doom.

Timing is everything.  The Sun will eventually go dark but no one is stocking up on blankets and candles in preparation.

On the other hand, as I write this post, the Kilauea volcano is burping toxic gasses and creeping with hot lava than cannot be stopped by any of man’s most powerful remedies.  The only reasonable step is to haul ass, and soon.

It seems like we are inundated with potential apocalyptic scenarios: Asteroids, bacterial or viral epidemics, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, lahar mud flows, or lightning strikes, not to mention swarms of killer bees.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about the terrible things that evil people might do to us.

This includes actions along a sliding scale ranging from bullying up to robbery, assault, rape, slavery, torture, genocide, and nuclear annihilation.

Depending on which cable news channel you watch or which FACEBOOK meme you read, the Mara Salvatrucha international crime gang (aka MI 13) is likely going to murder me in my sleep or I’ll be fried by one of Kim Jong Un’s nukes from fired from North Korea or perhaps one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s fired from Iran.

Fortunately much of the fear mongering we are exposed to is total poppycock.

In my previous post titled Truth I discussed how I try to sift through the mountain of information we are exposed to.

However, some, perhaps many, of these potential calamities are real. So even if I am able to accurately identify the most present dangers, which is no small task, I still am stuck with the dilemma: What am I going to do about it?  What can I do about it?

The first time that I recall facing possible impending doom was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Russians had started assembling nuclear missiles in Cuba within close range of the US. I remember being at Jimmy Breakell’s house along with maybe a half-dozen guys from our 10th grade Swarthmore HS class.  We were openly discussing the possibility of nuclear annihilation.  It all seemed very possible and imminent.

The seriousness in the group was in stark contrast to the more common discussions we had as teenage boys of that era: sports (The NY Yankees with Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle had just beaten the San Francisco Giants with Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, and Willie McCovey in a dramatic 7-game series which ended with the Giants being down 1 run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two runners on base hitting a line drive to the Yankees second baseman thus ending the game);  rock and roll (“Sherry” by the Four Seasons was # 1 on the Billboard Charts – The Beatles were unknown in the US until the following year); cars (think Chevrolet Monza Spyder, Pontiac Gran Prix or of course, Corvette), and girls (discretion calls for no names being used here).

In 13 days in October of 1962 innocence was lost.

The terms catastrophe and apocalyse are usually reserved for mass events that impact hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Whether thousands or just one person is involved, the consequences are pretty much the same: Injured is injured, sick is sick, and dead is dead. Webster’s Dictionary aside, it is a catastrophe when it happens to me.

At this point you might be thinking: “Yikes, there are just too many bad things that could happen, just what are we supposed to do Jim?”

There are two directions we can go when faced with real potential catastrophes.

We can act or we can do nothing, go on living, and hope for the best.

Well sure Jim, but that’s not much help. When do we act?  When do we go on with our lives as normal?

What me worry?”

Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman had this simple answer to any problem.  His modern day equivalent would be the stereotypical stoner and his “Whatever.” response to almost any situation.

As derided as these respondents might be by high-achieving-take-charge types, sometimes doing nothing is the appropriate response. Worrying about huge asteroids hitting the earth or the eventual darkening of the Sun is useless, there is nothing we can do about either.  My guess is that this is the position for most of you reading this post.

Where we start to differ in our opinions and resulting actions are in those instances where the likelihood seems more imminent.

Last year an article in National Geographic clarified/consolidated the current scientific knowledge about The Big One.  The Big One is an earthquake of level 9 on the Richter Scale. This earthquake and resulting tsunami will hit all along a huge fault in the Earth’s surface called the Cascadia Subduction Zone which is about 50 miles off the west coast running from Cape Mendocino, California to Vancouver Island, BC.   The Cascadia Subduction Zone is where the Earth’s Pacific Plate is diving underneath the North American Plate as it moves westward. The pressure builds up over time and once in a while it cuts loose.

The worst-case scenario would totally destroy all buildings in Washington State west of Interstate 5. The consensus of those who know such things is that this definitely will happen again, as it has for eons before.  The last Big One was 317 years ago and they happen on average every 500 years give or take, so we are “in the window.”

Upon reading this story, my great friend Jim Richards said he changed his dream of returning to Oregon permanently because this threat is so catastrophic.  Other Eastern, Southern, and Mid-western friends, knowing that we live west of Interstate 5 in Seattle, expressed concern that we are living literally “on the edge” and recommended that we move.

As if to put an extra jolt in people’s minds, there was an exhibit in Seattle shortly after these stories came out.  The exhibit had relics from the ancient Italian city of Pompeii showing how people were frozen in time by the ash and rocks that rained down on them during an earthquake and volcano eruption in AD 62.  I left the exhibit wondering why they had been so stupid – they should never have built their city so close to the volcano!

For smaller earthquakes like the ones they have in California, the best course of action is to have three days of emergency supplies on hand. The rationale being that, should you survive the quake initially, help will be sent soon. Unfortunately, when The Big One happens there won’t be enough resources anywhere to save us. If you survive The Big One, help won’t be arriving for the vast majority of survivors.

So the only really safe option is to move.  But I am not going anywhere.

I am of course gambling on the odds that The Big One won’t happen in the next twenty years or so, after which, should I be lucky enough to still be around, it won’t really matter much, because, as noted above, we are all going to die sometime.

Sometimes we are lucky to have options to minimize our risks. Examples include not smoking, not driving impaired, and not traveling into war zones or to the “bad side of town” late at night.  In these cases there is usually a clear right/safe decision that we can take.

When considering catastrophes we often confront the thought that we can’t impact the outcome so why bother.  Here there are differences between how we interpret the facts and the odds.  In these cases the decision to act or not has less to do with the likelihood of the event happening but rather with likelihood that actions taken will impact the outcome.

The evidence that the earth is warming is pretty undeniable as are the resultant negative impacts for mankind. Some among you may feel that the major changes in climate are a result of natural forces that are going to happen no matter what we do.  Others among you believe that actions we individually and collectively take to reduce our carbon footprint will at least delay the onset of changes that will threaten human life on earth.

One’s interpretation of the odds of something happening and the odds of being able to impact the outcome will determine to a large extent whether we act or take the Alfred E. Neumann approach and say, “What, Me Worry?”

Another factor that impacts our decision to act involves our character and our basic values.

My decision to continue to stick my head in the sand, hope for the best, and not to move away from Seattle to avoid The Big One may appear to some as ill-advised.  But my decision not to move away does not directly endanger others.

Inaction to address or act in some way to avoid a catastrophe that will impact others is less defensible.  When we ignore risks in cases where we can reduce the losses to others, we are are at least partially responsible for the outcome. In those cases we should act.

This abbreviated version of The Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, seems to be the best advice:

God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And Wisdom to know the difference.”



3 thoughts on “Apocalypse”

  1. Hi Jim,
    Great writing and I certainly agree with you on how humans are powerless when faced with natural disasters or as some call it, mother nature. We are nothing but an insignificant spec in the Universe!
    I enjoyed the time we spent together at Smith Mountain lake earlier this year.
    My wife and I are heading across the big pond on July 8th for an extended stay in Portugal. I will be checking on your blog from there.
    Best regards to you and your wife.
    Virgil T. Leques

  2. Jim – I am honored to have gotten a mention in your discussion of the Cascadia fault. I would like to point out that there is one possible mis-statement, in that I believe the interval between Cascadia fault movements is 243 years, much less than the 500 years you stated. Here is the quote from the article, which really is contending that the next Cascadia fault movement is actually 72 years overdue, on average, which is only one of several reasons why I decided not to re-settle in western Oregon for retirement. Of course, the likelihood that it will move in the next 20 years is perhaps relatively low:

    “Thanks to that work, we now know that the Pacific Northwest has experienced forty-one subduction-zone earthquakes in the past ten thousand years. If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval: the average amount of time that elapses between earthquakes. That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long—long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line—and because it is not long enough. Counting from the earthquake of 1700, we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle.”

  3. Thanks for the correction Jim, I think. This makes it even more of a risk than I was anticipating. I’m not sure this will change my decision, but other younger readers from the Pacific Northwest might want to reconsider theirs. My assumption being that the odds of an event increase a little each year. Yikes.

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