The End Is Here!
"We're All Gonna Die!" by Gregg Easterbrook, in Wired (July 2003), P.O. Box 37706, Boone, Iowa 50037-706.
Nowadays, just reading the daily newspaper can give you the willies. The bad news: We're all going to die. The worse news: There's no limit to the things that can kill us. Where we go wrong, writes Easterbrook, a senior editor with The New Republic, is in separating the real, imminent threats from perils that are just too remote to worry about.
Consider the smallpox scare, for instance. "Weaponized smallpox escaped from a Soviet laboratory in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, in 1971," reports the author. "Three people died, no epidemic followed." A similar incident killed 68 people outside Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinaberg) in 1979. Again, no epidemic. Although it's possible that "some aspiring Dr. Evil will invent a bug that bypasses the immune system," the fact remains that, even including the Black Death, "no superplague has ever come close to wiping out humanity before."
The potential threat from chemical weapons seems similarly overplayed. While movies and the news media focus on "noxious clouds of death" floating across cities, in reality "a severe chemical attack likely would be confined to a few city blocks."
Are there doomsday scenarios we should worry about? You bet, chief among them the eruption of supervolcanoes and collisions with large asteroids. The U.S. Geological Survey has identified a supervolcano ripe to explode beneath the smoking geysers in Yellowstone National Park, a cataclysm that could make the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption pale by comparison. Such eruptions in the past have sometimes triggered global climatic changes and, perhaps, mass extinctions. That's what may have done in the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But other evidence points to the impact of a huge asteroid striking near Mexico. …