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November, 2001, Volume 9 Nr. 3, Issue 99


In the movie, "Contact" inspired by a book by the same name written by Carl Sagan, the SETI scientist searching for signs of extraterrestrial life, Ellie Arroway, comes in contact with that life in the form and appearance of her father Ted Arroway.  Ellie's intergalactic conduit says, "You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares."  September 11 was a nightmare.  The aftermath was a nightmare.  The nightmare continues.   Perhaps, nightmare, is much too pleasant a word for these events.  The word suggests a horror from which one can awake.  The events of the past two months are, for many people in particular and for humanity in general, an ongoing depression.

The alien as Ted Arroway, in its few line depiction of the state of humanity, summarizes the contradiction of human experience throughout its existence.   This contradiction includes the inherent human inability to move away from the destructive polarity of good versus evil as euphemism for us versus them.  Worse, the contradiction, in this the third millennium, is on the cusp of yet another dichotomy, that being, whether the species survives or not.  

Past issues of Metaphoria, included articles written about an impending crisis that would, depending upon human decision, determine our species survival.  I believe that the time for that decision has passed, and, as typical, humanity has chosen the arrogance and self-destructiveness of violence, once again.  And, in the quest of defending that arrogance, violence, once again, is being used as a means of preventing or stopping  violence. 

Consider the arrogance of humanity.  It believes in an omniscient power gratifying upon it a special largesse.  Collective humanity believes itself to be uniquely privileged through a divinely conferred elitist status with dominion over all other species.  Collectively, it believes in its own inevitability of supremacy by design and excludes itself from the possibility of becoming one of the "more than 99% of all organisms that ever lived" and "are now extinct".  The eschatology of many "believers" pursues and welcomes the extinction of humanity as a divine conclusion.  Cherish the end as there are, the philosophy goes, better things to come in the afterlife.


Catastrophic events, such as extraterrestrial impact bodies, microtektites and weak iridium anomalies cause extinction.  Catastrophe, thus plays an important role in species extinction.  Imagine the planetary consequences of the  asteroidal collision that created the Gulf of Mexico pushing outward and upward sculpturing above-water ridges of the land mass we now call Cuba.   As a consequence of such catastrophe some species disappear.  Such grand-scale extrinsic causes of extinction are random.  None, thus far, have  occurred within human history nor recollection.  They are in contrast to intrinsic causes which include the genetic proclivity of some species to survive go extinct.

The effect of external catastrophe is obvious.  Internal catastrophe is less obvious.  With technological advancement, it is, however, becoming more onerous.  For example, the mass-extinction crisis forecast for the immediate future as a consequence of global habitat loss is not encouraging.  The loss of rainforests is estimated to foster the extinction alone of 10-22% of terrestrial species in next 40 years or so. Other intrinsic catastrophe include green house gases, virulent disease evolution as a consequence of antibiotic overuse and/or the massive introduction of biological warfare agents (anthrax, smallpox, botulism, tularemia etc.), nuclear winter, decrease in potable water availability, overpopulation, etc. 

Human optimism is tempered by minds such as Stephen Hawking's who states, "I am afraid the atmosphere might get hotter and hotter until it will be like Venus with boiling sulfuric acid...I am worried about the greenhouse effect."   Hawking's  projection optimistically foresees the extinction of humanity within a millennium.   I give it much less time than that.  As a solution, Hawking suggests human transplantation into space where "at least it would ensure that people don't become extinct."  

Hawking does not offer how to prevent extinction, rather how to circumvent or cheat it.  In my mind, this is analogous to the regressive mindset that ignores the pursuit of difficult solutions in favor of quick, short-sighted and often self-fulfilling prophetic courses of action.  No need, for example, to eliminate the causes of war when bigger wars and bigger weapons of war (as the thinking goes) can lead to victory in those wars.  No need to resolve the issues that lead to the terror of September 11, when reciprocal and bigger terror (under any name but) can be used in victorious vengeance. 

On October 16, 2001, in an interview with BBC, Stephen Hawking further stated, "The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a virus that destroys us."  Congress, in 1985 mandated that the United States destroy more than 98% of its chemical weapons stockpile (Public Law 99-145).  All unitary chemical weapons are to be destroyed by 2004."   While a positive turn of events in eliminating chemical weapons, consider the following statistics within the context of the mindset that found it necessary to create the agents in the first place:

Original Total of US Chemical Weapons Slotted For Destruction: 31,496 tons

Remaining Tonnage of US Chemical Weapons To Be Destroyed: 24,144 tons

(Statistics from the The Henry L. Simpson, Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project, dated September 17, 2001.)

What possesses humanity to expend its resources in creating  and stockpiling such agents?  The paranoia of nationhood replaces the paranoia of the tribe while progress is defined by how dangerous the now much larger rocks are that we can hurl  at each other.  As one Star Trek joke so aptly puts it, "Beam me up Scottie.  There is no intelligent life down here."

Consider the totality of humanity and its current intrinsic self-extinction weapons capability.  The United States has spent 5-trillion dollars on nuclear weapons since 1945, a time at which no plutonium existed on the face of the Earth.  Nick Bostrom, in his piece, Existential Risks Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards, calls the detonation of the first atomic bomb, "The first manmade existential risk."  The existential risk increased with the build-up of nuclear arsenals in the US and the USSR.

In 1998, the declared plutonium inventory for military stockpiles were 248 tons for the nuclear states: United States (100), Russia (130), Britain (7.6), France (5), China (4), Israel (.46), India (0.29), Pakistan (?).  The rocks are plentiful and are becoming easier to procure. 

Small Rocks

The near future has a new rock, albeit a small one to offer as possible ammunition, or perhaps as intrinsic catastrophic accident waiting to happen.   Nanotechnology research is advancing the ability to place every atom exactly in the right place during the manufacturing process.  Nanobots, i.e, robots on a molecular scale are not only possible, but are presently being developed and tested engendering research on a global scale.  Bionanotechnology suggests the possibility of manipulating living nanostructures in the biological environment.  By the year 2020, nanomedicine may well be a reality, that is, the creation of synthetic medicines and materials for use in medical applications within the human body.  These include microsensors, cancer destruction agents, synthetic red blood cells and mitochondria.  The idea is to synthesize proteins, viruses and bacteria.  I do not doubt the good intentions of many biotechnology researchers.  It is a noble cause to create a cancer-eliminating biotechnology agent.  My doubts and apprehension come from technologic and scientific progress without the parallel progress in human thinking and collective behavior as it pertains to dealing with each other.

Bostrom cites the possibility of the deliberate misuse of nanotechnology.  He states,

In a more mature form, molecular nanotechnology will enable the construction of bacterium-scale self-replicating mechanical robots that could feed on dirt and other organic matter. Such replicators can eat up the biosphere or destroy it by other means such as by poisoning it, burning it, or blocking out sunlight. A person of malicious intent in possession of this technology may be able to cause the extinction of intelligent life on Earth by releasing such nanobots into the environment.

The Proclivity to Throw

None of these scientific advances are, in and of themselves, cause for alarm.  It, is however, the lack of human development toward conflict resolution and the inability of moving beyond the tribalist mentality, i.e., the survival of the fittest that transforms the advances into ever more dangerous rocks waiting to be thrown during the next conflict.  These rocks take many forms.   They include passenger airliners and cluster bombs, anthrax and embargoes, landmines and lack of medicine, imperialism and predatory capitalism.  

Imagine if the same multi-trillion dollar resources were pumped into eliminating the global causes of social injustice and eliminating the causes of war.  What true progress humanity might make then?

The October-November issue of The Catholic Worker newsletter offers the following in regard to the events of and after September 11, 2001,

In the first few days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, as we strive to understand, as we continue to work, search for hope and pray, we also ask again and again for forgiveness.  Please, forgive us, as our civilizations continue to unfold their long histories of violence.  Forgive us our anger, hate and drive for retribution.  Forgive us our anger, hate and drive for retribution.  Forgive us our confusion and failure.  We pray for the grace to maintain our faith and live out our pacifist convictions.  We ask forgiveness for our sins.

Perhaps, in the next 40 years a slim chance for humanity's  survival will be realized?  Jane Sammon writing in the same issue of The Catholic Worker tells of Father Mychal Judge,

A Franciscan, Father Judge was the first person officially identified as a victim in the World Trade Center attack.  At an early hour, when most television watchers were probably still asleep in those first days of constant coverage, a fellow firefighter said of Father Judge that he would never seek vengeance.  In the manner of Saint Francis, he would want forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.  We can only hope and pray that this be realized, even as the signs of something else gather like an acrid cloud above our nation.

As long as there are people, who like Father Judge, refuse to pick up a rock, there is hope.  That being said, I am not very optimistic.

2001 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, Ph.D.

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