June 28, 2010
— Martin E. Marty
The blue sky above and the blue lake below my window helped inspire hopes on a weekend morning for a beautiful, untroubled summer day. Then a jostling alert and a son’s apocalyptic posting linked me to an MSNBC item headed by the question, “Will humans go extinct within 100 years?” Do we yawn, “We hear that kind of question hourly from the Left Behind crowd, namely Christians who, like their ancestors for almost twenty centuries, have regularly prophesied, if not extinction of humans, then at least annihilation of those who do not agree with their versions of biblical prophecy”? But the question posed on Thursday, June 24, had a certain authority, alluding not to the prophecies of apocalypse-hungry Christians, but to one from a scientist of note. Professor Frank Fenner is Australia’s most illustrious scientist, and a world-class figure. In the mid-twentieth century he did the scientific work that helped control the number of rabbits in Australia, thus saving the agricultural economy. He was also an important figure in the elimination of smallpox, announcing the disease’s eradication before the World Health Assembly in 1980. So, we pay attention.
Five years ago at a conference in Canberra, Fenner posed a different, rather more cheery question: “Can Homo Sapiens Survive?” His talk was a call for responsible human approaches to environmental threats and “sustainability” hopes. This time, however, he is sure that “homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years.” Lest anyone expect even a hint of cheer, he stresses, “It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late.” Yet the ethicist’s voice within him cannot resist adding: “I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off.” Population growth and climate change are so drastic that the 95-year-old scientist can do little more than prophesy and – we suppose he likes the human race – sit on a curb-stone and weep.
Needless to say, the publicity given his word by MSNBC will inspire significant reaction from the Christians who do not give the world-as-we-know-it so much as 100 years. Since they know that they are assured a pleasant outcome in their apocalypse, they are happy that the end will come soon. The rest of the human race has a choice of attitudes. Perhaps this prophecy is just a sign that the 95-year-old is doddering? No. Perhaps it’s his way of getting attention for care-of-the-earth causes before it is too late, even if he says it is too late.
I mentioned the physical beauty of this summer day, yet the news of the week has done little to offer a psychological or spiritual match of such beauty. Yes, the World Cup provided a distraction. Yet the disarray in the prosecution of our various wars, the steadfast signs of reluctance by elected officials to do much about climate control, the anti-government attitude fostered by many in church and society – all lead one to take Professor Fenner seriously. When such potential for gloom is on the horizon, I think back to a panel I once shared with my teacher and later Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, when we panelists were told we were not gloomy enough. This is not the first time his word made it into Sightings, but it still lifts me: “We do not know enough about the future to be absolutely pessimistic.”
I call the alternative to pessimism “realistic hope.” Recently the “realist” side clouds the “hope,” but those who do not believe it’s “too late” still have a chance.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.