FICTION | The Catastrophist Dreams of Time Travel
1. The Catastrophist Considers Likely Causes of the End of the World
Eventually the sun will run out of fuel, expanding into a red giant and boiling Earth dry before swallowing it. But that’s not for another five billion years.
Between now and then, well. We could be hit by a meteor that would fry us in superheated dust like the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. It’s hard to say what we can do about that. Planets are difficult to steer.
A sufficiently large volcano blast could cloak the globe in ash for years, bringing on a volcanic winter. Earth would turn into one big deep freeze—not forever, but long enough to wipe us out. No obvious remedies for this one, either.
There’s nuclear war, of course. We never should have unleashed the power of the atom. Now we must trust in diplomacy. Yes, I know. Try.
Food and water shortages are inevitable as the atmosphere heats and the oceans acidify. Many will starve, and the rest will fight over what’s left. In theory, we could prevent this by not churning out so much carbon dioxide, yet we produce more every year. If only we had a time machine, we could travel back and nip our fuel addiction in the bud. (Down with Henry Ford. Bicycles for all.)
We can’t rule out the possibility of visitors from outer space who might enslave us or blast our planet to bits.
Perhaps, if we’re lucky, they’ll take us with them and help us find a place to start over.
2. The Catastrophist After a Few Beers
People imagine our planet as a sturdy, solid thing. Imperishable. But all that stands between us and Earth’s molten middle are a few strata of shifting rock. We’ve built our homes on a layer of oyster crackers floating on a bowl of stew.
Actually, it’s more like those crackers are floating on a pot of stew, not a bowl, and the pot is still on the burner. The burner is on low. The stew simmers gently. But a bubble boils through every now and again, nudging the crackers and causing little cracker earthquakes. It sounds cute until you imagine your pepper-speck house sliding into the broth.
Let’s also say there’s a toddler running about. There isn’t really, you understand. No giant toddlers in outer space. This is a metaphor. So anyway, the toddler careens into the kitchen at random intervals and turns the knob on the stove to high. Stew volcanoes spurt into the air. Not fun to be under a spurt when it lands.
The toddler also has toy balls she likes to toss into the mix—meteors, from our perspective. The ping pong ball doesn’t cause much damage, but the heavy rubber one sends stew tsunamis sloshing around, drenching all the little oysters, even flipping some over. We inside the pot would prefer that the rubber ball stay out.
And then there’s us, resting comfy as long as nothing bubbles or spurts or sloshes. Except that we’ve pulled a lid over the top of our pot, and now we can’t push the lid off again. Not because we had a death wish, but because we didn’t know we’d poach ourselves like dumplings.
No, the toddler’s rubber ball would not bounce off the lid. Alas. The lid is not a perfect metaphor. The stew is not a perfect metaphor. The crackers are not a perfect metaphor. Let’s talk again in the morning. Over coffee.
3. The Catastrophist Explains the Anthropocene
Units of time in Earth’s history are marked by transitions so significant that they leave a record in the crust—catastrophes, from the perspective of living creatures on board at the time. Officially, we are now in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) Epoch, which began at the end of the last ice age. But the extent to which our own species has transformed the planet merits a new name: the Anthropocene (“the new human era). Here’s why.
1. We killed off the megafauna. The woolly mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger, the
glyptodon, the giant ground sloth, and many other creatures whose pictures never made
it into our children’s schoolbooks.
2. We farmed. We replaced carpets of trees with cow pens, stripping the planet bald.
3. We mined. We dug coal; we pumped oil; we extracted natural gas. We burned them all,
thickening the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.
4. We invented synthetic fertilizer. Don’t laugh. This is a big one. Extracting nitrogen from
the air enriched crop soils tremendously, which allowed the human population to more
than triple. Meanwhile, nitrogen runoff creates dead zones in the oceans.
5. We invented the atom bomb. The radioactivity we’ve released has made its mark in the
ice, the sediments, and the tree-rings.
6. We mixed the biota. We moved plants and animals and fish and bacteria around the
world, sometimes on purpose (corn for Europe), sometimes accidentally (cholera for the
Americas). Through haphazard transport of predators and diseases, we created Earth’s
sixth mass extinction.
When it comes to destruction, an ice age has nothing on us.
4. The Catastrophist Asks Rhetorical Questions
Why do people who would never gamble even small amounts of money buy houses in
If medicine that causes unintended illness is “iatrogenic,” what is the word for
technology that destroys an ecosystem it was meant to save?
What would Earth look like today if the Industrial Revolution had never happened?
Assuming our species is going to disappear, does it matter whether we annihilate
ourselves accidentally or are deliberately wiped out by a supervillain?
What will the last human on Earth miss the most about the rest of us?
5. The Catastrophist Dreams of Time Travel
I said before that if we could travel through time we should go back and prevent our unfortunate dependence on fossil fuels. But the truth is, if I had access to a single journey via time machine, I would use it to visit the future. It may seem maudlin and irrational, but I would like to know how the human story ends. I’d like to think we’ll last until the sun burns out, but our patterns thus far suggest this is unlikely.
There are several obstacles to discovering what I want to know:
1. Time machines do not currently exist.
2. If a time machine existed, an unwealthy and rather obscure person like me would
probably not have access to it.
3. If a time machine existed and I had access to it, it would be difficult to know how far
forward to project myself without knowing when the world will end, which I cannot
know without knowing how it will end, which is what I would be projecting myself
forward to discover.
If I had access to a time machine, and I somehow managed to overcome the paradox described in point number three, and I had the opportunity to journey both forward and back—unlimited opportunity, let’s say, for the sake of argument—what could I do with the information I gained about our role in our own destruction?
That was not a rhetorical question.
Danielle LaVaque-Manty’s stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Pinch, Sou’wester, New Delta Review, Monkeybicycle, and the web edition of Ninth Letter, among other journals. Her novella, The Cello Part, won the 2018 Iron Horse Literary Review Trifecta Prize in fiction.