What if?

There is something in us that makes us ask, “What if?” even when the events are clearly beyond our control. I have learned that when people are asking, “What if?” there often is no answer to the question. We don’t know what if. We only know what has occurred. We will never get the answer to what if.

Grieving families will often say, “What if?” or “If only . . .” As I work with them, I assure them that such questions are normal and usual in the midst of the circumstances. I also remind them that we cannot know the answers to the questions no matter how much we wish we could.

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and wondering what my life would have been like or how I would have reacted had I lived in Germany during the height of Nazi power. I am descended from people who once lived in Germany. Our family might have decided to stay had circumstances been different. As it has turned out, it has been a good life for me, born to folks who have been in the United States for many generations. I would like to imagine that I might have been capable of heroic action had I been in the circumstances of those who lived under the Nazi regime. But we will never know because that is not the way things turned out.

I went through another phase of thinking about those “what ifs?” when I was a bit older and reading the novels of Elie Wiesel. Would I have found the courage to resist and stand up to totalitarian leadership? Would I have been capable of taking huge risks to preserve and protect the lives of others? The movie Schindler’s List had a similar impact on me.

What would the world look like today had the Holocaust and World War II never happened. All of the people who died would have living descendants. Some would have traveled. I might even have met some of them. My father’s life would have been different had he not enlisted during the war. My mother’s life would have been different had she not traveled to California to marry him during the war. They might have chosen a different place to make their home and raise their children. I might not have met my wife and instead married another.

It is all idle speculation, but I do think of those things some times. Over 50 million people died in WWII. What if they had lived?

I think similar things about other big events. Around 160,000 people died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. What if they had lived? How would the economy of the island be today? How many of them would have been forced to leave the island due to overcrowding and lack of resources?

Scientists tell us that the condition of life in the world today is dependent upon long-ago events. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction of 66 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and freed up space for mammals like us. Had that not occurred human life on the planet might never have evolved. Certainly had the Oxygen Catastrophe of 2.5 billion years ago not occurred and destroyed most anaerobic life, modern species, including humans, would likely never have come into existence.

The events of history, of course, cannot be changed. They are what they are. We can ask “What if?” but we cannot change the way that things have occurred.

We can, however, have an impact on future events. We can choose not to allow totalitarian leaders to rise to power. We can take actions to avoid some of the catastrophes that scientists predict are on the horizon. Decisions we make today will determine the future of the planet and life thereon.

It is hard to predict the future. While nuclear weapons are in sufficient supply to destroy all humanity, it is probable that if they are used there would be some survivors, at least initially. There are countries, in Africa and Latin America, that are neither close allies nor adversaries of nuclear-armed countries. Residents of those countries might survive initial nuclear explosions. Survival for them would be precarious. Global supply chains would be destroyed. Environmental effects of nuclear explosions would be dramatic. Dust and ash would block sunlight and have a negative effect on agriculture. Famine would kill many. It might not kill everyone. Civilization might collapse under the strain.

There are those who have made predictions about the effects of continued global warming on human populations. The picture painted isn’t pretty and the effects could be as dramatic as the decision to use nuclear weapons in war. Accelerated climate change could lead to pandemics due to changing conditions for pathogens. Subsistence farmers might be in the best position for survival. The most impoverished people on the planet today might be better suited to survival than those who live in affluence.

Speculating about the future, however, is not much different from asking “what if?” about the past. There are so many factors and the complexity of human existence on this planet is so extreme that even the best scientists among us cannot make accurate predictions. In a sense planning for future catastrophes is a futile enterprise.

Still, when we ask “what if?” we can imagine a world in which the Holocaust and WWII had not occurred. There would be many people living good and productive lives and more resources for solving the problems of today’s world. When we consider the losses of those events it seems prudent to at least anticipate the future and to take what actions we are able to prevent future catastrophe. For the sake of those not yet born, it seems important that we learn how to live together on this planet. Failure to do so might indeed mean the end of human life.

That is a scenario that we are unable to fully imagine. It is literally unthinkable, at least in the terms of human consciousness. Still, avoiding new catastrophes seems like a good idea.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!