Everybody Loves a Good Apocalypse

Even as the world gets better and better, people continue to stubbornly believe the end is nigh.


A majority of people—54 percent—surveyed in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom believe there's a risk of 50 percent or more that our way of life will end within the next 100 years. Even more ominously, some 25 percent of respondents in the same poll believe it likely that we'll go extinct in the next century. Americans were the most pessimistic, giving those answers 57 percent and 30 percent of the time, respectively. And younger respondents tend to be more gloomy about the future than older ones.

These results were recently reported by the Australian futurists Melanie Randle and Richard Eckersley in the journal Futures. The authors also document that cultural pessimism is increasing. Polls taken in 2005 and 1995 asked young Australians to choose between two statements: "By continuing on its current path of economic and technological development, humanity will overcome the obstacles it faces and enter a new age of peace and prosperity" vs. "More people, environmental destruction, new diseases and ethnic and regional conflicts mean the world is heading for a bad time of crisis and trouble." In 2005, only 16 percent of respondents thought it was likely to be "a new age of peace and prosperity," down from 41 percent in 1995. Sixty-five percent opted for "a bad time of crisis and trouble," up from 55 percent in 1995.

Earlier surveys similarly found large segments of the world's population believing that the end is nigh. In a 2012 Reuters poll covering more than 20 countries, 15 percent of the respondents said the world will end during their lives. This February a YouGov poll of Americans asked, "How likely do you think it is that an apocalyptic disaster will strike in your lifetime?" Nearly one-third answered that it was very to somewhat likely.

The Australian researchers themselves apparently think the world as we know it is at significant risk of coming to an end. "Scientific evidence and concern are mounting that humanity faces a defining moment in history," they assert, "a time when we must address growing adversities, or suffer grave consequences." What growing adversities? They uncritically recite the conventional litany of global doom: "climate change and its many, potentially catastrophic, impacts; other threats include depletion and degradation of natural resources and ecosystems; continuing world population growth; disease pandemics; global economic collapse; nuclear and biological war and terrorism; and runaway technological change."

In his 1974 book Disaster and the Millennium, the Syracuse political scientist Michael Barkun wrote: "The apocalyptic myths of the last several decades have been cast on a global scale: world depression, world war, nuclear holocaust, overpopulation, ecological disaster…the imagination of disaster has become fixated on world-wide catastrophe." Forty years later, the same myths of impending global disaster are still being widely preached. In a 2013 article for the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Stanford biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich asked, "Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?" Their short answer: no.

This pervasive pessimism about the human prospect flies in the face of a plain fact: Over the past century, the prospects and circumstances of most of humanity have improved spectacularly. Depending on how you calculate it, world per capita GDP has increased between fivefold and tenfold since 1900. Average life expectancy has more than doubled in the same period, and we live in the most peaceful time in history.

As the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in 1830, "We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason." Macaulay then asked, "On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?"

Maybe because it's exciting to think that your generation is the last. Your generation just happens to be living at the hinge point of history. "There is seduction in apocalyptic thinking. If one lives in the Last Days, one's actions, one's very life, take on historical meaning and no small measure of poignance," wrote the University of Vermont lecturer Eric Zencey in 1988. "Apocalypticism fulfills a desire to escape the flow of real and ordinary time, to fix the flow of history into a single moment of overwhelming importance."

Millenarianism—the belief in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed—has always been attractive to some portion of humanity. But earlier millenarian ideologies were more likely to predict that good would triumph over evil and the future be transformed in a positive way: that Christ would return to establish his peaceful kingdom or the proletariat would overthrow the oppressive capitalists and abolish the state.

In this new Futures study, the Australian researchers find that among those who believe humanity is likely to go extinct soon, a majority endorses both nihilism and activism. Sixty percent agree that "the world's future looks grim so we have to focus on looking after ourselves and those we love"; 77 percent endorse the idea that "we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world." Interestingly, the Ehrlichs' Royal Society B article expresses a similar combination of pessimism and interventionism, telling us that "the odds of avoiding collapse seem small" but we should "try to accelerate change towards sustainability."

In 1982, the brilliant futurist Herman Kahn published The Coming Boom, in which he pleaded for the re-establishment of "an ideology of progress." Kahn warned:

"Two out of three Americans polled in recent years believe that their grandchildren will not live as well as they do, i.e., they tend to believe the vision of the future that is taught in our school system. Almost every child is told that we are running out of resources; that we are robbing future generations when we use these scarce, irreplaceable, or nonrenewable resources in silly, frivolous and wasteful ways; that we are callously polluting the environment beyond control; that we are recklessly destroying the ecology beyond repair; that we are knowingly distributing foods which give people cancer and other ailments but continue to do so in order to make a profit.

"It would be hard to describe a more unhealthy, immoral, and disastrous educational context, every element of which is either largely incorrect, misleading, overstated, or just plain wrong. What the school system describes, and what so many Americans believe, is a prescription for low morale, higher prices and greater (and unnecessary) regulations."

Three decades later, large swaths of the Western intellectual classes still preach an apocalyptic anti-progress ideology. As the Futures survey shows, corrosive pessimism has clearly trickled down and is demoralizing many citizens. Such cultural gloom is a significant drag on scientific, technological, and policy innovation. Overcoming that pervasive pessimism and restoring the belief in human progress is one of the most important philosophical and political projects for the 21st century.