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The End is Nigh

A majority believes civilization could collapse and humans go extinct in the next 100 years.

HumanExtinctiondoomsteaddinerA 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 worse, some 25 percent of respondents in the same poll believe it that likely that we'll go extinct in the next century. Americans were the most pessimistic, giving those gloomy answers 57 percent and 30 percent of the time, respectively. And younger respondents tend to be more pessimistic about the future than older ones.

These results were recently reported by the Australian futurists Melanie Randle and Richard Eckersley in the journal Futures. They 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" versus "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 polls have similarly found large segments of the world's population believe 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 year in February YouGov poll of Americans asked, "How likely do you think it is that an apocalyptic disaster will strike in your lifetime?" Nearly a 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 set of facts: Over the past century, the prospects and circumstances of most of humanity have spectacularly improved. Depending on how you calculate it, world per capita GDP has increased between 5-fold and 10-fold 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 nihilism and activism, 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 reestablishment 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.

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  • Lee G||

    My apocalypse is worse than your apocalypse.

  • Tundra, well-chilled.||

    What fun people to be around. I wonder what kind of music they listen to.

    Probably Belle and Sebastian.

  • Citizen X||

    Sad bastard music.

  • CatilineWoodchipperConspiracy||

    That would be a marvelous album name.

  • Mark Bahner||

    "I wonder what kind of music they listen to."

    Probably something like:

    "We're just two lost souls swimmin' in a fish bowl, year after year.
    Runnin' over the same old ground, what have we found, the same old fears..."

  • Ted S.||

    A majority of people believed in the phlogiston theory, too.

  • ||

    My tenth grade science teacher did.

    He was also a the football coach.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Sounds like it might have been the other way around.

  • ||

    I had a lot of fun with that guy. At least once a week I would ask him questions and he would tangle himself in knots and spew hilarious bullshit trying to explain things he had no understanding of.

    I distinctly remember two that were particularly funny -

    What is fire made out of?

    He had never heard of phlogiston but he took about 20 minutes to re-invent the theory on the spot.

    Why are things different colors?

    His explanation, which took almost the entire class time was that some things are red and some things are blue, some things are yellow but some things are other colors.

    Other puzzlers:

    Why, if you look at maps, does it appear that rivers move around over time?

    What is gravity?

    Are the stars further away than the sun?

    Does hair really continue to grow after you die?

    Why do heavy things fall faster than light things?

    etc etc. I guess I was an evil little shithead.

  • ubik||

    Did you ever ask how many flavors of gravity there are?

    Wonder how far you could have pushed this...

  • Ted S.||

    Was a shithead? :-p

  • Mickey Rat||

    He meant he used to be little. Relatively speaking.

  • BambiB||

    I tormented a similarly-incompetent English teacher. In her 16 years of teaching, I was the only student she ever requested be transferred out of her class. I guess pointing out that her test answers were incorrect was the last straw.

    In chemistry, the class broke down when I asked for an explanation of Van der Waals forces... Good chemistry teacher - he just said, "If I knew that, I'd have a Nobel prize".

  • Rick Stewart||

    I had a Trigonometry teacher who put three unanswerable questions on three consecutive exams. One featured a triangle with four sides.

    This was junior college; I went to the head of the department and demanded a 100% refund of my tuition. He hesitated. I looked at him and said, "Don't make this hard on yourself." He stared at me a bit, then agreed to the refund.

  • Phlogistan||

    Huh? wha? You woke me up for this?

  • ||

    The end of the world has come at least two dozen times in my lifetime. I look forward to another.

  • Devil's Candy||

    The worst part about an increasing sense of pessimism is that it greatly increases the likelihood that some number of progressives with think they have the only answer, and some larger number will empower them to try it.

  • DenverJ||

    On the other hand, they may get so depressed they just kill themselves off.

  • ||

    Wow, a lot of people are fucking stupid. But I suppose we already knew that.

  • Florida Man||

    The humans going extinct one is dumb, but societies have collapsed in the past.

  • fleshy wavefunction||

    "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" versus "More people, environmental destruction, new diseases and ethnic and regional conflicts mean the world is heading for a bad time of crisis and trouble."

    This question is heavily loaded. Response A implies that we'll fix everything immediately and Response B implies "bad things will happen" which is certainly correct.

    I realize these aren't the questions in the main poll under discussion, but it shows the authors' obvious bias, just as Bailey indicates here:

    "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."

    Polls aren't science. Science isn't polls.

  • Mrs. Lemuel Struthers||

    Yeah. It's a false choice. We'll continue on with technological development and humanity will overcome some obstacles, but we won't enter a new age of peace and prosperity. The environmental doom and gloomers seem to be largely wrong, and I think it unlikely that new diseases will cause any more difficulties. But, conflicts will lead to a time of crisis and trouble.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    All those people who froze their heads are going to feel pretty stupid when no one's around to thaw and cure them.

  • Mickey Rat||

    If one is inclined to believe in some sort of afterlife, then they likely already feel pretty stupid.

  • Lee G||

    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.

    I don't think it's pessimism per se. Less and less people every year have to worry about just making it to tomorrow, so they are free to focus on the existential worries that enable our politicians and leaders to exploit them.

  • Mrs. Lemuel Struthers||

    Put me in the 57% category. I think our way of life is going to change significantly in the next 100 years. The economic/political structure we currently enjoy is collapsing under the weight of its inefficiency, corruption and inability to adapt to change. Whether we end up improving or destroying our circumstance is very much the question. Millennials seem the most impervious to the danger, but, then, they have no life experience and no history, so (shrug) what can we expect?

    Millennials seem to buy into global climate change, so their end of the world scenario was created in the imagination of Al Gore (shudder).

  • Juice||

    Millennials seem the most impervious to the danger, but, then, they have no life experience and no history, so (shrug) what can we expect?

    But this is how it works. Older generations see things changing and think it's bad and it's going to get worse.

    Newer generations don't know any better and when they see things changing they assume it's for the better, mainly because they are the one's driving the change. When they get older and things keep changing they become the doomsayers. Rinse, repeat.

  • Mrs. Lemuel Struthers||

    Hmmm, not sure about that. I think many older people sense somethings aren't working but rather than analyze the what and the why they invent plausible reasons for their unease. An example: there are two schools of thought on our current economic instability and stagnation. The first postulates that it's caused by fundamental social changes (think robotics leading to increased automation) and demographics. The second suggests the actual policies enacted created the stagnation and the underlaying circumstances are secondary.

    Now, most popular economics are based upon Keynesianism and those that adhere to that "philosophy" who have largely been running things for the past several decades cannot see or come to terms with the consequences of their failures. They'd rather blame "secular stagnation" than their actual choices. They prefer to NOT understand cause and effect because it undermines their worldview and possibly even their life's work.

    And that's when they turn to magical thinking because it easier to believe the world's going to end because the polar ice caps are melting then realize their world (economic & social) is ending because of mistaken choices they've made.

  • toadboy65||

    I think it depends on the generation. Most of us have been lucky enough to live in a time and place where the water always comes on when you turn the tap, food is sanitary and plentiful , and parents expect their kids to live to adulthood. And they assume that is what the world is like. other generations have had experiences that have shown them that these things are very tenuous. I don't know about human extinction- life tends to persist. But a large scale power outage would turn many people into hostile scavengers in a week or two.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I for one plan to live on as one of the zombie horde who kill us.

  • Libertarian||

    Does this mean Bailey's book is going to be a hit because there are so many people who need to be educated? Or does it mean it's going to bomb because most people like to reinforce their existing ideas?

  • ||

    Yes.

  • ubik||

    There's more money to be made in "doom and gloom" merchandise.

  • Libertarian||

    You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

  • Mrs. Lemuel Struthers||

    What I've always wondered is: how did he knew "they blew it up"? There was no evidence of an explosion, was there? Possibly, humans died off because of disease or natural events.

    But, no, jumping to the conclusion that we blew it up reinforced the fucking anti-nuke b.s. as the popular meme. Not evidence based. fuckers. Charlton Heston should have known better.

  • Mickey Rat||

    The wasteland the apes would not go to was evidence of it being blown up as well as their legends about the origins of humans.

  • R C Dean||

    What I've always wondered is: how did he knew "they blew it up"?

    A shattered statue of liberty with little to no sign of the entire NYC metroplex is pretty good clue?

  • Mark Bahner||

    "What I've always wondered is: how did he knew 'they blew it up'? There was no evidence of an explosion, was there?"

    It seems to me it must be global warming. ;-)

    Look at Lady Liberty...she's up to her shoulders in water:

    Explosion...or sea level rise

    Of course, with the beach and the rocks, she must have floated ashore some place. So it's complicated. (So you know it's good science fiction.)

  • Nonstopdrivel||

    Apocalyptic thought is a never-ending source of frustration for me, because it's a convenient excuse for anything draconian or irrational, precisely because it's utterly unfalsifiable. Yet it's just as wrong now as it was 4,000 years ago, when the Sumerians were complaining that the world was about to end because children were so disrespectful to their elders.

    By any objective measure measure whatsoever, humans have never had it so good. Never has the human race experienced such low death rates from infectious disease, starvation, war, violent crime, and natural disaster. Never in human history has economic prosperity, civil liberty or gender equality been so widespread. Never has science-based medical care, clean water, and cheap food been so widely available. Never have children had such a good chance of making it to adulthood or women been so unlikely to die in childbirth. We are living in a veritable Golden Age.

    The fact that would-be victims and social activists have to dig so deep to find some excuse justifying their victimization mentality—"ZOMG, he looked at me wrong!"—only goes to prove that there has never been a better time to be alive.

    Are things perfect? No. Are there things we could do better? Of course. But no matter how good things get, it will never be good enough for some people. Some people just don't want to be happy.

    Fuck 'em.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Eschatology informed every single fucking day of my youth. Ghastly thing to mix into puberty.

  • Nonstopdrivel||

    I know exactly what you mean. Adolescence is difficult enough to handle without the insomnia and anxiety caused by a pretribulational, premillennial eschatology. It's almost unbearable when you have an eschatological worldview rammed down your throat.

  • ||

    are we assuming Hillary wins?

  • kinnath||

    So the next ice age could conceivably kill off 90% of the human population. But humanity (both neandertahl and homo sapiens) has survived multiple ice ages already. All out nuclear war could do the same thing. But extinction does seem even remotely possible.

    Social institutions and representative governments? Oh yeah, those could easily be gone in a hundred years.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Yeah, homo sapiens has survived at least two, maybe half a dozen major ice ages, depending on what timeframe you accept. But all of known human civilization happens in the current interglacial period. We have but a very few primitive fragments that go back farther than 15,000 years. Pretty much everything we've developed as the dominant species on the planet, all advanced civilization -- that we know about -- has happened in this interglacial. We really don't have a frame of reference for what it would do to a modern society. We were barely more than apes with rocks and sticks last time around. It will be interesting.

  • kinnath||

    But extinction does not seem even remotely possible.

  • The Last American Hero||

    I call bullshit. If people truly believed that humanity had less than 100 years to go, the world would be divided between devoutly religious people working hard to get their shit in order and full on hedonists. Very few people live their lives deliberately. If they felt the world was going to end soon, more people would.

  • Nonstopdrivel||

    Just as if anyone seriously believed that 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted in college, no one would be wanting to send their daughter there, much less advocating for increasing the female:male sex ratio on campus.

  • Ceci n'est pas un woodchipper||

    Exactly. 20% is 1 in every 5. If 20% of beach-goers were attacked by sharks, no one would ever go near the water again. If 20% of dog owners were attacked by their dogs, there wouldn't be a domesticated canine left alive on the planet. For comparison's sake, the mortality rate of the Spanish Flu in 1918 was 2.5%. 20% is a huge, huge percentage if we're talking about risk.

    If you truly believe the statistic, then one of the following things must also be true: you believe that the benefit of a college education for a woman outweighs the risk (although, at 20% you can almost say likelihood) that she'll be sexually assaulted; you believe that sexual assault isn't that big of a deal, or; you refuse to attend college (if a female student) or forbid your daughters from doing so (if a parent) unless the school is a women's college, and/or advocate for co-ed campuses to isolate the sexes at all times outside of the classroom and hire armed security to protect the women's dorms.

    Since by and large none of these seem to be the case, one must assume that people quoting the stat don't themselves truly believe it and are, of course, using it for political purposes. This is also true of much of the alarmism regarding climate change, I might add.

  • ||

    Maybe you just think your daughter is an uggo and therefore the odds are much more in her favor...

  • SugarFree||

    It's easier for some to believe the world will end than to accept it will go on just fine after they are gone.

    Eschatology is just the ego unbound.

  • Paul.||

    What do you expect when the media gives us daily stories about being past tipping points and global warming being irreversible?

  • *GILMORE*||

    ""The fin-de-siècle generation supported emotionalism, irrationalism, subjectivism, and vitalism,[6] while the mindset of the age saw civilization as being in a [perpetual] crisis that required a massive and total solution[5]""

    sounds familiar

    Between the alex jonesist "Build Your Own Backyard Bunker for the Coming Apocolypse"-crowd on one hand, and the retarded progressive statist utopianists control-freaks on the other....

    I think we're going to need a whole lotta beer to get through this alive.

  • R C Dean||

    Sing me up as:

    We will absolutely see a collapse of some kind in the next 100 years. Probably "just" economic, but economic collapses can lead to social collapses.

    Extinction? Don't be ridiculous.

  • Paul.||

    My portfolio is collapsing right now!

  • Ceci n'est pas un woodchipper||

    The fall of the Western Roman Empire was pretty apocalyptic. So was the Black Plague. In both cases people dusted themselves off and created (or preserved) social and political institutions to adapt to the new status quo, and were generally the better for it.

  • *GILMORE*||

    "We will absolutely see a collapse of some kind in the next 100 years'

    When you say, "we"....

    have you been taking a LOT of colloidal silver? Unless you're already 300 years old and still tap-dancing for a living, I call bullshit.

  • R C Dean||

    I admit, when I said "we" I meant "humanity". I don't expect to be around more than another 40 years, tops.

    Although I think we will see something pretty nasty in my lifetime. If you count the Great Depression and subsequent events as "pretty nasty", at least, because I think we're in line for something that bad or worse within a generation.

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  • Jackand Ace||

    "Doug Casey, a wildly successful investor who's the head of the outfit Casey Research, is predicting doom and gloom for the global economy."

    Where did I get that? Right here at Reason about a week ago. Reason isn't adverse to its own doom and gloom predictions.

  • Lorenzo Valla||

    reveals the value of polls

  • Rt. Hon. Judge Woodrow Chipper||

    We should be so lucky.

  • ant1sthenes||

    I doubt nature can wipe us out in the next 100 years, but we're going to develop more and more ways to do it ourselves. It isn't just nukes we have to worry about, but rogue robot armies or gray goo or biologically engineered superbugs. Nature is complex, but it's slow to adapt, so in the long run it can't compete against intelligence. Unfortunately, we're made out of nature.

  • Devil's Candy||

    HAH! You should have conducted this survey in 1985. Talk about pessimism! Everybody I knew, assumed the thermonuclear war was going to kill us all before we got to 30.

  • woodNfish||

    "A majority believes civilization could collapse and humans go extinct in the next 100 years."

    I doubt it. I doubt their methods and the answers people gave. In fact I bet if you asked people what the word "apocalyptic" means most of them would not know. I think this is just more media generated bullshit to get eyeballs, and it succeeded - it got mine, and everyone else's who has commented.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Some would say that "civilization" has already collapsed.

  • JeremyR||

    I don't think we'll see a ecological or technological collapse. But I don't see how we can avoid a cultural or economic collapse. Western civilization is on the way out, but I imagine India and Brazil will pick up the slack.

  • David_B||

    There is no way to predict the future, no way to know for certain that any particular scenario unfold. But people can look at current circumstances and situations, make assumptions and extrapolate.

    Given the conditions today it seems logical that population expansion, habitat destruction, resource depletion and pollution, will continue to be bigger and bigger problems into the future. And this is not to even consider to problems that arise from religious fanaticism and ideological totalitarianism.

    From the perspective of a good portion of us, the future appears to be a combination of 1984, a brave new world and terminator.

  • drevildoer||

    I, For One, Welcome Our New Apocalyptic Overlords...

    I am enthusiastic about the future. I expect lifespans will expand, and we will begin to build mini-halo type space habitats if there are too many people on the earth. The only threat we face is the liberals and their desire to regulate and tax prosperity into nothing.

  • I love me some liberty||

    It could just be an evolved mental state. (Encourages saving up resources and disaster preparedness ).

  • TimothyZ||

    "Australian researchers find that among those who believe humanity is likely to go extinct soon, a majority endorses both nihilism and activism."

    The philosopher Nietzsche points out that nihilism consists exactly of this "annihilation of values".

  • Eric Hiatt||

    ... other threats include depletion and degradation of natural resources and ecosystems; continuing world population growth ...

    ... Depending on how you calculate it, world per capita GDP has increased between 5-fold and 10-fold since 1900 ...

    And you call yourselves "Reason". That's cute. The scientists cite an "uncritical" litany of problems - all of which are based in a thermodynamic reality - and you respond with an actual uncritical litany of your own: GDP and the supposed grand peace we're experiencing.

    I'm going to let you in on the most important scientific fact of our species: We are incapable of collective intelligence. Most of the thinking we do is unconscious and driven by ancient impulses sculpted by evolution. We can't control ourselves, much less the emergent behavior of billions of people. The anthropocentric myths this species deludes itself with are some of the biggest jokes in the Universe.

  • Janet||

    My fellow libertarians have lost the plot. A new iPhone is not progress. A belief in 8% GDP growth forever violates the law of diminishing returns and disregards ecological carrying capacity.
    Pay off the debt.
    Stop illegal immigration & refugee crisis unless you invite these people into your home.
    A living wage and low unemployment.
    Heal the oceans
    Sustainable farming
    Clean renewable energy
    Affordable healthcare
    ... I don't see any of this coming true anytime soon.
    Libertarians can't even agree on copyright law, because there is no principle without vinsequences. Why be optimistic when people are in outright denial of reality? I don't want fracking fluid in my drinking water so natural resources can be exported to China. The global consumer population has to be cut by at least half. It's that simple.

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