Why do we always see an apocalypse around the next corner?

A retired Professor from the University of Arizona, Guy McPherson, told an audience in New Zealand last year that the human race will be extinct from climate change in a decade.

Podocarp forest near Puketitiri, inland Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
Podocarp forest near Puketitiri, inland Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

Except here. Apparently we’re well placed at the bottom of the South Pacific to survive. And there’s a precedent. Until the 1280s, for the most part New Zealand retained its late Cretaceous-era flora and fauna – sans large dinosaurs, but otherwise very much the ‘lost world’ of that era.

Exactly how well Kiwis might survive is another matter. We rely absolutely on imported technology and material to sustain our First World life. If that stops flowing our civilisation would break down fairly quickly. Kiwi ingenuity doubtless could keep things going a while, but the risk of eventually dropping back to hunter-gatherer life seems high.

To my mind, though, such doom-saying is overstated. There’s no doubt in my mind that humanity is well on the road to extinction. We take pride in our achievements, but they’ve come at the cost of the climate. The fact is that by nature we relentlessly destroy the environment we need to survive, all the while fighting viciously with each other over everything, including over whether we are doing damage to the climate or not. Probably that was a survival technique in the last ice age – but back then, we could always move to another environment. Now we can’t. And when things finally break – which I expect will be fairly sudden – we’ll likely lose our civilisation first, then our population. That will leave the last survivors, who will be back living as hunter-gatherers – vulnerable to extinction like our ice-age cousins.

Recent studies suggest that drastic climate change could indeed occur, enough to wipe out animal populations – there is evidence of just this happening for natural reasons during the last ice ages. Climate is a meta-stable system, meaning it can flip from one pseudo-stable state to another quite quickly, particularly where atmospheric and oceanic jet-streams (which carry heat from place to place) are concerned.. But even this drastic-change scenario spanned at least a century.

So while I certainly think that human-invoked climate change has potential to accelerate things, we’ve got a bit more time than just the next decade.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

It also seems to me that when we fall into extinction, it’ll be in ways we probably haven’t considered – and which are likely unstoppable. Probably it’ll be through our own doing, given the very fragile nature of the civilisation we’ve built; but we can’t rule out external factors. My favourite is the gamma ray burst from a supernova thousands of light years away. A few minutes of shine from one of those suckers, and we’re GONE.

More to the point is why the thinking of ‘sudden doom’ gains traction. We’re often confronted with popular scare-stories of imminent demise. Some of them are obvious woo-woo, such as the ‘Niburu’ fantasy or various ‘prophesies’ wrung out of supposedly mysterious ancient writings. Others, such as McPherson’s climate-change scenario, are quite credible although I dispute his timing. But the idea of imminent Armageddon isn’t unique to western culture – it features in a lot of cultures through our history, to the point where it appears to be hard-wired into the human psyche.

To me that’s the interesting point. Why? I can only speculate, of course, but the story might be in our genetics. All humans alive today – all of them – are so close genetically that if we were dogs, we’d be a single breed. This degree of closeness is unusual and implies that at some point in our relatively recent past, a few tens of thousands of years, we went through a ‘genetic bottleneck’, in which our population was reduced to a few hundred individuals.

Apart from pointing up the fact that we came very close to following our cousin species – Neanderthals, Denisovans, ‘Hobbits’ and Red Deer Cave people into oblivion, that highlights something else. That bottleneck was an exceptional crisis. But in general, life was probably close to the edge quite often, in various ways – mostly local, as a specific hunter-gatherer group ran out of resource and had to move elsewhere. The chance of things collapsing around them, often fairly quickly, could well have been part of the calculation.

Could an evolution through ice ages studded with periodic crises have left a mark? I hesitate to speculate. But it’s an interesting thought.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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14 thoughts on “Why do we always see an apocalypse around the next corner?

  1. I think we live in a world of exaggeration. WWI was so bad it was considered the war to end all wars – then whoops – 20 years later we have a bigger one! Here in the US, each and every election creates a new apocalypse for some one!! If all the forebodings of the mystics of the world came to pass – we’d all have become nothing but dust atoms floating in space years ago..

    1. I think a lot of the ‘apocalypse’ we always see in the near future flows from overstatement. And the ‘predictions’ of doom in this or that specific year are always rubbish. For me the fascinating part isn’t the ‘reality’ of such things (for there is none) but the fact that such ideas gain such extensive and popular traction. It’s a weird side of human endeavour. And, of course, every so often there IS something that basically equates to the apocalypse – not for the whole of humanity, but for some part of it. Often, it’s perpetrated by another part of humanity.

  2. Could be a reflection of our guilt. We know the costs, what we’re trading off, but continue down the path to what we want anyway. We decide to “take a chance” and all the while in the back of our minds is the fear that it’ll lead to disaster. When a disaster arrives, small or big, it validates our fears and regret paints a worst-case scenario in an instant. A voice from up high says, “See what happens when you don’t do the right thing? You should be ashamed.” And we are. We embrace the doom and gloom. And then we silly humans become comfortable with the coming apocalypse and continue on the same path. In the end, we’re children.

  3. When I was 7 YOA we lived under the outbound flight path of a nearby SAC base. Those were the early B-52As, that produced more noise with their turbojets than thrust, and when they were combat-loaded they came over our house at a few hundred feet. it was terrifying. I hid under my parents’ bed.

    By the time I was in my 20s I got over being afraid, and it just made me angry. The anger was directed at people who had no idea who I was, or what I might accomplish in my life, but who, because they were in power, and for reasons that never seemed clear, sufficient, or worthwhile, had the option of ending all life on the planet, including mine. Compared to that nuclear holocaust, the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis would pale to insignificance, but the inherent moral equivalence seemed totally lost on most people.

    Now it seems that for the sake of short-term profits we may yet again face Armageddon. I am so f*****g (sorry) sick of Armageddon and Apocalypse, but mostly I’m sick to death of people who seem to have a poisonous fascination with dancing on the edge of the abyss, blindfolded. I think there’s some undiagnosed psychological disorder that should go along with that. The Mars Syndrome, perhaps. Or Death, devourer of worlds.

    What is the point to that? I can’t see any form of rationality involved in it. That, of course, may in part be the point.

    I’ve followed research into the way PTSD shapes neural architecture for some time now, and it seems there is some evidence that PTSD might actually have an effect on a genetic level — not hardwiring in the literal sense, but something close to it, even in the malleable world of the human mind. This endless fascination with death and destruction…always, of course, for someone else! It’s about nothing but power, the destructive power of Mars, if you will. The only type of power, it seems, that some people actually understand.

    Matthew, sorry for being on a bit of a rant. It’s just that I really am so very sick and tired of this endless fascination with the Apocalypse and its imminence that seems to be part of our culture, at least here in the States. It’s one thing to be a warrior or a soldier, and stand between the wolves and everything you hold dear. That’s human, and noble. It’s another thing altogether to stand fascinated at the thought of genocide. If you worship a deity capable of doing that, what does it say about your soul?

    1. It must have been absolutely terrifying to be living under the shadow of armageddon in such an up-front way. There was so much about the Cold War that got conceptually out of control – as Einstein pointed out, nuclear weapons had changed everything… except the way we think. Damn. I mean, they weren’t just a bigger Grand Slam or Tallboy, or a faster version of the incendiaries that Le May used to take down Tokyo in 1944-45, but you wouldn’t know that from some of the war plans for using them. They were (and ARE) a whole other thing. It’s such a human thing, isn’t it, to fear the apocalypse – and yet to also build the very instrument that will bring it about. I have a horrible suspicion that this kind of behaviour happens all too often, at various scales – it’s hard-wired into us.

      I should add – nuclear weapons were made illegal here in NZ, over 30 years ago. A symbolic act as much as anything else: and even being out of the northern wind systems won’t save us if things go sour. And I’ve heard dire predictions of even a ‘small’ nuclear exchange, e.g. between India and Pakistan, being enough to do world-wide damage in the longer term. Ouch. We need to think differently – and if we did, I suspect the problems of ‘imminent apocalypse’ in the popular imagination, along with the relentless way political war-planners seem to have of creating the instruments for it, might go away.

  4. FWIW, I think its an evolutionary advantage to us to believe this which explains why we’re attracted to it.

    Our ability to predict the future is proven to be horrifically bad. I don’t think we’re on the edge of extinction myself although I certainly agree we have cause to be concerned.

    And throughout all ages we’re always concerned that we’re doomed, and soon. It likely goes back to our early aboriginal state when we truly were constantly around the corner from some disaster. Some evolutionary biologist have, in fact, speculated that perhaps anxiety and even depression are evolutionary responses to this. By being worried constantly we have the mechanism to respond. Whether we do or not is another matter, but we have the ability to.

    An aspect of that, I’d note, is that there tends to be a bit of a “you are doomed”, not me. Which is why we see the example here that everyplace else is doomed, in the professors views, but NZ will be okay. Or why the silly prepper movement in the US believes that everything everywhere is doomed, but by keeping freeze dried food in the basement they’ll be okay.

    So in every generation there’s an element of this. Generally, we make out okay but probably worrying about everything contributes to that.

    1. I agree – as you say, it’s likely an evolutionary advantage that worked for hunter-gatherer communities. Once you turn into a species that’s engulfed the planet, those fears become less relevant, but we’re hard-wired to have them.

      I don’t believe New Zealand is safe at all. We can’t escape climate change (which has robbed us, so far, of summer…) and we rely absolutely on imported fuels, technology and medicines. If the world’s industrialised infrastructure broke down, we’d go down with it. I guess our place far out of the northern wind systems and with a focus on ‘clean, green and pastoral’ seems appealing to those who don’t know the place: but the fact is that without imported fuel, we couldn’t even feed ourselves (and that’s been true since the 1930s – NZ motorised rapidly).

  5. We could go at any moment. It might be our fault or it might not, but I wish we would prepare better. That Gamma Ray Burster: there’s no fix for that, no mission of misfits could possibly stop it. This is why we got busy colonizing space. We’ve got all our eggs in one basket just now, and that’s just asking for disaster. If we spread out a bit, we have a much better chance of our species surviving a future catastrophe.

      1. There isn’t any place that is “safe.” But if ALL of humanity is located in one place, it’ll take only one GRB to eliminate humanity. If we spread out and colonize far and wide, it’s far less likely that we would go extinct from the effects of a singe GRB.

      2. I guess it wouldn’t take much for an interstellar-travelling civilisation to get off-beam from the thing, but the way we’re currently going as a civilisation I doubt we’ll even be an interplanetary-travelling species, let along interstellar… (sigh)…

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