What would the end of the world look like? What does ‘end of the world’ even mean? Usually when I imagine the end of the world, it’s by means of an asteroid, or the sun going supernova, or really any such thing that annihilates the entire planet. But when I talk about the end of the world, what I mean to say is the end of human existence. This gets further complicated when we try to investigate what is meant by ‘end of human existence’. The end of human existence can be understood in the literal way – humans no longer exist (annihilation). It can also be understood to mean (as I am sure it often does) the end of the way in which humans exist (alteration). Regarding long-term human goals, all of these interpretations would be considered unfavorable, but there is a spectrum of doom, and some versions of ‘the end’ are certainly more unfavorable than others.
The end of human culture and society as we know it would be a blow to any optimistic trajectory of our species, but even the end of our current trajectory is magnitudes less dire than the total annihilation of the human race. Of course, magnitudes less dire than the total annihilation of our species would include nearly every scenario which would significantly and negatively re-direct the status quo. Just months ago, I would have suspected that a global pandemic in which over a million people die in less than a year would significantly alter our current trajectory as a species. It hasn’t. Could you imagine a nuclear strike in which over a million people die? Would that be a scenario in which our current trajectory would be significantly re-directed? I’m not sure? I’m not good at predicting, but in 2008 The Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford University) released a Global Catastrophic Risk Survey1. In this survey experts gave a 60% probability to a natural pandemic in which over one million people would die within the next one hundred years. They gave a 98% chance that over one million people will die in war over that same time, and a 30% chance that over one million people will die in a nuclear war. They suggest a 30% chance that one billion people will die in some kind of war within the next one hundred years. All this is to say that people dying, even in vast numbers isn’t annihilation, and it’s been shown by the latest pandemic and evidenced by thousands of years of on-going wars that death isn’t enough to even slightly alter our present state of affairs.
This all seems very unfortunate because our current trajectory has us hurtling directly into a brick wall at full speed. Global warming is a candidate for catastrophic alteration. However, people dying will not serve as a wakeup call no matter how loud we sound the alarm. Human life is a type of capital in which we have an abundance, and we are all too willing to spend. Time is another type of capital which we continue to squander as if the resource is infinite. We’d be naïve to think future problems would genuinely concern contemporary folk…until the future becomes the present.
What does that future look like? Would a glimpse at the impending catastrophic alteration impact those who say they care about the future of their kids, into actually caring about the future of their kids? I have my doubts. The prolonged years of prosperity among those in developed nations, mixed with the prolonged years of turning a blind eye to those less fortunate have lent themselves to an imagined cloak of invincibility.
I’ve always thought that when the most precious capital of all (money) becomes part of the risk equation, people would change. I was wrong. Increased damage from natural disasters worldwide costs cities and countries billions of dollars every year. Property values in at risk areas cause housing markets to plummet. Grocery bills soar with unprecedented heat and drought. Electric bills continue to rise in unison with the global heat index. People are paying higher costs than ever before. And these are the lucky ones, this doesn’t even take into account the people who have lost everything due to flooding, drought, wildfires, and every other natural disaster brought about or intensified by global warming. But who cares about the people; we’ve already shown how expendable they are. Where are the alarms regarding the cost of helping a displaced family, or displaced community? Money is not the motivating capital I thought it would be.
WHY? Why aren’t we moved to alter the present in order to protect the future. I don’t know. I have been asking this question to philosophers, scientists, psychologists, poets, and pretty much anyone who will entertain this question for far too long, and we’re really no closer to the answers.
The best I can come up with is that the fear of change has paralyzed the majority of humanity into complacency. Change is scary and the future is abstract. The cost of our complacency, the cost of our fear will not be paid just in dollars, or time, or human life; the cost will be far more severe, because we’re gambling with humanity itself. Past, present, and future.
Climate scientist Andrew Dessler recently expressed2 “If you don’t like the climate disasters happening in 2020, I have some bad news for you about the rest of your life.”
Catastrophic alteration has already begun. Our future is something worth fighting for. Yes, change is scary, but we need to understand that the monster waiting for us if we continue to ignore reality is much more wicked than the imagined monster we attribute to change.
- Anders Sandberg, Nick Bostrom, “Global Catastrophic Risk Survey,” FHI Technical Report, no. 2008-1 (2008): accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/reports/2008-1.pdf.
- Andrew Dessler, (@AndrewDessler), Twitter, September, 21 2020, https://twitter.com/AndrewDessler/status/1308135985771884544.