— Ten canceled doomsdays you already forgot
This essay was previously published as episode #51 on Mind the Shift podcast
One of my pet topics is how we see the world. There are of course as many world views as there are people, but there is also a handful of collective views. These consensus depictions of how humanity is faring are provided by leading figures, different activist organizations and the media.
My view has always been that the world is better than we think. I base that on the gap between actual trends and what most people, who don’t bother to check the numbers, believe are the trends.
One debate camp does advocate this more optimistic view. But I would argue that the default world view is a far more pessimistic one, one which says that we have failed to address poverty, violence and pollution and which suggests that most of the time we are practically on the brink of apocalypse. The strange thing is that those who are in the pessimist camp, which I perceive as the dominant one, claim that we are told (or fooled to believe) that we live in the best of worlds. There is some kind of cognitive dissonance here.
As you know, I have been talking a lot about spiritual matters on the podcast. That is because I think it is important, and it tells us truths about ourselves that we do not normally realize in our day-to-day life on Earth.
One thing that often surprises me with so-called spiritual people, however, is that they so often adhere to the apocalyptic camp when conveying their general view on how we are doing as a species. I don’t quite understand why that is.
Many in the spiritual community describe the times we live in as ”chaotic” and they often point out how we humans are still relentlessly destroying mother Earth.
I have a hard time making sense of that, because from a spiritual viewpoint firstly we choose our reality and secondly humankind is probably closer to a breakthrough in consciousness than ever before.
Furthermore, spiritually inclined people for the most part realize that the continuous misery focus in the media is rather a reflection of a lowered misery threshold (meaning it takes less misery to reach the headlines) than a factual deterioration. Many of them also claim they don’t watch the news any more.
Yet, many of them STILL depict our modern world as if it were on the brink of destruction.
To me, this is an enigma.
But I guess you have to keep several thoughts in your head at the same time. ”Chaos” and ”brink of collapse” are relative concepts and might mean something else today than fifty years ago.
I too tend to believe that the millennia-old top-down way of ruling our human society is poised to crumble, which means that it is going to be messy for a while. But that turmoil is on the surface, and it is basically a benevolent turmoil. For something better to emerge, the old must go, and it is not going to happen without resistance from those who think they benefit from the old order.
However, almost every underlying mega trend is positive, even if the principle of development is two steps forward and one step back. This goes for social trends, like tolerance and acceptance of people from other cultures, as well as for violence, health, poverty and, yes, the environment. No environmental hazard goes unnoticed anymore.
It is as if even those who ought to have the clearest eagle-eye view on humankind are also tricked by the close-up bias and the steadily lowered misery threshold of the media
Yes, it looks messy, and it is going to look messy for some time, because today all of us know everything that is happening everywhere on the planet in real time, and until we can clearly discern what is truly dangerous and what is not, and until we can clearly realize how much is not happening, many will perceive the world as a dangerous place.
We have many times before believed that doomsday has waited just around the corner, and more recently than you think.
Let me walk you through ten canceled modern-day apocalypses. You will probably recognize a few but will have forgotten the rest. And you will realize that you had totally forgotten how scared we were in the midst of each of these episodes.
1) The population bomb and the lost battle to feed the world
In 1968 Paul and Anne Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. It became a bestseller and contributed to a widespread fear of an uncontrollable increase in the human population. This was at a time when we were less than half as many as we are today, but when more than twice as many were extremely poor (extreme poverty peaked in 1970).
The very first sentence set the tone: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over”, it said. In the 1970s, the book promised, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” No matter what people do, “nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
The Ehrlichs were not the only doomsday-mongers. A Swedish biologist and food researcher, Georg Borgström, published several books with the same message, like ”The Hungry Planet”. Some debaters had objections, but the mainstream story was one of imminent famine if nothing was done about the explosive proliferation of human beings. It was the story in Swedish textbooks in the seventies. I know, because I went to school then.
A few years later another influential book, ”The Limits of Growth”, had similar dire predictions.
This narrative half a century ago connected tightly to Thomas Malthus’ idea in the 19th century that humankind was doomed to outgrow food. Malthus’ grim conclusion was that the population grew exponentially while food resources grew linearly.
Many were afraid, very afraid. But it was not the end of the world. The predictions were wrong. Today there is more food per capita and less poverty than ever.
2) The death of forests
This was a thing in northern Europe in the early 1980’s. In parts of southern Sweden, West and East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland, conifers dried out and seemed to be slowly dying.
There was a nearly complete consensus that the forests were dying because of air pollution. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in 1982 that forests in Germany would be gone within five years.
But the hypothesis was almost completely wrong. Some trees were in fact affected negatively by pollution, but the more widespread loss of fir needles that had been noticed was mainly due to drought, in combination with genetic factors. Generally, the forests continued to grow, and at a faster pace. Germany and Sweden have more forested land today than in hundreds of years.
3) 9/11 and the war on terrorism
It is improbable that many people have completely forgotten about this threat, since terrorism can be defined flexibly enough always to be a potential problem. But how many still walk around in that constant state of fear of suicide bomb attacks that was triggered by the events of 9/11?
Those bloody and spectacular terror attacks (plus a few subsequent attacks in Europe) kicked off a period of intense activity to tighten security. We still live with this tightening of regulations. The ban on liquid containers larger than 100 milliliters in your hand luggage when you fly was introduced in 2006 and was originally intended to last for 18 months. Fifteen years later, we still have to pour out our soft drinks before we pass airport security.
4) Earlier pandemics
We are now in the midst of a pandemic that has virtually put our lives on hold. The regulations that erratically have been put in place are historically harsh. How dangerous the SarsCov2 virus actually is and how necessary the lockdowns have been will be discussed for years to come.
But do you remember the fear around certain flu outbreaks earlier this century? After the first reported cases in 1997, there were outbreaks of avian flu, or bird flu, in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 in different parts of the world. And later, in 2009, the so-called swine flu swept across the globe. It belonged to the same influenza strain as the Spanish flu. Around 285,000 people died from the swine flu, which is about as many as from an ordinary seasonal flu. Many countries decided on mass vaccinations.
In 2003 and 2012 there were also limited outbreaks of two different coronaviruses, Sars and Mers, respectively.
5) The Russian aggression
This is probably a controversial example and one that many will claim is a real and ongoing problem — and not without fair reasons. However, I still think the apparent outcome is way less apocalyptic than the predictions when it happened.
In 2008, Russian troops marched into Georgia to assist South Ossetian rebels in a five-day war. The headlines spoke of an imminent risk of escalation; a war between the big powers. But there was no escalation.
Six years later Russia acted even more provocatively against Ukraine and annexed Crimea. This time the proxy war that followed in another bordering region between the two countries lasted several years and resulted in thousands of casualties. The conflict also resulted in sour to toxic relations between Russia and the West, but arguably not in the all-out clash many warned was inevitable.
Disastrous, no doubt, but no apocalypse.
6) The financial crisis
In September 2008 the Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust and the financial crisis was a fact.
The whole of 2009 was seen as a lost year in many countries. Debaters, politicians and the media alike spoke of a return to the depression of the 1930’s. And it was a turbulent time, indeed. Unemployment and interest rates spiked. Economic output shrank.
Many were afraid, very afraid. But it was not the end of the world. After a few gigantic rescue packages and some blissful oblivion, investors began investing like before and the gears were turning again.
7) The euro crisis
Only a few years later Europeans panicked when an over-credited and under-financed Greece seemed to be on the brink of bankruptcy. The problem was that Greece was part of the common European currency. So the whole Euro area trembled.
Interest rates skyrocketed in countries that were considered to be next in turn. Pundits predicted a collapse of the euro, or at the very least a break-up, with dire repercussions on the general economy.
Many were afraid, very afraid. But it was not the end of neither the Euro nor Greece’s participation in the common currency.
8) The Ebola epidemic
Early in 2014 a disease far more dangerous than Covid-19 began spreading in West Africa. Isolated outbreaks of Ebola had previously happened mainly in the Congo, but this time it occurred in a region with more urban development and more communication.
By springtime the hemorrhagic fever was spreading in three countries. Cases were also reported from a number of adjacent nations, and even in places on other continents like the United States, United Kingdom and Spain.
Many were afraid. But by 2015 the outbreak was contained.
9) The ISIS caliphate
At around the same time, media consumers were shocked to suddenly realize that a band of extreme jihadists were about to conquer large swaths of the Middle East. ISIS even took over the second biggest city in Iraq and forced its medieval laws upon two million dwellers.
Some scholars and debaters warned that this was inevitable because of the chaos that the US invasion of Iraq had created, and that we would simply have to accept that a vicious caliphate was now established on the outskirts of Europe.
Many were very afraid, again. But this was also not the end of the world. Four years later the territorial ISIS caliphate was gone.
10) The migration crisis
The war in Syria has led to millions of refugees. Most of them have left for Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey. In the fall of 2015, a stream of refugees and other migrants decided to try and make their way to western Europe. The stream became a wave, which was enlarged by additional migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa.
Over a million people arrived in the EU, which has 500 million inhabitants. Right-wing populists were furious. Leaders panicked. The year-long episode was to be known as the ”migration crisis”.
Many were afraid, very afraid. But it was not the end of Europe as we know it. Today, fewer migrants arrive in the European Union than before the wave of migrants. But we still live with some of the so-called temporary border controls.
Here is a bonus example that is perhaps a bit premature: The Donald Trump tenure. We are already beginning to forget the panicky reactions to practically everything the Donald said and tweeted. What he actually did, or managed to do, is less clear.
So, do I mean that every perceived threat today is just a chimera, a bogeyman? Absolutely not. But looking back in history just a little bit and rediscovering all those passing waves of fear, waves we have already forgotten, tells you that there might be cause for some refreshing neutrality here, a little bit of ”hold your horses’’.
Why should any current crisis be different, be closer to the apocalypse, than the previous ones?
Humankind is a pretty self-centered species. Most of the existential threats that we perceive are human made. But the single biggest truly apocalyptic threat actually lurks in space: the risk of a direct hit by an asteroid. That would mean game over.
Apart from that big one, I do think there still is a slight risk of nuclear war (but only in the unlikely scenario that a series of fatally bad decisions are made one after another), and global warming could just possibly prove to be as bad as the alarmists claim (although the jury is still out when it comes to determining the gravity of the problem).
Some who listen to arguments like these will object that the very reason these potential apocalypses were averted is that people did something. Yes, to some extent that is exactly what has happened. It all goes together (and in some cases, notably the one about the dying forests in northern Europe in the 1980s, even a false alarm can generate ”collateral benefits” like a hastened development of exhaust emission control).
My take on this is two-fold: Firstly, the action taken is not thanks to the pessimists, but thanks to the optimists who saw the possibilities and the ways to improve things and took responsibility. In my book, to a true pessimist there is no point in taking action. If you think you can change things, you are not a genuine pessimist. Secondly, we would better understand our complicated predicament on this planet if we were trusted to take action for the right reasons.
But oddly enough, not even the objection about action taken because of awareness of the problem seems to change the minds of those who are convinced we live in apocalyptic times. It is like: ”It may have worked out before, but I am not convinced it will work out this time around.”
This reminds me of Steven Pinker. He is definitely not on the spiritual team, quite the opposite. I already mentioned in an earlier episode what he said in an interview after having brilliantly described humankind’s progress over thousands of years towards less violence and more civilized behavior. When he got the question whether he thought this was going to continue, he said he didn’t believe history had a certain direction. ”That’s mystical thinking, and I am not a mystic”, Pinker said.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are spiritually inclined or atheists; thinkers on all sides mistrust our next step. I suspect many of them are in a sense cultural victims: it is considered more serious to be pessimistic than optimistic. The latter is sometimes even seen as a bit reckless, as if optimists dismiss or play down the suffering in the world.
It is all a big misunderstanding if you ask me. The reason we evolve and raise our vibration at all is that a sufficient number of hearts and minds believe in themselves and their fellow humans. Our evolution is thanks to them. I think if more of us realized this, it would be an easier ride. But humankind will arrive where we are supposed to arrive anyway. Maybe not in this lifetime, but in some lifetime. Time is only a side effect of the physical realm, so ”why the rush”, as Richard Rudd has said. But that is another story.
Finally, just a little philosophical twist. I have obviously talked here about the fate of the entire human species on the planet. But every individual facet of our species is a mini version of the history of humankind played out within each lifetime. The planet has already hosted 107 billion of those personal histories. What about them? Did it all work out for them, do you think? Or was every death a disaster? Of course not. That is what awaits us all, no matter what the collective looks like, and in this very primordial sense it always works out for us.