By Richard Eckersley, first published at On Line Opinion on 4 September 2015
Yet a new study suggests that many people think that we are taking
risks of this magnitude with our future as a civilisation or a species.
The study found most Australians (53%) believe there is a 50% or greater
chance our way of life will end within the next 100 years, and a
quarter (24%) that humans will be wiped out. These are surprisingly high
estimates; no person or organization would accept or choose this level
of risk, given the stakes.
When asked about different responses to these threats, 75% of the
Australians surveyed agreed 'we need to transform our worldview and way
of life if we are to create a better future for the world' (an
'activist' response); 44% agreed that 'the world's future looks grim so
we have to focus on looking after ourselves and those we love'
(nihilism); and 33% agreed that 'we are facing a final conflict between
good and evil in the world' (fundamentalism).
findings strip the ground from under the largely 'business as usual'
strategies that dominate political thinking. Concerns about the world's
future barely register in our politics; our political leaders proclaim
constantly that Australia is a great nation with a great future. This
tension may contribute more than politicians and political pundits
suspect to the current mood of political disillusion and cynicism.
Melanie Randle, of the Faculty of Business at the University of
Wollongong, and I co-authored the study, recently published online in
the journal Futures. The study involved a survey of over 2,000 people in Australia, US, UK and Canada.
Findings were similar across countries, age, sex and other
demographic groups, although some interesting differences emerged. More
Americans rated high the risk of humans being wiped out (30%), and that
humanity faces a final conflict between good and evil (47%) - reflecting
the strength in the US of Christian fundamentalism and its belief in
the 'end time' and a coming Apocalypse. Such beliefs can influence
national politics; some commentators thought they shaped President
There is mounting scientific evidence and concern that humanity faces
a defining moment in history, a time when it must address growing
adversities, or suffer grave consequences. Reputable journals are
canvassing the possibilities; the new study will be published in a
special issue of Futures on 'Confronting catastrophic threats to humanity'.
Most focus today is on 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.
Not surprisingly, surveys reveal widespread public pessimism about
the future of the world, at least in Western countries, including a
common perception of declining quality of life, or that future
generations will be worse off. However, there appears to have been
little research into people's perceptions of how dire humanity's
predicament is, including the risk of the collapse of civilisation or
human extinction. These perceptions have a significant bearing on how
societies, and humanity as a whole, deal with potentially catastrophic
responses in our study do not necessarily represent considered
assessments of the specific risks. Rather, they are likely to be an
expression of a more general uncertainty and fear, a loss of faith in a
future constructed around notions of material progress, economic growth
and scientific and technological fixes to the challenges we face. This
loss is important, yet hardly registers in current debate and
discussion. We have yet to understand its full implications.
At best, the high perception of risk and the strong endorsement of
transformational change could drive a much greater effort to confront
global threats. At worst, with a loss of hope, fear of a catastrophic
future erodes people's faith in society, affecting their roles and
responsibilities, and their relationship to social institutions,
especially government. It can deny us a social ideal to believe in -
something to convince us to subordinate our own individual interests to a
higher social purpose.
There is a deeply mythic dimension to this situation. Humans have
always been susceptible to apocalyptic visions, especially in times of
rapid change; and we need utopian ideals to inspire us. Our visions of
the future are woven into the stories we create to make sense and
meaning of our lives, to link us to a broader social or collective
narrative. Historians and futurists have emphasised the importance of
confidence and optimism to the health of civilisations and, conversely,
the dangers of cynicism and disillusion.
Despite increasing political action on specific issues like climate
change, globally the scale of our response falls far short of matching
the magnitude of the threats, as the study findings imply. Closing this
gap requires a deeper understanding of how people perceive the risks and
how they might respond. Offering false hope is not the solution; to
address the challenges we must first acknowledged them.
On the evidence, the far future is drawing closer - and it worries us.