The Doomsday mindset or: No room for doom and gloom

An article by a British professor that predicts the imminent collapse of society, as a result of climate change, has been downloaded over half a million times. Many mainstream climate scientists totally reject his claims, but his followers are already preparing for the worst.

I spent a short while indulging in this kind of thinking a couple years ago. It was easy to piece together bits of information to forecast total devastation within months.

I saw articles like this at the time, predicting mass famine, nuclear war, and successive nuclear power plant meltdowns by this time last year.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but while I was in the middle of it, it seemed inevitable. This kind of thinking is paralyzing and weirdly seductive. It’s like conspiracy theories that way. It’s also not much different from the various religious doomsday cults.

Every bit of negative news proves that the world is about to end, and no bit of positive news is enough to prove otherwise. If it doesn’t happen now, that just means you were off by a year, and then two years, and then 10 years, until you’ve spent a huge portion of your life living in a hellish “end times” world of your own making, and getting little, if anything, done.



  1. says

    Yes — I firmly accept the findings of science, and believe there’s a “bad moon on the rise.” Things are beginning to get bad, and will get worse.
    But I also recognize the seduction of “imminent destruction” thinking, and the feverish study of cryptic signals that so often accompanies it. It’s reminiscent of the Great Disappointment of the 1840s, when William Miller convinced some folks that the world would end on a particular day.
    I think this impulse has different roots from some kinds of anti-modernist movements (like for example the Fundamentals movement of the last century, whose adherents are all around us today) — though of course they sometimes are found together. I think the apocalyptic temptation is strong when things get too complicated, there seem to be so many threats or threatening unknowns, that you just desperately want things to simplify and make sense. I think for most people there’s a threshold above which the ambiguity or uncertainty is just too much, it’s paralyzing. Yet most folks don’t want to be paralyzed, they want to have a sense of agency (if not control) in their situation.
    That’s maybe why it’s easier to talk with people about scary climate scenarios and the underlying science, when you can also point out actions they can take to mitigate, or otherwise shape the long-term solutions. Constructive action can reduce the sense of overwhelm, and even allow one to acknowledge the fear or grief that is being stirred up. Joanna Macy’s work is aimed at this rhythm.
    That’s the tone I hear you taking in this blog. It’s a balancing act, of course, but it is constructive and encouraging work.

  2. Dunc says

    The BBC are somewhat misrepresenting Bendell’s paper here. He’s not Guy McPherson, and he’s not predicting the end of the world.

  3. Allison says

    Does anyone think that this pandemic will be worse than the 1918 Influenza pandemic, which killed something like 100 million people?

    (For comparison, it is estimated that 40 million people died in World War I, over the 4 years of the war.)

    If not, we can look to history to see what effect this one is likely to have.

  4. says

    @ #3 Allison

    I’m nowhere close to an expert on this, but here’s my take:

    I’ve seen nobody predicting numbers that high, and it seems unlikely to me. Half that number wouldn’t completely shock me, by the time we achieve stability, but we’ve got a much better understanding of how to treat viruses and develop vaccines than back then. We also have much greater manufacturing capacity for all products, and more ability to get those products where they need to be.

    Even if it were to reach that high – and I really don’t think it will – it would be a much smaller proportion of the population than in 1918, for what that’s worth. I really don’t think it’ll get there though.

    Other factors could come along that will make the situation better or worse – it’s hard to tell – but I’d be very surprised if we hit 100 million.

    That said, the economic fallout could kill people too, and that’ll be harder to calculate. The quasi-religious approach to capitalism we see among many of the rich and powerful will probably result in a lot of needless death and misery, with people losing sources of income, without losing the obligation to pay rent and other bills.

    On the plus side, air and water pollution are dropping in a major way, and that’s going to save lives. Like I said, pessimism is seductive, and it’s probably going to look incredibly bleak over the next month, if what I’m reading is any indication. A lot of people are going to die, many of them because of bad decisions by other people.

    In the end, a lot of it is going to depend on how people act, individually, and how well governments around the world support their medical systems, and make things like self-isolation financially feasible.

  5. Allison says

    My point was that we had an epidemic which killed something like 100 million people, and civilisation (ato the extent you can call what we had and have “civilisation”) did not collapse. Aside from a lot of dead people, things went on pretty much as they always had. Nothing like what the Black Death did.

    I think the idea that civilisation will collapse is just wishful thinking.

  6. says

    Well, I don’t think anyone thinks civilization will collapse because of COVID-19. Most of the doomsday forecasts I’ve seen focus on climate change.

  7. blf says

    (On a 1918-style possibility, courtesy of SC, cross-posted from PZ’s current [Pandemic and] Political Madness All The Time thread.)

    We can now read the Imperial College report on COVID-19 that led to the extreme measures we’ve seen in the US this week. Read it; it’s terrifying. I’ll offer a summary in this thread; please correct me if I’ve gotten it wrong….”

    Link to the report also [at the link].

    (Upshot is that, in some scenarios, it’s very very bad: “what happens if the US does absolutely nothing — if we treat COVID-19 like the flu, go about our business, and let the virus take its course?
    “[…] 80% of Americans would get the disease. 0.9% of them would die. Between 4 and 8 percent of all Americans over the age of 70 would die. 2.2 million Americans would die from the virus itself.
    “It gets worse. People with severe COVID-19 need to be put on ventilators. 50% of those on ventilators still die, but the other 50% live. But in an unmitigated epidemic, the need for ventilators would be 30 times the number available in the US. Nearly 100% of these patients die.
    “So the actual death toll from the virus would be closer to 4 million Americans — in a span of 3 months. 8–15% of all Americans over 70 would die.”
    not including deaths from indirect effects, such as (but not limited to) people who can’t get medical care because Covid-19 is sucking up all the resources, &tc.)

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