Émile P. Torres has a provocative perspective on the historical views on Human Extinction. He breaks it down into five periods of general ideas about the possibility of humanity going extinct, and here they are:
(1) The ubiquitous assumption that humanity is fundamentally indestructible. This mood dominated from ancient times until the mid-19th century. Throughout most of Western history, nearly everyone would have said that human extinction is impossible, in principle. It just isn’t something that could happen. The result was a reassuring sense of “Comfort” and “perfect security” about humanity’s future, to quote two notable figures writing toward the end of this period. Even if a global catastrophe were to befall our planet, humanity’s survival is ultimately guaranteed by the loving God who created us or the impersonal cosmic order that governs the universe.
(2) The startling realization that our extinction is not only possible in principle but inevitable in the long run — a double trauma that left many wallowing in a state of “unyielding despair,” as the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1903. The heart of this mood was a dual sense of existential vulnerability and cosmic doom: not only are we susceptible to going extinct just like every other species, but the fundamental laws of physics imply that we cannot escape this fate in the coming millions of years. This disheartening mood reverberated for roughly a century, from the 1850s up to the mid-20th century.
(3) The shocking recognition that humanity had created the means to destroy itself quite literally tomorrow. The essence of this mood, which percolated throughout Western societies in the postwar era, was a sense of impending self-annihilation. Throughout the previous mood, almost no one fretted about humanity going extinct anytime soon. Once this new mood descended, fears that we could disappear in the near future became widespread — in newspaper articles, films, scientific declarations, and bestselling books. Some people even chose not to have children because they believed that the end could be near. This mood emerged in 1945 but didn’t solidify until the mid-1950s, when one event in particular led a large number of leading intellectuals to believe that total self-annihilation had become a real possibility in the near term.
(4) The surprising realization that natural phenomena could obliterate humanity in the near term, without much or any prior warning. From at least the 1850s up to the beginning of this mood, scientists almost universally agreed that we live on a very safe planet in a very safe universe — not on an individual level, once again, but on the level of our species. Though humanity might destroy itself, the natural world poses no serious threats to our collective existence, at least not for many millions of years, due to the Second Law of thermodynamics. Nature is on our side. This belief was demolished when scientists realized that, in fact, the natural world is an obstacle course of death traps that will sooner or later try to hurtle us into the eternal grave. Hence, the essence of this mood was a disquieting sense that we are not, in fact, safe.
(5) The most recent existential mood — our current mood — is marked by a disturbing suspicion that however perilous the 20th century was, the 21st century will be even more so. Thanks to climate change, biodiversity loss, the sixth major mass extinction event, and emerging technologies, the worst is yet to come. Evidence of this mood is everywhere: in news headlines declaring that artificial general intelligence (AGI) could annihilate humanity, and the apocalyptic rhetoric of environmentalists. As we will discuss more below, surveys of the public show that a majority or near-majority of people in countries like the US believe that extinction this century is quite probable, while many leading intellectuals have expressed the same dire outlook. The threat environment is overflowing with risks, and it appears to be growing more perilous by the year. Can we survive the mess that we’ve created?
I don’t know — it seems to me the big shift was between (1) and (2), and (2) through (5) and more subtle distinctions about how and when the species is going to die. He also argues that these transitions are fairly sharp and clear, but really, Alvarez ended the uniformitarian hypothesis? I don’t think so. But then, I haven’t read his book yet.
Also, just to complicate things, there are a lot of people today who are stuck in the (1) mindset. He gives one horrifying example, of a man who got elected to the American presidency.
As I write in the book, end-times prophesies are both rigid and highly elastic, often able to accommodate unforeseen developments as if the Bible predicted them all along. Ronald Reagan provides an example. In 1971, while he was governor of California, he declared that,
for the first time ever, everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. … It can’t be long now. Ezekiel [38:22] says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons. They exist now, and they never did in the past.
For Reagan and other evangelicals, the possibility of a nuclear holocaust was filtered through the lens of a religious hermeneutics. Consequently, their mapping of the threat environment was completely different than the mapping of atheists like Carl Sagan and Bertrand Russell. The latter two did not see nuclear weapons as part of God’s grand plan to defeat evil. Rather, a thermonuclear Armageddon would simply be the last, pitiful paragraph of our species’ autobiography. Whereas for Christians, the other side of the apocalypse is paradise, for atheistic individuals it is nothing but oblivion. In this way, secularization played an integral part in enabling the discovery and creation of new kill mechanisms to alter the threat environment and, with these alterations, to induce shifts from one existential mood to another.
Man, Reagan was a batshit lunatic fuck, wasn’t he? And he thought a nuclear holocaust would be a good thing. When Torres says our current mood, that has to be interpreted as a rather narrow “our” because I think a scary huge percentage of the public don’t share that mood with us.