Perspectives on the apocalypse

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.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    I’ve said it once, I said it a million times:

    The greatest irredeemable evil of religion, besides the lie about there being a deity, is that it offers a world that’s supposedly perfect, “spiritual” existence while condemning the “material” reality as “fallen” or “evil.” It’s easy to willfully neglect the real world when you believe you’re going to a better one.

  2. cartomancer says

    As an ancient / Medieval historian I would dispute that #1 quite heavily. The precarity of existence in the pre-modern world led many, many people to the conclusion that humanity could very well be ended suddenly. Not everyone believed in an immutable, stable, cosmic order. Some did, others did not. Epicureans, for instance, believed that if the gods did exist then they were entirely unconcerned with human affairs, and thus ideas about natural disasters being a kind of divine retribution were nonsense. The christian flood myth ended with a covenant that the gods would not destroy humanity again, but the Utnapishtim and Deucalion myths it cribbed from very much didn’t.

    Even within late antique and Medieval christian thought, there were strong strains of imminent apocalypticism that said the world was very near its end. Medieval university academics were often asked whether news about the fall of Jerusalem in contemporary wars in the Middle East was a sign of the imminent end of the world. Augustine and orthodox christian teachings flat-out opposed this, saying that the apocalypse was inevitable but the timescale entirely unknowable to human beings.

    What is new, I think, is the idea that humanity is causing its own destruction and can prevent it by changing its ways. Even when divine punishment for moral transgressions was the model behind apocalyptic thinking, it was almost unknown to say that the apocalypse could be averted by humanity suddenly changing its ways and becoming more moral – the essential immorality of humanity and the justice of its being punished was a given in these stories.

  3. Matt G says

    Are you reading this, Avi Loeb? What are the chances an advanced survived this stage of their development?

    Did everyone hear he claims to have physical evidence of extraterrestrials? Someone please take away his computer and other devices.

  4. ethicsgradient says

    While his Google Ngram viewer plot of the use of the phrase “human extinction” has some interest, there are alternative phrases meaning the same thing – “extinction of humanity”, “extinction of mankind”, and, only potentially slightly different, “end of humanity” or “end of mankind”. Others may think of other similar phrases. The increase in the total all of them is still notable in this century, but some of the others were more widely used in the 19th and 20 centuries:

  5. raven says

    (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.


    That was the era I grew up in, the time of Duck and Cover drills.

    We lived near a plutonium producing reactor complex, an ICBM missile assembly plant, and a Trident nuclear submarine base.
    We knew that if there was a nuclear war, we were going to be hit hard.
    All the roads out of the area had signs designating them as evacuation roads. To evacuate to where, they all led up into the mountains where nobody lived.

    I used to nag my parents about our serious lack of a backyard fallout shelter. At the time, I was 6 years old.
    That must have gone over well.

  6. raven says

    (4) The surprising realization that natural phenomena could obliterate humanity in the near term, without much or any prior warning.

    The dinosaurs went extinct because they didn’t have a space program.

  7. wzrd1 says

    Well, that backyard fallout shelter would’ve done nicely as a grave. After all, you’re already buried.
    Hell, by the time duck and cover was implemented, it was already known to be useless. It simply gave solace to those worried, without anyone bothering to try to solve the actual problem. Evacuation from cities about to be nuked, again, by the time duck and cover was fully established, the Soviets already had ICBM’s and we were trying to catch up.
    So, we resolved worries by discarding the useless and panic starting duck and cover and resolved tensions with the introduction of the MIRV.

    But, climate won’t hamper anything, (hand wave), food won’t ever become scarce. Ignore Georgia being out of peaches and India being out of tomatoes. Ignore the vast rafts of seaweed that are floating ashore in record, stinky tonnage. Ignore the broiling waters and coral bleaching.
    Burn more and more, CO2 is plant food and also turned Venus into the garden that it is today. Ignore that sulfuric acid shower, it can’t hurt you because it’s natural.
    But, never fear. Gawd will fix it and welcome you into his house. After all, once you fucked your own house up, it’s natural that everyone will invite you into theirs, right?
    Oh well, at least we’re happily and industriously solving the Fermi Paradox.

  8. wajim says

    Alvarez ended the uniformitarian hypothesis? Well, pretty much in my view. Sometimes the present deforms the past.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    Dr. Davros was right. We need a new physical form, able to survive hostile elements. But NOT in the shape of daleks, that was a big mistake.

  10. wzrd1 says

    raven @ 6, not true, I saw otherwise in Star Trek Voyager’s “Distant Origin”.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    On a more serious note, there is nothing that says our current morphology and genome are optimal.

    And once we get “strong” AI (not even distantly related to the toys called “AI” today) our modified offspring will have even more resilient siblings.

  12. andywuk says

    It does sound like he’s looking at one very specific strand of Christian culture in isolation and ignoring the rest of humanity and that different sects, schisms and outright wars proliferated even within Christianity on one continent (let alone the rest of the world). Lumping the beliefs of Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Puritans, Quakers, Eastern Orthodox Christians, etc, etc all together and then just picking out those screaming about the end of days seems somewhat questionable.

    Maybe the book goes into more detail about the precise definition of “Western History” and which groups he’s talking about, but on the face of it it does look to homogenise an extremely diverse set of cultures and belief systems and as such making general declarations, whilst referring to specific beliefs among very specific groups, is to me a bit suspect.

  13. wzrd1 says

    birgerjohansson @ 11, I heard of them too, they will be known as the Morlocks, right?

    andywuk, while many pay attention to those screaming from the rooftops about the End of Days, the majority of the global populace really only look forward to the end of the week.
    A finer example cannot be found than The Great Smog. Smog was a known problem, largely ignored until large numbers of people were sickened and killed by it. Then, it finally was addressed.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Wzrd1 @ 13
    The morlocks were supposedly the result of non-deliberate evolution. Humanoids that were deliberately shaped as predators would be more like….

  15. Akira MacKenzie says

    The following exchange between a “liberal” evangelical and his Trumpist relations was from a 2019 Rolling Stone article about why Bible-humpers love Trump so much.

    For several hours, the conversation goes on in this vein. I try to put myself in their shoes, to cast about for an issue in which the stakes are existential but the warning signs disregarded.

    “Do you think because Jesus is coming soon that the environment doesn’t matter?” I eventually ask.

    “Alex, the Earth is going to be all burned up anyway,” my aunt says quietly. “It’s in the Bible.”

    “But according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true.”

    “All we can do is love them.”

    “No, we can cut back on carbon emissions. There are a lot of things we can do.”

    “It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to be here.”

    I try to think of how to reframe the conversation. “Imagine that you are someone who thinks that God doesn’t exist. You can’t say to that person, ‘Don’t worry about the fact that we’re ruining the world that your children and grandchildren live in, because this thing that you don’t believe in is going to happen.’ That’s not an argument a government can make.”

    “Who’s in charge of climate?” my mom interjects. “Who brings the sun out in the morning?”

    “You cannot base national policy about what is happening to the environment on one group of people’s religion,” I answer.

    Finally, my aunt puts her hand on my knee. Her eyes are tender and her voice soft and trembling with emotion. “I just want them to know the truth.”

    Not that the right-wingers don’t ever actually deal with their relative’s questions. They just go on, spouting platitudes, assured that JEEZ-us is going to magic them up to heaven before climate change makes the world unbearable. They’re not concerned. If anything, they’re looking forward to it.

  16. wzrd1 says

    Akira MacKenzie @ 16, want to really derail their train?
    “So, lemme get this straight. You are fucking up your house, then expect to be welcomed into God’s house after you fucked up the one he entrusted to you?”
    They’ll likely try the “It’s a promise” gambit.
    “A promise to the deserving, not those who destroy that which he entrusted as stewards to”.
    I usually then get the gem of a response: “Your a commie”.
    “I hope that you enjoy heat”.

  17. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 18

    “So, lemme get this straight. You are fucking up your house, then expect to be welcomed into God’s house after you fucked up the one he entrusted to you?”

    That’s only works if you are assuming that all Christians share the same interpretations of the Bible. Fundies insist that Genesis says Gawd gave humans “dominion” over the Earth. Therefore, they can do whatever they want; pollute, poison, strip mine, litter, etc.. The liberal Christians, eager to whitewash the problematic parts of the Bible, insist that text says Gawd gave them “stewardship” and are tasked with taking care of the planet for Gawd while he’s off doing whatever supposedly magical, cosmic, super-beings do.

  18. says

    Hey, PZ, you’re stepping on my line: ‘Welcome to the apocalypse!’. here is Aridzona, the heat record of days over 110 will broken tomorrow and greatly exceeded within a week. Ronny Raygun was trying to turn the united states into hell. He started the trip, and now, thanks to him, we are there! Thanks, crapitallist fossil fuel fools.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    … secularization played an integral part in enabling the discovery and creation of new kill mechanisms …

    Sounds like standard ol’fashioned atheist-bashing here – as if US weapons policies were not controlled by professing christians.

  20. says

    @ #16-19
    I think an argument could be made from the parable of the bags of gold (Matthew 25:14-28). E.g.:

    ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

    Even if the world is not fundamentally important, it could be argued that the way you treat it is and will have repercussions on the other side. However, this may also come down to a faith vs. works thing. Those who believe that faith is the only relevant thing can always find an excuse for ignoring actions whenever convenient.

    Unfortunately, you can make the bible say almost whatever you want. Once you start interpreting things, the only limit is your creativity. Such interpretations end up saying more about the person making them than the bible itself.
    Who was it that called the bible “the big book of multiple choice”?

  21. René says

    Call me doom incarnate. My optimistic life expectancy is ten years, max. I hope I won’t see the apocalypse. I fear I might. At least one of the commentariat here, will. I pity those with children.

    It’s all adding up too fast.

  22. raven says

    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.

    I don’t get this point at all.

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics has to do with energy losses in thermodynamic systems and entropy. Entropy in a system always trends towards being maximized.

    It would seem that Nature is in fact, not on our side.
    Everything is running down, including us.
    On long time scales, the sun will run down and the universe will also get colder and less ordered.

    On short time scales that matter to humans, I don’t see that the Second Law of Thermodynamics has anything to do with whether nature is on our side or not. In fact, there are always a lot of natural hazards leading to extinction and mass extinctions.
    A long time ago, there was the oxygen crisis, when photosynthetic organisms filled the air with…oxygen.

    Second Law of Thermodynamics Wikipedia:

    The second law of thermodynamics is a physical law based on universal experience concerning heat and energy interconversions. One simple statement of the law is that heat always moves from hotter objects to colder objects (or “downhill”), unless energy in some form is supplied to reverse the direction of heat flow. Another definition is: “Not all heat energy can be converted into work in a cyclic process.”[1][2][3]

    The second law of thermodynamics in other versions establishes the concept of entropy as a physical property of a thermodynamic system.

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    raven @25: I think the intended meaning was that the threat posed by the Second Law wouldn’t manifest for millions of years (badly placed comma?). Nature is “on our side” until then. That’s my reading, anyway.

  24. chrislawson says

    I hope the book will be a bit more nuanced than that diagram. A bit ahistorical, as cartomancer points out…even with regards to the scientific history. Despite the C19 geology schism often being described as uniformitarians vs. catastrophists, the uniformitarians did not in fact deny either extinctions or catastrophic events like megafloods and devastating volcanic eruptions. After all, the fossil record was pretty unambiguous on extinctions, the geological record was pretty unambiguous on fractures, uplifts, and gigantic lava flows, and the historical record was pretty uambiguous on earthquakes and eruptions. Far from uniformitarianism being the historical default theory of geology until overthrown by Alvarez, catastrophism is actually older and Lyell created uniformitarianism as a direct rejection of the prevailing catastrophism of Cuvier and Buckland (the latter was Lyell’s geology mentor and used to drive Lyell to frustration with his constant attempts to harmonize geology and the Bible).

    Lyell is often quoted as denying that extinctions happen. This is completely untrue and is based on a misunderstanding of one line in Principles of Geology — not a case of quote mining, though. Lyell really worded things so badly that the sentence reads that way at first glance, but in context it is quite clear that he not only believes in extinction and provdes examples like the dod, but even makes predictions about species he believes will soon be extinct. (He was not good at this game as his two most prominent choices were kangaroos and emus.)

    Finally, the Alvarez hypothesis is NOT that the dinosaurs were destroyed by an asteroid impact. That hypothesis is much older. The Alvarez hypothesis is that we should look for an iridium ‘spike’ in the KT transition layers. Once again, it’s a huge stretch to imply that it took until the 1980s for naive uniformitarianism to be overturned. In 1930 Olaf Stapledon was writing about the end of humanity by supernova, and others have already brought up H.G. Wells’ 1985 The Time Machine — in which our narrator travels so far into the future that he witnesses not just a post-human world, but the dying vestiges of animal life. Fun fact: Lord Byron was convinced that cometary impacts had wiped out several non-human civilisations in the distant past. And he died before Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology.

    I will agree with this, though: the idea that humanity will end because of our own misuse of technology is a product of the atomic age. I can’t think of any earlier examples than the nuclear apocalypses of the 1950s. Can anyone else think of an earlier example?

  25. asclepias says

    I’ve always found the supposition that humans couldn’t go extinct odd.

  26. seachange says

    At the turn of this millenium folks were thinking Y2K problem and also 2012 the end of the Maya Calendar. During those times multiple articles cited many historic examples of people being all doooooooom and stuff. Some of these were pre-Christian. Some of them even showed up here in Freethoughtblogs.

    Predicting the sudden and inevitable demise of humanity is a hobby as old as time and making just-so stories to justify these nightmares is equally popular. And as these kinds of unoriginal predictions go, Torres is b-o-r-i-n-g.

  27. wzrd1 says

    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.

    So, we’ll survive because my coffee gets cold if I let it sit on the counter too long? What odd reasoning!
    And completely ignores insolation increasing 10% per billion years.

    Akira, see @ 23. I literally can trade verses and chapters with these dweebs all day long. One thing that they do excel at is painting themselves into corners.

  28. unclefrogy says

    religion and religious belief is something we cling to to try and forget our mortality.
    the ever expanding knowledge of humanity and our history, the deeper understanding of the processes taking place on the earth those that are taking place in the universe all conspire to show us that we are in fact a mere event in time nothing more nothing is permanent . the more we try to pretend that that is not so the worse we behave the more self centered are our actions, belief does not change anything of course extinction is.

  29. birgerjohansson says

    In Florida, 25 years of Republican government seems aimed at local human extinction, or at least turning the place into hell.
    It is almost amusing to watch the screw-ups, but it is real humans suffering.

  30. says

    Re: Akira MacKenzie 16
    “You cannot base national policy about what is happening to the environment on one group of people’s religion,” I answer.

    Finally, my aunt puts her hand on my knee. Her eyes are tender and her voice soft and trembling with emotion. “I just want them to know the truth.”

    I don’t believe someone so willing to destroy our world, metaphorically crap in our backyard, has any truth worth the word.

    Aside from that I still get to shame and shun regarding the metaphorical backyard crapping and do so in political environments. Religious justifications aren’t special and I get to criticize what affects me.