TALKING ABOUT THE END OF THE WORLD
End of the world shtick is popular again. It was trailed before Covid, especially around climate change and nuclear war, and the pandemic has heightened our millenarian angst. We also know that some people are taking it very seriously.
In his eminent The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (Bloomsbury, 2021), Oxford academic Toby Ord asks us to treat the subject with unsensational respect and honest reflection. Inter-governmental work needs to be done to prepare for some of the more serious risks and the Covid pandemic shows how reluctant we are to make plans for events we are sure will happen at some point.
Ord sets out his view of the likelihood of catastrophic risk within the next one hundred years; the kind that leads to human extinction. At one end of the scale is the possibility of stellar explosion, put at 1 in 1,000,000,000, and meteor or asteroid impact, put at 1 in 1,000,000. So, it looks like Bruce Willis can put away his space drill for the time being. Riskier than either nuclear war or climate change are engineered pandemics (1 in 30) and, top of the list, unaligned artificial intelligence, with a disturbingly high probability of 1 in 10. Popular imagination has relegated the AI risk to the realm of the Terminator, a fantasy about killer robots. The risk of artificial intelligence becoming more intelligent than its creators and blithely outsmarting them looks like it needs wider attention than it is getting. For some time, it’s been clear that technology is not so much outrunning wisdom as lapping it.
If this is dispiriting, then Mark O’Connell helps us to laugh at impending catastrophe in Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta, 2021). Among us are some people who are very intentional about skipping the apocalypse. These numbers include billionaires buying up swathes of New Zealand and building deep bunkers to boot, the ultimate destination of the gated community; American survivalists ready to leave their homes at a moment’s notice and live successfully off the land; and those convinced the colonisation of Mars is the only long term solution for doomed planet earth.
Amid his eloquent and witty take on the end of the world, O’Connell makes pertinent points. A specific type is often drawn to survivalist thinking and it is hyper-masculine, trenchantly right-wing, deeply individualistic and hostile to the State’s role in human affairs. Mars, in particular, is seen as the cosmic neo-liberal option where government has no role to play at all.
O’Connell also sees talk about the end of the world as a projection of present day problems; concerns refracted through apocalyptic dread. The kind of person drawn to it is among those who feel, accurately or not, most threatened by societal trends.
Together, they are known as ‘preppers’, and it’s an interesting choice of word.
The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire says St Peter in his second letter.
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming, says Jesus himself in Matthew 24.
Scripture is full of exhortation about the world to come, but the kind of prepping it expects is made by each soul in its relationship with God. No amount of money, land or tinned spam can shield us from the day we shall each make an account of our lives to the one who gave it to us. Speculation about the end is unhelpful and obscures what is important now. Those who talk about the end of the world are going to face the end of their world, sooner rather than later. This has been every human being’s experience from the beginning until now.
True prepping is trusting in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and helping others to find peace in him as we face the continual uncertainties of life.
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