We Asked Experts If We’re Living In The End Times
Asset sources, Wikipedia Commons / Shutterstock | Art by Noel Ransome
Since my formative years, I’ve been romantically and tragically entangled with—and nearly completely consumed by—the all-encompassing idea of the end of the world.
It probably began at whatever young, wide-eyed and terrified age I was when my older brother told me the universe had no end. It was that same age I would look up at the dark sky, which, in eastern Canada in 1998, was crystal clear and teeming with aliens (er, lights), when I became both fascinated and scared with the world at large. A few months later, Armageddon came out. I avoided watching it for as long as I could. My dad was reading The Bible Code at the time, and over dinner I would intake bits of casual commentary about humanity’s impending doom which he would divulge to my mom between spoonfuls of scalloped potatoes.
Fast forward twenty years and a couple dozen world-ending prophecies later, and here we are in 2018: teetering on what seems like the edge of million different ways our demise could manifest itself. From the threat of nuclear war to increasingly frequent and fierce natural disasters, to the seemingly less likely alien invasion or zombie apocalypse—now, more than ever, the current climate of the world (and our two-minutes to midnight Doomsday Clock status) seems to have validated my childhood paranoia.
So, this story is about the end of the world—the apocalypse, doomsday, Armageddon, the rapture, etc. etc. etc. It’s bleak and weird, and according to the experts—ranging from climate change pros to military professors—this generational melancholy we all seem to feel is somewhat legit.
WHO: Richard Zurawski
WHAT: Meteorologist, professor, former host of CTV’s Wonder Why? , Halifax city councillor
WHERE: Halifax, N.S.
VICE: From a climate change perspective—or maybe otherwise—do you think we’re living in end times?
Richard Zurawski: It’s an ecocide. We have two huge issues that we have to contend with: the first is our population—it’s unsustainable. Most of the population increase is in the non-Western world.
“The consumption that we have in the west is the noose that is tightening most quickly around our necks.”
Population increases are not an issue for the western world—and that makes up probably the wealthiest 10 percent of the world. The second part of this, is while the population is not increasing in the Western capitalist part of the world, what is increasing is consumption—and the consumption more than makes up for the population not going up in the west—the west, including Europe and parts of Japan and industrialized countries. The consumption that we have in the West is the noose that is tightening most quickly around our necks. And this is being offloaded by the really hyper-capitalism that is being proffered on us by neoliberal policies, and the great disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor.
Capitalism and hyper-capitalism and consumption are an absolute necessity in order for us to maintain economic health. So we don't examine what is happening to the rest of the world. We continue to buy SUVs, live in giant homes, talk about very minuscule changes in our attitude as though they will help us survive the next 50 years, when in fact, they won’t.
We see the effects [of our consumption] everywhere. From plastics in the oceans to increased amounts of carbon dioxide that we’re just not coming to terms with, [to the] the melting of the glaciers all around the world, and now the rapid disintegration of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps. The truth is that civilization as we know it will end in the next 50 years, if not before then, and in fact, we may be pushing ourselves into extinction, which is a terrifying aspect. So, me sitting here talking to you on a phone, this type of world is going to end in the next two decades, and then we’re going to move into subsistence. In the next two decades, if we don't stop this ecocide, it doesn't matter what we do in the year 2040.
When you say over the next couple decades civilization as we know it will not be the same, and then we’re going to push ourselves into extinction, what do you mean? What will happen before we wipe ourselves out?
The first thing that will happen is the wealthy will create enclaves to keep to the rest of us out. So, the hyper-gated community attitude saying, “I'm OK. I'm going to build a wall and keep you people out and I'm going to continue to live my lifestyle with my mansion and jet planes and communication systems and billions of dollars and infrastructure.” Well, what’s going to happen is the infrastructure will begin to fall apart rapidly. Power grids will be the first thing [to go]. Think about going without power for a week. When they start to disintegrate, when power stops, everything stops. We will then look at a fracturing of our society. We will begin to quarrel over natural resources. There will be military excursions to distract ourselves from the problems that we have—we will polarize things even more than they are now. If power stops and you have to forage, we do not have the ability to live off the land. The wild animals are pretty much gone. The hunter-gatherer stuff will not sustain eight billion people, and we’re past seven-and-a-half billion now. The ravages of our ecocide will come home to visit us. We will not have city councils or provincial or federal governments that are effective. Things will fracture. So, we will not see the type of life that we’re used to—roads are looked after, power systems and communication systems and sanitization systems—all of that will begin to degrade very rapidly.
So, rather than a cataclysmic natural disaster wiping us out—a super-volcano erupting or something like that—it’s going to be a really slow crawl to the death; a fight for resources, and maybe we’ll start eating each other and resort to cannibalism?
Well, I don't know about cannibalism, but certainly the resources won’t be there. Think about going to the hospital if you get a cut. It becomes infected and you go to the clinic and you get a shot of antibiotics. Antibiotics won’t exist. Hospitals won’t exist.
There have been [only a few dozen] major empires in the Earth’s history since we've moved out of hunter-gatherer [times]. And each one of these empires have ended, and when the end has come, it has not been pretty. Probably the most famous one was the fall of the Roman Empire. Empires end poorly. They lose power, there is nothing but waste and war that happen afterwards, and it’s not a pretty sight. If you take a look at the United States, it is our empire. And this empire is creating wars all over the place. It seems like every time we turn around, we have yet another conflict to distract us from these things.
So you think we’re sort of coming to the end of the Western, and then shortly thereafter coming to the end of humanity as we know it?
WHO: Dr. Chris Madsen
WHAT: Professor, Department of Defence Studies
WHERE: Canadian Forces College and Royal Military College of Canada
VICE: Given your military perspective, with the current state of the world and threat of nuclear war globally, are we approaching a catastrophic time, or putting humanity at risk?
Chris Madsen [via email]: The world is at a comparatively peaceful stage at the moment, so the threat of major war or nuclear annihilation is remote. In fact, most militaries are worried about justifying expenditures for resources and personnel, which are under pressure. Conflict today is very regionalized and most commonly undertaken by non-state actors. We are spectators to the low-level conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere. China is a major trading partner, and Russia prefers espionage and auxiliaries to attain its goals, instead of open conflict. The use of nuclear weapons would only be very localized, and immediately invite condemnation from most of the world. These conditions suggest that the relatively peaceful state will continue for the foreseeable future. Militaries generally do not like this message, and try to latch onto any crisis. Canada should engage in more peace support operations under the auspices of the United Nations, to support a stable and peaceful global order, to control and end local conflicts.
The major threats, in my opinion, to the world today are environment degradation and global pandemic. These are both related to increased population and consumption of resources. We are slowly, more quickly according to some, poisoning and destroying the ecosystem on which humankind depends for habitation. Nature has a nasty habit of correcting the balance. The Earth does not really care if people are around or not. We are making our own planet unlivable. Our one saving grace might be waking up to become more environmentally conscious or stepping up migration outward into space across our solar system and beyond.
[But] 20,000 years without people would return the Earth to its natural state. The only end of times is for humankind—the Earth and nature continues on. [We’re] just like the dinosaurs.
WHO: J. D. Harrington
WHAT: Public affairs officer
WHERE: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Washington, D.C.
VICE: Given your knowledge, with potential contamination or pending invasion from extraterrestrial lifeforms—are we approaching a catastrophic time in humanity?
J.D. Harrington [via email]: Unfortunately, we’re unable to support your interview request on this topic. Our Planetary Protection Officer is responsible for protecting solar system bodies (i.e., planets, moons, comets, and asteroids) from contamination by Earth life, and protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies. NASA and the other space-faring agencies around the world are diligently working to protect us from unintended contamination during future sample return mission.
WHO: Dr. Eric Ouellet
WHAT: Professor, Department of Defence Studies
WHERE: Canadian Forces College and Royal Military College of Canada
VICE: Given your knowledge of military and current rising tensions—threat of nuclear war, WMDs—are we approaching a time that we are threatening humanity more than we ever have before?
Eric Ouellet: The short answer is, I don't think we are closer to the end of the world now than we were 50 year ago or 100 years ago. There is still a significant balance of power among the great powers in the world. And because of that—because of those great powers that have nuclear weapons—that prevents them from attacking each other directly. From that point of view, I don't think things have changed much.
Since we've seen since the end of World War II, the balance has changed a bit, but in the end, there is a still balance of power. Some people might think about maverick states like North Korea—they’re actually much more disciplined than most people think. So I don't think there’s a big risk there. There’s a little bit more risk now than, say, five years ago, but we’re certainly not contemplating the abyss just yet.
[In terms of] WMDs, a lot of people are afraid of them, but there are all kinds of technological issues that make them very difficult to use—otherwise, they would probably be used much more. I don't think we should be very worried [though]—[if we’re] talking about mass casualties in terms of millions of people, these weapons are too complicated for many people to use.
So for all those reasons, I would say, no, we are not close to the end of the world from a military standpoint.
Where do you see the state of the world in 100 or 150 years?
There’s been a slow decline of the West in terms of its strength overall. In my opinion, the decline started in the First World War. It’s hard to say what technology will be in 100 or 150 years from now, but I would say there will probably be more conflict in the Western world because we won’t be as strong as we are now. Our strength is what protects us in many ways from major catastrophe—that's the sad reality of the world. So, yes, I expect in 150 years there'll be more conflict, and the west will be more involved in the conflict.
So, for now we’re OK though?
Yes, for now, I'm not too worried. Of course, there’s maybe less than one percent chance [that something catastrophic could happen], but if we are realistic, it’s unlikely.
WHO: James Thompson
WHAT: Author, Rise of the Mudmen , has cat named Zombie
WHERE: Sydney, N.S.
VICE: From a zombie apocalypse standpoint, are we living in the end times?
James Thompson: Probably, though we would never know it, and it’s probably been that way for a very, very long time. We understand very little about nature, let alone how we affect nature when we mess around with it. Things like germ/chemical warfare are going to have unexpected side-effects. When you get into genetic manipulation, and the development of super-viruses, something like a zombie becomes a very real possibility. Not the “dead rising from the grave” thing, nor the ones that feed primarily on the brains of the living, but it’s not all that hard to imagine a kind of rabies that affects humans turning their brains and bodies over to baser, more violent instincts. The flip of that is, if people are aware of things like this, it can be easily remedied (vaccine, quarantine, or just killing the damn thing). It’s when some other mistake gets made—that’s when the zombie outbreak begins, and as we’ve seen with pretty much every major epidemic from the past 200 years, it takes one very simple mistake to wipe out a whole lot of people.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Hillary Windsor is a writer living in Halifax. You can follow her on Twitter.