Why Civilization Will Probably End
Before the End of the 21st Century
story in human history is that civilization as we know it is probably on its last legs.
Yet, no politician, public official, or media executive who wants to keep his job will acknowledge
it—if in fact they haven’t already blocked out the possibility by means of a rigid cognitive denial.
Scientists who track
the planet’s destabilizing climate and failing ecosystems are very reluctant to acknowledge it publicly, because nearly
all scientists depend for their employment on corporations or universities that are heavily invested in (or dependent on)
the fossil-fuel, factory-farming, and other destructive industries. Many of the leading scientists will say privately, however, that the outlook is now extremely grim. I have heard what they sometimes admit when the microphone is not on.
Good scientists also
know that it is methodologically impossible for them to make outright prophesies; they can only speak in terms of probabilities. Prophesies are the privilege of religion. Probabilities are matters of hard data.
In my life as a science editor, I have been in the perhaps unique position of having worked closely
with some of the world’s top researchers in the fields of physics, biology, ecology, and human population. And if I look at the separate probabilities of global collapse brought by nuclear
holocaust, plague, ecosystem collapse, Malthusian population implosion, or a climate turned to Hell, all are now very high. The probability that at least one of them will occur is so overwhelming that
the best we can say is “approaching 100-percent.”
Most people will deny this, if only because to accept it is very painful.
It’s not just politicians fearing they won’t be elected or re-elected, but everyone
who wants to believe that somehow, something—technology, or human ingenuity, or Jesus—will save us. This blog is for the relatively few who can recognize as truth what our entertainment
media have treated as fiction—in blockbuster movies or TV shows about dystopian futures. In the real world, as opposed to our many virtual ones, we are rapidly approaching the end of civilization. But in the real version it won’t likely be a single event; it will be a
cancer-like decline that is already sneaking up on us—and, as I will disclose, is already beginning to take us down.
On our present course,
the very likely Malthusian outcome will reduce the current global population—now approaching 8 billion—to perhaps
a few hundred million within this century. It’s also
likely that from among those survivors an even smaller number will have acquired the skills and vision needed to continue
the human journey, albeit toward a very different kind of world than we know now.
How Can I Know This?
My seven decades of life on Earth so far just happen to have been the most violent seven decades in human history.
I was born two months before Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor to precipitate America's entry
into World War II, and I was four when we began a new era of destructive power by wiping out the city of Hiroshima with the
first atomic bomb used against humans--about 100,000 people obliterated in a flash.
But my first real inkling that I was living in a time of destruction unlike any before it came in the
1970s, when I went to work for a nuclear physicist named Ted Taylor, editing a journal he was writing to warn the world of
what he knew about the risks of nuclear blackmail, terrorism, and holocaust--and the proliferating incidents of thefts and
leaks of nuclear materials. Taylor, as it happened, had been the leading designer (at Los Alamos) of the largest
fission atomic bomb ever exploded on Earth, 37 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. It had been successfully
tested in a detonation over a remote Pacific atoll, Enewetak, in 1952, and a duplicate had been built, ready to be dropped
on Moscow, if the moment should come.
By the time I went to work for Taylor, we knew that moment very nearly had come--in the Cuban Missile
Crisis of 1962, when the U.S. and Soviet Union came within a hair-trigger's hair of a global holocaust. If Moscow
had been blasted to kingdom come, New York and a score of other U.S. cities would quickly have followed--and within hours, across
a world divided by superpower alliances, a hundred or more cities from London to Beijing. Radiation storms would have
taken u all.
Today, according to the "Doomsday Clock" of the Union of Concerned Scientists" (the international
association of nuclear scientists), the world is actually at greater risk of nuclear apocalypse than it was when Ted
Taylor was distributing his journal to the U.S. and international nuclear agencies. And yet, nuclear holocaust
is now only one of at least five major scenarios of civilizational destruction for which the probabilities are now dangerously
high. I will describe those five--and a more recent sixth that appears now to be the greatest risk of all--in a
But for now, I want to first revisit an event that helped me fully grasp the
enormity of the condition our global civilization is in. It's an enormity defined not just by the scientific
assessments of dangers unprecedented in human evolution, but by the willful denial of those assessments by public officials,
politicians, and media.
The event that brought this pervasive denial--and the reality it hid--into full consciousness for me occurred
in 1992. At the time, I was editorial director at the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit organization that tracks
global environmental and social trends., So I was already aware that we were in a time of staggering change. But even
so, I didn't hear about this event until after the fact because it was blacked out by mainstream media--and a direct
notice of it didn't reach my desk until it came in the mail several days later. Here's an account
of it excerpted from my forthcoming book, Racing to the End of the World (see link at the top of this page).
In 1992, large group of the world's leading scientists sent out a press release
headlined "A Threat to Human Survival." The preamble stated:
We the undersigned senior members of the world's scientific community
hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in the stewardship
of the earth and life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided
and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated . . . .
Humans and the natural world are on a collision course. [Italics added]
pressured news editors, the report might have looked, at a quick glance, like a handout version of one of those "The
End is Near" prophesies we'd see on hand-lettered posters held by bearded old men on busy street corners. But
this statement was different: It was a tersely worded document signed by 1,575 of the world's top biologists, chemists,
physicists, ecologists, and earth scientists, including 101 Nobel Prize winners. Among its signers were the renowned
astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould, Edward O. Wilson, and Lynn Margulis,
population biologist Paul Ehrlich, anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, Economist Wassily Leontief, chemist Linus Pauling, DNA pioneer
James Watson (co-discoverer of the double-helix structure), and astronomer James Van Allen (for whom the Van Allen Belt around
the earth is named.)
The day after the release was distributed to the media, it seems not to have been reported in a single U.S.
newspaper--at least not that I could find any record of. A front-page story in the New York Times that day
recounted the struggle of a Muslim family to survive in war-torn Sarajevo. But the struggle of all humanity, present
and future, to survive on an ecologically torn planet? Nothing. Later, when asked, the Times editors
said they had not considered the story "newsworthy." The same mind-boggling excuse was offered by the
In the nearly quarter-century since that warning, the truth of it has been hugely amplified--as coming
posts on this blog will make clear.
Next: The Five Major Dystopian Scenarios--and a Recent Sixth