Myths about the end of the world are as old as humanity. But whereas in past centuries the realization of such fantasies was a remote possibility, apocalypse today is becoming an increasing probability.
The primary dangers we now face as a species are mostly of our own making. Our failure to adjust our cultural values to changing material conditions (brought on primarily by technology) makes our long-term survival doubtful.
Two hundred years ago war was a kind of sport, a game of power and prestige played by the aristocracy. War in those days had little effect on the average citizen (unless he happened to be a soldier) and certainly did not threaten the fabric of society.
Today, despite the end of the "cold war" charade, there are still 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world, enough to turn the earth into a radioactive wasteland many times over. But the institution of war persists, little changed from the days of swords and muskets. We are still trying to play the same old game even though our toys have evolved into terrifying weapons of mass destruction. Our failure to adjust our cultural values to changing material conditions makes our long-term survival doubtful.
In 1950 there were 2.5 billion human souls in the world. Today there are 5.8 billion. Fifty years from now there could be 10 billion people on planet Earth. This staggering growth in population is a major factor in many of the problems that threaten to put an end to humanity. Pollution, famines, epidemics, resource exhaustion, ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity reduction and waste disposal problems are all aggravated by ever-increasing numbers of human beings.
Yet the mere discussion of birth control is taboo in many parts of the world, including some places in the "advanced" industrial societies. The Catholic Church, one of the most influential cultural institutions in the world, continues to forbid the use of any kind of birth control at all. Old beliefs, which may have once served good purposes, can become pernicious in a new context. Our failure to adjust our cultural values to changing material conditions makes our long-term survival doubtful.
Population growth alone is overloading the earth's ability to support life. Adding to the crisis is the fact that per capita resource usage and waste production also continue to increase at an alarming rate. But even at current levels of population and consumption, we are depleting the ecosphere faster than it can renew itself. In the U.S. we are, in essence, borrowing from the earth's future to sustain our wasteful lifestyles.
Yet it is almost universally accepted that the answer to all global problems is accelerated industrial output. Our major political/economic models—capitalism, socialism, communism—are all premised on the control and exploitation of nature to achieve ever-increasing levels of production and consumption. In the industrial world our obsession with consuming useless junk has taken on truly pathological dimensions. Shopping has become one of our most sacred institutions, rivaling religion as a meaningless substitute for meaning in our empty lives.
If we wish to avoid catastrophic ecological and social upheaval, we must make radical changes in the way we live, and in the way we perceive our role in the global ecosystem. Our failure to adjust our cultural values to changing material conditions makes our long-term survival doubtful.
While our values change slightly from generation to generation, our circumstances change radically from moment to moment. It seems impossible that world cultures can ever adapt quickly enough to avoid disaster. We may well be doomed.
Yet, in the meantime, we still must live our lives. And in that, at least, we have choices. We can choose to lose ourselves in the crowd, mindlessly embracing its nihilistic values and lifestyles, as it sweeps us along in an orgy of mass extinction. Or we can choose to take a stand and live with integrity, unafraid of new ways of living or radical forms of refusal that following our own inner truth might demand.
Our efforts to transform the world may be futile. It may already be too late. But by struggling to live in truth we can at least have the satisfaction of facing annihilation with dignity and style.
LINKS TO RELATED PAGES ON OTHER SITES
Check out how much time we have left on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' doomsday clock.
The Dangers of Nuclear War
Links to pages about nuclear war, weapons and policy.
A website devoted to the history of the Nuclear Age.
World Overpopulation Awareness
Making "people aware of population, overpopulation, its impacts, and what the choices are in doing something about it."
Behind Consumption and Consumerism
Exploring the links among the issues of over-consumption, environmental degradation, waste, globalization and poverty.
A page of links related to the end of the world and/or civilization.