Are we really all doomed?

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THE inimitable Private Fraser of Dad’s Army encapsulated the Malthusian doctrine to grim comic effect when he suggested an end to civilisation as he knew it.

He was not the first - or the last - to oil the wheels of the doomsday machine.

For it seems that if humans cannot have Apocalypse Now! we can have Apocalypse When? From Nostradamus’s suggestion of global calamity, occasioned by the arrival on Earth of Satan (confidently, but erroneously, predicted for 1999) we believe the end is nigh. The 16th-century French astrologer - and drug abuser - wrote of the end of the world in Quatrain 74, which related to events in July 1999. Somehow, however, we survived.

But, no matter where we are in history, it is an age of anxiety, and our fears have grown exponentially over the past half- century.

From the Cold War to the latest prognostication that we will soon go the way of Atlantis, we embrace the threat of calamity.

The psychologist Dr Jack Boyle believes that, as a species, we need to latch on to worst-case scenarios because "medium-case" bore us.

"We likes extremes," he said, and added: "Because it is removed from our experience.

"The majority of people exhibit safe and cautious behaviour. Titillating news sells. Doomsday stories are an extension, an enjoyment of extremes which fascinate.

"The truth is, though, that few historical forecasts come true."

Our fascination with doom-laden situations that do not materialise is exemplified by Thomas Malthus, the 18th- century social thinker.

His calamity of choice was starvation, and his views were shared by Charles Darwin, the author of Origin of Species.

Malthus predicted global famine and suggested, somewhat controversially, that war, poverty and disease were useful means of population control. He said the population grew "geometrically" while resources increased "arithmetically". The result would be starvation.

But the theory did not take into account that improving technology would dramatically increase our ability to create resources.

Even 200 years on, modern Malthusians were still espousing the theory.

In the Sixties, Paul Ehrlich, the author of Population Bomb, and Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, predicted that the "dramatic consequences" of our "throwaway lifestyle" were only a McDonald’s carton away.

In 1968, Ehrlich said food shortages in India would kill 200 million people by 1980. In fact, by 1980, India was exporting surplus grain to Russia.

It would be easy to dismiss Ehrlich and company, but their concerns were genuinely based on their knowledge - and an ancient human fear of disaster.

Greg Philo, a professor of social anthropology at Glasgow University, said: "We are mortal, afraid of death, and we’ve lived through periods where enormous numbers died.

"For 50 years, we have had relative calm, but scratch the surface and there are still deep fears. Humans are attuned to becoming nervous. It’s a survival mechanism."

In the Seventies, that survival mechanism was directed to averting the new Ice Age.

In a scenario eerily echoing the current blockbuster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, it was suggested that cold, fresh water from melting polar caps would flow into the Atlantic.

The Gulf Stream, which warms Europe and north-eastern North America, would shut down. The Ice Age cometh. This was supposed to have taken place within three years. Conversely, in addition to causing the Ice Age, global warming was going to prevent it.

The sea level is the highest it has been in 250,000 years, and a warming climate may be stalling the Earth’s natural cycle of hot and cold periods.

We know that there will be an Ice Age but it will be, give or take a year, in 80,000 years.

Paul Kurtz, the professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York, has studied the doomsday obsession.

He said: "Pessimists become angry at realists who think civilisation is likely to muddle through and survive.

"The apocalypse seems to be wish fulfilment. The mundane world lacks the drama of a fertile apocalyptic imagination."

For three decades, there was no greater apocalyptic fear than nuclear conflict.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the weapons stand-off between East and West was the sword of Damocles.

Bad science suggested a single bomb could destroy all life.

A large bomb, such as the Russians’ 100-megaton monster, which had a cobalt core, could have caused regional, but not global destruction.

However, the classic anxiety was fear of a Russian attack followed by American retaliation. It made the world psychotic.

It is not without significance that one of the most popular books of the 1980s in the United States was You Will Survive Doomsday by Bruce Beach.

It contained helpful tips such as: "Don’t think you can build an adequate shelter in your basement!" and "Do not rely on radiation suits to protect you from ... radiation".

In the early part of this new century, the fear of a nuclear winter has diminished, and our concerns have re-focused on the environment.

Yet science is not - pardon the expression - an exact science, and the experts are not "absolutely" certain of what the future holds.

But Dr Roger Few, an environment expert at the University of East Anglia, said: "There is evidence that climate has changed, but we can never be sure of anything until it is happening.

"The evidence is difficult to refute that there is a process of change."

On the present flooding prediction, he added: "They are talking about one billion people at risk.

"On one hand, we have a sea-level rise, a product of global warming. That is happening and will continue to happen.

"More and more people will face a greater likelihood of flooding. The likelihood is that areas already subject to high rainfall will be hit."

THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT

PREDICTIONS of apocalyptic scenarios wiping out humanity’s continued existence at a stroke are nothing new.

In the early 16th century Nostradamus was the first serious doomsday prognosticator of modern history. His 72nd quatrain reads: "In the year 1999 and seven months the Great King of Terror will come from the sky, he will bring back to life the great king of the Mongols. Before and after Mars [the god of war] reigns happily." Fortunately for us, his prediction proved to have no basis in fact, although some have tried to link the 11 September terrorist attacks with his prophecy.

In the late 18th century the reverend Thomas Malthus predicted that the demand for food would inevitably become much greater than the supply of it, and consequently global famine would grip the world followed swiftly by catastrophic forces such as war, pestilence and plague, which would operate as checks on a swelling population. Huge advances in technology, which Malthus never envisaged, together with intensive farming have so far avoided such an event.

More recently, climatologists suggested in the 1970s that an increased flow of fresh water into the Atlantic from melting polar ice caps and a rise in rainfall would desalinate the Gulf Stream and stop its flow. This would put a stop to the temperate climate of the UK, leading to a new ice age. Obviously this phenomenon never occurred in the brief timescale that the scientists were suggesting, but it has recently gained favour again and is now back on the radar of the doomsday predictors.

Astronomers claim it is only a matter of time before a huge asteroid smashes into the Earth and releases in one go energy equivalent to 1,000 times the amount of nuclear explosives that we currently possess.

But perhaps the most often repeated catastrophe predicted is the exhaustion of the world’s oil reserves. As early as 1919 the head of the US geological survey forecast that the end would come in nine years. Since then things have improved and the latest estimate is 2043.