Features Australia

End of the world, again

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

Is it just me, or does the Apocalypse seem to roll around earlier and earlier each year? We’re supposed to be in the lead-up to a widely anticipated global calamity, and hey presto, before the disaster has even had the chance to make its chaotic presence known, and in some cases before you’ve had a chance to say ‘news cycle’, a fresh thundering of hooves announces a new posse of horsemen are saddled up and riding back into town.

Most recently, of course, the apocalyptic coverage has been about something called the climate change emergency.More than 600 jurisdictions across 13 countries, including the entire UK, have signed up to spit against the sun. The declaration requires governments to deal with greenhouse emissions rapidly. However you look at it, though, it’s probably too late for any of them, because the United Nations says we only have 11 years left to avoid an utter climate catastrophe. Realistically speaking, given that fixing the rot can’t wait until the last moment, five years is basically all we’ve got. But will the latest emergency last any longer than an old David Bowie song?

There have been so many of them. They have been going on now, I won’t say ceaselessly, but virtually without a break for a couple of decades. This year marks the grand anniversary, of sorts, of what future social historians — assuming there are any, but of course there won’t be anyone left — will possibly come to see as one of the great curtain-raisers to the suspiciously hot winter of our current discontent.

Twenty years ago the world was bracing itself for the mother of all catastrophes, Y2K, also known as the millennium bug. Y2K was the disaster-in-waiting caused by programmes representing four digit years being supposedly unable to distinguish between 2000 and 1900. Without corrective action, it was predicted, computers would freeze, planes fall from the sky, nuclear missiles would accidentally be launched, etc.

Nor was the world short in stumping up: by one estimate, $450bn in today’s currency was spent on staving off the impending apocalypse.

And apocalypse was the biblical word, too, with clerics such as Jerry Falwell warning that the Y2K ‘glitch’ represented a confirmation of Christian prophecy that would, he said, incite a worldwide religious revival that would lead to the rapture of believers. I know the ruddy-faced televangelist said this because he told me about it in an interview I did with him for the Guardian, in which he explained why his Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, was putting extra effort into chartering planes to ferry freshmen students over to Israel on eschatological fact-finding missions before all hell broke loose.


But then, suddenly, at the stroke of midnight, 1 January 2000, nothing happened, give or take a few buses not running on time in Kenya and something or other that may or may not have happened in rural Russia. I remember marvelling at this from my New Zealand homeland, which also happened to be the first country in the world to see in the calm new day, and even feeling a bit sorry for the prognosticators.

Seriously. It was as if Noah had spent the previous few months rending his garments, warning of the imminent global deluge and packing up his ark with two of every kind, only to be greeted on New Year’s Eve with the kind of gentle summer shower that parts of Europe could do with right now.

It was also a bit like the next item on the apocalyptic agenda, the much-ballyhooed swine flu pandemic, which was predicted to have the potential to cause 51,500 deaths in Australasia alone and an economic contraction of 18 per cent. A more accurate assessment would now appear to put that figure a little closer to zero — roughly the same body count of victims in the case of the widely anticipated avian flu pandemic.

Avian flu, of course, was the respiratory affliction that could be fatal to millions if — and with the benefit of hindsight that can be seen as a pretty big if — it were to ever mutate into an infectious condition carried by humans.

As the American Scientist put it, ‘The world is teetering on the edge of a pandemic that could kill a large fraction of the human population.’ Well, yes it could, but no it didn’t. What’s more, vast amounts of time and energy that might have been spent on tackling more prevalent worldwide epidemics — malaria, for example, or even childhood autism — were accordingly wasted.

Away from largely groundless global health scares, something of the same order played out economically in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008.To be sure, the crisis was real, but the associated warnings, of the financial and property sectors facing the worst meltdown ‘the world has seen since the Great Depression,’ as a contributor to the New Zealand Herald warned, were a tad premature.

At various times, as well, the international outlook for global supplies of oil, food and water — even air — has been similarly dire. The problem with all of this (and this is something religious loonies with their END OF THE WORLD sandwich boards learn pretty early on) is that when the catastrophe doesn’t arrive as predicted you have to be nimble on the feet if you don’t want to end up looking like a complete twerp.

Or at least allow yourself a tiny bit of wiggle room. Take a leaf from the relentlessly negative book of the University of Chicago inventors of the Doomsday Clock, whose symbolic clock face famously uses a ‘minutes to midnight’ theme to represent any one of a number of impending ‘catastrophic destructions’. Coincidentally, perhaps, the big hand only ever seems to be shifted forward while right-leaning administrations have held office in the United States.

These days the Doomsday Clock seems a low-farce stunt at best. For me, the Chicago professors increasingly resemble the guy in the old joke who was said to have had a rare talent for playing the piano with his eyes shut; the only problem being that he sounded rather ropey.

In the meantime, the real cataclysm for the rest of us is how we are now doomed to experience more and more immense global tragedies — most which never ever seem to happen. It’s always the end of the world as we know it, and yet somehow we always feel fine.

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