Widespread fears of an apocalyptic future elicit equally dangerous responses: nihilistic thoughts and decadent lifestyles that accelerate environmental destruction, or fundamentalist intolerance that exacerbates social-political conflict. The only safe approach to suspicions of the apocalypse is adaptation through activism.
A few years ago, my son and I were watching world news on television. An item began about the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur, Sudan (which is still with us). "Can we turn this off, Dad?" my son said. I asked why. "It's depressing," he replied. "I don't need reminding what a horrible place the world is."
The images we hold of the world affect how we think, feel, and act, and they are increasingly shaped by global or distant threat and disaster: earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, bushfires, disease pandemics, war, terrorist attacks, and famine. While these hazards are, for the most part, not new, previous fears were never so sustained and varied, nor so powerfully reinforced by the frequency, immediacy, and vividness of today's media images. This effect seems certain to intensify as climate change and other threats begin to impact more deeply on our lives. The boundaries between the personal and the global are breaking down.
Most attempts to address these threats focus on economics and technology, but how we react psychologically to apocalyptic fears will be just as important. This response involves subtle and complex interactions between the external world and that existing in our minds. These have implications for both personal well-being and social cohesion and action.
Psychological research suggests that adaptability, being able to set goals and make progress toward them, having goals that do not conflict, and viewing the world as comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful are all associated with well-being. Biomedical research has shown that people become more stressed and more vulnerable to stress-related illness if they feel they have little control over the causes of stress, don't know how long the source of stress will last or how intense it will be, interpret the stress as evidence that circumstances are worsening, and lack social support for the duress that stress causes.
Negative expectations of the future of the world are likely to impact on several of these states, most obviously by encouraging perceptions that the world is hostile and dangerous and that circumstances are deteriorating. These psychological impacts will, in turn, shape our social responses.
We are being drawn in at least three directions by suspicions of an impending apocalypse (in either a literal, religious sense or figuratively speaking). The "business as usual" denial that has been the dominant response until recently is giving way to nihilism, fundamentalism, and activism. There are several reasons for framing our responses in this way:
* The possibility of global calamities is mainstream thinking among scientists and futurists. For example, the 2005 health synthesis report of the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project warns that the growing and unsustainable exploitation of ecosystems is increasing the risk of nonlinear changes in ecosystems, including accelerating, abrupt, and potentially irreversible changes, which could have "a catastrophic effect on human health."
* People, individually and collectively, can respond very differently to the same perceptions of threat and hazard. There is no guarantee the right response will prevail, although each has its psychological attraction. Despite the recent political action on global warming, for example, the response remains inadequate; the gap between what we are doing and what we now know we need to do continues to widen.
* This construct gives dramatic expression to what are, in reality, fuzzy response …