It's easy to get caught up in apocalyptic paranoia. After all, it's 2012, the economy is fucked, the oceans are rising, and all our coolest fictional heroes are post-apocalyptic one way or another. But let's just take a moment to remember all the calamities that didn't happen. Over the past few decades, people have predicted plenty of Earth-shattering catastrophes. And we're still here, for now.
Here are nine worldwide, massive disasters that people were warning about, which never happened. Some of them were real possibilities, while others were never more than just mass hysteria or widespread delusion.
Top image: Gregory Guivarch/Shutterstock.com
Sure, we could still have a nuclear war with North Korea, or a dirty nuke in one of our cities. But the threat of a full-on global thermonuclear war, War Games-style, seems to have receded with the fall of the Soviet Union. It's hard to imagine now how close a massive exchange of nuclear missiles appeared a few decades ago — when you watch these old duck and cover PSAs from the 1950's and 60's, they look kind of ludicrous now. As if a school desk would really protect you from and atomic blast. But people were living in terror. Just read Watchmen, and you'll see how absurdly close the abyss seemed. And in fact, we did have a number of close calls along the way. Image: Nogwater/Flickr.
When the yearometer rolled over from 1999 to 2000, people predicted all Hell might break loose. Planes could fall out of the sky, electric grids could crash, and the world banking system could collapse. All this, because of many programs and microchips only stored the last two digits of the calendar year — so systems would think 2000 was 1900. Governments around the world replaced and updated systems, created backups and reached out to the private sector to educate and help. But all that preparation did little to quell the media hysteria. People, like those on Y2K homesteader mailing list, prepared to live out their apocalyptic fantasies. As you probably already know, 2000 came and went with zero hoopla. Some people claim the widespread prep helped to avert disaster, while others say it was a hysterical overreaction. In any case, the concern did improve our computer infrastructure, including the replacement and upgrade of legacy systems as well as better backup plans.
An April 28, 1975 article in Newsweek Magazine titled "The Cooling World" warned that the world could freeze over before we knew it. A year earlier, Time ran an article titled, "A New Ice Age?" The media of the mid-70's latched onto the idea of impending icy death. But where did this come from? Between 1945 and the 1970's global temperatures had decreased. Scientists have since figured out that sulphate aerosols caused cooling, by blocking and reflecting sunlight as well as serving as seeds for cloud coverage. At the same time scientific papers explaining about how the earth's orbital patterns affect global weather and the creation of ice ages were being published. The media seemed to pick up geologist saying an ice age could be soon — but not really understanding that thousands of years is "soon" to a geologist. Despite the media hype, the scientific journals were either unsure about how humans were effecting the climate, or already predicting the possibility of global warming due to CO2. Current research shows the high level of CO2 in the atmosphere is preventing any growth of the ice sheets. The Ice Age fear has come back recently, most likely because of the 2012 hysteria, but this time in conjunction with the sun's solar cycles. Bad Astronomy explains why you don't need invest in parkas quite yet. Incidentally, Newsweek issued a correction to the 1975 article in 2006, since by then it was clear an Ice Age hadn't wiped us all out.
Comets have always been considered a harbinger of death and doom. Shakespeare writes, "The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes." In 1910, as this comet approached Earth, the world began to collectively lose it, stoked on by journalists looking for a sensational story. Some scientists predicted the comet's tail would pass over the Earth, and might poison the entire planet with cyanogen gas. This seems especially strange, since there were people still around who'd viewed the comet on its last pass-by 75 years earlier. Still, French peasants blamed the comet for bad weather, miners in NJ huddled in a church and refused to work, and Oklahoma sheriffs had to stop a virgin sacrifice by the Select Followers.
Source: The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), May 9, 1992, Saturday, FINAL EDITION. Image: ESA.
Doomsday believers were sure that when the Large Hadron Collider powered up for the first time in 2008, it had the potential to open a black hole that would consume the entire world. There were some fantastic headlines, like the one in Britain's Sun newspaper on Sept. 1 that read "End of the World Due in 9 Days". Suddenly, people became very interested in the topic of subatomic particle research. A German chemist filed a lawsuit against CERN with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming a black hole scenario would violate the right to life of European citizens and pose a threat to the rule of law. Two high-energy proton beams hit energy records in 2012 in the search for the Biggs boson. A black hole has failed to open, nor has a new big bang destroyed the Earth. Nor has the creation of strange matter consumed the world — all possible predictions of the damge that the LHC could release. Image: Boston.com
Remember Soylent Green? That film, and the Harry Harrison novel it was based on, were spawned by a widespread Malthusian panic. Starting in the late 1960's, fears about population sustainability began to spike, especially centered around the possibility of mass famine due to the sheer inability to produce enough food to feed the world. The founder of Earth Day in 1970 wrote in The Living Wilderness in 1970 that she feared, "It is already too late to avoid mass starvation." Bestselling books like The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich and Famine 1975! America's Decision: Who Will Survive? by William and Paul Paddock warned of impending worldwide famine in the near future. Fortunately during the same time period, the "Green Revolution" was taking place. Hybrid high yield crops of cereal grains, irrigation infrastructures and general practices of modern agriculture and technology were being distributed around the developing world. Countries like India which were slated for starvation actually began producing a surplus by the 70's. By the early 2000's, food prices across the world had reached a record low. The growth of technology and infrastructure in developing countries helped head off the worst of potential disasters. Sadly, there was horrendous, unthinkable starvation in countries like Ethiopia — but that can be more readily traced to two decades of war.
You can practically hear the deep sigh and pained voice over at Ask an Astrobiologist, as a poor scientist patiently explains why there is no rogue planet speeding to destroy the Earth. The myth of Nibiru originates with Zecharia Sitchin, wrote several books proposing that Sumerian culture originated with aliens, who visited from a passing planet named Nibiru. Self-proclaimed psychic and alien channeler Nancy Lieder claimed the aliens told her Nibiru was coming again to cause a cataclysm — and the original date for the world ending event was 2003. So yeah, that didn't happen. Conveniently, the disaster date was pushed back to 2012, to fold nicely into the doomsday panic. As the teeth-gritting astrophysicist points out in his Q&A about the alleged cataclysm, if there were a planet about to come close enough to destroy earth in two months you'd be able to walk outside and see it your own fool self in the sky.
Swine flu, mad cow, SARS, bird flu — take your pick about which disease was going to be the next global plague. The happy fact is, at least up till now our public health initiatives and disease control centers have been up to the task of tracking and containing potentially dangerous outbreaks. Leaps in genetics also help us to understand what we're dealing with, and the mass migration of people to cities means there is somewhat less chance of new potential killer bugs hopping from animals to people. With the rise of global temperature, there has been a fear that malaria would begin spreading into new territories and worsening in already troubled areas. But in fact, malaria has decreased in the past few years according to the World Health Organization — most likely due to their aggressive preventative programs, better treatments plans, and increased funding. Science is also showing that the effect of warming on mosquitoes and disease transmission is a lot more complicated the previously understood. At least for now, modern medicine and strong public health policy have been able to stave off the next great pandemic.
In 1774, peasants panicked at a conjunction of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. The fantastically named Reverend Eelco Alta stoked the terror, publishing a book that claimed the conjunction would push the Earth out of its orbit. In response, amateur astronomer Eise Eisinga built a working orrery in his living room that tracked the movement of the planets in real time, in hopes of educating people about the planets' movements. But Eisinga didn't silence the doomsayers forever — a similar conjunction-related doom was predicted in 1919 by meteorologist Albert Porta, in 1977 in the book Death of Planet Earth, 1978 in the book We Are the Earthquake Generation, and finally in the book 5/5/2000 Ice: the Ultimate Disaster — and not surprisingly, all over the internet for 2012. The solar system has yet to be torn apart. NASA in its official FAQ on why the world won't end in 2012 addresses the topic.
Additional reading: 10 Science Experiments That Looked Like the End of the World