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The end of the world isn't as likely as humans fighting back

Illustration for article titled The end of the world isnt as likely as humans fighting back

Scenarios for the future that involve a horrifying end for humanity might make for exciting reading, but they’re the most unlikely of scenarios — and incredibly unhelpful in creating a better tomorrow.


Dystopias make for boring futurism.

While it’s certainly true that one can tell a compelling dramatic story about the end of the world, as a mechanism of foresight, apocaphilia is trite at best, counter-productive at worst. Yet world-ending scenarios are easy to find, especially coming from advocates for various social-economic-global changes. As one of those advocates, I’m well aware of the need to avoid taking the easy route of wearing a figurative sign reading The End Is Nigh. We want people to take the risks we describe seriously, so there is an understandable temptation to stretch a challenging forecast to its horrific extremes — but ultimately, it’s a bad idea. Here’s why:

It's Simplistic

William Gibson famously said “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Unless we’re talking about an extinction-level asteroid strike, true dystopian futures will affect diverse parts of the world differently. This is true at a high level, even for dystopias — most of the time, the poorest parts of the world are also the ones hit the hardest by Globally Scary Threats — but it’s better to think of this observation as something more akin to a scalpel. Even within the same region or country, some communities will be hit harder than others, and some will have access to far greater resources than others.


If your dystopian scenario includes the phrase “we’re all doomed” or otherwise implies the Globally Scary Threat will affect us all equally, it’s probably bad futurism.

A better option: Describing some places doing better than others in the midst of chaos is a useful lead-in to discussions of political conflicts and ethical quandaries.

It's Lazy

End of the world forecasts are an easy way out of a complex challenge: articulating a set of plausible futures in times of abundant and large-scale crises. Figuring out how different communities will react to complicated problems is hard; laying out a “collapse of civilization” storyline (with or without zombies) is much easier. There’s no reason to imagine the novel ways people might fight back, or try to solve the problems. Just keep layering on the doom — it’s pandemic, followed by swarms of insects, and probably the death of the firstborn for good measure — and eventually you get to a point where the scenario audience just wants to go hide in the corner.


If your dystopian scenario includes no signs of human resilience, it’s probably bad futurism. If your dystopian scenario includes no signs of human resilience, or efforts to resolve the crisis, or any attempt to restore normalcy, it’s probably bad futurism.

A better option: frame the scenario(s) as explorations of how to respond to crises, not just as unrelenting catalogs of doom.


It Backfires

Unless your goal as a futurist is to make people cry, the main driver of dystopian forecasts is a desire to change our behavior so as to avoid said apocalyptic fate. But when your scenario is so full of doom that there’s no room for hope, the result is often quite the opposite: people give up. If avoiding apocalypse was easy, we would have done it; moreover, there’s a very real possibility that even if we tried, we’d fail to resolve such vast challenges. Rather than take the time, spend the money, put forth the effort to attempt to make radical changes happen, the scenario audience will more plausibly want to take that time/money/effort and do something both enjoyable and likely to succeed.


If avoiding apocalypse was easy, we would have done it. If your dystopian scenario leads a listener/reader to reasonably conclude that there’s no likely-to-succeed way to avoid this horrible fate, it’s probably bad futurism.

A better option: remember that human civilization has been through calamitous events in the past, and has continued on.


I know very well the temptation of exploring the end of the world. One of the most popular items I’ve produced for my blog is the Eschatological Taxonomy, rating various apocalyptic futures from 0 (merely a regional cataclysm) to 5 (the total elimination of all life on Earth). But as much fun as it is to explore the sundry ways in which the world could end, we have to remember that most of the plausible dystopian scenarios — again, aside from some kind of extinction event — are likely to be strange mixtures of disaster and hope, successful response and failed experiments, regional collapses and local resilience. A forecast that can be summed up as “game over” is nearly always bad futurism.

This article originally appeared at Co.exist.


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Paul Daniel Ash

I think one of the things that makes dystopia so compelling is the idea of a "clean slate:" sure, there's no heat or indoor plumbing, but at least the Republicans (or the treehuggers, or whoever your bêtes noires might be) are all dead.

If "explorations of how to respond to crises" sounds a bit academic, think of the people who are held up as heroes in both red states and blue states: the first responders, the people in places like OKC and Boston who dove in while things were in the process of going pear-shaped.

Right now you can probably find a hundred or more Hunger Games clones without even leaving the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought list. It's getting old.