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April 12, 2024

The 100-Year Extinction Panic Is Back, Right on Schedule

The 100-Year Extinction Panic Is Back, Right on Schedule

Opinion|The 100-Year Extinction Panic Is Back, Right on Schedule


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Credit…Cari Vander Yacht

By Tyler Austin Harper

Mr. Harper is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College.

“Do you think we’ll need to buy guns?” The student’s question seemed to drop the temperature in the room by several degrees. I was at a dinner with fellow academics, a few college students and a guest speaker who had just delivered an inspiring talk about climate justice.

Sensing confusion, the student clarified: Planetary catastrophe was inevitable in the near term, which means people would soon be living behind walled communities. Since Republicans would be armed, she said, she just wanted to know how to keep the people she cared about safe. The guest speaker took a moment to process this information, then suggested that the student worry more about growing vegetables than about buying guns.

That conversation has stuck with me over the years not because the student’s views were unusual but because they’ve become commonplace. The literary scholar Paul Saint-Amour has described the expectation of apocalypse — the sense that all history’s catastrophes and geopolitical traumas are leading us to “the prospect of an even more devastating futurity” — as the quintessential modern attitude. It’s visible everywhere in what has come to be known as the polycrisis.

Climate anxiety, of the sort expressed by that student, is driving new fields in psychology, experimental therapies and debates about what a recent New Yorker article called “the morality of having kids in a burning, drowning world.” Our public health infrastructure groans under the weight of a lingering pandemic while we are told to expect worse contagions to come. The near coup at OpenAI, which resulted at least in part from a dispute about whether artificial intelligence could soon threaten humanity with extinction, is only the latest example of our ballooning angst about technology overtaking us.

Meanwhile, some experts are warning of imminent population collapse. Elon Musk, who donated $10 million to researchers studying fertility and population decline, called it “a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming.” Politicians on both sides of the aisle speak openly about the possibility that conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East could spark World War III. Donald Trump has made “the N-word” — he hastens to specify “the nuclear word” — a talking point at his rallies. The conviction that the human species could be on its way out, extinguished by our own selfishness and violence, may well be the last bipartisan impulse.

In a certain sense, none of this is new. Apocalyptic anxieties are a mainstay of human culture. But they are not a constant. In response to rapid changes in science, technology and geopolitics, they tend to spike into brief but intense extinction panics — periods of acute pessimism about humanity’s future — before quieting again as those developments are metabolized. These days, it can feel as though the existential challenges humanity faces are unprecedented. But a major extinction panic happened 100 years ago, and the similarities are unnerving.

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