The end of the world is always personal, sometimes social, and only once literal. However, the irrefutable experience that everything is born to decay is usually transferred to the cosmic order and the idea of the Apocalypse is omnipresent in human societies. The universe is usually found between a creation where everything was good and an end, often close, that will come because with our clumsiness and wickedness we corrupted the gifts that were given to us. Don Quixote recalls before a group of goatherds the vision of classical Greece when he speaks of some happy centuries “whom the ancients called the golden ones”, a communist utopia in which “those who lived in it ignored these two words of yours and Own”. Now, after several degradations, we are in the Iron Age and the situation is going to get worse. Something similar tells the Hindus, for those of us who live in the Kaliyuga period, an era of strife and hypocrisy that is also the last before some kind of cataclysm purifies the planet.
The same tendency of humans to make analogies that confuse the cycle of life and that of the world can make you despise the fear of a disaster of planetary dimensions. If so many ancient peoples believed the end was near and erred miserably, it is easy to dismiss the heralds of the Apocalypse without regard. That is what should be done, for example, with the scientists of the Atomic Scientists Bulletin, that last week they advanced their metaphorical clock of the end of the world and left it just one hundred seconds from the end of the world. However, situations are not always comparable and in recent centuries humanity has increased its ability to cause planetary disasters and also to predict them.
The Spanish flu, one of the largest known pandemics, wiped out only about 6% of the world’s population
The end of the world clock was created, fundamentally, to warn of the risks of annihilation of human civilization if the Cold War, which for decades faced the United States and the Soviet Union, turned into an atomic conflict. Today, however, many more risks are being assessed, such as uncontrolled artificial intelligence or biotechnology and, as physicist Lawrence Krauss, a member of the doomsday clock council of scientists, has written, “This multiplication of threats has raised the feeling of alarm ”. “The doomsday clock is closer to midnight today than during the Cuban missile crisis (there it was seven minutes compared to 100 seconds today), when the world was really on the brink of a nuclear holocaust,” he added in an article published in The Wall Street Journal where he doubted the validity of the instrument.
Not all threats are the same, nor are cataclysms the same dimensions. As Krauss himself commented, climate change associated with industrial activity, one of the supposed great threats to the continuity of civilization, will probably have “devastating effects”, but these will be felt in the long term and will not be the same at all the world. María José Sanz, director of the Basque Center for Climate Change, affirms that an increase of more than two degrees in the average temperature of the planet “can cause very important damage to human societies, which will have difficulties to adapt to a frequency of climatic phenomena extremes never seen before ”. But that does not mean that the Earth is going to become a hostile planet for life like Mars or that a species like humans, which already has more than 8,000 million individuals and an overwhelming technological capacity, is going to see its continuity.
Sanz points out, however, some dangers difficult to foresee. “Beyond the progressive increase in temperature, the climate system has certain turning points,” he explains. The amount of ice from the poles, the tropical monsoon system or the north-south current, which makes New York much colder than Madrid being at the same latitude and has to do with the amount of fresh water that is poured into the oceans and in turn is related to the ice of the poles, are mechanisms that regulate the planetary climate and can change suddenly. “If those points are exceeded, there can be very abrupt changes and that is what cannot be predicted. We know that they are there, that the path to these turning points is accelerating, but we do not know what will happen if they are overcome or what consequences there will be ”, he adds.
As the success of the zombie genre makes clear, infectious diseases are also a source of apocalyptic terror. And in this case, fear is not supported only by possible future suffering but by millions of deaths. For much of history, when it was not known what caused infectious diseases, some microbes could decimate the population they infected. The historian Eric Hobsbawm estimates that only 6 to 7% of the English sailors killed between 1793 and 1815, during the wars against Napoleon, were killed by the French. “80% was due to illness or accident,” he writes. Dirt, faulty medical facilities, or poor hygiene were far more fearsome enemies than the guns of their enemies.
During the Napoleonic wars, 80% of the dead died from illness and accidents and not from enemy weapons
It is estimated that the Black Death, caused by bacteria, wiped out a third of Europe’s population. The Spanish flu killed up to 20% of those infected and wiped out 6% of the world’s population. Although it did not completely exterminate them, for many of the inhabitants of pre-Columbian America, viruses caused a kind of doomsday. “In the colonization of America, the main soldier was viruses,” says Víctor Briones, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid.
“For an infection to endanger the continuity of a species is very difficult, although there have been cases in which it has almost happened with sometimes trivial diseases, such as scabies in the Pyrenean chamois. And rinderpest created such a death toll in Europe that it led to the founding of veterinary faculties ”, continues the expert in Animal Health from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Madrid university. In humans, the Spanish flu of 1918 “depopulated the rural areas” and the plague of Justinian in the 7th century may have had an influence on the end of the Roman Empire. “It reduced the population in such a way that there were no arms to cultivate the land and no people to defend the border. The social order was altered ”, says Briones, who concludes that although he does see the possibility that a disease causes a great death, he sees the extinction of humanity in this way as very difficult.
Even if there is no extinction, some diseases that fail to attract public attention in developed countries kill hundreds of thousands of people. HIV, tuberculosis and malaria alone kill around two and a half million people each year, the majority in poor countries. “In cities like Jakarta, Dar es Salaam or Cairo, where most of the population does not live in buildings made of glass and steel but made of sheet metal and tin, where there is massive immigration, poor waste management and little access health resources, there are diseases that cause great mortality, “says Briones. The hecatomb there is not a diffuse fear in the future but everyday life.