When Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was published in 2006, it felt as though we’d arrived at the apex—or, depending on your perspective, the nadir—of apocalyptic storytelling. "What more could there be to say about the end of human civilization?" seemed an appropriate question. Apparently, quite a bit. In the six years since, we’ve seen ever more books, graphic novels, films, TV shows, and video games about bombs, Mayan prophesies, vampire romances, and oh so many armies of zombies. Maybe it’ll change after December 21, 2012—let’s hope—but for now the end of the world remains wildly a topic of fiction. But how likely is it to actually happen?
That’s the question posed (and answered) by Michell Zappa of Envisioning Technology, who teamed up with Bold Futures studio and Ann Viegas to create this interactive visualization and poster about the many ways—real and imaginary—that the world might end. The basic takeaway is that in all likelihood the world won’t end this week or any time soon; and while there are real threats to our livelihood, it behooves us to be optimistic about the future.
"In a world with ever increased scaremongering we felt it was important to give a voice of reason, by collecting scientific facts to counterbalance superstitious fears," says Zappa, a futurist who previously produced visualizations on the future of health technology and the future of education. "The current end-of-the-world debate serves as a starting point, but the aim of the project goes beyond. New developments in science and technology and their implications in society often lead to worries, usually because of lack of information. Humor is a great way of addressing these issues, as it takes out the seriousness a little."
A little levity can go a long way in the end times. But it’s also essential considering that, for a futurist, the notion of the end of the world is kind of a nonstarter. "To us it is both intriguing and frustrating," says Zappa. "Intriguing, because thinking of existential risks is like watching a horror movie, riding a roller-coaster, and the like. If you don’t become too scared it’s great fun. However, we’ve got quite a mix of possible (and impossible) end of world scenarios included in the project, and while it’s easy and fun to dismiss, let’s say, a theoretical zombie attack, it’s less so when thinking of global warming. And here apocalyptic thinking can become rather frustrating since it often comes with a somewhat misanthropic connotation as in 'We, us humans, are destroying the word!' This may be true sometimes, however, we like to believe in the human ingenuity to change the world (and ourselves!) to the better."
There’s the rub: With so much creativity being poured into ideas about how the world might end, it’s good to know some folks are putting equal effort into plans for the sustained betterment of our species.