2013-05-28

The End Of The World Isn't 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, 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 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.

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10 Comments

  • Derek Ten Broeck

    Where do you live? Are you aware that most people are ALREADY giving up hope, that most people are ALREADY so pissed off at the plethora of catastrophic problems and see no help from those who should be giving it? I think you need to wake up and stop watching television and/or Fox News so much.

  • C_Thru

    Not all threats are 'exogenous' (sky is falling, asteroid is coming, black hole is hungry...) of course.
    The home-grown "third person" alternative may be on the way, as silicon logic gains mega-times the power it has today, introducing an alien logic into the very fabric of out inter-netted existence. A Skype co-founder is one of the originators of a think-tank exploring these risks (Cambridge University's 'Project for Existential Risk' -- see http://cser.org/

  • Gordon Hervey

    Are you familiar with the "World Future Review", a 'Journal of strategic foresight'.?
    I am arranging access to an article from 2009, "Global Megacrisis Survey: Four Scenarios". Any feedback would be welcome.
    gordonhervey1.
    gordonhervey@gmail.com.

  • Davidbrin

    Excellent article Jamais.  There is a nascent movement among science fiction authors -- Neal Stephenson (and his Hieroglyph Project), Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson, and myself, for example -- to push back against the recent trend of calamitously simpleminded fiction-of-woe.

    You are right that this kind of tale undermines confidence in our ability to solve problems... the can-do spirit that used to be preached by science fiction -- and that may have been too much of a good thing, way back then.  We must hope that folks will get sick of unimaginative gloom fests at the limits of this pendulum swing.

    Indeed, I have written post-apocalypse fiction!  The best can change us and gird us to do better.  Some even become Self-Preventing Prophecies... the highest of all warnings and effective art.

    Ironies abound.  See these two links about how two dire things - violence and poverty - are plummeting worldwide.
    http://www.economist.com/news/...

    and

    http://www.amazon.com/Better-A...

    I have written elsewhere of what I believe to be the fundamental root to this addictive obsession to dystopia.  It is not ideology or personal pessimism.  It is sheer authorial laziness. See:

    http://www.locusmag.com/Perspe...

    Perk up folks.  Face hope.  And thrive.

     With cordial regards,

    David Brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com
    blog: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/
    twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidBrin

  • Jamais Cascio

    Just want to clarify -- I'm not talking about dystopian/apocalyptic *fiction* in the storytelling sense (movies, science fiction, etc.), I'm talking about dystopian/apocalyptic *scenarios* in the futurism sense. That is, structured descriptions of different plausible outcomes of present-day decisions, intended to inform the thinking around those decisions.

    That said, I *do* tend to find apocalyptic fiction (in the storytelling sense) rather dull as a genre, but that's my own problem.

  • Wendy

    Bruce Tonn and Don MacGregor organised a special issue of Futures (volume 41, issue 10, December 2009  http://www.sciencedirect.com/s... by challenging contributing authors to devise credible scenarios of human extinction.  The upside of this exercise in catastrophe was the realization that humans are very very hard to kill - we are very resilient as a species.  I summarised a number of the scenarios from this special issue in a presentation I prepared for a client (Collapse Scenarios: http://www.slideshare.net/wend....

    You might also want to take a look at Nick Bostrom's work in the Futures of Humanity Institute at Oxford, summarised here by Ross Anderson in Aeon Magazine:  http://www.aeonmagazine.com/wo....

  • Robert

    Everything is a metaphor.  You might now find yourself thinking of something that's not a metaphor, a physical object, a person,  that special place you used to go to . . .

    Now you can use the non metaphorical thing in a metaphor.  Go ahead, get the imagination out.  Now it's a metaphor.  So maybe there's two categories of things: metaphors, and things that you don't yet realize are metaphors.

    These people watching post-apocalyptic films and reading zombie books, aren't necessarily sitting down in a Soviet Life factory and taking a course in the right way to behave.  Reality is only as boring as you let it be.  If you someone asks you a yes or no question you have to options to responds to them.  First option: answer yes or no.  Second option: do ____.

    Good luck,
    - Robert

  • Kamil

    While I see some valid points in this article, I'd like to point out an important aspect of such fiction that seems to have been missed out - most such fiction is not focused on making the statement of "we are doomed" as a goal. Rather, it is using the premise of "what if" it were to happen. And the purpose is usually to isolate very particular social, ethical or scientific issues in a simplified setting, where they can be illustrated in an extreme scenario. So, if done correctly, "apocalyptic" fiction can make applicable, constructive statements about our real World.

  • David Bradley

    Well said. I've always looked at serious global issues as a combination of smaller, solvable problems that add up to a holistic solutions. I think it would be kind of cool to read something involving a series of disconnected solutions working in parallel to tackle large scale global issues.

    For some reason, hope is tear jerking and exciting, but the actual realization of that hope coming true gets lost or is considered boring. What is causing us to enjoy staying curled up in the fetal position in the corner of the room vs. standing up and cheering when something goes right?