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 January 23, 2018
Apocalypse not now but the fate of civilization is in our hands

 THE idea that we are living in a historic, even apocalyptic, age exerts a powerful pull on the human mind. Eschatology -- the theology of end times -- is a religious concept, but crops up in many other systems of thought. Marxism and neo-liberalism were both driven by an "end-of-history" narrative. Scientific thinking isn't immune either: the technological singularity has been called eschatology for geeks, and the study of existential risk even has its own centre at the University of Cambridge. You don't have to believe in the four horsemen to see the apocalypse coming.

How credible are these worries? The end of the world itself is a given, but is so far off as not to be worth fretting about. However, the end of the world as we know it -- aka Western civilization -- is a different matter. There is an emerging strand of respectable scientific thought that says its decline and fall has started already, or soon will.

What are we to make of such claims? There seems little reason to doubt that Western civilization will eventually collapse. Unless it is immune -- by accident rather than design -- to the forces of history, it will go the way of all civilizations. Recent political events and long-term environmental trends offer little comfort; artificial intelligence and synthetic biology add a more urgent threat.

But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and as yet the warnings of impending collapse don't add up to a compelling reason to stock up on bottled water and canned food.

Nonetheless, we ought to give them a fair hearing. Unlike earlier civilisations, we have ways to identify subtle trends and the means to intervene.

But those making the case for action need to be canny. There is already ample scientific evidence of one real but avoidable threat to civilisation. And yet our efforts to avert it verge on the pitiful.

That threat, of course, is climate change. One of the reasons we're struggling to deal with it is that some activists saw it as a golden opportunity to further their political agenda: reining in corporations, regulating free markets and imposing environmental legislation. For them, climate change was less of an inconvenient truth than a convenient one.

The point is not that the activists' answers are wrong. Business as usual is a sure way to climate catastrophe. It is that they prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.

Evidence for an impending civilization collapse is much weaker, but is already being politicized in a similar way. The causes being offered are familiar bugbears of the left: inequality, population growth and resource depletion. The proposed answers are equally predictable and contentious.

The risk is that this new and important science is turned into yet another culture war. Before proposing divisive solutions, scientific eschatologists need to concentrate on nailing the basic facts. Otherwise, historians of the future may judge us harshly for reading the danger signs but failing to act.