Image: 1964… Peter Sellers as ‘Dr Strangelove’ from James Vaughan’s Flickr PhotoStream

It could be argued that there is no greater threat to our health than the possibility that we may be wiped out as a species.  The 1964 Kubrick movie ‘Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ depicts the world as it tumbles over the edge of Armageddon.   Made at the height of the cold war, with a savage and irreverent satirical eye, it depicts a deranged General Jack D. Ripper triggering a course to nuclear doomsday.  The ensemble cast (including three characters all played by Peter Sellers) portray a group of politicians, scientists and generals who scramble futilely to avoid catastrophe while displaying characteristics only marginally less crazed than General Ripper.  Dr Strangelove was made in the years immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis and tapped directly into fears that our civilisation and species may be on the brink of destruction.  But surely we have now moved on from the dark days of the cold-war and fears of our own demise?


Not according to the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  The Board members manage a symbolic ‘doomsday’ clock face, representing how many minutes we are away from midnight and destruction.  Since the blissful days of 1991, when the clock was set at 17 minutes to midnight, there has been a steady countdown to global calamity.   As of the 22 of January this year the clock moved forward two minutes to stand at 3 minutes to midnight.  Several reasons were given for the change:

  • The nuclear age is far from over with the United States and Russia maintaining more than 800 warheads on high alert and able to be launched within tens of minutes. In addition nuclear proliferation continues at a time of increasing international tensions.  Even a limited nuclear exchange of 50 warheads could severely threaten human existence.
  • The Earth’s climate is changing rapidly as a result of human activity and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that current predictions suggest increases of between 1-5 degrees centigrade to our climate over the next 100 years. This would threaten global food production and could render vast areas uninhabitable.  Even if all emissions of carbon dioxide were to cease today the effects on climate would linger for hundreds of years.
  • Advances in bioengineering mean that techniques to engineer life at the microbiological level are becoming cheaper and more widely available. This brings many potential benefits but also raises the risk of intentionally or inadvertently creating new pathogens.
  • Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may offer benefits and opportunities but also have the potential to be used for malicious purposes. Some have argued that we are rapidly approaching ‘technological singularity’ – shortly after, ‘the human era will be ended’.  Such emerging technologies have very few governance systems (either locally or internationally) to control and regulate their use.

But is this anything new?  It could be argued that, since ancient times, every epoch in history has had fears of an imminent apocalypse.  This can be traced to popular beliefs among earlier civilisations that history was a cycle. Zoroaster, a Persian prophet from 1500BC, combined the cyclic idea of history with the addition of guardians, spirits of destruction and with a ‘happy ending’ where all things would finally be made perfect.  This simple narrative has shaped apocalyptic thought ever since and, with the addition of imaginary super-beings, has passed through into both mainstream and cult religions.  Many have embellished the ‘happy endings’ with some form of ‘judgement day’ where only the chosen few would enjoy the perfection of the ‘hereafter’.


Image: ‘Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement, Central Panel’ from Steven Zucker’s Flickr Photostream


This motif even extends to the secular context. Some modern secular revolutionary fantasies incorporate versions of a judgement day and an ‘ideal after’ that echo earlier religious apocalyptic thought, but many secular warnings omit the happy ending.  The thinking behind the 2015 doomsday clock certainly offers few crumbs of comfort:

… current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth. Meanwhile, the US and Russia have embarked on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads… “The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.

So warnings about the imminent demise of the world have been common in history.  But should we really be treating prophesies about the rapture as if they are the same as the warnings from a group of eminent scientists?  At the very least we should at consider the warning from the ‘doomsday’ clock and, as social scientists, engage in any number of debates ranging from the validity of the predictions or the consequences for social structures of ignoring them.  Yet, apart from a few notable exceptions, there is not much debate in the social sciences about the possibility of the catastrophic collapse of civilisation and our decline as a species.

There are however scientists and philosophers who arrive at a no less sombre conclusion about the future of humanity than that suggested by the ‘doomsday clock’.  These warnings are coming from those working on the Fermi paradox: i.e. the discrepancy between the probability of intelligent alien life existing in the universe and the lack of evidence that such life exists.  It poses the question ‘why is the sky so silent’?

The calculations are mind boggling but recent astronomical studies indicate that most stars have planets.  Using conservative estimates this suggests that there may be 100 billion-billion Earth-like planets in the universe. Assuming 1% of those develop life and that 1% of those progress to a level of technological intelligence, this would mean that there were 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe (or 100,000 in our galaxy).  Travelling between stars, and even between galaxies, ‘is a relatively simple task… requiring modest amounts of energy and resources’.  Logically we should have expected visitors or at least a message by now.

So why have we not seen or heard anything?  Various explanations have been suggested but the most common ones can be summarised as – ‘We’re rare, we’re first, or we’re fucked’:

  • The ‘we’re rare’ hypothesis argues that there is a Great Filter behind us – life almost never moves beyond the simplest single-celled organisms (these organisms were the only life on Earth for almost two billion years).
  • The ‘we’re first’ hypothesis argues that the universe was inhospitable to life until recently because of the prevalence of phenomena like gamma-ray bursts. We are simply one of the first intelligent species to emerge after things calmed down.
  • The ‘we’re fucked’ hypothesis suggests that intelligent life like ours is common but The Great Filter is in front of us. Either naturally occurring cataclysmic events, or the possibility that ‘intelligent’ lifeforms inevitably end up destroying themselves, lies in our own near future.

Given the warnings from the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists it seems that the third scenario may be most likely explanation for The Great Silence.  What can we conclude from this?  As one of the scientists says: ‘almost any answer to the Fermi paradox gives rise to something uncomfortable’ but if ‘humanity is alone in the universe then we have an enormous moral responsibility’.  But perhaps the most important question for us is, given this moral responsibility, why are debates about civilisation’s collapse and the end of humanity as a species not more common amongst sociologists in general and sociologists of health in particular?

The sociological blogger Mark Carrigan has suggested a few reasons: the topic tends towards unrespectability being seen as the domain of cranks and conspiracy theorists; we assume the durability of social structures; we miss the possibility that the future may be radically different from the past; and ‘we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us’.  But perhaps now is the time for social scientists, with an interest in health, to engage in debates that acknowledge that our civilisation, or even our existence as a species, has no particular guarantees or immunity from erasure.