When it comes to the future of humanity, many people fear the worst.
A study that investigated the perceived probability of threats to humanity and different responses to them in four Western nations — US, UK, Canada and Australia — has found that many people are seriously concerned that our existing way of life will end. A significant amount of people are also concerned that humans will be wiped out within the next 100 years.
The study found that:
- 54 per cent of people surveyed rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50 per cent or greater;
- Almost a quarter (24 per cent) rated the risk of humans being wiped out within a century at 50 per cent or greater;
- Almost three quarters (73 per cent) believe there is a 30 per cent or greater risk of our way of life ending (30 per cent said that the risk is 70 per cent or more);
- Almost four in ten (39 per cent) believe there is a 30 per cent or greater danger of humanity being wiped out (10 per cent said the danger is 70 per cent or more).
Responses to the survey were categorised as nihilism (the loss of belief in a social or moral order; decadence rules), fundamentalism (the retreat to certain belief; dogma rules), or activism (the transformation of belief; hope rules):
- Almost 80 per cent agreed “we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world” (activism);
- About a half agreed that “the world’s future looks grim so we have to focus on looking after ourselves and those we love” (nihilism);
- More than a third said “we are facing a final conflict between good and evil in the world” (fundamentalism).
The results of the study, conducted by Dr Melanie Randle of the School of Management, Operations and Marketing at the University of Wollongong, and Richard Eckersley, a Director of Australia21 Ltd, a non-profit strategic research company, is published in the journal Futures.
Richard Eckersley said many of the threats we face – such as climate change, depletion and degradation of natural resources and ecosystems, nuclear and biological war and terrorism and runaway technological change — are not new. Scientists and other experts and reputable journals have warned of the dangers for decades.
“Nevertheless, the evidence is growing stronger, especially about climate change, and never before have the possible impacts been so powerfully reinforced by actual events, including natural disasters and calamities, and their sustained and graphic media coverage.”
Dr Randle said people’s responses to the study likely represent a general uncertainty and fear rather than a fear based on a considered assessment of a specific threat.
“It shows a loss of faith in a future constructed around notions of material progress, economic growth and scientific and technological fixes to the challenges we face. This loss is important, yet barely registers in current debate and political discussion.”
“At best, the high perception of risk and the strong endorsement of an activist response could drive a much greater effort to confront global threats. At worst, with a loss of hope, fear of a catastrophic future erodes people’s faith in society, affecting their roles and responsibilities, and their relationship to social institutions, especially government.”
Mr Eckersley added: “Despite increasing political action on specific issues like climate change, globally the scale of our response falls far short of matching the magnitude of the threats. Closing this gap requires a deeper understanding of how people perceive the risks and how they might respond. Offering false hope is not the solution. For the challenges to be addressed, they must first be acknowledged.
“Ultimately, the far future is rapidly drawing closer – and it worries us.”
NB: The study involved a survey of over 2,000 people in Australia, US, UK and Canada. Findings were similar across countries, age, sex and other demographic groups, although some interesting differences emerged.
- Related media coverage: We’re all going to die (But I’m going to be OK), The Australian