Archive for the 'Apocalypse' Category


Uh-oh. In the minority…again

After my last post about the Australian scientist, Frank Fenner’s, apocalyptic prediction that humans would be extinct in 100 years — give or take a few — I decided to look around at how optimistic or pessimistic others are about the future. I didn’t have to look far. Today I ran across a survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press for about how optimistic Americans are about the next 40 years.

Well, Americans are plenty optimistic. The Pew summary starts: “Imagine a future in which cancer becomes a memory, ordinary people travel in space, and computers carry on conversations like humans.”

OK, I can do that! After all, I’ve been reading forecasts like that going back the the 1950s. Popular Science magazine did a lot of lists of what was going to happen and great drawings of people doing things like riding moving sidewalks. And, sure enough, 50 years later when I go to the airport there’s a moving sidewalk.

The other part of the survey intro is not so rosy, however: “Now imagine a darker future – a world beset by war, rising temperatures and energy shortages, one where the United States faces a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons.” Indeed, the survey is a mixture of up and down votes.

Many Americans see dramatic scientific and technological advancements on the horizon, with big developments in medicine, engineering, space travel and computers. However, despite the widely anticipated scientific breakthroughs – including the elimination of fossil fuels and gas-powered cars – the public foresees a  grim environmental future. Rising world temperatures, more polluted oceans and severe water shortages in the U.S. are seen as definite or probable over the next 40 years.

The survey is worth taking a look at. For my money, however, many of the questions frame the issues in such simplistic language that I wonder what people really intend with their limited answer choices. For instance, having been in the field of cancer public health for over 35 years I cringe when I see people were asked: “How likely do you think it is that…there will be a cure for cancer?” Seventy-one percent answered they thought definitely or probably cancer would be cured.

When I went to work for a cancer organization 36 years ago we had a slogan: “We’re going to wipe out cancer in your lifetime.” Today members of the cancer science and medical community are just happy that a sustained downward trend in cancer mortality is finally occurring. We stopped talking about “wiping out” cancer about 20 years ago. And oncologists are loath to even use the term “cure” when talking about outcomes for disseminated cancer. In fact, few people know it, but the goal of many in the cancer community these days is to make cancer predominantly a chronic disease rather than an acute, fatal disease. In other words success over the next few decades would be to enable the majority of patients with a wide range of cancer types to survive one or more bouts with the disease and die of something else. That’s a laudable goal, but it’s not anywhere near “wipe out.”

To think of cancer as one disease for which there will be a universal “cure” — that’s what the phrasing of the question implies — is kind of a throwback to the naive idea of several decades ago that cancer can be eradicated. It’s a basic misunderstanding of the disease. Unlike communicable disease, cancer is not something that attacks you from outside; it’s a malfunction of essential processes at the core of cellular life. I recall a breast cancer researcher who said every time a cell divides there’s a little risk of heading towards cancer.

Progress is being made these days, but the lengthy process of testing new approaches not to mention the enormous costs associated with recent cancer treatments means that there a huge obstacles besides the disease itself to having a big impact on the population. So, the last day I was in my office when I retired six months ago, I found myself reassuring some young staff who were just starting their careers that there would still be a big cancer problem for decades to come. In other words, they’re not going to have to change careers because a sudden “cure” arrives.

The Pew survey suggests to me that the public is finally adjusting to the reality that dealing with cancer will take much longer than anyone could imagine a few decades ago. The figure showing that in 2010 71% of respondents expecting a cure is down from 81% in 1999. A drop in the number of people expecting a cancer cure in the next 40 years may not be “pessimism” but a more realistic assessment of the situation instead.

I think people who have in-depth information about any of the questions asked in the Pew survey would have questions about interpreting what the answers mean. While surveys like this tend to suggest optimism is good and preferable to pessimism, the fact is that skepticism often reflects a grasp of reality.

Among the other opinions expressed by the survey group are:

  • In 40 years computers will converse like people.
  • Artificial limbs will work better than natural ones.
  • Most of our energy will not come from oil, coal and gas.
  • The world will get warmer.
  • We’ll have a major energy crisis.

These findings reflect the subjects’ attitudes and aspirations than they are an analysis of the future. Most of the challenges to be faced during the 21st century will be massive processes not seen in the history of the Earth. There’s really no precedent for the confluence of forces unfolding in our time.

One final thing. Forty-one percent of the respondents to the Pew survey expect Jesus Christ to return to Earth some time in the next forty years. That would make moot the dire speculation by Fenner that the human species will become extinct in the next 100 years wouldn’t it?


Repent, the end may be near

I thought I was a pessimist! But Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner (a scientist deeply involved in the eradication of smallpox with 22 books and 290 papers to his credit) gave an interview to The Australian last week in which he said:

“We’re going to become extinct… Whatever we do now is too late.”

Gone! Kaput! 86-ed! He thinks continued population growth multiplied by industrial-level consumption will make homo sapiens and other species extinct in ~100 years. Something akin to the extinction of the isolated population of Easter Island is, in his judgement, inevitable.

Well, that puts the trivialities I see on this morning’s (Sunday) political talk shows in perspective! But that’s part of Fenner’s point: we’re fiddling while Rome smolders and will continue to fiddle even as it burns.

I share a good deal of his pessimism. One of the first posts I did on this blog was about the estimate that children being born today have a 50/50 chance of living 100 years. I think everybody ought to be clear that today’s kids will live to see whether Fenner is right, partly right, or wrong. I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen, and I can’t understand why the parents of today’s kids don’t insist on discussing this every day. I attended my wife’s grandson’s high school graduation last week. (I have a couple of titular grandkids by marriage, not by reproduction.) He’ll experience all of it, and the run-up to anything even approaching extinction has got to be awful. I’ll be long gone, but I don’t envy the young.

To balance Fenner out, The Australian interviewed a colleague, Stephen Boyden, who has a more moderate view:

“Frank may be right, but some of us still harbour the hope that there will come about an awareness of the situation and, as a result, the revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability,” says Boyden, an immunologist who turned to human ecology later in his career.

“That’s where Frank and I differ. We’re both aware of the seriousness of the situation, but I don’t accept that it’s necessarily too late. While there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s worth working to solve the problem. We have the scientific knowledge to do it but we don’t have the political will.”

Glimmer of hope“? Not very reassuring.

Personally I doubt humans can be extinguished. Homo sapiens is a tough, ornery species. We evolved through horrendous bouts of plague, starvation, predation, and barbarism. Any return to those challenges is not what I think anyone wants for our children. Nevertheless, from what’s happened so far on climate issues I don’t expect revolutionary changes ever on behalf of the commons. Personal, short-term needs and stability appear to consistently trump concerns over “maybes” of the future.

Some dismiss Fenner as an elderly (95 y.o.) crank or a mere alarmist. But the purpose of an alarm is to get you into action before the house burns to the ground. It’s an opportunity to avoid worst-case outcomes. And there is no outcome I can think of that’s worse than the agony of extinction.


Apocalyptic hysteria

apocalypse 1That’s the new category I’ve added to this blog to watch the nuttiness we’ll be seeing between now and January 1, 2013.

By the way, any survivors out there are invited over to my house for drinks on that day.

11/11 Update

I forgot to mention that what got me on this topic is the notice that NASA has started a branch of it’s website to debunk the claims underlying the movie 2012. I doubt it’s going to do much good. Those who are into it are going to believe 2012 is the end no matter how much “science” is arrayed against it. But the haggling should be fun to watch.

Oh, I’ve already learned that the date for my survivor celebration party has to be December 22, 2013, the day after the supposed end of the world.

Umm, Delicious Bookmarks


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