Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh

I’m an optimist who believes that the end of the world is nigh. This might seem like a contradiction, but I don’t think it is. Technology and science have and will continue to make our lives better in the short and intermediate term. And probably in the long term as well. Our tools are making us stronger and more powerful. And one day, I believe, in the not-so-distant future, they will empower some one or some thing to do perhaps the most extraordinary thing a human could do – end our very existence.

This is pure speculation, but if I had to to guess, I think there’s about a 50% chance that humankind will end itself over the next 300 years. (Of course, this isn’t the kind of bet you can make. Good luck collecting on it!) 

In spite of that, if I had to choose any era in which to live, I’d choose the present (or the future, if that were an option).

Here’s why I think the end of the world is nigh: At any given time, there might be five to fifteen people with the means to cause the destruction of the human race with nuclear weapons or other technology. Over time, with the spread of knowledge and more advanced technology, we will likely create more ways to cause our own demise and more people will have this power. Because it is such a crazy thing to do, and relatively few people have the power to do it, the odds that any one person causing the end of humankind is low. But if you string enough world leaders together over a long enough time horizon, sooner or later someone will have enough crazy in their makeup to do it. Imagine a 22nd-Century Hitler-type cornered in a bunker or David Koresh-type who somehow got his hands on nuclear weapons.

Most world leaders aren’t that crazy or self destructive, but it only takes one. And that’s not taking into consideration the consequences of intelligent machines, a singularity-type event, global warming, or some unforeseen, harder-to-predict grey or black swan event that could kill us all.

These considerations will never find their way into an actuarial table, because if we wipe out humanity, insurers don’t have to pay out on any policies. Thus, insurers don’t have incentive to take these catastrophes into consideration, even if they knew or believed there was a possibility they could occur. But I think these risks are real.

If I had written this essay in 1955 or 1963, the doomsday talk would have been an expression of a majority or near-majority position. But the intervening fifty years have bred complacency in us. We think that because it hasn’t happened yet, it won’t or happen – or, perhaps more boldly – that it cannot happen. But the law of large numbers says that if you put enough people in power, sooner or later someone with extreme psychotic tendencies will come into possession of nuclear weapons.

Until then, we wait!

But I don’t think any of this is reason to despair. If anything, we should consider ourselves fortunate to live in the current era. Even though there is a remote possibility of total destruction that is unlikely to go away, we live in an era where it is far more likely that we will live through unprecedented peace and prosperity.

And so I don’t fear for the future, or the present. My wife and I are planning to have children, and you should, too. There’s never been a better time in history to bring someone into this world. And, even with my perspective that the end may be (relatively) nigh, I think the basis for my optimism isn’t just based on optimism; it’s based on simple math.

Before the age of nuclear weapons, child mortality rates were horrific and life expectancy was short. Infant mortality in 1900 in developed countries was between 15 and 20%, and life expectancy in the United States was around 47, in Europe about 43, and in Asia, only 28! Three of my four grandparents had siblings or half-siblings who died in their youth (and my paternal grandmother lost her own mother on the day she was born). That was all common back then. The decision to have a child was fraught with a very real risk that it could, in short time, lead to the child’s death or your own. Today, far less than 1% of children die in infancy, and overall life expectancy is more than double what it was just a few generations ago.

Just as technology has bestowed on us the power to end our existence, so too has it bestowed on us unprecedented opportunities to live long and healthy lives. If you have a child today, that child is likely to survive to old age. That was never true until recently; more concretely, it happened about the time that we developed the power to make nuclear weapons.

If my child has a small chance of being alive during the apocalypse, then that’s the price I have to pay for bringing my child – in stark contrast to other times – into an era that all but ensures them of a chance to live a long life, then so be it.

Even with my doomsday prediction of a coming apocalypse, the odds that someone born today will live a long life are better than ever before. If we assume that there is a 50% chance that we will blow ourselves up over the next 300 years (over the next ten generations), that still means that a person born today has a superior life expectancy to someone born at any time in the pre-nuclear era. In any given year, based on my assumption, we face a .16% chance of the world coming to an end. That means if you’re born in 2015, you have about an 8% chance of experiencing the end of the world by your 47th birthday, which was the median life expectancy of an American born in 1900, and about 20 years longer than the average person in Asia could have expected to live then. A child born in 1900 was twice as likely to die in infancy alone than someone today would be to die in an apocalyptic event.

That’s why you’re lucky to be born in an era where the apocalypse is a real possibility. And because there’s never been a better time or place to be alive, I don’t mourn that we may be near the end of the human era. Even if we as a collective may be hurtling toward our own destruction, as an individual person, your chance of living a long and meaningful life are still far better today than at any time in history.