You just can't out-gloom an environmentalist. The Atlantic invited some luminaries to answer the question, "How and when will the world end?" Some contributions were funny. Others simply plausible -- a volcanic eruption from underneath Yellowstone National Park is frightfully overdue. But only an environmentalist like Bill McKibben could be a killjoy about the apocalypse itself.
The environmental activist and writer declares the question moot: "In a sense, the world as we knew it is already over. We have heated the Earth, melted the Arctic and turned seawater 30 percent more acidic. The only question left is how much more fossil fuel we'll burn, and hence how unfamiliar and inhospitable we'll make our home planet."
It's difficult to imagine a more absurd overstatement. I'm not referring to the exaggerated claim the Arctic has "melted." And the acidification of the oceans is a real concern (though there's reason to believe it's not as bad as some say). But even Chicken Little wouldn't call it proof the world is already over.
What's truly ludicrous is McKibben's use of the word "inhospitable."
For something like 99 percent of human history, the world was really inhospitable. Strangers everywhere were greeted with bloodshed and attacked with cruelty. Dying from premature violence was more commonplace than dying from heart disease or cancer is today. In his classic, "War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage," Lawrence Keeley provides mountains of data documenting that modern humans live on a mountain of murder. In prehistoric societies, up to half of the population died from homicide, though 10 percent to 20 percent was closer to the norm.
In "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," Steven Pinker shows that the world has become immeasurably more hospitable since the Industrial Revolution. Even World War II was an improvement. If the death toll had been equal to that of tribal societies, 2 billion lives would have been lost instead of a "mere" 60 million to 100 million. In the United States, violent crime is the lowest it's been in nearly half a century.
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