DHP P292: The End of the World and What Comes Next
The world has been coming to an end for some time now. Take your pick of catastrophe:terrorism, financial crisis, nuclear war, cyber-collapse, natural disasters, climate change, or, hey, devastating pandemic. It seems as if the 21st century has been replete with world-defining catastrophes and we are barely a fifth of the way through it At the same time, however, it is worth remembering how many times civilization was supposed to come to an end in the past. Parson Malthus predicted a demographic time bomb in the mid nineteenth century. The Club of Rome predicted the depletion of key natural resources in the 1970s. Y2K was supposed to break the Internet on January 1, 2000. Many people embraced the misplaced eschatological beliefs surrounding the Mayan prediction of the end of civilization in December 2012. Even when catastrophes strike, like the Black Death or the 1918/19 influenza pandemic, civilization adapts and overcomes. This course is borne out of the coronavirus pandemic but focused on the larger questions it raises about possible catastrophes and the ability of the world to respond to them. It starts with some theoretical considerations of why societies might not be prepared to cope with looming catastrophic events. These include problems of collective action, time discounting, failures to differentiate risk and uncertainty, normal accidents, bureaucratic politics, millenarian beliefs, and the anarchical structure of international politics. It then considers which kinds of societies and polities are better placed to respond to disasters and catastrophes. The next section considers some of the historical instances in which threats both real and imagined affected the globe, and how they played out. These threats range from pandemics to famines to nuclear catastrophes to overpopulation to cyber collapse. The third section of the course compares and contrasts the global responses to the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 covid-19 pandemic. The fourth section of the course considers the post-coronavirus threats to the world, from climate change to the renewed possibility of great power war. The final section considers the role that fictional narratives play in thinking about catastrophes.