The End of the World

“There are five years left to save the planet.” That is what the World Wildlife Fund said — three years ago — so by 2012, it is all over. Some were a bit more optimistic. Volcanologist Bill McGuire, of the UK Government’s Natural Hazard Working Group gave us seven years to save the planet, and that was back in 2008, so we have till 2015. The New Economic Foundation’s Andrew Simm gives us one more year, till 2016, when we will face “irreversible climate change” that will be “catastrophic.” 2016 is also the date named by Gaby Hinsliff, of the Guardian newspaper, as the tipping point, covering Sir Nicholas Stern’s 2006 report into climate change. Hinsliff’s colleague George Monbiot was more alarmist, still, saying in 2008 that we have almost certainly left it too late to avoid catastrophic climate change.

But still, here we are, and the world has not come to an end. Predicting the end of the world might seem like a daft thing to do. Seventh Day Adventist Ellen White said the world would come to an end in 1850. The Sixteenth Century mystic Mother Shipton at least had the sense to put the date of the end of the world in 1881, so that she would not be around to get called out on it. The Jehovah’s Witnesses worked out that the Book of Daniel put the end of the world in 1914 — which did turn out to be a bit hairy, but not yet the end.

Putting a precise date on the end of the world — especially an imminent one — has proved too easy to falsify, so today’s fashion is to name an invisible “tipping point” at which it will become impossible to turn back the clock. Oil executive turned green entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett says that we will reach “peak oil” — the point at which the oil starts to run out in 2013. “Peak Oil” is not the exhaustion of the reserves, but the point at which reserves cannot meet demand, so it is a bit harder to disprove, but on the contrary, seems to be shown by rising prices.

James Heartfield’s Winter 2011 piece is only avaliable to Jacobin print subscribers.