There’s little doubt we live in strange times. Take a quick look back at the past few years of current affairs and you’ll see a horror show of disorientating and depressing events: the COVID-19 pandemic, rising wealth inequality, deepening political polarization, racial oppression, the lingering threat of nuclear war, an ever-intensifying climate crisis, continued ruination of our natural environment, and a shake-up of geopolitical power.
It’s no surprise that so many people seem to believe that we are living on the brink of a global social collapse. Things are indeed unsteady at the moment, but this doom-ridden generation of humans is not alone with their apocalyptic anxiety.
A quick glimpse of quotes from the past millennia will reveal that humanity has often believed that society has gone to the dogs and the end times are nigh.
Dark Outlooks in the "Dark Ages"
Rightly or wrongly, the Medieval Age is not often regarded as an era of shining optimism – and it looks like many people at the time felt the same.
Pope Innocent III (born 1161 CE) is said to have predicted that the world would come to an end in 1284. Why? because it would mark 666 years after the rise of Islam in 618. Unfortunately, he died in 1216 and was unable to see how wrong he was.
The Black Death wiped out over 100 million people in Eurasia and North Africa in the 14th century, so it’s hardly shocking to hear that people at the time were not brimming with optimism about humanity's future.
“No bells tolled,” wrote a chronicler in the city of Siena, modern-day Italy, “and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death…. And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world’.”
Martin Luther, the German priest known for starting the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century CE, lived at a time when new and radical ideas were shaking up the status quo. He was also convinced the end of the world was close:
"Things are going toward their end," Luther wrote in 1528. "I hope the last day will not be long delayed, not over a hundred years.”
The 17th Century and “The General Crisis”
The 17th century was a truly grim time to be alive. This century was riddled with bloody wars, freakishly cold weather, social upheaval, and economic chaos, leading some historians to dub this period “The General Crisis”.
One of the nastiest periods of this century was the Thirty Years' War, a conflict centered around the Holy Roman Empire from 1618 to 1648 that was one of the most destructive wars in European history.
In 1643, amid the Thirty Years' War, a pamphlet from Spain explained: "This seems to be one of the epochs in which every nation is turned upside down, leading some great minds to suspect that we are approaching the end of the world."
Over in China around the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1641, a document reportedly reads: “Among all the strange occurrences of disaster and rebellion, there had never been anything worse than this.”
The Post-War Era and Overpopulation
Heinz von Foerster was an Austrian-American physicist-come-philosopher. In a 1960 Science article, he penned a date for the end of humanity due to overpopulation on Friday, November 13, 2026.
“At this date, human population will approach infinity if it grows as it has grown in the last two millennia,” he wrote.
The paper was essentially a tongue-in-cheek joke, but many scholars of the post-war era were terrified of overpopulation. In 1968, Professor Paul R Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich wrote the hugely influential book The Population Bomb, which predicted worldwide famine in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation.
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now," the book reads. “Nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
The alarmist overpopulation collapse didn’t occur, but some scholars still argue the book raised some issues that continue to go unresolved.
The 21st century
In the final years of the 20th century, many of the world's greatest minds worried that a global collapse was imminent due to the "Millennium bug". It was feared that computer systems and electronically controlled equipment would be unable to correctly set their date after December 31, 1999, raising the possibility of catastrophic infrastructure collapse around the world.
"When people say to me, 'Is the world going to come to an end?' I say, 'I don't know.' I don't know whether this will be a bump in the road -- that's the most optimistic assessment of what we've got, a fairly serious bump in the road ... or whether this will, in fact, trigger a major worldwide recession with absolutely devastating economic consequences in some parts of the world,” Senator Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), chair of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, said in a speech in 1998.
As you no doubt guessed, 2000 struck and nothing happened.
Then there was 2012. Around this time, it was widely reported that the end date of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar would occur on December 21, 2012. A few bold imaginations smashed this story with another erroneous tale stating that Nibiru, a supposed planet discovered by the Sumerians, was headed toward Earth. Once again, these predictions fell flat.
"[It] was a misconception from the very beginning," said Dr John Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy. "The Maya calendar did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, and there were no Maya prophecies foretelling the end of the world on that date."