Chronicle of the Future The Ends of the Earth
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DNA - the new spectre

But the point was: we didn't need angry gods, we could do it ourselves, and, after the carnage of human, especially 20th-century, history, it looked as if we probably would. The Cuban missile crisis should have been politics as usual. It was the sort of thing that had happened in the past. But normally a few thousands or millions died and then we returned to normal life; this time, billions would die and nobody would return to anything.

So we now had our own DIY apocalypse. And this awareness - that we had the whole world in our clumsy hands - inspired further technological "end time" scenarios. From the 1950s onwards, environmentalists began to tell us of other ways we could kill ourselves. The pesticide DDT, it transpired, threatened the whole food chain. Fossil fuels threatened the ozone layer and caused global warming. Pollution choked our children. The planetary system was breaking down under the pressure of our greed and technological hubris.

The popular image of the world as a solid, robust and almost infinite resource had been destroyed. In its place was a vision of the delicate fabric of life sustaining itself against the crushing forces of chance and the cosmos, and doing so by stripping Earth of her riches. The first pictures of Earth taken from the moon endorsed that vision for ever. There we were, a blue-green sphere swimming in the void. We were, it was clear, barely clinging onto existence on Spaceship Earth. We were an exception, a freak. The void was the steady state of the universe.

And, as if our environmental and military deliquency weren't enough, we were breeding like rabbits. Forecasts in the 1960s and 70s suggested we would be unable to feed the world population by the year 2000. Natural resources were being depleted faster than they could be replaced. The oil shock of the early 1970s seemed like just the beginning. An apocalypse of exhaustion and congestion seemed imminent. We didn't need bombs to run up mega-deaths; we just needed our own stupidity.

In the midst of this, a new anxiety emerged, closely linked to our new sense of the delicacy of life. In the 1970s, scientists found they could "recombine" DNA - essentially mix it, change it, splice it. Suddenly new spectres stalked our nightmares: mutant organisms. Novel viruses might escape from the lab and destroy the human population or simply its food supply. Larger, chimeric forms - beasts that nature never intended - might escape their mad creators and shamble about the land. Superhumans might be made who would care nothing for us with our pathetically randomly combined DNA. Or, likeliest of all, such things may be created by the military to wreak even more hideous destruction than the Bomb.

And then came computer science with its promise of artificial intelligence, thinking machines that would be better, more perfect than us. In spite of the optimistic terms in which the promise of AI was expressed, this, too, was a kind of apocalypse. For if these machines were so much better, why should they bother with humans? This version of the DIY apocalypse promised not the end of the world, only the end of us.

Superficially it may seem that these new end-time scenarios were radically different from those of the past. But in truth, little had changed. Judgment day promised vengeance for mankind's sins; indeed, all the old apocalypses involved some kind of retribution. They would happen because we had done something wrong. Similarly, nuclear weapons would punish us for our bellicosity; environmental breakdown and biological catastrophe would be nature's revenge on our hubris, and the reign of the machines would crush our technocratic pride. One way or another, the apocalypse is almost always our fault.

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