"Woe is me” is much in the air these days, likely ginned up by the 2024 election cycle.
Actually, it is more like “woe is us,” as millions of Americans decry the direction they see our nation and the world taking. Here are some of our Chicken Little fears. Our culture is increasingly violent, facilitated by out-of-control gun ownership—more guns than Americans.
Covid threatened our lives, and human-induced climate change threatens to make the earth uninhabitable. Technology in general and A.I. in particular could get so smart, they could take control of everything, even if we humans fail to realize it. Our nation is on the brink of being overtaken by a possibly deranged, fascist dictator.
And what if ongoing global conflicts trigger World War III? Is it wise to turn life-threatening issues such as A.I. development, climate change, and space exploration over to the private sector?
The list of woes goes and goes.
Tyler Austin Harper, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College in Maine, recently published an article in the New York Times, addressing what he terms “extinction panics.” Working from the adage that everything old is new again, Harper asserts that such panics occur about every hundred years and that this one has arrived right on schedule. The last one struck us in the 1920s.
The extinction panic of the 20th century has much in common with the one we are experiencing. The world had just survived a flu pandemic, estimated to have killed 50 million people across the globe. There were no effective treatments, much less vaccines to prevent it. The US economy seemed to be roaring, but it got so heated that it ultimately crashed in 1929, triggering the Great Depression.
Fueling that extinction panic was the spread of fascism in Europe, which by 1939 had blossomed into what became World War II and which ended with the world’s first atomic explosions. More than 200-thousand people died almost instantly, with hundreds of thousands more maimed and/or sickened.
It is almost impossible to miss the parallels.
Harper quotes from HG Wells’ 1928 book, The Way the World is Going, which still resonates a century later. “Human life is different from what it has ever been before, and it is rapidly becoming more different….Perhaps never in the whole history of life has there been a living species subjected to so fiercely urgent, many-sided and comprehensive a process of changes as ours today. None at least that has survived. Transformation or extinction have been nature’s invariable alternatives. Ours is a species in an intense phase of transition.”
Hard to argue with that.
Harper himself seems more optimistic than Wells. He writes in the Times, “as for machine-age angst, there’s a lesson to learn here, too: Our panics are often puffed up, our predictions simply wrong.
Human life and labor were not superseded by machines, as some in the 1920s predicted. Or in the 1960s or in the 1980s, two other flash-in-the-pan periods of A.I. hype. The takeaway is not that we shouldn’t be worried but that we shouldn’t panic. Foretelling doom is an ancient human hobby, but we don’t appear to be very good at it.”
As for this writer, the threats seem very real and increasingly urgent. But our “species,” as Wells identified us, has indeed survived millennia by using our big brains and probably some dumb luck.
We do see what is facing us, and if we really are smart, we will choose to act on these threats, not to ignore them.