Don’t worry, be happy

The sociologist Frank Furedi says that: ‘It is not hope that excites and shapes the cultural imagination in the early twenty-first century; it is fear’.

Since the millennium bug we’ve seen dramatic warnings about everything from obesity and eco-doom to global economic collapse and there is a general sense that the world is becoming more uncertain and unsafe. There has certainly been a heightened religious and cultural focus on fear and apocalyptic scenarios, with a disproportionate amount of media attention and public funding being given over to address these fears. Moreover, politicians have becoming adept at using the prism of fear to appeal to our irrational herd instincts. But are people really worried?

A global survey by the World Social Summit (WSS) has found that the vast majority of people (90.2%) admit that they have day-to-day worries (largely individual and local) but only 42.4% claim to have any serious anxieties. Meanwhile, 11.9% claim that are ‘overwhelmed’ by fear whereas 55.3% say that they have a positive attitude towards life and 24.3% say they are optimistic (and yes I know these figures don’t add up to 100%). These survey results are interesting, especially within the context of a recent gathering at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

Here a gaggle of physicists, sociologists, microbiologists and philosophers met to discuss ‘mega-catastrophes’ that could wipe out millions of people or produce the total collapse of civilisation (ie, things to really worry about). The conclusions are fascinating. Basically, we shouldn’t panic because most risks are covered and in the grand scheme of things we’ve never been safer. For instance, bioterrorism is becoming more unlikely because the industry is consolidating and anyone trying to do something stupid or ‘unusual’ will almost certainly trigger alarm.

Equally, the threat of nuclear war is less than it has been for 15 years, due to a reduction of nuclear arsenals. Similarly, the threat of nuclear terrorism has also fallen due to the removal of vulnerable material together with stronger security surrounding smuggling (did you know, for instance, that some cities have alarms that instantly warn the authorities if something sinister passes over a bridge or through a tunnel?)

How about cosmic threats? Well the threat of rogue asteroids is a non-starter. Scientists have mapped all the ‘rogue rocks’ that are out there so we are unlikely to go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon. Similarly, the H5N1 strain of influenza virus is out there and an outbreak is possible, not least because of the stacked nature of urban populations and the connectivity afforded by air travel and migration. But worst-case scenario planning covers even this threat.

So are there any threats left? Yes, two. The first is nanotechnology. It is just too early to quantify the threats represented by tinkering with atoms. Equally, artificial intelligence is too far away in any meaningful sense to assess. As for things to look forward to, a by-product of the racial soup created by migration and interbreeding is that the gene pool is getting more diverse and evolution is accelerating faster than would usually happen. Thus it is entirely possible that an individual will arise within the global population that has unprecedented insight or empathy and he or she will use this vision to form a new scientific or political paradigm.

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