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Northern Eye: Apocalypse any time now?

The changing face of the end of the world

Published on July 14, 2007

No sooner had the fear of World War II receded than the doom merchants were back in action. Sandwich-board men, posters and marchers, eager to pass the message on that if the Devil didn't get you, H-bombs certainly would.

It would seem a fact that human beings need something to get scared about, and the mysteries that surround death are always a good enough reason. A war had just ended after killing millions of people, so what better than to fear another one?

When nuclear weapons came into mass production during the mid-1950s, many thought that it was likely that a third world war would spell the end of the planet as we know it, so the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was born.

Academics, religious leaders and a large number of leftwing politicians used their personal clout, marches and the media to spread word of the dangers nuclear war posed - to such an extent that the public was advised on protection from a nuclear attack.

Some general hints were as simple as whitewashing the windows and hiding in the broom cupboard, while others suggested a well-stocked fallout shelter and warm clothing to deal with the nuclear winter. But to avoid a false sense of security, instructions were also issued on how to deal with the dead.

Support for the campaign withered after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but it made a comeback in the 1980s, and soldiers on today with something like 50,000 members. However, its emphasis has shifted somewhat towards Iraq and the "War on Terror".

Today, we watch out for unattended luggage in public places and tourists wearing unusually large backpacks. The Ban the Bomb message of the 1950s should now read Beware of Bombs.


Deadly diseases are a constant source of fear and hypochondria, and while cancer is a hard act to follow, infection creates the greatest terror. The most terrifying weapons of mass destruction this world has ever experienced are viruses and bacteria.

There have been pandemics of bubonic plague and a wide variety of influenzas that wiped out millions of ordinary people, and today we are made well aware of Sars, bird flu and Aids.

While plague remains a thing of the past, around 60,000 human beings die of influenza each year, and it ranked seventh of all killer diseases in 1999 and 2000. Sars and bird flu lurk in the background, ready to pounce without warning, and despite Aids being so easily avoided, it has somehow sustained a deep-rooted fear-inspiring power.

So far, education has been the only effective method in combating the spread of HIV and Aids, whereas piles of research and a lot of money spent trying to find a cure or vaccines have failed miserably for well over 20 years.

This has resulted in people living with HIV relying on expensive anti-retroviral drugs and protease inhibitors to keep Aids at bay. And pressures have been placed on governments and pharmaceutical companies to make this medication more readily available.

But one serious word of warning - as the use of these drugs increases, so too does the virus' resistance against them.

Global warming

Stating that the human race possesses the ability to change the world's climate seems a little arrogant to me, especially as we have only been present here for a millisecond of the Earth's existence.

Climate changes occurred on the planet long before humans arrived, yet we think we can cause catastrophe by a few decades of squirting underarm deodorant and turning up the air con. Global warming is nothing new and has occurred regularly between ice ages for the past 2.7 billion years.

There have been at least four ice ages, the last of which ended only 10,000 years ago. That period placed almost the whole northern hemisphere under a sheet of ice for 40 million years, and today, the North and South Pole are thought to be merely the remnants of that age.

It could be predicted that we are heading for a warm-to-tropical era of between 12,000 and 28,000 years before things cool down to the next ice age 50,000 years from now. As human life has not experienced a full cycle of climate change, the burning question must be, can we adapt to it rather than cause it?

While some areas of land might be flooded by melting ice caps, others will become exposed for farming and habitation. And while more people die from the heat, fewer will succumb to the cold. Also, an increase in sunshine would promote the use of solar power and reduce the costs of energy.

But whatever, Mother Nature is in control. I read recently that 10 of the world's plant and animal species become extinct every hour. Maybe we're just one of those, so prepare to meet thy doom.

Bob Kimmins

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