Back in the 1980s, I wrote a report on people's views of the future for the Commission for the Future. Surveys showed people were generally pessimistic about the world's prospects (while being optimistic about their own). Children and youth expressed their concerns in particularly graphic ways.
Many foresaw a world in which a growing gap between rich and poor had produced deeply divided and hostile communities; the arms race and international tensions had resulted in more warfare, even nuclear war; ever-expanding industrialisation and human populations had plundered the environment; or the development of technologies with powers beyond our comprehension had culminated in human obsolescence.
As the father of three young children at the time, the bleakness of the images left a deep impression on me. So I investigated in a second Commission report what harm, if any, these expectations might do to young people's health and wellbeing.
Most of the health experts I spoke to discounted their importance. They emphasised more personal circumstances and experiences: family conflict, abuse and breakdown; homelessness, poverty and unemployment. The exceptions were the small group of researchers, mainly psychologists, who had investigated the topic.
These researchers warned that the pessimism of many young people could produce cynicism, mistrust, anger, apathy and an approach to life based on instant gratification rather than long-term goals or lasting commitment.
So concerns about humanity's future are not new, but the events of 2020 - bushfires, COVID-19 and economic mayhem - are doubtless ramping them up.
In the 1980s, the main focus of such research was on the threat of nuclear war, heightened by the growing hostility between the US and the Soviet Union. A 1986 US study of young adults found a significant association between anxiety about nuclear threats and less purpose in life, less life satisfaction, more powerlessness, more depression and more drug use.
Bringing our deeper fears for humanity and Earth into the open and discussing them as part of public and political debate could help to transform the agenda for action.
Today, it is climate change that is attracting most attention, a future threat that has been transformed in the space of a decade or so into a clear and present danger. In a report issued last November, the Australian Psychological Society said that most children and young people knew, cared and were worried about the climate crisis, even those who had not yet felt the direct effects of climate change. "They experience anger, frustration, depression, sadness, grief, anxiety and feelings of powerlessness," it said. These risks were expected to escalate as climate change intensified.
To be clear: my concern is not the direct impacts of disasters such as fires, droughts, floods, storms, pandemics or earthquakes, on which scientific research, politics and the media focus. Rather, it is the more intangible and existential fears for a world and a civilisation that are confronting problems that could provoke possibly catastrophic decline.
Humans have always been susceptible to apocalyptic visions of the future, especially in times of rapid change, uncertainty and disorientation. This existential dread penetrates deep into our psyche; reaching beyond logic, reason and the conscious mind, and into the realm of myth. It touches upon what psychologists call our "ultimate concerns", including death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.
I think we have yet to grasp the extent to which the world we perceive and experience has changed, and how much globalisation and the media have expanded our spheres of awareness and so the range of influences on our wellbeing. As psychologist Amanda Allan has remarked, our relationships with time and space have changed markedly. "People are referencing themselves more and more in relation to global events, and social cultures beyond their immediate context," she writes. In Western societies, she says there has been "a disembodying of what we consider to be our intimate frame of reference", resulting in a reorientation of who we are in relation to others.
In a 2013 study, Melanie Randle at Wollongong University and I investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Across the four countries, 54 percent of people surveyed rated the risk of "our way of life ending" within the next 100 years at 50 percent or greater, while 24 percent rated the risk of "humans being wiped out" within this period at 50 percent or greater.
The study also found 78 percent of respondents agreed that "we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world"; while 68 percent agreed that "hope for the future rests with a growing global movement that wants to create a more peaceful, fair and sustainable world".
The upsides of the coronavirus pandemic, like the bushfires, are firstly that it can draw attention to the wider story - the multiplicity, complexity and interconnectedness of global threats, and the need to address them at this level - and secondly that it shows what government, industry and the public are capable of when circumstances demand it.
Bringing our deeper fears for humanity and Earth into the open and discussing them as part of public and political debate could help to transform the agenda for action. The responses must go beyond characterising our issues as one-off, temporary or isolated calamities, and focus on transforming our societies, our economies and our way of life. They must acknowledge the systemic flaws and limits that underpin these "individual" crises.
Existential despair, its antidote and its positive potential are clear in comments by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg: "Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn't speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder. All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people."
- Richard Eckersley researches the future, progress, sustainability and population health and wellbeing. richardeckersley.com.au