People’s go-to blame for disaster is the greed, ego, or ‘evilness’ of others — when in reality, our undoing will come hand-in-hand with good old ignorance, a new study reports.

Abandoned building.

Image via Pixabay.

When the end is nigh, our last comforting thought will be that we made it happen. We’ll raise an angry fist at the world that made us such creatures prone to greed and capable of evil. We’ll bemoan our stolen fate, hijacked by our baser urges into one disaster or another. Secretly, we’ll also pride on the belief that we brought ourselves to the brink, no one else. This regrettably apocalyptic but no less human-caused event, you see, will prove that we had agency and weren’t simple passengers on Earth. That we held dominion over the world until some evil men abused that power for personal gain and destroyed everything.

That we were mighty, but born flawed. That our achievements were hard earned, and our fall hard-wired in strands of DNA. Oh, the injustice. Isn’t it simply the most heart-warming bit of tragedy you’ve ever read? I know I’m being sardonic and I’m still tearing up.

According to new research, much of this line of thought is correct, but with one key difference — it won’t be the machinations of villains that kills us, but good old-fashioned ignorance.

So much for agency

The paper, authored by a team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, studied how the apocalypse will most likely visit us, and what we can do to postpone that visit. To get an idea of how people think such an event will come about, they analyzed the themes in blockbusters released between 1956 and 2016.

The films featured a wide range of disasters, including alien invasions, genetically-engineered viruses, evil AI, global war, and “technology run amok,” the team details. Only 10 of the films published over this timeline (17%) dealt with environmental catastrophe. The most common theme or villain among these flicks was corporate greed.

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The researchers write that four of these movies (The China Syndrome, Silkwood, Erin Brokovich, and The Lorax) feature “corporations knowingly polluting the environment or shirking environmental precautions for the sake of profit.” The other six showcase a future Earth which can no longer sustain life, the consequence of “a myopic society that could not take action to avert environmental catastrophe.”

Mars landscape.

‘Drive an SUV’ they said. We’ll bring back coal they said. It’s all a Chinese hoax they said.
Image via NASA.

Overall, these movies portray the catastrophes as generally understood by one or more characters, but not properly avoided. This is a problem, the team argues, because that’s very likely not going to be the case in a real disaster situation — and that distorts people’s expectations of what such an event will be, and how it can be addressed or prevented.

“In Hollywood, environmental disasters are the consequence of human failings, and not the consequence of ignorance or major gaps in scientific understanding,” the paper reads.

None of the movies treat ignorance about ecological risk factors, the “most likely real-life culprit” for an end-of-the-world scenario, as a central element. Similarly, not one of those movies bases its possible future on real environmental science or a meaningful understanding of ecology, the team notes.

The way we portray disaster in pop culture is important, they add, because it can prime people to look for “existential threats” in all the wrong places. By putting the spotlight on a very narrow group, these movies actually hide the exponentially more pervasive danger of mass ignorance.

“We do not want to imply that economic systems or human selfishness are unimportant. There is no question that great harm has been and is being done by what we can only call criminal behavior — either violating existing environmental regulations or lobbying against the passage of regulations even though scientific evidence of harm is compelling,” says first author Peter Kareiva.

“We acknowledge the presence of such behavior, but argue that an engaged public and effective government can mitigate these threats in time to avert global disasters. In contrast, no amount of public engagement or effective governance can mitigate threats that are unknown or underestimated.”

Coming soon in a cinema near you

The authors then used Johan Rockström’s nine planetary boundaries framework — which details environmental limits that “if crossed, could have disastrous consequences for humanity” — to identify the most pressing threats facing humanity. So far, they detail, we’ve crossed four of the nine limits. Climate change, global freshwater cycle changes, and ocean acidification are the most potentially catastrophic of these four, the authors explain, because of their “substantial lag times between system change and experiencing the consequences of that change.”

They cite Hurricane Sandy as an example. It tore through New York City in 2012, and it brought with it a flooding on a level that “occurred once every 500 years in the 18th century,” according to the team, “and that occurs now once every 25 years, but is expected to occur once every 5 years by 2050.” This dramatic change in the frequency of extreme floods “has profound implications for the measures New York City should take to protect its infrastructure and its population,” but because it happens intermittently right now, most people will simply glance over the “elevated risk.”

We don’t tend to think of changes in average annual temperature or rainfall levels as particularly interesting or relevant, the team explains, but they do lead to such extreme events. And blockbusters reinforce the idea that corporate greed, technology run amok, or malevolent over-exploitation of resources are the real problem, while rain couldn’t be less meaningful.

“Those are mistakes humans have made repeatedly and will continue to make, but our responses are often sufficient to correct the problem,” Karevia cautions.

What we should really be scared of, the team concludes, is our “ecological ignorance”, and the disastrous events we don’t plan for because we don’t even bother to see them coming.

The paper “Existential risk due to ecosystem collapse: Nature strikes back” has been published in the journal Futures.