How Close Is The End of The World?
Press » Daily Express » 2007-08-20
Many have predicted the apocalypse for years but now for the first time experts in science and religion are united in their belief that the planet could be wiped out much sooner than we think
The end of the world is nigh - but when, exactly?
That's the question sociologist and broadcaster Professor Laurie Taylor is asking in a remarkable TV programme this week.
In A Very British Apocalypse, Professor Taylor speaks to doommongers ranging from a woman convinced that bank card microchips are "the mark of Satan" to a Jewish rabbi who believes that we have just 234 years left before Judgment Day.
From scientists to environmentalists, Professor Taylor gets unprecedented access to prophets of the apocalypse. Each takes delight in telling him that everything from melting ice-caps, religious disobedience and "lost" nuclear weapons will finish us off. It makes for riveting, if somewhat worrying, viewing.
"I decided to look at this issue because it seems that fears about the world coming to a horrible end are more widespread than ever before, " says Professor Taylor, who teaches at the University of London and presents Radio 4's Thinking Allowed.
"As a humanist and an atheist, I believe in science and reason. But suddenly scientists seem to be taking the same line as religious extremists, telling us cosmic calamity of one sort or another is inevitable."
In the show, an academic reveals that as many as a dozen Russian nuclear bombs may be in the hands of terrorists. An environmentalist says global warming will reduce us to hunter-gatherers by 2040.
It's all rather scary. "I went into it feeling pretty sure that the world would carry on as normal for the foreseeable future, " says Professor Taylor, a lively 71. "Now I have to restrain myself at dinner parties from ranting on about the many and varied threats to civilisation as we know it."
He was most worried by what he discovered about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Dr Peter Neumann, director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College London, says the scenario of terrorists launching a nuclear attack is all too likely.
"There are dozens of unaccountedfor nuclear devices from the former Soviet Union and probably a small number of others from other countries, too, " he explains. "We simply have no idea what happened to them after the Cold War ended.
"Many of these devices are small, the size of a suitcase, but with enough power to cause an explosion like that in Hiroshima. It's argued that some of these 'lost' bombs have fallen into terrorist hands. It could well be that the only thing that's stopping them being used is that the terrorist groups don't know the code needed to fire them."
Alarming stuff and Professor Taylor says: "The nuclear issue has been what has stayed with me most since making the programme and it's the one thing no one seems to mention these days."
Instead, what is hitting the headlines is global warming. Professor Taylor tracks down Dr Dylan Evans, a lecturer on evolutionary psychology from the University of the West of England in Bristol. Dr Evans, 41, believes that by 2040, the warming of the Earth and ensuing climate disasters will mean any survivors will live as Stone Age hunter-gatherers.
To this end, in April he sold his house in the Cotswolds to set up a commune in the Highlands called Utopia. Members had to live in a post-global warming environment to find a "new way" of existing. That meant sleeping in Mongolian yurt tents, growing your own veg and, in Dr Evans's case, getting "married" in a potato shed to a woman called Boe who came to the commune with her children Zen and Rainbow.
Unfortunately, within three months Utopia fell foul of spectacular Big Brother-style rows. At the last count, there were only three inhabitants left and Dr Evans has retreated to his mum's house in Reading to "get his head together". So much for finding a solution to carbon emissions.
"I couldn't help feeling that the ecologists were slightly pleased with the floods in Gloucestershire and so on, as it gives them the satisfaction of being proved right, " says Professor Taylor. "You wonder how much they over-stress the facts in order to make us all change our ways."
Another vision of the end of the world entails the planet being hit by a giant asteroid. And it's not just science fiction, says Monica Grady, professor of planetary and space sciences at the Open University. She outlines what happened 65 million years ago when dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid hitting the Earth.
"The energy of a 10km solid object hitting the ground converted into gas, causing a massive explosion. The energy radiated, causing the Earth to catch fire and because of rock dust and water vapour in the air, it all turned completely dark - for years.
"By a terrible coincidence, the impact went into a layer of sulphur which itself went into the atmosphere and came back down as a rain of nitric and sulphuric acid.
"The possibility of something hitting the Earth again is a certainty. The only thing we can't predict is when."
Professor Taylor says: "By this stage I was starting to think that, compared to the scientists, the religious 'apocalysts' were looking positively cheery, " One such is life coach Richard Lawrence, 55, who lives in Fulham, London. He appears normal until he talks about his role as leader of the Aetherius Society, founded in 1955, which meets weekly in Clapham to "collect" prayers in a foot-high box.
The Aetherians dress in red capes and chant mantras at the box, which is kept in storage and only opened in cases of emergencies, such as the 2004 tsunami. "We were the first organisation to react to the tsunami, well before the Government, " says Lawrence proudly. In fairness, it is slightly easier to open a box of prayers than to organise food, rescue and shelter for thousands.
Aetherians believe a Shropshire taxi driver called George King, who died in 1997, was from the planet Venus. They pray to protect the rest of us from any harm in disasters generally but pray especially hard in case the next Cosmic Master arrives in a spaceship to herald the end of the world.
Lawrence can't say when this will happen, but assures Professor Taylor that it will be soon. "Ultimately, what I'm talking about is the end of time.
I'm not just talking about this planet, I'm talking about the end of the universe."
Professor Taylor says: "He seemed a perfectly pleasant, nice man, but suddenly started spouting stuff about aliens, UFOs and life on other planets. However, I rather like the idea of Aetherians praying for us, acting as a sort of spiritual Home Guard. I think some apocalysts are definitely nicer than others."
Professor Taylor has uncovered some hilarious footage of George King putting on sunglasses in 1959 and "becoming" the extraterrestrial Aetherius. Apart from the glasses, the only tangible change is the fact that his accent goes from pure Shropshire to posher than Prince Charles. "Good evening mai deah friends, " he intones.
"Ay am heah from the planet Venus."
Professor Taylor also interviews Abi Freeman. She's a wild-haired and snaggletoothed veteran of The Family, formerly a Californian sex cult called The Children Of God.
The cult used to encourage free love in all its permutations, especially with its founder, David Berg, who died in 1994. It has been reinvented as a fundamentalist Christian organisation with 10,000 members.
Abi spends her days seeking out modern manifestations of 666, the number of the beast from the Bible's Book of Revelations. She thinks the trend for microchips on bank cards and even having them implanted under your skin is 666, "the mark of Satan".
When the day comes that we all have our bank details implanted in our arms, we will have "embraced the Anti-Christ". Then pestilence, war, famine and death, aka the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, will rule until the second coming of Christ, the battle of Armageddon and the creation of a new Heaven and Earth.
Sixtysomething Abi is looking forward to it all and says: "I would like to think Christ will come in my lifetime."
As Professor Taylor says: "Again, she seemed completely rational and reasonable until it seemed one part of her brain clicked in and out came all this ludicrous nonsense, confusing technology and the Old Testament."
But Catholic monk Dom Benedict Heron, 84, from Cockfosters, says he too fears the world is going to Hell in a handcart. "If I was a non-believer [in God], I would say that this human experiment has had it. Not because we're more sinful or fanatical or wicked than before but because now wicked, stupid and fanatical men can do so much more harm."
Professor Taylor admits sadly: "It was hard not to agree with him."
So, lots of pessimism but let's hope the world doesn't end before tomorrow night, as this programme is well worth a viewing.
A Very British Apocalypse, tomorrow, 7.15pm, Channel 5.