Dinner party conversation turns morbid: Chat about the apocalypse is becoming more mainstream

Fears about nuclear war, climate change, disease and AI are changing discussions

Mike Bedigan
Friday 03 May 2024 22:27 BST
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Fears surrounding artificial intelligence, wars, the climate crisis and disease are driving more frequent conversations about the “apocalypse”.

The “end times” is now a common, yet morbid, dinner party conversation, according to analysis by professors Erik Bleich and Christopher Star at Middlebury College, Vermont.

Mr Bleich and Mr Star analyzed trends in media over the reporting of four prominent “apocalyptic” topics- nuclear war, disease, climate change and AI, in a recent article for StudyFinds.

They suggest that discussions of the apocalypse in the media can be used as a “barometer for prevailing public concerns”.

Articles mentioning the words “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic” from three US publications -The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post - between 1980 and 2023 were analyzed.

Articles centered on religion and entertainment were filtered out, leaving a remaining 9,380 articles that mentioned one or more of the four apocalyptic concerns: nuclear war, disease, climate change, and AI.

The trends show a steady increase in articles mentioning all four topics during the time period. However the most widely reported concerns varies through the decades. For the first time ever in 2023, AI was reported as linked to discussion of the apocalypse more so than nuclear war.

The analysis tracks how the concerns have evolved from the end of the Cold War, where the chief concern was nuclear war, through to the 1990s where this was overtaken by disease and the climate crisis.

“By the 2000s, and even more so during the 2010s, newspaper attention had turned squarely in the direction of environmental concerns,” the article states.

In 2020, the start of the coronavirus pandemic, saw a spike in articles referencing health and disease linked to the words “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic”.

The professors note that there were almost three times as many stories linking disease to the apocalypse this decade compared to the 2010s.

They also note that, while AI was practically absent from media coverage through 2015, “recent technological breakthroughs generated more apocalypse articles touching on AI than on nuclear concerns in 2023 for the first time ever”.

A survey in 2022 by the Pew Research Center revealed that almost one-in-ten US adults (39 per cent) believe that humanity is “living in end times”.

However, the survey also notes that 58 per cent did not hold that belief and that “Americans without college degrees are more likely than college graduates to believe humanity is approaching its end.”

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