Cheer up! It's 500,000-to-1 against an alien invasion by 2097

February 11, 1997|By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON -- David Nicholson-Lord, a journalist, recently phoned up William Hill, the British bookmakers, and asked them to quote the odds on the end of the world.

William Hill makes odds and takes bets on all sorts of unlikely events, mainly because it provides excellent and cheap publicity. Presumably a battery of anonymous experts on retainer helps to set the odds. Once they have been announced, after all, someone may actually place a bet.

Mr. Nicholson-Lord asked William Hill to quote the odds on 10 different ways for the world to end. He didn't miss a one, except perhaps a global plague of bad breath.

The good old Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were there, of course -- war, famine, pestilence and death -- but also such relative newcomers to the list of global threats as climate change, over-population and space invaders.

So William Hill set to work polling the experts, and the results were splashed across the Sunday magazine of the Independent newspaper in London.

The trendiest new ways for the world to end got the shortest shrift. The end of the world through over-population, for example, was given odds of 25 million-to-one against. That means that if you laid a bet of $10 on that proposition with William Hill today, and you turned out to be right, they would pay you a quarter of a billion dollars when it happens.

How the world ends

Are they being generous, or just cunning? Well, if you consider how the bookies have defined the end of the world, you begin to see the method in their madness. They will only have to pay out if, between now and the year 2097, the world should fall to a population of only 1,000 people.

Fair enough. You could hardly say the world has ended if there are still tens of thousands of people cluttering up the place. All kinds of bad things may happen in the course of the next century, and no doubt some of them will. But this definition does let William Hill off the hook a little, for it's very hard to get down from 6 billion people to only 1,000 by any known means.

Among the disasters that might get the world down to that number, the final cause quite literally cannot be over-population. Ten or 20 billion people trying to live on this planet might trigger a general catastrophe, but only a much more specific calamity like war or pestilence could get us down below a billion or two.

The same logic relegates a couple of other favorite doomsday scenarios to the also-rans. Pollution is a million-to-one against, drought is 100,000-to-one against, and climate change and famine both come in at 75,000-to-one against.

These phenomena may cause us huge problems in the course of the next century, and could well bring vast misery and mass death in their train, but it's hard to see how any of them could wipe out the human race. Indeed, if we dropped down to a mere billion or two people, these threats would almost automatically cease to be problems.

Can anarchy kill us all?

Then there's the fashionable disaster-of-the-week, the ''coming global anarchy.'' William Hill assesses that at 50,000-to-one against (generous, to my mind, as it's even harder to see how anarchy could wipe everybody out). And there's the end of the world through the natural processes of the universe -- the Sun goes nova, we are sucked into a giant black hole, there is another Big Bang -- which they dismiss as a million-to-one against.

That leaves three major contenders, and very interesting ones they are. ''It Came From Outer Space'' is taken quite seriously -- 500,000-to-one against an alien invasion before 2097, but a mere 10,000-to-one against a massive meteor strike like the one that probably took out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Pestilence does even better -- only 5,000-to-one against new diseases arising that virtually wipe out the human race. And war comes in far ahead of the rest of the field, at only 500-to-one against.

Now, you can discount all this as wild speculation untamed by market discipline, since William Hill knows that it would never really have to pay out. If the world were down to 1,000 people, it is highly unlikely that any of the firm's partners would be numbered among the survivors, nor any of the punters who laid bets with them either. And in any case, a world as sparsely populated as that would have stopped using money.

But bookies do understand odds, and they always take them seriously. The numbers they have come up with this time are far less than the risk estimates we usually hear, and the logic behind them is implacable.

Prophets of doom

Most prophets of doom have a professional interest in inflating estimates of risk, whether to draw attention to the danger they most fear, or simply to themselves. Bookies are free of such motives, and they have concluded that the risk of the human race being effectively wiped out during the next century is very small.

The only dangers they took really to heart were the old ones: war, disease and the oldest threat of all (though we only recognized its true nature recently): meteor bombardment from outer space. But global warming? The ''clash of civilizations?'' The coming global anarchy? Get real.

Those threats might kill millions or even hundreds of millions of people, but the only potential calamities that endanger all the billions of mankind in the next century are more traditional perils: mutant diseases, rogue meteors and war. And there's hardly more than one chance in 500 that even those threats could do away with us entirely. The odd-makers say so.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and historian.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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