What’s the worst that could happen? It is a question more often asked flippantly than fearfully. But four writers, a lawyer and a politician braced themselves and focused on the greatest threats to humanity.
More than 1,000 people voted in our online poll. Almost a third of them agreed with Edward Carr, who argued for the horrors of war, specifically between China and the United States. A struggle for supremacy, he wrote, could “set off an orgy of destruction”, and 28% of voters shared his fear. But in second place, with 21%, was fear itself, which the civil-rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith said prevents sensible action without ever inspiring it. Only 14% of voters shared Robert Guest’s view that famine is the worst that could happen. If food production fails to keep pace with population growth, he wrote, people will be “doomed to half-empty lives”, stunted by the struggle for survival.
Voters then turned to matters of the mind. Ann Wroe argued that “the worst that can happen is to imagine the worst that can happen”. We’re resilient, she said, but the “fearful, fretful mind takes no account of this capacity to endure and overcome.” Her optimism persuaded 9% of voters, while Irving Wardle’s pessimism about cultural erosion—”something essential has been extracted from the cultural heart” —took the same percentage. Finally, 2% agreed with Kah Walla, the Cameroonian politician, who argued that the worst that could happen would be if Africa, one of our “greatest repositories of human talent and natural resources”, failed to fulfil its potential.
Among readers making their own suggestions, there was more concern for the planet. Choices ranged from uncontrollable natural disasters like meteor showers to the threat of environmental degradation, climate change or shortage of water. There was the odd interplanetary vote too, in the form of an alien invasion. Pandemics and plagues had their place, as well as the end of effective antibiotics.
In the end, the psychological outweighed the physical. “I’ve been without food or shelter,” one reader said, “but I always feel for those without hope.” Some pointed to our capacity for apathy, immorality and inequality. Others worried for freedom and liberty, and about the tendency of power to corrupt. Mankind, it seems, can be its own worst enemy. And yet, as most of our writers concluded, power lies in our own hands. If humans are capable of causing disasters, then they are equally able to prevent them.
Georgia Grimond is the letters editor of Intelligent Life and an editorial assistant at The Economist.
First appeared on The Economist.