Has the pandemic changed views on human extinction?

Lydia PaulyProject Manager
February 16, 2022, 9:58 AM GMT+0

With the mortality rate of the pandemic, the year of wildfires, accelerating artificial intelligence technology (and fears), and Russia poised to invade Ukraine, there is no shortage of threats to the world. However, catastrophes are nothing new. Whether it’s economic, social, natural, or cultural, there is always a conflict for humanity to struggle against: Wikipedia’s List of Disasters is a good summary.

However, have recent events permanently changed British adults’ view of the future of humanity? Are we predicting an earlier extinction as a result? What do we think those likely reasons for extinctions are, and have they changed after the pandemic? And what do we think our government should be doing about them? New YouGov data explores the changes to our views on human extinction since 2016.

When will human beings go extinct? Perhaps sooner than we first predicted

Britons are less sure than they were that humanity is here to stay. The number of those who believe human beings will never die out has dropped by seven points since 2016 to 23%.

Part of this shift reflects greater uncertainty (up six points since 2016, now at 27%), but Britons are also slightly more likely to give a shorter time span for human extinction than they were in 2016. The number of those who believe it’ll happen in the next 500 years has risen by five points to 15%.

There are significant political divides, with Conservative voters much more likely than Labour voters to believe human beings will never die out, by 31% to just 17%. On the other side, 20% of Labour voters believe human extinction will happen in the next 500 years (as opposed to 10% of Conservative voters).

Ultimately, despite the recent pandemic, British adults still tend to believe human extinction won’t happen for the next 1,000 years, if they think it will happen at all (47%).

If human beings become extinct, what do Britons think would be the cause?

When asked about where the potential extinction cause could come from, British adults are still firmly afraid of the natural world and space: 51% say that the most likely cause of human extinction would be an environmental cause, such as climate change or an asteroid.

Political divides are also present in this question: only 44% of Conservative voters think it would be more likely to be an environmental cause, versus 63% of Labour voters. Three in ten Conservative voters (31%) went the other way with a technological cause – like artificial intelligence or nuclear weaponry – as opposed to only 22% of Labour voters.

Despite the pandemic, nuclear war and climate change are still seen as the most likely cause of future human extinction

When asked about the most likely specific cause of human extinction in the future, nuclear war continues to hold the top spot (43%), closely followed by global warming and climate change (42%).

However, there has been significant movement on both of these anticipated apocalypses since 2016: the percentage of people who picked climate change has risen 11pts, while expectations of nuclear Armageddon also increased by 5pts.

Expectations that a pandemic will prove humanity’s eventual downfall have moved much less, despite the coronavirus outbreak. Only slightly more people chose this option in 2022 (30%) than in 2016 (27%) – a difference that is within the margin of error.

Most Britons think the government should be developing contingency plans for at least six potential causes of human extinction

While Britons are divided on which the most likely doomsday scenarios are, there is a much clearer picture of what people think is plausible based on their support for contingency plans.

Topping the list is preparing contingency plans for a pandemic, at 84%. The impact of the coronavirus epidemic is much more noticeable in this question, with an 11pt increase in support since 2016.

In second place is a desire for contingency plans on climate change and global warming, which has leapfrogged nuclear war with a six-point increase to 81%.

Although only 43% of Britons believe that nuclear war is one of the most likely causes of human extinction, 79% say the government should be developing contingency plans for such a conflict (a three-point increase).

Over seven in ten British adults (72%) also believe that we should be preparing for the bees dying out, despite only 16% believing that it is one of the most likely causes of our hypothetical extinction. Majorities also want to see contingency plans for extreme seismic events (61%) and asteroid strikes (57%).

The biggest single change since 2016 has been over threats emanating from robots or artificial intelligence. While only a quarter of Britons (27%) thought the government should be preparing for such dangers five and a half years ago, that has since jumped 16pts to 43% today.

Has the pandemic improved or worsened our view of humanity surviving existential threats?

Despite – or perhaps, because of ­– the pandemic, almost half of British adults say that their confidence in humanity surviving is ‘unchanged’.

However, one in five (19%) say that their confidence has increased, potentially after watching the speed of the vaccination response or the quick instating of measures in some countries. Slightly more (25%) have seen those same events and come away gloomy, however, saying their confidence in humanity’s odds have shortened. Ultimately, it may take much more than a pandemic to help boost our confidence in humanity.

See 2022 results here and 2016 results here

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