Like many, I’ve long loved Robert Frost’s poem Fire and Ice for the way it encapsulates the extremes of human nature, as well as our instinct for anticipating the end of days.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost’s verse was in my mind as I sat in the audience of London’s Frontline Club listening to a panel discussion on AI weaponry and existential risk. The talk took its inspiration from former soldier Chris Lincoln-Jones’ novel Dr Moore’s Automaton, which anticipates the dire problems involved if machines start making battlefield decisions once taken by humans. It’s fair to say I went into the club feeling worried about the Middle East, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the next supervirus and our grossly polluted waterways. I exited with even more pressing concerns about satellite warfare, rogue robots and nuclear winter.

I told Lincoln-Jones I was going to have nightmares for weeks. But the more I thought about it, the better it felt to face Armageddon with a “Fire and Ice” issue of Perspective – in much the same spirit many deal with existential angst by watching The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day. There’s a sense of catharsis in watching the Statue of Liberty and St Paul’s being swept away, then returning to your nice safe bed.

The good news is that the world’s great thinkers, like Sir Martin Rees (interviewed in this issue by Gavin Esler), have long kept a watchful eye on doomsday scenarios. Rees founded Cambridge’s Centre for Existential Risk, gathering some of the world’s finest minds to work out how nations can work together to agree a legal and ethical framework for scenarios straight out of science fiction. Boris Starling examines the whole concept of apocalypse in our cover story essay, while the novelist Sarah Hall tells readers why she’s drawn to explore dystopian fiction. The truth is there’s been no era in human history when humans haven’t feared the end of civilisation, as Nick Hunt reminds us with his fascinating dive into the Mayan calendar.

Finally, it’s impossible to look at catastrophe without input from Lucy Easthope (subject of our Q&A), the UK’s foremost expert on disaster planning and recovery. And a sideways look at Armageddon comes in my conversation with Ian Anderson, front man of Jethro Tull, whose new album RökFlöte takes inspiration from Ragnarök, the Norse twilight of the gods. Back here in 2024, let’s hope we can band together to evade doomsday for some millennia yet.

Rowan Pelling, Editor

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

April 2024, Letter from the editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.