Fri, May 27, 2011 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Underlying the doomsday predictions

In recent weeks we’ve heard a raft of seemingly wacky predictions that the world is coming to an end or Judgement Day is upon us, from both Eastern and Western religious hacks.

Last month, Taiwanese doomsayer Wang Chao-hung (王超弘), also known as “Teacher Wang,” wrote on his blog that a devastating earthquake would level Taiwan on May 11. His prediction, which came to nothing, was no doubt fueled by the hysteria left over from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that ravaged Japan in March, as well as a raft of other earthquakes that have left an indelible imprint in our minds in recent years — New Zealand, Haiti, China and Pakistan.

In the US, a fundamentalist preacher, Harold Camping, warned followers that May 21 would be Judgement Day and that a series of calamities would sweep the world at 6pm local time in each time zone.

When you give credence to wacky predictions like that, all sorts of unintended consequences occur — people giving up their jobs, buying land and throwing parties to celebrate their final days on Earth, to name but a few. Some enterprising individuals even offered to take care of the pets that wouldn’t be transported to heaven, for a price.

These apocalyptic predictions and their anticlimactic outcomes often have social costs, but they do give some people a chance to chuckle. They can seem like cases of mass lunacy, but where do they come from?

The obvious answer would be that the media is manipulating the news to blow it out of proportion and therefore spin a story.

That was likely one of the factors that turned “Teacher Wang” into a household name in Taiwan, but there must be more to it than that.

In the West, predictions that the world is on the verge of catastrophe have been commonplace for hundreds of years. However, in times of plenty, like 1999, when people thought the year 2000 computer bug would wipe out the world, few paid attention to the doomsayers.

So why are these easily refutable predictions causing so many otherwise reasonable people to give up everything in the face of unlikely disaster?

It probably has something to do with the fact that the world around us actually does look like it’s on the verge of disintegrating.

It’s not as dramatic as Teacher Wang’s prophecy of a magnitude 14 earthquake, but the massive drought in central China occurring right now could have far more widespread consequences. In the world’s fastest-growing economy, a drought the likes of which China has not seen in 50 years is drying reservoirs, stalling rice production and could lead to crippling energy shortages.

Meanwhile, one of the worst series of tornadoes in US history has killed hundreds of people across the northwest and even in the south. A drought in Texas has farmers and ranchers squirming, while more snow than expected during the winter caused a great deal of damage. Australia earlier this year was covered in water and ravaged by fires, while China last year saw record-breaking floods.

The world’s global weather patterns — which most of us are accustomed to being relatively predictable — are out of sync, it would seem. With the world’s climate gone astray, it’s no wonder those forecasting the end of days have found people open to their tales of plagues of locusts and huge earthquakes.

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