2023: the year the world didn’t end

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Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later (2002)(Film still)

From asteroids to ancient curses, threats of WW3 and the AI apocalypse, this year got pretty scary – and yet, we’re all still here

It’s a common fear (or fantasy) of us silly little humans that we’re living on the brink of our own extinction. In 2012, we all thought we were going to die because an ancient Mesoamerican calendar ran out of space. In the second half of the 20th century, it all revolved around nuclear armageddon, driven by the dystopian dynamics explored in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer earlier this year. Go back even further, and you’ll find despairing accounts of plague, famine, and natural disasters. Right now, of course, all eyes are on AI, or the slow death of the climate crisis, or a follow-up to the COVID pandemic that ushered in the 2020s.

Humanity’s perpetual state of impending doom could be interpreted as a mere symptom of our collective main character syndrome – of course, we would be the ones unlucky enough to witness the end of the world or, worse, to be tasked with navigating the post-apocalypse. Look back through history, however, and it’s clear to see that some of our fears did match up with reality. Was it delusional to think that nuclear weapons could reduce Earth to a scorched rock at the height of the Cold War? Probably not! Was it reasonable to fear civilisational collapse during the Black Death? Absolutely. Are superintelligent machines really the existential threat that many people claim? Well, only time will tell.

Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to be taken from these very real dangers. On the one hand, they do appear to be increasing in scope and scale as humans destabilise Earth’s ecosystem and invent new, previously unimaginable ways to usher in our own demise. On the other hand… we’re still here. This might seem like a miracle, or plain old good luck, but it’s also a testament to our knack for problem-solving (even if we, admittedly, caused most of the problems to begin with). See: the medical breakthroughs that stop the spread of the world’s worst infectious diseases, or the international agreements that have so far stopped us from bombing each other into oblivion. Recently, NASA even knocked an asteroid off course, in a big step toward ensuring that we don’t go the way of the dinosaurs.

In other words, there are a lot of reasons to be fearful of the future, but a lot of reasons to be optimistic, too. Keep that in mind as you explore all the near-misses and apocalypse scares that 2023 had to offer, below – the world hasn’t ended… yet!

HAZARDOUS ASTEROIDS APPROACH EARTH

— NASA Asteroid Watch (@AsteroidWatch) December 1, 2023

According to NASA, no less than 110 asteroids passed close to Earth (i.e. closer than the orbit of the moon) in the 12 months leading up to November. That’s a lot of near misses in 2023. Luckily, most of these are on the smaller side, but there have been some much bigger space rocks whizzing by close enough to be deemed “potentially hazardous”. Take 2023 DW, for example – which briefly looked like it might take us out of our misery on Valentine’s Day – or 2006 HV5, an asteroid as tall as the Eiffel Tower that flew past Earth at around 39,000 miles per hour. Then, there are the “planet killer” asteroids that scientists suspect are hidden in the sun’s glare, which we won’t see coming until the last minute.

Sound scary? Well, said scientists are trying hard to reduce the risks. Not only have they learned how to bump asteroids off course, but this year they successfully harnessed AI to locate a potentially hazardous asteroid for the first time. They also obtained historic samples from asteroid Bennu, which could shed light on the precautionary measures we can take in the future.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE TRIGGERS ALARM BELLS

— Future of Life Institute (@FLIxrisk) March 29, 2023

The AI panic has been going on for a while now, but it reached fever pitch in 2023, with the introduction of powerful models like GPT-4 (the LLM that powers ChatGPT). From job replacement, to dangerous disinformation, to autonomous warfare, there’s a bunch of ways that the technology could render humanity obsolete, if the doomers are to be believed (and they do make a pretty good case). That’s not to mention the Terminator-style future that has captured the public imagination this year, with some global leaders and experts warning that we’re waking up a whole new alien species with its own hopes and dreams that don’t include us sticking around.

A disturbing prospect? Sure, but again there’s some good news. Namely, world leaders finally started taking safety seriously this year, striking a historic agreement alongside the likes of Elon Musk and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Maybe robot supremacy isn’t an inevitability after all!

ARCHAEOLOGISTS UNCOVER AN ANCIENT CURSE

The Mummy (1999) still(Film Still)

This year began with the discovery of the oldest known gold-covered mummy in existence, lying at the bottom of a 15-metre shaft at a burial site south of Cairo, in a sealed sarcophagus that hadn’t been opened for 4,300 years. Around the same time, archaeologists in the same area also uncovered a new “Book of the Dead” papyrus (AKA the text that resurrects a cursed high priest in 1999’s The Mummy, which I recently watched over someone’s shoulder on a long plane journey, and let me tell you, things did not go well). Needless to say, the internet soon erupted into pleas to leave the ancient artefacts alone, although once you crack open the coffin it’s pretty much no-takes-backsies anyway. 

Then, more archaeologists went and found a 3,000-year-old sword buried in a grave in Germany that mysteriously remained sharp and gleaming. This presumably dislodged yet another ancient curse that will come back to bite us sooner or later.

THE CLIMATE IS (STILL) IN CRISIS

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is arrested by policePhoto by Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images

In April this year, tens of thousands of climate activists descended on London for the Big One, a protest led by Extinction Rebellion that served as a reminder of what we all know by now: we’re already reaping the disastrous consequences of global warming (sorry, “global boiling”) and fossil fuels are a big part of the problem. In case that wasn’t enough of a reminder, though, 2023 also saw wildfires rage across the world – see: toxic smog turning the skies over NYC an apocalyptic orange over the summer – alongside an uptick in other severe weather events.

What are we doing about it, here in the UK? We’re arresting-slash-imprisoning inspiring young climate activists (like Phoebe Plummer and Greta Thunberg) and abandoning our net-zero pledges, of course. Love that for us!

WORLD WAR III IS AN EVER-LOOMING POSSIBILITY

— Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (@BulletinAtomic) February 6, 2023

Donald Trump sent a fundraising email sent in late 2023 (reported by Time – I do not subscribe to Donald Trump’s fundraising emails) that claimed Joe Biden is pushing “America to the brink of World War III”. It’s a claim that the ex-president has made before, and it’s quite obvious that he just wants to set himself up as the “only one” who can prevent it, but his propaganda wouldn’t work if people weren’t already scared that a new world war is actually within the realm of possibility. And why shouldn’t they be?

With conflicts raging across the globe, from Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine to the Israel-Gaza war, and global politics making it difficult to tell where the real power lies, many political leaders have warned that we got as close to a global conflict in 2023 as we have been since the height of the Cold War. See also: Elon Musk saying that we’re “sleepwalking” into WW3 back in October, or the organisation behind the Doomsday Clock warning that Putin’s threats of escalation shouldn’t be underestimated. Even investors are worried. Won’t somebody think of the investors?!

Of course, WW3 didn’t actually break out (yet) and there could be all kinds of ulterior motives behind these cautionary messages. Then again, the UK government has been issuing guidance on what to do in a radiation emergency…

MONSTERS ARE AWAKENING UNDER THE ICE

Out now @PLOSCompBiol, we released ancient pathogens into modern communities and found they might cause substantial ecological change. Sci-fi? As ice releases 4×10^21 microorganisms/y the risk is real https://t.co/xKrg7SqBfE@EU_ScienceHub@helsinkiuni@LifeSciHelsinki@Flinderspic.twitter.com/uVLWWj3JTu

— Giovanni Strona (@GiovanniStrona) July 28, 2023

Thanks to the aforementioned failure re: the climate crisis, Earth’s ice caps and glaciers are shrinking at an unprecedented rate. This doesn’t just mean that sea levels will rise, but also that ancient organisms are waking from their icy slumber. As researcher Giovanni Strona told Dazed earlier this year, these “time-travelling” organisms could include “unpredictable threats so far confined to science fiction and conjecture,” including destructive pathogens that have been asleep for hundreds of thousands of years. With around 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 organisms projected to escape from the ice, things could have taken a “chaotic” turn in 2023, to say the least. Are things going to get any better next year? Not if humans don’t do anything to reverse the damage they’ve already caused. Fingers crossed for that silver lining.

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Thom Waite