How Is America Going To End?
The apocalypse you chose. Plus, the end-of-America social network.
Posted Friday, Aug. 7, 2009, at 2:35 PM
For the last week, I've considered many possible scenarios for America's downfall: the rise of a climate strongman, the emergence of a transnational class of superhumans, secession by the country's leading maple syrup producer, and others. At the same time, the Slate hive mind has been cranking away, analyzing the likelihood of various end-of-America scenarios with our "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" interactive feature.
Your task was simple: Browse through a list of 144 potential apocalypses and choose up to five that seem most likely to wipe the United States off the map. As of Wednesday night, 60,020 readers had submitted their visions of the end of America. Many of those participants came from outside the U.S.—a healthy 15 percent of the people who viewed the feature came via this Russian site. Our 60,000 "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" submissions included votes for 255,496 individual scenarios. We've tallied the ballots and analyzed the data. Out of the 144 scenarios in the apocalypse grid, here are the five you believe are the biggest threat to America's continued existence:
The most popular scenario—"Loose Nukes," chosen by 10.5 percent of Slate readers—combines modern and old-fashioned anxieties. "Taliban fighters wrest nuclear weapons from a destabilized Pakistan. Or al-Qaida acquires a small arsenal of nukes from a disintegrating Russia," the scenario description embedded in "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" reads. "The nonstate actors launch against the United States in an attack exponentially worse than 9/11." The presence of terrorists at the top of the charts indicates that we're still smarting from al-Qaida's 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon—perhaps the most recent event that raised momentary doubts about the country's continued existence. The fact that we envision those terrorists hitting us with nukes indicates that we have the same fears as the World War II generation. In the last 65 years, nothing has come along to supplant the scariness of a mushroom cloud.
While "Israel-Arab War" (picked by 7.6 percent of users) represents another worry that's generations old, the "Peak Oil" (9.3 percent) and "China Unloads U.S. Treasurys" (8.2 percent) scenarios are new apocalyptic visions. Peak Oil—"Petroleum production reaches terminal decline. Oil becomes too expensive to extract, and alternative energies can't maintain our fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyle"—is the hobbyhorse of widely read collapsists James Howard Kunstler and Dmitry Orlov. It's the scenario of choice for the modern doomsayer who thinks Western civilization has industrialized its way to destruction. Fears of an economic collapse triggered by China pulling out from the American economy are a symptom of both our worries over the current economic crisis and anxiety over America's place in the world.
The scenario I'm most surprised to see in the top five is "Antibiotic Resistance," which was picked by 8.5 percent of apocalypticists. The bacteria-run-amok scenario—"As a result of factory farming and spiking sales of antibacterial hand soap, superstrains of bacteria develop that are resistant to medicine"—outranked anything to do with money ("Wealth Gap" came in ninth), political collapse ("Red vs. Blue" at No. 11), or global warming ("Rising Sea Levels" at No. 14). You could make the argument that bacterial worries reveal misdirected agita about our current swine flu worries—except that the actual "Swine Flu" scenario came in 64th out of 144. The only conclusion to draw here is that the Slate hive mind is genuinely concerned that we'll go under on account of microbes. Take note, Centers for Disease Control and Department of Homeland Security.
On the other side of the ledger, our least-popular scenarios were "Anthrax" (0.5 percent), "Pax Indica" (0.6 percent), and "Declining Military Standards" (0.6 percent). We fear the rise of China a lot more than the rise of its 1.2 billion-strong neighbor, and we've apparently got a lot more important things to worry about than terrorists in crop-dusters. (For the record, here's a list of all 144 Choose Your Own Apocalypse scenarios ranked from most- to least-popular.)
We also looked through to figure out the most popular groupings along with the most popular individual scenarios. There are 498,685,188 possible ways to choose a group of between one and five scenarios from a list of 144. The most popular apocalyptic group, chosen 102 separate times:
Let's run through this scenario quickly. First, China pulls away from the United States, sending inflation spiraling out of control and dropping America from the ranks of economic superpowers. The economic crisis in America causes a global recession, leading to spikes of terrorist activity worldwide. Meanwhile, petroleum production slows down, and water supplies begin to dwindle. This causes yet more instability, and global terror networks—which blame the West for the world's decay—take advantage by filching nuclear devices as unsteady regimes collapse. On the darkest day in human history, the United States gets strafed by nuclear bombs, killing millions upon millions of American citizens. Those who don't die during the horrific nuclear attacked get finished off by antibiotic-resistant bacteria that public-health officials were unable to get under control. The end. (If you'd like to write your own end-of-America fan fiction, here's the second most popular apocalypse grouping, chosen 52 times: "Loose Nukes," "Russia Hits the Button," "Foreign Invasion," "Electromagnetic Pulse," "Dirty Bombs.")
Those scenario groupings aren't the only ones we found in "Choose Your Own Apocalypse." There are lots of interesting correlations between individual scenarios. People who thought America would end on account of "Laziness," for example, were also likely to believe that the United States might succumb to "Decadence" and "Overpopulation." Those who picked the "Theocracy" scenario, meanwhile, were also likely to believe that America would end because of "Intelligent Design." To help visualize those collections, we've arranged "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" into a social network that reveals which scenarios are most-closely correlated. You can view the Choose Your Own Apocalypse social network on a separate page here.
Along with choosing their favorite scenarios, we also asked "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" players to provide demographic information, including their gender, political affiliation, and age.
As you can see from this table, men were far more concerned about China than women. Female voters, by contrast, believe more strongly that bacteria are a risk. (The reason "Loose Nukes" appears far down the list for both men and women is that only 11 percent of "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" users filled out any demographic data. Those who voted for nukes appear to have been particularly reticent to fill in this information.)
In terms of political affiliation, Republicans are far less concerned about the future of oil production than either Democrats or Independents. Our GOP respondents had "Peak Oil" as their No. 10 concern; both Dems and Independents listed it No. 1.
The most interesting nugget agewise is that our oldest participants were most fearful of the country being torn asunder by the divide between rich and poor. On the other end, our youngest apocalypticists had the feeling that overpopulation might do us in.
Finally, we averaged everyone's vote to make a single, aggregate Slate apocalypse.
On aggregate, we think the end of America will be more man's fault than nature's fault. We're also (very) mildly optimistic—the average Slate apocalypse skews ever so slightly toward the "Everybody Lives" half of the grid. In the parlance of the "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" results page, Slate readers are "humanitarian internationalists": "You're convinced mankind will terminate America—but at least we won't off ourselves in the process."
Out of all the demographic groups we examined, people older than 65 thought the end of America would be most deadly. The group most optimistic that we'll avoid a high body count: women. Republicans thought man (rather than nature) would be the most to blame for the end of America. While every group believed that man was more at fault than nature, women and Democrats skewed the most toward seeing a natural cause for the American end times.
Thanks to everyone who participated. And it's not too late to play along. Please continue to "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" as often as you'd like.