Will the world end in a flash? A nuclear explosion? A zombie apocalypse? Or will it be a slow, depressing march towards lifelesness as climate change or pandemics take their toll? It's not an uplifting topic, but it's one that humans are becoming more and more obsessed with as natural disasters, superbugs, and ancient predictions surface as constant reminders of our planet's mortality.
But that doesn't mean we have to get all sad about it, say the authors of the Coffee Table Book of Doom, which begins with this line: "This book is dedicated to the Earth. We hope that its end will be exciting for anyone who happens to be passing by and stops to watch."
[PHOTOS: Nation Gripped by Drought]
For the next 200 pages, the book—a half funny, half terrifying, illustrated look into humanity's obsession with its own end—details the many ways the world could go kaput: Whether the doom be cosmic (traditional asteroid strikes, alien invasions, solar storms), technological (robotic revolt, cyber war), religious (holy war, the four horsemen of the apocalypse), geophysical (supervolcanoes, mega-tsunamis), medical (pandemic), or other (overpopulation, the switching of Earth's magnetic poles, fossil fuel depletion).
It's the brainchild of British cartoonist Steven Appleby, whose drawings are reminiscent of Dr. Seuss for grownups, and Art Lester, a journalist and Unitarian minister who moved from North Carolina to London. Despite the heavy subject matter, the book takes a lighthearted, but deep look at what makes us human.
They aren't pessimists—but they do know that eventually, whether it's December 21, the end of the Mayan calendar, or many years in the future, we'll meet our end.
U.S. News & World Report spoke with the duo about what inspired the book, what's most likely to cause humanity's downfall, and why you've got to have a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Obviously 2012 is a good year to do this, with many thinking the end of the Mayan calendar might signal the end of the world. Is that why you decided to do this?
Lester: We couldn't help noticing virtually every day on Google news there's something about what's going to happen to us. We tried to find why it is that we're so fascinated with doom. We think it may be the pace of technological change. Whenever things seem to move extremely fast, people begin to feel a bit unsettled—maybe it's like how a dog can hear an earthquake coming and start howling—all these thoughts of doom have been going around. Maybe there's something to it.
[PHOTOS: Japan Earthquake Before and After]
Appleby: It seemed like in the past, the predictions were kind of esoteric or religious or something like that. Now, science is predicting most of the dooms in our book. That's been the major change in the last couple years. In a way, it underscores point the point of the book—now scientists themselves are predicting a lot of these things.
Are you worried about the world ending before you get to see how successful the book is?
Lester: Definitely—you don't want the world to end before you get royalty checks.
Appleby: There's this guy, Harold Camping—he was predicting the end of the world back in May—we we were keeping our fingers crossed he wasn't right. The funny thing is he just pushed it back—he's got another go coming up the 21st of October. If he'd been right, no one would have gotten to read the book.
So why, besides the Mayan calendar, did you decide to do the book this year?
Appleby: There's a confluence of ancient prophecies that seem to have conspired with new events to make 2012 the perfect cocktail for people to be focusing on doom. We were attempting to answer question - why are we thinking about doom? And it's because doom is more exciting than mere death. It's more interesting to go in some sort of cosmic catastrophe than being run over by a bus.
There was an article in Scientific American, and what they said, somewhat ominously, is that we are all creatures of the savannah. We have existed for all these years with instinct and intuition—maybe we actually are sensing something that might happen.
Where will you guys be on December 21st?
Lester: As you see in the book—you should be spending the 21st doing barbiturates, maxing out credit cards, having risky sex and waiting in the toilet for the world to end. And hoping Christmas comes.
Did studying all these terrible hypotheticals bum you guys out?
Appleby: There's the constant bath of bad news from Europe that we are dealing with. But you have to laugh about it I think—I know it's not a laughing matter and a few people have been slightly offended by the book. But humor is a good way to point out serious issues.
So a few people have gotten offended—how about scientists? What have they thought about the book?
Lester: Nobody has really disputed our information. We were put on BBC with a scientist—presumably, we were going to argue. But what he realized was we were talking about this fixation with doom that simply can't be denied by science. Actually, we've had a pretty good reception from scientists.
[PHOTOS: Extreme Weather]
Which of the dooms laid out in your book do you think would be most chaotic or interesting?
Lester: I think one of the things that could happen—the weakening of earth's magnetic field leading to disruption in digital technology. We talk about how a complete breakdown of digital communication would throw us back to the Stone Age instantly. We'd have to know how to make stone axes and find buffalo somewhere on city streets.
Appleby: That one's almost too real or alarming to think about. Mine is the false vacuum event—the idea that our universe isn't a true vacuum and it comes upon a true vacuum and pops like a bubble. That one is rooted in fact from an article in the International Journal of Theoretical Physics. If that happened, not only would we cease to exist, but we would have never existed.
What about most likely?
Lester:I think there's always a danger of pandemic—that would be one of the least fun, one that most would like to avoid. The consequences from global warming could also come up on us pretty suddenly.
Appleby: I don't know if it's likely exactly, but another one I like is philosophical doom—that whatever doom eventually occurs, it will wipe us out and everything we've ever done. If there's no evidence, it's like we never existed. I like that one.
Lester: I like it too—it's based on the idea that in order for something to exist, then it has to be observed. If the sun goes supernova and everything is wiped out, all our monuments and traces of humanity, according to that point of view, no one will know we existed. And that's a doom that will definitely happen eventually. And if we're talking about the universe being infinity, it's something we can say has happened somewhere.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.