But know this: difficult times will come in the last days. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. (HCSB, 2 Timothy 3:1-4)
It is prophesied that there will be difficult times just preceding the Second Coming of Christ. Though no one knows when the Second Coming will be, we can discern the signs of the times (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32; Matt. 16:2-3). There will be “wars and rumors of wars,” and “the whole earth shall be in commotion” (D&C 45:26); “men’s hearts shall fail them, and they shall say that Christ delayeth his coming until the end of the earth” (D&C 45:26). During those days “all things shall be in commotion” (D&C 88:91), “the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds” (D&C 88:90) and “a great hailstorm sent forth to destroy the crops of the earth” (D&C 29:16).
It sounds really bad. The question is this: can a rough approximation be made as to when these terrible events will happen? Perhaps this is possible. There are several things that will place tremendous stress on the social and political fabric of the global community as we approach the middle of this century. They include demographic factors, oil depletion, wickedness, environmental factors relating to pollution and global warming, and political factors. I intend to briefly examine each of these.
As to global warming, I am surprised by how aggressively some people disbelieve it. Though the exact details of its consequences are sketchy the general theory is sound. I can only speculate that some people dismiss it because it tends to come from the “other” side of politics. As such, some associate belief in global warming to the ranks of socialist, tree hugging, granola eating, Al Gore loving, liberal types. Since conservatives tend to despise “those” people they also tend to despise their causes, even the good ones. A little data can help to overcome that stigma.
I am by no means an expert in the things I am going to address here. But even a little research reveals that some generalizations are reasonable. This is what I hope to demonstrate: the possibilities of these global stresses are rational and based on available data. One could always argue that you can’t know what’s going to happen. And I frequently here Latter-day Saints dismiss what they don’t like to hear with, “Well, things can change quickly. Look at the fall of the Soviet Union.” Such an attitude represents a failure to consider the evidence; and in that, Latter-day Saints are like everybody else. Though conclusions based on data can be wrong one is more likely to get something right through a thoughtful consideration of the evidence.
I am not going to propose solutions to the problems discussed below. There are many people smarter than I who are working to find tractable solutions. Also, though I mention only seven stresses, there are (will be) many others. A comprehensive list would be longer than I am able to discuss in this posing.
Population Stress: By 2050 the world will have a population of approximately nine billion persons. High population is a source of stress, but the greatest stress will come from impoverished nations with large populations. In 2002 Pakistan had a population of 147 to 158 million, according to US Census Bureau (CB) and UN numbers. By 2050 it is projected to have a population of between 277 to 292 million (CB, here; UN, here; these projections are as of 3/17/2008; I have not been too careful about rounding). To put this into perspective it will have approximately the same population size as that of the United States today, but confined to an area twice the size of California. This is especially worrisome because Pakistan is a hotbed of radical Islamicism--Islam’s fault line according to the September 2007 National Geographic (Struggle for the soul of Pakistan). What kind of jobs are these people going to have? India and China are projected to have populations of 1.8 and 1.4 billion respectively (CB). Those two countries have, and will have, large populations of poor, low skilled workers to employ. What will be left for other countries with large populations and few prospects for the future? A similar situation applies to Nigeria. It’s about the same size as Pakistan and is projected to have a population of 288 (UN) to 356 (CB) million. Bangladesh will have 280 (CB) to 254 (UN) million. And Indonesia will have 313 (CB) to 296 (UN) million. At the same time the populations of Europe and Russia will be shrinking.
The source of stress is political instability in the poorest countries with large populations. Just as extreme poverty once fed Bolshevism, it will again force the poor and desperate to search for a quick fix. And when people are impoverished and seeking desperately for some shred of dignity they will listen to anyone who will promise a better future.
Israel: Israel’s difficulties will come from without and from within. Many Arab countries surrounding Israel would like to see it wiped off the map--that much is obvious. But the internal stress is less well known. Israel is a western nation with a strong liberal democratic tradition. So, as is typical of women in more developed countries, they have fewer children than do women in poor countries (China excepted). On the other hand Palestinian families tend to be much larger. Israel’s Jewish population growth comes primarily from immigration; but it’s difficult to maintain significant immigration when there are only 10 to 15 million Jews in the world and a great number of them live in wealthy nations such as the United States, Canada, and the UK and are not likely to immigrate to Israel. The figure above shows the percent Jewish population of Israel from 1946 to 2002. According to the fitted curve (2nd order polynomial) fifty percent of the population of Israel will be non-Jews by 2055. Many, if not most, of those will be Israeli Palestinians who will not think favorably of the existence of the state of Israel.
Extrapolations tend to be a bit tenuous; in this case extrapolating out nearly fifty years is highly questionable. But the population trend is clear. If it gets to the point that the Palestinians in Israel demand one-person one-vote then the population ratio doesn’t have to be 50/50 for things to become difficult for Jewish Israelis who have a religious motivation in the preservation of the Jewish identity of the state of Israel. (See the Israeli bureau of statistics; IE recommended; and “Israel: the next generation,” from The Economist)
Oil: The CIA Wold Factbook began publishing data on global oil consumption and production a few years ago. In 2002 it reported the world’s proven oil reserves were 1.35 trillion barrels (here) and consumption was 80 million barrels a day (here). If this rate is maintained, and no new oil is discovered, then it should last 46 years. If the proven reserves are doubled they will last for 92 years at the same level of consumption. But, if we assume consumption increases at a rate of 1.5% per year then 1.35 trillion barrels of oil will be gone by 2037. If we double the proven reserves and again assume consumption increases at 1.5% per year then it is gone by 2060; if we triple the proven reserves then it's gone by 2078. Price increases might decrease consumption a bit and there is hope that enough progress can be made on batteries necessary to make electric vehicles useful. What matters to the argument is not that the oil will eventually be used up, but that liquid fuels are going to be much more expensive. Not only because of scarcity, but also because increasing demand will drive the price ever higher--I remember when a gallon of regular gas was a dollar. For developed countries where people spend around 10% of their income on food higher gas prices amount to a very annoying pain in the wallet. Nobody likes expensive gas, but higher prices will probably not unravel the economy. Though it will be difficult, we are in a position to implement policies to lessen our dependence on imported energy and phase in cleaner alternative forms of fuel. Poor countries on the other hand are in a much more difficult situation. In countries where people spend 30% or more of their income on food it could be devastating. (See “The cost of food: Facts and figures” from the BBC; and “Empty bowls, stomachs and pockets” from the Economist.)
Pornography: President Hinckley said, “The sanctity of sex is utterly destroyed in its salacious portrayal in the media…Life is better than that which is so frequently portrayed. Nature is better than that. Love is better than that. This kind of entertainment is only an evil caricature of the good and the beautiful” (“An Ensign to the Nations, a Light to the world,” Ensign, Nov. 2003). On another occasion he said, “Leave it alone! Get away from it! Avoid it! It is sleazy filth! It is rot that will do no good! You cannot afford to watch videotapes of this kind of stuff. You cannot afford to read magazines that are designed to destroy you. You can’t do it, nor even watch it on television. … Stay away from it! Avoid it like the plague because it is just as deadly, more so. The plague will destroy the body. Pornography will destroy the body and the soul. Stay away from it! It is as a great disease that is sweeping over the country and over the entire world. Avoid it! I repeat, avoid it!” “(Recurring Themes of President Hinclkey,” Ensign, June 2000).
As every man is aware, the formula for pornography addiction is simple: easy access easy fall. A number of years ago I decided I didn’t want to deal with its temptation and the possibility of becoming addicted, so for the past several years I have had no internet access at home. I don’t miss it. When I need to work online I can get internet access at school where the temptation is much less. I know of many Mormon men who have elected to do the same. (The church considers pornography to be one of its greatest threats.) But access is easy and getting easier. We should ask the question, what would family life be like after a generation of young men has been raised on pornography? What would they be looking for in a partner and wife? What will they do when they realize that marriage and fidelity cannot fulfill such fantasy relationships?
Perhaps Isaiah’s warning can be applied here: “they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink” (Isa. 29:9).
Climate Change: The issue of climate change often causes heated debate. People generally don’t like to hear predictions of doom. The basic theory behind global warming is that humans have put so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it retains more and more heat, consequently the earth warms up. This is based on very sound science. (As a Ph.D. candidate studying atmospheric science I can say this with some authority.) The mechanisms producing global warming are complicated and there are many simplified hand waving explanations. Here is one that might be helpful. The atmosphere can be divided into two regions, the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and the middle atmosphere (stratosphere and mesosphere). Atmospheric models predict that increases in carbon dioxide will cause these two atmospheric regions to react differently: the lower atmosphere will warm and the middle atmosphere will cool. But because we live in the troposphere where the warming is expected we call it global warming. In each of these regions there are two competing atmospheric effects, heating and cooling. The sun warms the atmosphere and the atmosphere re-radiates its heat. If the atmosphere warms at the same rate it cools then the temperature doesn't change; if the cooling diminishes and the heating remains constant the atmosphere warms; conversely, if the cooling increases and the heating remains constant the atmosphere cools. Radiation problems are complicated and for atmospheric heating and cooling computer models are needed to adequately capture what is happening. But here is a simplified explanation. In the troposphere there are two important atmospheric constituents, water vapor and carbon dioxide. Both are important to atmospheric cooling, meaning they both radiate substantial amounts of heat. The water vapor is concentrated in the lower part of the troposphere and the carbon dioxide is evenly mixed throughout. Even though both water vapor and carbon dioxide are important for cooling, the water vapor is more important. It has been shown that increasing the amount of carbon dioxide, in effect, puts a blanket over the water vapor and prevents it from loosing its heat. Consequently the cooling rate diminishes and the lower atmosphere heats up. But in the middle atmosphere there is much less water vapor than carbon dioxide, so increasing carbon dioxide levels has the direct effect of increasing the cooling rate, so the middle atmosphere cools. Furthermore, the cooling in the middle atmosphere is expected to be about 10 times greater than the heating in the lower atmosphere. Consequently many scientists are looking for cooling in the stratosphere and mesosphere. But things are not so simple. Middle atmospheric cooling has been found, but the magnitudes are not entirely consistent. Another uncertainty is in how much carbon dioxide the ocean can absorb. No one knows exactly when or if it will reach saturation. What further complicates things is that the effects of global warming are not simply warmer temperatures: summers might be hotter and dryer, winters might be colder and wetter; some places will become dryer while others might benefit from increased precipitation; hurricane intensity might increase. No one knows exactly how climate changes will be distributed geographically and seasonally. A lot of things could happen and for now only generalizations can be made. But one thing is certain, things will be different and the changes are not likely to be good.
For the American Geophysical Union's position on climate change see here and here.
Threats to civil liberties: An article published in the Economist on September 27th, 2007 titled “Learning to live with Big Brother” reads,
IT USED to be easy to tell whether you were in a free country or a dictatorship. In an old-time police state, the goons are everywhere, both in person and through a web of informers that penetrates every workplace, community and family. They glean whatever they can about your political views, if you are careless enough to express them in public, and your personal foibles. What they fail to pick up in the café or canteen, they learn by reading your letters or tapping your phone. The knowledge thus amassed is then stored on millions of yellowing pieces of paper, typed or handwritten; from an old-time dictator's viewpoint, exclusive access to these files is at least as powerful an instrument of fear as any torture chamber. Only when a regime falls will the files either be destroyed, or thrown open so people can see which of their friends was an informer.
Most of the time, the convenience of electronic technology, and the perceived need to fight the bad guys, seems to outweigh any worries about where it could lead. That is a recent development. On America's religious right, it was common in the late 1990s to hear dark warnings about the routine use of electronic barcodes in the retail trade: was this not reminiscent of the “mark of the beast” without which “no man might buy or sell”, predicted in the final pages of the Bible? But today's technophobes, religious or otherwise, are having to get used to devices that they find even spookier.
There should be some right to privacy. Though during times of war--as in the present situation--certain rights may be suspended for the greater good. But if restrictions are left in place for too long it’s possible those working in the interests of national security will become dependent upon them. As the levels of global stress increase there will likely be a push for increasing the level of social monitoring and to suspend indefinitely certain freedoms and rights to privacy.
China: There have been a number of recent articles about the rise of China as a military power, so I won’t make a list. China is spending huge amounts of its annual budget to modernize its army, navy, and air force. The problem is that China is not committed to democracy and so is more inclined to war and atrocity than the democratic nations are. Though it’s true that the United States has engaged in wars of questionable justice, we nevertheless have a free press, freedom of speech, and democratic processes which can create pressure for change. No such mechanisms exist in China. It seems inevitable that China will become the richest country in the world with a military which will rival that of the United States. And China isn’t building its military power just for show. They mean to use it. Some people believe that India will be a balance to China: perhaps economically and politically, but not militarily. India is surrounded by hostile neighbors and will have to look to its own interests: Pakistan is already a nuclear power and it appears that Iran will soon become one. (See “China to raise military spending,” from the BBC)
My thesis is this. As we approach the middle of this century several factors will put tremendous stress on the social, political, and economic fabric of the global community and the confluence of these stresses could produce those very disasters scripture predicts will occur prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ.
There have been raisings of the alarm in the past. During the late seventies through the mid eighties there was a great deal of fear (justifiably) about the threat of nuclear holocaust. (I remember my seventh grade English teacher showing us excerpts from the movie The Day After. Being so young it naturally terrified me. I’m also old enough to remember the oil crisis during the late seventies.) But the specter of war with the Soviet Union has passed and it seems a new one is rising. But this one is more intractable and very different from stresses relating to differences in political and economic theory. This time they are rooted in economic self-interest, poverty, climate change, access to diminishing resources, and the social acceptance of sexual perversions. Understanding how to defeat an aggressive country with fixed geographic boundaries is straightforward. Dealing with these other stresses is not.
A lot of people have criticized the Iraq war, and many of its original supporters have now determined it was a mistake. (For example the left leaning New Republic, here; see also “Iraq key players, then and now” from the BBC). I admit I was gung-ho about it at first. In hindsight I can see it was badly handled. Perhaps it was the wrong thing to do--I don’t know. But wrong or right we are there now and must decide what to do next. Some people are beginning to talk about military action against Iran--which I believe would be a mistake. The democratic nations of the world have an opportunity at this point in history to influence Middle Eastern and African political and economic development. Which is why getting out of Iraq is such a terrible idea. If we stay we have much more influence in that region. If we pull out, God knows what will happen.
In May 2006 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad send a letter to President Bush which reads,
Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the Liberal democratic systems…Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things. (here and here)
Militant Islam is a very real threat to global stability and we should take President Ahmadinejad’s letter seriously. I do believe we are on a collision course with the Islamic world.
If any of these stresses were to occur alone it would probably be manageable, but together they amount to a serious danger. We can see they are coming and can take steps now to prepare for what will be a very difficult time. If we ignore the signs and do nothing we are doomed once again to have the patterns of the past unleashed on us. It seems that the aforementioned stresses will become acute as we approach the middle of this century. We might have, perhaps, thirty years to prepare. Though we should always work for the best possible outcome, we should also prepare for the worst.
 Oil consumption has increased at an average rate of about 1.7% per year since 1970 (here for website; here for spreadsheet information). The year of oil depletion is relatively insensitive to the increase or decrease in the rate of consumption. If consumption starts at 80 million barrels a day and increases at a rate of 2% per year then 1.35 trillion barrels will be gone by 2035. If it decreases to 1% it will last to 2040. This can be verified by doing a simple spreadsheet calculation.