The Worst Time to Be Alive

The world has ended before.

The Worst Time to Be Alive
Photo by Scott Szarapka on Unsplash

Sure, the entire world has never ended before. Not all at once. Depending on how you define words like "world" and "end."


There have been plenty of times in history where it sure tasted like the world was ending, where the future didn't look so bright, where everything might as well have ended for lots and lots of people.

According to historians, the absolute worst time to be alive was 536-550 AD, when three different volcanic eruptions blotted out the sun across most of the planet. During the first one, the sky went dark for 18 months. It snowed in the summer. An ash sky lit a cycle of droughts and floods that upended agriculture. Crops failed all over the world, and then starvation began.

Societies collapsed.

Records from Rome to Japan reference the events. Archaeologists have found a layer of ash virtually everywhere. They've also discovered abnormalities in tree rings around the world during that period.

Nobody was spared.

Some historians argue that the years of winter changed the entire course of human history. It sent humanity into a downward spiral that would take a century to recover from. Wouldn't you know, the first bubonic plague struck right in the middle of that cold, dark, awful era. In fact, historians believe the cooler temperatures brought about by the volcanic eruptions were precisely what facilitated the spread of the plague bacteria.

Historian David Keys was one of the first to connect the volcanic eruptions to pivotal shifts in history. According to his book Catastrophe, these disasters dissolved the ancient world and planted the seeds of medieval civilizations and religions. His claims faced skepticism at first, but more and more evidence has supported his arguments. Now they're not so controversial. The year 536 basically changed everything.

In a way, the world really did end.

A new one began.

The middle of the sixth century was a dark, chaotic time that produced a lot of apocalyptic literature. People genuinely believed things would never get better, only worse. Droughts, floods, and famines happened practically all the time. People lived in fear and anger.

Here's Science:

Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he's got an answer: "536." Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

It was McCormick's team that pinpointed volcanic eruptions in Iceland in 536, 540, and again in 547 as the cause of the darkness. Economic activity all but stopped from 540 to 640 AD. Then it started up again. That's how long it took the world to get back on its feet.

You could call the second half of the sixth century a true apocalypse. All the evidence supports it. These weren't just bad droughts and famines. They were the worst in thousands of years.

Of course, it's not the only apocalypse.

The planet has been through five verified mass extinctions. Scientists tell us we're living through a sixth one right now, one we caused with our reckless abuse of fossil fuels. So when some optimist makes fun of doomers, you can tell them the truth. The world has ended several times, in different ways.

We're living through our own version of the sixth century. Everything is changing. Life expectancy is backsliding. Society is giving up the last century of progress. Misinformation has become truth. Compassion is plummeting as narcissism and greed rise. Fascism has become more appealing than democracy as a growing number of sick, hungry, desperate people crave someone who just tells them what to think. Plagues are making a comeback.

It's hard not to notice all of this.

People carry this weight on their shoulders now. Talk to someone long enough, and they'll finally confide in you. Everyone seems different now. They've seen a side of each other they can't unsee. Trust has sunk to all time lows, especially in our institutions. Every week or so, a new poll shows that fewer and fewer people are making plans for the future.

They're subsisting.

This is our 536 moment. It's oddly comforting to know that people have gone through this before. A lot of them didn't make it. If you or I don't make it, that's not our fault. It has nothing to do with how early you woke up or how much you hustled. You're living through a dark era in history, dealing with forces far bigger than you. Every minute of peace, calm, or joy you wrench out of this time is something to celebrate.

There's one big difference between now and 536. It's not some volcano causing our misery. We're responsible for this one. And the damage we've done to this planet will last much longer than a few decades.

When this world ends, I don't know if a new one will grow in its place. Maybe. It's going to look awfully different. If it's going to survive, it can't repeat the mistakes of all the previous worlds. Plus, it's going to have a rough time. Climate scientists are predicting massive storms so strong they can hurl boulders, and those storms will start happening anywhere between now and the end of the century. We're already seeing heat waves so devastating they kill... everything. No previous civilization has had to deal with that.

Humans will probably survive, and life will look a lot like it did before fossil fuels made us too big for our britches.

If you're like me, you've been looking through history for some kind of framework or analogy for what's happening now. The sixth century offers a good one. It was literally the end of the ancient world.

An apocalypse takes a long time.

Just ask the bones.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to OK Doomer.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.