Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The End Of The World: How You Can Profit!

Strolling through the business section at Chapters the other day, I noticed that we're all going to die. And soon. Well, I suppose not all of us. I don't want to be alarmist. Many will survive the collapse of civilization, although they may wish they were dead when they find themselves taking the chicken bones they snatched from feral dogs back to the family's new home in a cardboard box that once contained a giant screen TV. A few will even prosper. These lucky people will hang on to their houses and have plenty of shotgun shells to keep starving marauders at bay. Perusing the shelves at Chapters, I also discovered the critical factor that will separate the fortunate few from the doomed remainder. It is the books they buy. Buy the right book and you'll be the one with the shotgun shells. Don't, and you're going to learn how hard it is to snatch chicken bones from feral dogs. One of the big hits in the business section these days is Crash Proof: How to Profit From the Coming Economic Collapse. There's lots more like it. They have titles like The Coming Economic Collapse, Financial Armageddon, The Great Bust Ahead, Game Over, After the Crash, and When Giants Fall. Scanning these titles can be terribly depressing. But don't despair. As long as we have subtitles, we have hope. Whether the future holds collapse, depression, catastrophe, Armageddon, or the most awful planetary mash-up in the history of the whole bloody universe, the sub-title is certain you can profit from it. All you have to do is buy the book. Now, if one were of a skeptical frame of mind, one might have doubts. One might notice, for example, that the cover of The Coming Economic Collapse features an oil rig. An oil rig? Are there oil rigs on Wall Street? Were there a lot of sub-prime mortgages on oil rigs? Not so much. No, the economic collapse foretold in The Coming Economic Collapse isn't caused by the meltdown of the financial system. Soaring oil prices are the culprit, which was plausible in 2007, when the book was published, but considerably less so now that the only thing that has fallen further than the economy is the price of oil. But these are apparently inconsequential details to the sort of person who likes his books gloomy. With oil below $40 a barrel -- 80 per cent less than the $200 predicted in the book's subtitle -- The Coming Economic Collapse continues to sell well. One experiences similar doubts when comparing the title of Harry S. Dent's The Great Depression Ahead -- just released and already a bestseller -- to that of Dent's 2006 book, which was The Next Great Bubble Boom: How to Profit from the Greatest Boom in History: 2006-2010. According to the earlier book, the Dow will crack 40,000 some time this year or next and the NASDAQ may hit 20,000. In his latest best-seller, Dent has revised that forecast considerably. Then there is the tragic tale of Ravi Batra. Way back in 1988, Batra scored a New York Times No. 1 bestseller with The Great Depression of 1990. There was no Great Depression in 1990, in case you didn't notice, but Batra was determined to warn the world of coming doom. A string of bleak books followed, including 1999's The Crash of the Millennium: Surviving the Coming Inflationary Depression. But still there was no depression -- great, inflationary, or otherwise. In 2007, after a long and fruitful career of predicting doom, Batra decided maybe things weren't so bad after all and he published The New Golden Age. This was presumably followed by a nervous breakdown when everything went to hell in 2008. Batra's career highlights the strange fact that most popular business books come in one of two varieties. One is The Coming Boom: How to Profit! The other is The Coming Collapse: How to Profit! One never sees The Coming Moderation: How to Do Fairly Well! Outwardly, manic bulls and depressive bears are completely unalike. But at their core, both species are optimists, even the bears. After all, it takes a certain unflappable cheeriness to see everything from Great Depressions to plague, war, and civilizational collapse as an opportunity to make some coin. True pessimists offer only the hope you and your family may not be beaten and flayed by starving marauders. No one "profits" or "prospers" in their subtitles. At best, they "guard" or "survive." "I have to leave room for the possibility that we humans will manage to carry on, even if we must go through this dark passage to do it," writes James Howard Kunstler in his grumpy bestseller The Long Emergency. That's about as sunny as Kunstler gets, which makes his subtitle -- "Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the 21st century" -- a bit of a sales tease. At best, survival is an outside chance. Garth Turner is a little more upbeat in his book After the Crash: How to Guard your Money in these Turbulent Times. If Turner is right, and we all buy his book, we may just be able to avoid being completely wiped out. Turner offers a number of future scenarios, ranging from the depressing to the really grim. In the latter, he concludes by advising investors to forget about stocks, bonds, and real estate, and develop a balanced portfolio of vegetables in a backyard garden. And watch out for feral dogs. But these are just scenarios, remember. Not predictions. "I'm not going to predict an apocalypse in order to sell books," Turner writes. Heaven forfend.