The Independent (reports): Is this the end of the world? The earth shakes in Asia and a generation of children is lost. The wind flails America and a city is destroyed. A giant wave rises in the Indian Ocean and whole islands are drowned along with swathes of coastland.

The sea is turning to acid, the air is choking us, the polar ice caps are melting. Famine, pestilence and plague used to be dread words from the Bible; now they are reasons for compassion fatigue. Bird flu threatens to sweep across the globe, killing millions of people.

No wonder some people believe we are living in the End Times. Fear the Beast, say the Christian fundamentalists. Down with the Great Satan, say the hardline Islamists. Stockpile your food and run for the hills, say cultists who predict the end will come at 2.30pm on Tuesday. Or a week on Friday. Or next year. Definitely. Even those of us who are less convinced that the end is absolutely nigh do watch the news, read the papers or flee the latest natural disaster and wonder what on earth is happening to our planet.

Is this the beginning of the end?