civilization

The likelihood of our decline keeps increasing every day

As we are nearing the peak of our civilization, the likelihood of decline keeps increasing every day. The likelihood multiplied by severity of an abrupt end to the civilization as we know it deserves much more attention than it currently gets. The many overblown end-of-the-world Hollywood movies with bloodthirsty zombies make make us classify a massive disaster as science fiction, not a possible reality. We can forget the zombies and superheroes, but as mankind, we should seriously investigate the possibilities and eventual countermeasures for preserving our kind.

Required attention = Threat of disaster = Probability of disaster x Consequences of disaster

World war 3 (probability high stable, consequences high and growing)
There had been major wars very often in the history and current world with religious extremists and depleting resources is not any more stable. We saw many recent instances of masses being manipulated into war by a charismatic leader. There will surely be Hitlers in the future. A quarter of world population living in China can be manipulated using state-controlled media. There is a very real chance that we, our children or grandchildren will experience World War 3.
The consequences of World War are scary. About 60 million people died in World War II using relatively primitive weapons. With the advanced nuclear, chemical, biological weapons and sophisticated war machines, we have for the first time in the history of mankind the power to completely destroy our civilization. With technical advances, the consequences of a world war are becoming more severe every day, so the threat is huge and growing.

Deadly pandemic (probability medium declining slowly, consequences high growing)
New viruses have been and will be emerging due to mutation all the time. Advances of medicine decrease the probability that we won’t find the cure, but this is more than offset by the potential consequences. In today’s interconnected world, a highly contagious disease (like flu) that has long incubation period so it can’t be easily detected (like HIV) can spread around the whole world in just a couple of days due to our interconnectedness1. From the point of view of the whole nature, we act like a disease destroying the planet. It would be a very elegant solution to use our weapons of globalization against us to efficiently get rid of us by one small virus. Only a few completely isolated tribes deep in the jungle would survive and start over.

Asteroid impact (high probability of low consequences, low probability of high consequences)
Earth gets constantly bombarded by object of various sizes. The smaller the more frequent. The larger, the less frequent. Earth receives on average 1-2 meteoroids smaller than 1 meter every day, but those usually completely burn in the atmosphere. Larger asteroids keep coming approximately as follows: 10 meters every 10 years, 100 meters every 5,200 years and 1000 meteres every 440,000 years2. Impact of a meteor was likely the reason dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago so we should not underestimate the threat it poses to us.

For a more comprehensive list of risks to civilization, humans, and planet Earth, see Wikipedia.

It is not a question if, but when some global disaster will strike. There is no real reason for a deadline when this will happen as some doomsayers predict3, we just know the moment is coming and the likelihood increasing. It is like expecting a lion attack. You don’t know the exact minute it plans to jump at your neck, all you know the lion is getting more hungry. If you are sane, you will get ready (prepare a weapon, build a shelter, build fire) before you see the lion jumping at you. We should do the same and prepare for the disasters to come now in times of relative prosperity.

  1. people traveling by planes spread it to all countries and people traveling locally spread it further within a country  
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_event  
  3. There were many false prediction of the end of the world, the latest major one in 2012. None was explained by science, facts and logic and apparently they all were false.  

Decline of our civilization is inevitable

Our civilization is built on growth. We want to grow our bank account, grow our influence, grow our family, we judge the economy based on GDP growth. The struggle for growth is very natural – if you give any organism good conditions, it will grow in size individually and grow in population collectively. The conditions have been good for us humans so we have grown exponentially in the past centuries.

exponential growth

Unfortunately, because of physical limitations of our world, no growth is sustainable and especially not exponential growth 1. The problem that many people don’t realize is that any constant growth rate compounds into exponential growth, not linear growth 2. Economists often project 3% as sustainable growth rate (e.g. of real GDP). But even that means 4.4x times increase in 50 years, 19 times increase in 100 years and 369 times increase in 200 years. Since the nearest planet (if any) that could have Earth-like conditions for life is many light-years away, we probably have to rely on Earth to support this growth. How much more human growth do you think our planet can handle?

Some people suggest we should constrain our growth. But since the only sustainable growth is no growth, it is not realistic. It would go against the nature of life and against the principles our society is built on. Can you imagine world-wide birth control program under democratic governments? Would you vote for a politician who will freeze your real salary at current levels or for a politician who promises more growth and prosperity? Can you imagine CEOs presenting to excited investors their 0% growth goals? We can slow down our growth a little bit via regulations3, but thinking that we can stop it is unrealistic.

Because no growth can be sustained, everything in nature goes in cycles of growth and decline. An individual is born and grows, peaks and then declines by aging and dies. Spring growth alternates with autumn decline. Populations of frogs raise and fall as populations of insect fall and rise4.

Civilization raise and fall. In the history of mankind, when civilizations gained the highest power, they usually started to decay. Let it be ancient Chinese dynasties, The Romans or Aztecs – these once mighty civilizations eventually degraded and were overtaken by an uspoilt one. Thanks to globalization, mankind now merges into a single large civilization that has been growing and is guaranteed to decline. Our modern global civilization is decaying – we are starting to rot from the inside. People who would have perished in the past can now survive and reproduce thanks to the powerful technology and medicine. As a result, the overall genome of the population is worsening. Just look at the increase of obesity, allergies and defects just within a couple of generations. The most developed individuals and cultures often have very fewer children, whereas the less sophisticated people reproduce at much faster rates. We have reversed the natural selection that made us as complex and powerful as we are now. What if history repeats itself and our civilization is about to be replaced by something more primitive, more pure, currently dormant?

Decline is guaranteed to follow after every growth, but growth is not guaranteed to follow after every decline. Dinosaurs grew and then declined completely. We can’t avoid the decline of our civilization that is inevitably coming. We can, however, influence how steep and deep it will be and whether it will be terminal like for dinosaurs or if we can bounce back to another phase of growth.

  1. A popular example of humans underestimating exponential growth is the story of Indian king losing a bet for rice on a chessboard – 1 grain on first square, 2 on second one, 4 on third one etc – singularitysymposium.com/exponential-growth  
  2. If you grow 10% per year, first year you will grow 1.1x. Second year you will grow 1.1×1.1=1.21 times. Third year 1.1^3=1.33times. In 10 years, it will grow 1.1^10=2.6 times. In 20 years 6.7 times, and in 40 years 45 times in 60 years 304 times and in 80 years 2048 times. Just within one lifetime, an innocent 10% annual growth results in 2 thousand times increase. In 200 years it would be 190,000,000 times.  
  3. In fact many current environmental protection regulations do just that  
  4. The population will grow faster in a year when there is plenty of insect to eat. Lots of frogs eat lots of insects and the population of insect decreases. But then there are too many frogs and not enough food so the population of frogs decreases. That provides a chance for insects to multiply again