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.
- people traveling by planes spread it to all countries and people traveling locally spread it further within a country ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_event ↩
- 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. ↩
Fatal catastrophes have always been hitting mankind, but their effect so far had only been local due to relative isolation. Wars, contagious diseases and societal decadence destroyed whole cities and countries, but never threatened our whole civilization… until now. Globalization leads to shrinking distances1 and interconnection that are beneficial for global trade that plays major role in our recent economic wellbeing2. The flipside of globalization and shrinking distances means that catastrophes that used to be local will now be global3.
There have always been wars and there will always be4 – the difference is that advances in technology lead to more powerful weapons with global scale of destruction. Numerous villages and cities had been completely razed with primitive weapons of the past. Current advances in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons greatly increase the impacted territory. If not now, then thanks to further scientific advancements in very near future we will have weapons powerful enough to wipe out whole continents and the whole planet. A sane person would not use them, but there have always been crazy mass killers and terrorists and it is only a question of time when some of them gets hold of such weapons and pulls the trigger5. Einstein said: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!”6
Throughout the history there had been outbreaks of illnesses that decimated cities7. But the affected territory kept increasing together with people increasingly moving between regions. In the 14th century, black plague came from Asia along the Silk Road to wipe out half of Europe8, but other continents were still quite isolated and therefore not affected. Now with planes continuously connecting the whole world, a deadly illness could infect the whole world population within a couple of days from outbreak.
If it (i) spreads easily, (ii) has long incubation period while being infectious, (iii) cannot be cured and (iv) is fatal, all at the same time, then we are doomed9. So far illnesses that emerged in recent history of interconnected world never met all of these criteria10). With ongoing mutations, it is just a question of time when illness that meets all four criteria breaks out to wipe out most or all of us.
Globally interconnected economy and global production of vital goods also leads to global vulnerability. Bad debt in a few countries started global financial crisis in 2008 where almost the whole world suffered. If a more severe crisis emerges that destroys some major economy, a ripple effect can destroy the economies of other connected countries leading to major global civil disorders, shortages of food, famine etc.
- Thousand years ago, traveling from Europe to China took several month, two hundred years ago it took several weeks, hundred years ago it took several days and today it takes several hours. ↩
- People in the north have fresh fruits all year long imported from the south, developing countries benefit from technologies researched in developed countries, developed countries benefit from cheap labor in developing countries etc. ↩
- First signs of that started with World War 1 and 2, continued with global epidemics (e.g., HIV) and global financial crises. ↩
- Aggressiveness, greed, the need for power, cruelty, retaliation, envy, conflicting beliefs are all among the reasons for past wars and are deep embedded in the human nature, but also nature as a whole. Look at almost any species of animals from spiders to lions and you will find that at some time or other they fight animals of the same species with all their might. Wishing we can all forever live in peace is nice, but believing it is a naive utopia. ↩
- Already during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy estimated the odds of nuclear war as being “somewhere between one out of three and even.” ↩
- http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/World_War_III ↩
- http://www.neatorama.com/2009/04/27/5-deadliest-pandemics-in-history/ ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death ↩
- If it (i) spreads easily for example via air, or touch, such as flu, people get easily infected, not like AIDS that is only transmitted via body liquids making it difficult to spread. Unlike flu, it needs to have (ii) long incubation period such as AIDS/HIV so that it goes unnoticed for long time to prevent isolation of infected people. With advancements in science we have found vaccinations or treatment for many diseases, but by far not all and (iii) we might not have enough time to find cure for a new disease. ↩
- For example AIDS meets (ii), (iii) and (iv), but not (i ↩