The Biggest Threats to Human Existence

Spent today at Ikea, mostly because I like funny words.  I wasn’t ready for this, though:


Earlier in the day, the duct cleaners had come to my condo to clean out the dryer ducts. They left behind a suspicious looking jar of clear fluid:


As I write this, 12 hours later, it still stands on the counter, untouched. What could it be? Perhaps some horrible toxin that, if uncorked, would unleash a plague upon humanity?

That, my friends, was the sloppy segue to today’s topic. See, over at io9 there’s an article called “The 5 Biggest Threats To Human Existence” which, naturally, lists the things our species should be afraid of.

Their list is pretty abstract and consists of: nuclear war, bioengineered pandemic, superintelligence, nanotecnology, and “unknown unknowns”. The latter category is really quite a cop-out. I thought I would assemble my own list. So here we go…

1. Nuclear Stuff

Well, this isn’t debatable is it? As a child of the Cold War, nuclear annihilation is always somewhere on my mind. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be as a result of war. At least not in the traditional sense. The biggest immediate security threat to the world is the potential for thermonuclear weapons to end up in the hands of asynchronous players, i.e. terrorists. Given our technologically, economically, culturally and ecologically interlinked modern world, it no longer takes the depletion of the world’s entire stock of nuclear weapons to bring about the Apocalypse. Probably a handful of destroyed major cities would do the job.

I would give some examples of what I mean.  But I’m afraid the Powers That Be are reading this (well, they’re reading everything, no?) and don’t want to end up on a “list”.


2. Regular Old Pandemics

No need for the killer bugs to be bioengineered, as the io9 article suggested. We are entering a renewed era of infectious disease, as our old friend the antibiotic is losing effectiveness. Given unprecedented human crowding, antibiotic resistance, and possibly even a lessened human immune system (compared to that of our Iron Age ancestors, at least), a particularly virulent bacterium or virus might be all that is required for the cessation of human civilization.

One of my upcoming papers tackles the threat of an extremophile pathogen entering the biosphere from an external source, representing a potential pandemic of mysterious dimensions.  I will let you know when it comes out!


3. Global energy crisis

Our world runs on oil. We are so addicted to oil that I wonder if, like a heroin addict gone too far, being deprived of the stuff would just cause global heart failure. When and if the stuff runs out, armies will be stalled, planes grounded, ships beached, and factories closed. Everything will ground to a halt. Is that not terrifying?

Another paper I was toying with writing involves modelling the slowing of both trade and military activity in the post-peak oil era.  Known clean energy sources, like solar and wind, can’t do what oil does.  Neither can nuclear or coal.  Oil is special.  You can put oil in a factory, car, aircraft carrier, tank and plane.  Oil is an instantaneous economic supercharger.  No other energy source is so versatile.  What shall we do when it runs out?


4. Global information crisis

Imagine, if you will, a series of continent-sized electromagnetic pulses. What could cause them? I don’t know. Space-based nuclear explosions, unusual solar behaviour, changes to our planet’s magnetic field…. who knows? But if such things happened, all of our planet’s computers would shut down simultaneously. Is this likely? No. But something like it might be.

Our civilization is addicted to oil, but dependent on information. And over the last three or four decades, all of that information has moved to digital magnetic formats, which are temporal and vulnerable.

Ancient civilizations are preserved in their writing, on books or tablets. Ours is preserved on hard drives. Hard drives rarely last a couple of years, let alone centuries.

Imagine a less existential threat: the taking down of the internet.  It’s not hard to do.  It just takes the disruption of a few key nodes in a few key countries.  Without the internet, our global financial system would not work.  (Something as simple as stock trading is now done entirely online, and only rarely on trading room floor).  Our society could not survive more than a week of economic tailspin.

By my reckoning, then, we could not survive a week without the Internet.  That’s how vulnerable we are now.


5. Climate change

Well there it is, no? Climate change can and will fuck up everything. Its effects truly are Apocalyptic. And frankly, I’m starting to believe that the damage is so far gone that the best we can hope for is, in a hundred years, maybe some semblance of human civilization will persist.

As I tell my students, Climate change is the single biggest issue that will dominate the rest of your lives. There is no solution over the horizon, and no obvious sign that nations are even near to reaching the needed consensus to start to slow the process, let alone reverse it.  It is likely already too late.

What can I say? We’re in for some rough times ahead.


Honourable mention:  Asteroid impact.

Because you never know.  The dinosaurs never saw it coming.  A single 10-mile wide asteroid impacting the Earth is more than enough to send us back before the stone age.  It is Apocalyptic indeed, and could literally happen anytime without warning.


So… how do you feel now? I’m gonna watch some cartoons and go to bed. ‘Cause why not.