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This is about the future of civilization, humans, and the earth. For past civilizations, see societal collapse.
Risks to civilization, humans, and planet Earth are existential risks that could threaten humankind as a whole, have adverse consequences for the course of human civilization, or even cause the end of planet Earth. The concept is expressed in various phrases such as "End of the World", "Doomsday", "Ragnarök", "Judgement Day", "Armageddon", the Apocalypse and others.

Types of risks

Various risks exist for humanity, but not all are equal. Risks can be roughly categorized into six types based on the scope (personal, regional, global) and the intensity (endurable or terminal). The following chart provides some examples:

Typology of risk
Endurable Terminal
Global Plate tectonics Nearby Gamma ray burst
Regional Flash flooding Permanent submersion
Personal Assault Death


The risks discussed in this article are at least Global and Terminal in intensity. These types of risks are ones where an adverse outcome would either annihilate intelligent life, or permanently and drastically reduce its potential. Jamais Cascio made an alternative classification system.

Future scenarios

Many scenarios have been suggested. Some that will almost certainly end humanity are certain to occur, but on a very long timescale. Others are likely to happen on a shorter timescale, but will probably not completely destroy civilization. Still others are extremely unlikely, and may even be impossible. For example, Nick Bostrom writes:
Some foreseen hazards (hence not members of the current category) which have been excluded from the list on grounds that they seem too unlikely to cause a global terminal disaster are: solar flares, supernovae, black hole explosions or mergers, gamma-ray bursts, galactic center outbursts, buildup of air pollution, gradual loss of human fertility, and various religious doomsday scenarios.


Cosmology and space

On a very long time and distance scale, the ultimate fate of the universe is generally felt by scientists to be one that precludes the indefinite continuation of life. There are a broad spectrum of these predictive theories that fall in the realm of cosmology, but a long-established and widely-accepted notion is the Heat death of the universe. Most notions involve time periods much greater than the age of the universe, around 13 billion years.

At the latest, in about 5 billion years, stellar evolution predicts our sun will exhaust its core hydrogen and become a red giant. In doing so, it will become thousands of times more luminous. As a red giant, the Sun will lose roughly 30% of its mass, so, without tidal effects, the Earth will be in an orbit from the Sun when the star reaches its maximum radius. Therefore, the planet is thought to escape envelopment by the expanded Sun's sparse outer atmosphere, though most (if not all) existing life would have been destroyed by the Sun's proximity to Earth. However, a more recent simulation indicates that Earth's orbit will decay due to tidal effects and drag, causing it to enter the red giant Sun's atmosphere and be destroyed. The Earth will likely be dragged into the Sun when it becomes an enlarged red giant by no later than about 7.6 billion years; before actual collision with the sun, the oceans would evaporate, and Earth could be destroyed by tidal forces. Alternatively, if the Sun shrinks to a white dwarf before consuming Earth, the Earth would be too frigid to sustain life.

Meteorite impact

In the timeframe of the geologically recent history of the Earth, say, 100 million years, several large meteorites have hit Earth. The Cretaceous-Tertiary asteroid, for example, is theorized to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. If such an object struck Earth it could have a serious impact on civilization. It is even possible that humanity would be completely destroyed; for this, the asteroid would need to be at least 1 km (0.62 miles) in diameter, but probably between 3–10 km (2–6 miles). Asteroids with a 1 km diameter impact the Earth every 500,000 years on average. Larger asteroids are less common. The last large (>10 km) impact happened 65 million years ago. So-called Near-Earth asteroids are regularly being observed.

A star passage that will cause an increase of meteorites is the arrival of a star called Gliese 710. This star is moving on a near collision course with the Solar System and will likely pass within 1.1 light years from the Sun in 1.4 million years. Some models predict that this will send large amounts of comets from the Oort cloud to the Earth. Other models, such as the one by García-Sánchez, predict an increase of only 5%.

Other cosmic threats

A number of other scenarios have been suggested. Massive objects, e.g., a star, large planet or black hole, could be catastrophic if a close encounter occurred in the solar system. (Gravity from the wandering objects might disrupt orbits and/or fling bodies into other objects, thus resulting in meteorite impacts or climate change. Also, heat from the wandering objects might cause extinctions; tidal forces could cause erosion along our coastlines.) Another threat might come from gamma ray bursts. Both are very unlikely.

Still others see extraterrestrial life as a possible threat to humankind; although alien life has never been found, scientists such as Carl Sagan have postulated that the existence of extraterrestrial life is very likely. In 1969, the "Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law" was added to the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 14, Section 1211) in response to the possibility of biological contamination resulting from the US Apollo Space Program. It was removed in 1991. Scientists consider such a scenario technically possible, but unlikely.

In April 2008, it was announced that two simulations of long-term planetary movement, one at Paris Observatorymarker and the other at University of California, Santa Cruzmarker indicate a 1% chance that Mercury's orbit could be made unstable by Jupiter's gravitational pull sometime during the lifespan of the sun. Were this to happen, the simulations suggest a collision with Earth could be one of four possible outcomes (the others being colliding with the Sun, colliding with Venus, or being ejected from the solar system altogether). If this were to happen, all life on Earth would be obliterated and the impact may displace enough matter into orbit to form another moon. Note that an asteroid just 15 km wide is said to have destroyed the dinosaurs; Mercury is some 5,000 km in diameter.

Earth

Global pandemic

A less predictable scenario is a global pandemic. For example, if HIV were to mutate and become as transmissible as the common cold, the consequences would be disastrous. This particular scenario would also contradict the observable tendency for pathogens to become less fatal over time as a function of natural selection . A pathogen that quickly kills its hosts will not likely have enough time to spread to new ones, while one that kills its hosts more slowly or not at all will allow carriers more time to spread the infection, and thus likely outcompete a more lethal species or strain. A real-life example of this process can be found in the historical evolution of syphilis towards a less virulent form. Also, as a virus mutates and becomes easily transmittable it often gives up much of its virulence in the process. This is not to say that a highly destructive and highly transmissible disease is not possible. Ebola, for example, is highly contagious and up to 90% fatal; the only reason it has not caused a worldwide crisis is because outbreaks usually occur in rural Africa. Of course, a pandemic resulting in human extinction need not arise naturally; the possibility of one caused by a deliberately-engineered pathogen cannot be ruled out.

Megatsunami

Another possibility is a megatsunami. A megatsunami could, for example, destroy the entire east coast of the United States of Americamarker. The coastal areas of the entire world could also be flooded in case of the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. While none of these scenarios are likely to destroy humanity completely, they could regionally threaten civilization. There has been one recent high-fatality tsunamimarker, although it was not large enough to be considered a megatsunami.

Climate Change & Global Warming

Climate change is any long-term significant change in the expected patterns of average weather of a specific region (or, more relevantly to contemporary socio-political concerns, of the Earth as a whole) over an appropriately significant period of time. Climate change reflects abnormal variations to the expected climate within the Earth's atmosphere and subsequent effects on other parts of the Earth, such as in the ice caps over durations ranging from decades to millions of years. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), climate disasters are on the rise. Around 70 percent of disasters are now climate related – up from around 50 percent from two decades ago. These disasters take a heavier human toll and come with a higher price tag. In the last decade, 2.4 billion people were affected by climate related disasters, compared to 1.7 billion in the previous decade and the cost of responding to disasters has risen tenfold between 1992 and 2008. Destructive sudden heavy rains, intense tropical storms, repeated flooding and droughts are likely to increase, as will the vulnerability of local communities in the absence of strong concerted action.

Ice age
In the history of the Earth, 12 ice ages have occurred. More ice ages will almost certainly come at an interval of 40,000–100,000 years. This would have a serious impact on civilization, because vast areas of land (mainly in North America, Europe, and Asia) could become uninhabitable. It would still be possible to live in the tropical regions, but with possible loss of humidity/water. Currently, the world is existing in an interglacial period within a much older glacial event. The last glacial expansion ended about 10,000 years ago, and all civilizations, save a few hunter-gatherer populations, have come into existence during that time.

Ecological disaster

An ecological disaster, such as world crop failure and collapse of ecosystem services, could be induced by the present trends of overpopulation, economic development, and non-sustainable agriculture. Most of these scenarios involve one or more of the following: Holocene extinction event, scarcity of water that could lead to approximately one half of the Earth's population being without safe drinking water, pollinator decline, overfishing, massive deforestation, desertification, climate change, or massive water pollution episodes. A very recent threat in this direction is colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that might foreshadow the imminent extinction of the Western honeybee. As the bee plays a vital role in pollination, its extinction would severely disrupt the food chain.

World population and agricultural crisis

The 20th century saw a rapid increase in human population due to medical advances and massive increase in agricultural productivity made by the Green Revolution. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. The Green Revolution in agriculture helped food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth or actually enabled population growth. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell Universitymarker, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United Statesmarker must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says the study.

The authors of this study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will only begin to impact us after 2020, and will not become critical until 2050. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before.

Supervolcano

When the supervolcano at Yellowstonemarker last erupted 640,000 years ago, the magma and ash ejected from the calderamarker covered most of the United States west of the Mississippi river and part of northeastern Mexico. Another such eruption could threaten civilization. Such an eruption could also release large amounts of gases that could alter the balance of the planet's carbon dioxide and cause a runaway greenhouse effect, or enough pyroclastic debris and other material may be thrown into the atmosphere to partially block out the sun and cause a volcanic winter, as happened in 1816, the Year Without a Summer. Such an eruption may cause the immediate deaths of millions of people several hundred miles from the eruption, and perhaps billions of deaths worldwide due to the failure of the monsoon , as well as destruction of the "American breadbasket", causing starvation on a massive scale.

Humanity

Some threats for humanity come from humanity itself. The scenario that has been explored most is a nuclear war or another weapon with similar possibilities. It is difficult to predict whether it would exterminate humanity, but very certainly could alter civilization, in particular if there was a nuclear winter.

Another category of disasters are unforeseen consequences of technology.

It has been suggested that learning computers that rapidly become superintelligent may take unforeseen actions or that robots would out-compete humanity. Because of its exceptional scheduling and organisational capability and the range of novel technologies it could develop, it is possible that the first Earth superintelligence to emerge could rapidly become very, very powerful. Quite possibly, it would be matchless and unrivalled: conceivably it would be able to bring about almost any possible outcome, and be able to foil virtually any attempt that threatened to prevent it achieving its desires. It could eliminate, wiping out if it chose, any other challenging rival intellects, alternatively it might manipulate or persuade them to change their behaviour towards its own interests, or it may merely obstruct their attempts at interference.

Biotechnology could lead to the creation of a pandemic, Nanotechnology could lead to grey goo in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all living matter on Earth while building more of themselves - in both cases, either deliberately or by accident.It has also been suggested that physical scientists might accidentally create a device that could destroy the earth and the solar system. Another kind of accident is the Ice-9 Type Transition, in which our planet including everything on it becomes a strange matter planet in a chain reaction. Some do not view this as a credible scenario.

It has been suggested that runaway global warming might cause the climate on Earth to become like Venus, which would make it uninhabitable. In less extreme scenarios it could cause the end of civilization. According to a UN climate report, the Himalayanmarker glaciers that are the sources of Asia's biggest rivers - Gangesmarker, Indusmarker, Brahmaputramarker, Yangtzemarker, Mekong, Salweenmarker and Yellow - could disappear by 2035 as temperatures rise. Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers. Indiamarker, Chinamarker, Pakistanmarker, Bangladeshmarker, Nepalmarker and Myanmarmarker could experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades. In Indiamarker alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people. The west coast of North America, which gets much of its water from glaciers in mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains, Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada, also would be affected. According to the California Department of Water Resources, if more water supplies are not found by 2020, Californiamarker residents will face a water shortfall nearly as great as the amount consumed today.Directly linked to observed increases in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters, global warming and climate change are now considered key drivers behind rising global humanitarian and emergency relief needs. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), climate disasters are on the rise. Around 70 percent of disasters are now climate related – up from around 50 percent from two decades ago. These disasters take a heavier human toll and come with a higher price tag. In the last decade, 2.4 billion people were affected by climate related disasters, compared to 1.7 billion in the previous decade and the cost of responding to disasters has risen tenfold between 1992 and 2008. Destructive sudden heavy rains, intense tropical storms, repeated flooding and droughts are likely to increase, as will the vulnerability of local communities in the absence of strong concerted action.

Approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded. In Africa, if current trends of soil degradation continue, the continent mightbe able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.

James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, in his book The Revenge of Gaia (2006), has suggested that the elimination of rain forests, and the falling planetary biodiversity is removing the homeostatic negative feedback mechanisms that maintain climate stability by reducing the effects of greenhouse gas emissions (particularly carbon dioxide). With the heating of the oceans, the extension of the thermocline layer into Arctic and Antarctic waters is preventing the overturning and nutrient enrichment necessary for algal blooms of phytoplankton on which the ecosystems of these areas depend. With the loss of phytoplankton and tropical rain forests, two of the main carbon dioxide sinks for reducing global warming, he suggests a runaway positive feedback effect could cause tropical deserts to cover most of the world's tropical regions, and the disappearance of polar ice caps, posing a serious challenge to global civilization.

Using scenario analysis, the Global Scenario Group (GSG), a coalition of international scientists convened by Paul Raskin, developed a series of possible futures for the world as it enters a Planetary Phase of Civilization. One scenario involves the complete breakdown of civilization as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, competition for scarce resources increases, and the rift between the poor and the wealthy widens. The GSG’s other scenarios, such as Policy Reform, Eco-Communalism, and Great Transition avoid this societal collapse and eventually result in environmental and social sustainability. They claim the outcome is dependent on human choice and the possible formation of a global citizens movement which could influence the trajectory of global development.

Other scenarios

Peak oil
Fossil Fuels attain a level of scarcity before an economically viable replacement is devised, leading firstly to economic strain, followed by the collapse of modern agriculture, then to mass-starvation.
Antibiotic resistance
Natural selection would create super bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, devastating the world population and causing a global collapse of civilization.
Gulf Stream shutdown
There is some speculation that global warming could, via a shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation, trigger localized cooling in the North Atlantic and lead to cooling in that region. This would affect in particular areas like Irelandmarker, the Nordic countries, and Britainmarker that are warmed by the North Atlantic drift.
Mutual assured destruction
A full scale nuclear war could kill billions, and the resulting nuclear winter would effectively crush any form of civilization.
Overpopulation
Some scenarios of simultaneous ecological (food & water production) and economical (see f.e. below) collapses with overpopulation are presumed to lead to a global civil war, where the remaining habitable areas are destroyed by competing humans (so called 'Mad Max'-scenario).
Famine
As of late 2007, increased farming for use in biofuels, along with world oil prices spiking to more than $140 per barrel, had pushed up the price of grain used to feed poultry and dairy cows and other cattle, causing higher prices of wheat (up 58%), soybean (up 32%), and maize (up 11%) over the year. Food riot have recently taken place in many countries across the world. An epidemic of stem rust on wheat caused by race Ug99 is currently spreading across Africa and into Asia and is causing major concern. Scientists say millions of people face starvation.
Experimental accident
Investigations in nuclear and high energy physics, such as the Trinity test and more recently with the Large Hadron Collider, theoretical chain-reaction global disasters triggered by these unusual conditions were worried about by some but have not yet occurred.


Historical futurist scenarios

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) studied old texts and surmised that the end of the world would happen no earlier than 2060, although he was reluctant to put an exact date on it.

Many believe that the Mayan civilization's Long Count calendar ends abruptly on December 21 2012. This misconception is due to the Mayan practice of using only five places in Long Count Calendar inscriptions. On some monuments the Mayan calculated dates far into the past and future but there is no end of the world date. There will be a Piktun ending (a cycle of 13 144,000 day Bak'tuns) on December 21, 2012. A Piktun marks the end of a 1,872,000 day or approximately 5125 year period and is a significant event in the Mayan calendar. However, there is no historical or scientific evidence that the Mayas believed it would be a doomsday.

See also



Notes

  1. Nick Bostrom, section 4.7.
  2. Our Sun. III. Present and Future
  3. Distant future of the Sun and Earth revisited
  4. Red Giants
  5. SPACE.com - Freeze, Fry or Dry: How Long Has the Earth Got?
  6. Sun, the solar system's only star
  7. Denis Overbye. "Kissing the Earth Goodbye in About 7.59 Billion Years", New York Times, March 11, 2008.
  8. Nick Bostrom, section 4.10
  9. Date With The Neighbors: Gliese 710 And Other Incoming Stars
  10. Explosions in Space May Have Initiated Ancient Extinction on Earth, NASA.
  11. Twenty ways the world could end suddenly, Discover Magazine
  12. Urban Legends Reference Pages: Legal Affairs (E.T. Make Bail)
  13. Nick Bostrom, section 7.2.
  14. Ken Croswell, Will Mercury Hit Earth Someday?, Skyandtelescope.com April 24, 2008, accessed April 26, 2008
  15. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/10/4/l_104_06.html
  16. US West Antarctic Ice Sheet initiative
  17. Lovgren, Stefan. " Mystery Bee Disappearances Sweeping U.S." National Geographic News. URL accessed March 10 2007.
  18. BBC NEWS | The end of India's green revolution?
  19. Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy
  20. How peak oil could lead to starvation
  21. Eating Fossil Fuels | EnergyBulletin.net
  22. Peak Oil: the threat to our food security
  23. Agriculture Meets Peak Oil
  24. Nick Bostrom, section 4.2.
  25. Bill Joy, Why the future doesn't need us. In:Wired magazine. See also technological singularity.Nick Bostrom 2002 Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence http://www.nickbostrom.com
  26. Nick Bostrom 2002 Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence http://www.nickbostrom.com
  27. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation, ISBN 0-385-19973-2, available online
  28. Nick Bostrum, section 4.8
  29. Frank Wilczek, in an e-mail, This available online.
  30. Isaac M. Held, Brian J. Soden, Water Vapor Feedback and Global Warming, In: Annu. Rev. Energy Environ 2000. available online. Page 449.
  31. Vanishing Himalayan Glaciers Threaten a Billion
  32. Big melt threatens millions, says UN
  33. Ganges, Indus may not survive: climatologists
  34. Glaciers melting at alarming speed
  35. Himalaya glaciers melt unnoticed
  36. Glaciers Are Melting Faster Than Expected, UN Reports
  37. Water shortage worst in decades, official says, Los Angeles Times
  38. World Running Short on Water
  39. Global food crisis looms as climate change and population growth strip fertile land
  40. Africa may be able to feed only 25% of its population by 2025
  41. World Lines: Pathways, Pivots, and the Global Future. Paul Raskin. 2006. Boston: Tellus Institute
  42. Dawn of the Cosmopolitan: The Hope of a Global Citizens Movement Orion Kriegman. 2006. Boston: Tellus Institute
  43. James Howard Kunstler "The Long Emergency", in Rolling Stone Magazine
  44. Researchers sound the alarm: the multidrug resistance of the plague bacillus could spread
  45. Gulf Stream shutdown
  46. 45% chance Gulf Stream current will collapse by 2100 finds research
  47. Phillip Longman "The Global Baby Bust" in Foreign Affairs magazine.
  48. The global grain bubble
  49. New York Times (2007 September) At Tyson and Kraft, Grain Costs Limit Profit
  50. Forget oil, the new global crisis is food
  51. Riots and hunger feared as demand for grain sends food costs soaring
  52. Already we have riots, hoarding, panic: the sign of things to come?
  53. Feed the world? We are fighting a losing battle, UN admits
  54. Millions face famine as crop disease rages
  55. Leonard, K.J. Black stem rust biology and threat to wheat growers, USDA ARS
  56. New Scientist, 28 August 1999: "A Black Hole Ate My Planet"
  57. http://www.aps.org/units/dpf/governance/reports/upload/lhc_saftey_statement.pdf
  58. J. Blaizot et al., "Study of Potentially Dangerous Events During Heavy-Ion Collisions at the LHC", CERN library record CERN Yellow Reports Server (PDF)
  59. "Isaac Newton, the Apocalypse and 2060 A.D.", by Stephen D. Snobelen, University of King’s College, Halifax
  60. "Apocalypse 2012 - Tall tales that the End of Days is coming in 2012." by Brian Dunning


References



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