Such a global catastrophe, like nuclear war, global pandemic or released from obedience to an artificial intelligence may have for the future of civilization more serious consequences than we imagine, writes for the BBC expert on catastrophic risks Seth Baum.
My father’s family moved to the USA in the 1930-ies. Jews, they fled from the Nazis. My life was good, and I think I should be grateful for what happened.
However, I can’t help but ponder what would our world look like if world war II and the Holocaust never happened.
All those people who died then — they would have been born descendants, who today would have been alive? And their life would have turned out as successfully as I have? Maybe I was even friends with any of them or would their neighbor? Yes, and I would have been born in the expected version of the world without war?
When people think about disasters, which brought many victims, they almost always think about the direct damage: more than 50 million people died in world war II, about 15 million — in the First world, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti — about 160 thousand.
But these figures say nothing about long term damage — about people who could continue to live, not live about what would be our world without global tragedies.
Such effects are more difficult to document. However, this does not make them less important.
Indeed, if we take a step and look at long-term circumstances, we can see that some of the disaster — the largest of them — can be put on a par with the most important events in human history.
66 million years ago the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction (the Cretaceous-tertiary, the Cretaceous-Cenozoic K-T extinction, one of five so-called “great mass extinctions”, on the border of the Cretaceous and Paleogene period. — Approx. translator) wiped off the face of the Earth all the dinosaurs and made room on the planet for mammals, including for us humans.
Long before that, about 2.5 billion years ago, the so-called Oxygen catastrophe (global change in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere that occurred at the beginning of the Proterozoic, during sideri. — Approx. translator) destroyed almost all anaerobic organisms and created conditions for us oxygen-breathing.
If these two accidents did not happen, humans and many other species now existing on Earth, most likely, simply would not exist.
That’s why I and other researchers studying global catastrophic risks, I believe that one of the main priorities in the XXI century should be the prevention of such developments.
Human activity has turned our era into one of the most dangerous in the history of the planet. And if we look at the impact that we will provide for millennia to come, we will understand — we are talking not only about saving people’s lives today, it is about protecting our future, our potential and billions of our descendants, whose lives will forever be changed.
In a sense, today’s human impact on the planet is like the rapid growth of the organisms once led to the Oxygen catastrophe.
The disaster was caused by oxygen photosynthesis are widespread cyanobacteria. In the process of photosynthesis in the atmosphere produces oxygen. Cyanobacteria did this to such an extent that the oxygen in the atmosphere became too much anaerobic organisms just could not handle it and died.
People were the first beings upon the Earth who develop science, technology, agriculture and industry. And we do it on such a scale that now has killed many other species. And if we’re not careful, you’ll ruin yourself.
The list depends on the person catastrophic risks are pretty familiar: nuclear weapons, global warming along with other environmental problems, pandemics, created in the biotechnology laboratories, out-of-control artificial intelligence and some others, the consequences of which are known to us only in fantastic films.
In fact it is not just a list — is a network of interrelated risks. For example, global warming could destabilize our civilization, weakening her face other possible disasters (more on this below).
And all this — in addition to the constant risk of natural disasters, such as the collision of Earth with an asteroid, volcanic eruption or together (a combination that probably killed the dinosaurs).
In most catastrophic scenarios, it is difficult to predict what they meant for mankind.
We now have 7.6 billion, we are scattered across the planet, we’ve learned to adapt to different circumstances and conditions, therefore, it is likely that at least some of us will survive.
But what will life be like for these survivors of a secret. On her clue, my colleagues and I have worked and have recently published a study called “Long-term trajectory of human civilization”.
The essence of the research was to try to understand how it will look in our civilization (and the lives of our direct descendants) through the millions, billions and even trillions of years.
Although it is impossible to predict what form will take a human civilization through this vast (and not as big too) a number of years, we nevertheless can come to some General conclusions.
If humanity is to avoid disaster (or we can quickly recover from them), then we have a shining future. Future enriched by transformative technologies and going beyond the Earth.
But if we are not able to avoid this disaster, the harm from it may be irreversible.
The disaster, which will lead to the extermination of humanity, of course, would mean the end of our civilization. But even if some people will survive, humanity as a whole is unlikely to achieve the same level of development as it is now.
Agriculture and industry are particularly important for recovery. To better understand how a disaster can change the future, let’s look at one example: a nuclear world war involving all the nuclear powers — China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK and USA.
Only very large-scale war can be drawn into the fighting all these States. A more likely scenario is the participation of Russia and USA, which together own more than 90% of the world’s nuclear Arsenal.
But consider all the worst-case scenario. Even if it is a large part of the world will avoid destruction.
In particular, in Africa and Latin America, many countries that are not allies or enemies, none of the current nuclear powers.
The citizens of these States will likely remain intact — in the same way as those who live in countries obmanyvala nuclear strikes, but in areas far from military installations or major cities.
The world in which they will be survivors, will change very quickly. In addition to public and political mess will be lost many of the key elements of the economy.
Global trading network feel confident in a well-established pattern of action in normal conditions, but are lost upon the slightest failure of the system. A failure of a nuclear war cannot be called “least”.
In the first weeks (maybe days) after the nuclear strikes the Earth’s population will experience a shortage of consumer goods, spare parts and many other elements of a normal life, without which the industrial infrastructure will be paralyzed.
Pretty soon will begin to manifest implications for global ecology. Nuclear explosions are so powerful that the dust and ashes from the burning cities would rise into the stratosphere (second atmospheric layer at 7 km above the Earth’s surface at the poles and 20 km at the equator).
The stratosphere lies above the clouds, so everything going up there, not washed away by rain. Within a few months, the contamination will spread all over the planet and will remain for years.
It will close the sunlight, cooling the Earth’s surface, reducing the amount of precipitation — and this is all very bad for agriculture.
Hunger, the cause of which will be nuclear war, will die many around the world — perhaps even more than from the nuclear strikes. But someone will survive here.
Mankind maintain a stockpile of food that will help some to stay alive and wait for the time when the skies over the planet will be purified.
This, of course, assuming that the reserves will remain intact during the bumps.
The combination of world hunger and destruction after the war — a serious challenge to civilization. However, it is possible that the survivors will be able to maintain a lifestyle close to that which we are accustomed to now.
But, given all the circumstances in which people find themselves, is quite understandable, if our civilization will decline and disappear, as has happened to previous civilizations, from Egypt to Easter island.
As you can see, disasters are often interrelated. The effects can last for many years.
Nuclear war is not just nuclear war. This devastation in the economy and agriculture.
The degree of resistance civilization the destructive factors depends on, how it had been weakened — for example, global warming and other environmental degradation.
Nuclear war could trigger further catastrophe such as a pandemic (due to the destruction of the health system) or geoengineering catastrophe (which will lead to the acceleration of climate change). Such a scenario my colleagues and I called “double catastrophe.”
It is therefore important to study the disaster, not separately, and in combination with each other.
I’m often asked, what is the risk of disaster is highest, but this is the wrong approach. We are facing the interlocking system for catastrophic risks and not to the set of individual risks.
To assess the system and to develop the most effective ways of resistance to it my colleagues and I developed the concept of integrated assessment of catastrophic risks.
Regardless of what will entail one or the other catastrophe, the question arises: what will happen next? If humanity becomes extinct, then the answer is, of course, is easy: our civilization to an end.
But if someone still survive, the answer is not so simple.
If civilization stops functioning, then the survivors will be left to themselves — they have to take care of your health and everything else.
Today most people live in cities, it will be difficult to learn, for example, to grow wheat. (Ask yourself: do you know how to survive in a world where there are no familiar to us all shops, electricity, heating, etc.?)
The irony is that the most successful in the post-catastrophe world are peasants, subsistence farm, now belonging to the poorest population.
One of the main objectives of the surviving part of humanity will become reproductive performance. The rest of the population must be large enough and sufficiently unified in order to ensure emergence of new generations of earthlings. Otherwise people will sooner or later die.
Scientists believe that in order to maintain a genetically viable population must be from 150 to 40 000 people. The more favorable the conditions, the less people required.
Life in a post-catastrophe world will be complicated by the fact that a large part of natural resources and other resources already selected and used by mankind. And industrial pollutants will remain in the atmosphere and the soil (in addition to the consequences of nuclear war).
The cities, meanwhile, can be seen as the stock of useful materials such as steel.
On the other hand, some energy resources are not going anywhere — for example, wind energy and hydropower.
Action planning in case of disasters of the future might look like as an abstract class, far from the problems that we face today.
But it is important to acknowledge that the actions that we take today can affect in the long term, in the way of our civilization.
Practically today we choose who will have a chance to survive, and what will be this life.
To make it easier to understand the importance of this, imagine that the world has never been no Holocaust, no Second world war.
In such a world, the people who died in the crash of the mid-twentieth century, would still be alive and possibly would have lived a long, happy life. In our world these people have.
Of course, we can’t go back in time and change events. But we can change what we do right now to avoid future catastrophes. Especially those that may affect the future of all human civilization.
For our descendants it is important that we did it.