Superstorm Sandy awoke us to the vulnerability of life on the East Coast. During the so-called Mayan end of the world seems an appropriate time to ask: What real catastrophes threaten civilization? Do any of these pose an existential risk to humanity's survival? Let's focus the discussion on distinguishing real risks: one's whose analogs have occurred in the past and for which we can define the mechanism of catastrophe and its impact. This meetup is two days before Christmas (not to mention its proximity to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yalda, Yule, and the winter solstice). So let's agree that for each catastrophe, we will discuss proactive solutions too (perhaps, these will inspire our new year's resolutions?).
What constitutes a global catastrope? Local catastrophes can cause severe damage, depopulate a region (Katrina depopulated New Orleans), or even kill lots of people (2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2010 Haiti earthquake or the 2011 Fukushima earthquake). Instead, we will focus on at those catastophes whose impact is so massive it threatens civilization itself. Since the 1930s no natural disaster has killed more than 1 million people, so some suspect that man-made threats have become our biggest worry. However, geological history suggests that supervolcanos, superstorms (much bigger than Sandy), megatsunamis, and large asteroids will eventually present civilization with threats that no regional planning commission has ever seriously considered. So we now know that eventually humanity will encounter 2400 foot high tsunamis and earthquakes of magnitude 10. Would civilization survive such devastation? Is civilization, like life itself, merely temporary? Should we make a concerted effort to make civilization resilient enough to survive such catastrophes?
We will discuss a wide range of catastrophe scenarios, asses their potential impact on civilization, and consider possible solutions. We will also ask whose job is it to prevent or at least mitigate these sorts of threats? Who, if anyone, is working to identify the risks and plan solutions? What should be done? Should averting catastrophe be in the mission of the "Department of Defense" or the UN or should it be outsourced to the insurance and/or security industries? Or just left to chance?
Here is a list of catastrophes to consider:
- Hurricane hitting major economic/population regions (like Superstorm Sandy recently did, but a category 3 or 4 storm, like Katrina or the 1991 Hurricane Bob, would do much more damage --- what if New York City loses all electric power for a month?)
- Large Asteroid collision (even if it misses economic and population centers, the dust could cause a multi-year winter that could threaten global food supplies)
- Supervolcanic eruptions such as happened 70,000 years ago at Lake Toba (Yellowstone is also a supervolcano which has been dormant for 70,000 years but recently showed some signs of "life")
- Tsunami (for example, from a landslide on La Palma, one of the Canary Islands, could send a 30m wave runup along the East Coast, Africa and the Canary Islands could see 100m runup). Video simulation of La Palma Mega-Tsumani.
- Reversal of Earth's Magnetic Poles (may involve a period, possibly of thousands of year's duration, in which there is no magnetic defense system from solar radiation)
- Geomagnetic Storms (do you know about the Carrington Event?)
- Major electric grid meltdown (nature or human caused)
- Fossil Water Aquifers dry up in the US, India, and Russia, the grain baskets of the world
- Habitat Destruction (Jared Diamond cites destruction of the natural resources upon which a society depends as one of the major factors in civilization collapse in the antropological record)
- Ecosystem Collapse
- Multiple, Major Regional Droughts
- Multiple, Major Regional Floods
- Famine (the Great Chinese Famine killed between 15 and 43 million people between 1958 and 1961. Like most famines, it was caused by bad social planning and response that aggravated a drought.)
- Failure of the Old River Control Structure (the Mississipi "wants" to go down the Atchafalaya river to bypass New Orleans)
- Climate Change (aka "Global Warming")
- Multiple "Normal" Disasters striking all around the world in one very bad year (statistically this too will happen eventually)
- Global Epidemic
- Energy crisis (such as gasoline at $100/gallon, etc.)
- Food crisis (world grain production has declined for most of the past decade while population continues to grow exponentially, will mass starvation re-enter the human present?)
- Nuclear War (as few as 100 Hiroshima sized weapons could cause unprecedented climate change with the potential for billions of people starving to death due to crop failures associated with a five year long "winter")
- We lose the Will To Survive
- Political gridlock prevents solutions to essential problems
- Cultural/Philosophical meltdown (a mad craze for pet rocks or gaming or military security or the fake security of "insurance" and no one is left with the skills for farming, constructing shelters, making the trains work, or any of the countless other critical services civilization depends upon)
- Obnoxico becomes global hegemon (Obnoxico was Bucky Fuller's term for corporations who do things for money which provide no life support capacity like insurance and financial services or making a bronze of baby's first diaper)
- A police state develops and takes over governments around the world to protect us from "terrorism" and rampant crime (gradually the definition of crime changes to include just about everything)
- A charismatic, megalomaniac finds a new way to finagle global dictatorship, incite partisan genocide, or otherwise upend civilization's bases
- A well financed movement (non-profit, corporate, whatever) uses the latest developments in psychology to bend the global population to their new (or reformulated old) ideology which inadvertently subverts and destroys civilization
- A venerable reform movement emerges and succeeds in eliminating some major social ill only to discover that the new world order cannot provide basic necessities like food, water, clothing, and shelter
- Aliens invade Earth
- We meet a rogue black hole
- Economic Collapse
- Biotech Disaster
- Internet Meltdown or Computer Disaster wiping out most computing in the world
- The risk of safety: the unintended consequences (side effects) of our solutions may be worse than the risks we are trying to ameliorate!!!
Should we prioritize our efforts at mitigating a few of these risks or is it possible to make civilization more resilient in ways that could mitigate many threats at once? What should we do?
We are seeking volunteers to lead future Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society meetups. If you have a topic of interest, please send an e-mail to [masked] outlining your subject.