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Averting Global Catastrophe

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.

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  • CJ F.

    It is surprising how cathartic discussing catastrophe can be! Is that part of our wiring for worry: by acknowledging and reviewing the worries we defuse the angst?

    December 26, 2012

  • BB

    Enlightening and far less gloomy than the name would lead one to believe. : )

    1 · December 24, 2012

  • Jeff W

    Sorry last minute change of plans and couldn't let you know

    December 24, 2012

    • BB

      Thanx for the reply, Jeff. It was a good discussion, I think. I never knew the natural world had it in for we humans so badly. Lol. Enjoy your holiday and maybe we'll have a chance to meet at one of these meetups soon. Take care. -Bob

      December 24, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Who should fund the projects to mitigate against these and other possible catastrophes? How should prioritization of effort be managed? Who will protect us from the risks of safety? Is that the role of government? Corporations? Civil Society? The Academy?

    Look at the B612 Foundation's effort to protect us from asteroids. This great video explains their project nicely:

    What really struck me in the video is who convinced Lu that funding a telescope was possible: a Google operative. It suddenly hit me: by relegating the security of our planet to non-profit initiatives, they become beholden to financing from mega-corporations. Is the libertarian ideal being co-opted by corporations? Is that OK? Are we trading the weight of government bureaucracy for slavery to the whims of corporate gifting efforts? By outsourcing government to non-profits, are the multi-billionaires leading our mega-corporations now in charge of our future?

    December 22, 2012

  • Andy

    Can't make this meetup unfortunately, but here's one catastrophe that hasn't been mentioned - rogue self replicating nanites escape the lab / controls on them fail and they consume Earth's biosphere including civilization as we know it:

    1 · December 22, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Perhaps my biggest concern in thinking through all these catastrophes is the Risk of Safety. Do we, perhaps, lose more freedom, fun, easygoingness, and even opportunity in worrying excessively about disaster?

    This part of an essay I wrote considers the risks of safety:

    Especially after disasters like Newton, CT, we start to exhibit post traumatic stupidity syndrome. Witness this report:

    Hellen Keller said it best: "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature … Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

    How do we control our brain's wiring for worry? How do we responsibly address the risks without hurting ourselves worse by failing to seriously consider the Risks of Safety?

    December 22, 2012

  • CJ F.

    We normally do not think of the threat of tsunami, but more than 200,000 died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. History records (controversial) evidence of megatsunami's in Hawaii (with potential for a 3300 foot high wave). The basics about tsunami runup are explained in this short 4 minute video:

    8,000 years ago there was a massive volcanic landslide off of Mt. Etna, Sicily that created a megatsunami. Here is a simulation:

    This one shows what might happen to New York City and the Jersey shore if La Palma triggers a megatsunami (it may have happened 500,000 years ago):

    The risk from megatsunami is small, but the devastation is unthinkable. How can we protect our coastal cities or do we need to move to altitude? Or do we just live with and accept the loss? What solutions are there?

    December 21, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Jared Diamond's TED Talk on "Why Societies Collapse" is very insightful:

    "People will often ask me, Jared, what is the most important thing that we need to do about the world's environmental problems? My answer is the most important thing we need to do is to forget about there being any single thing that is the most important thing that we need to do. Instead there are a dozen things, any one of which could do us in, and we've got to get them all right. Because if we solve 11 and we fail to solve the 12th, we're in trouble."
    --- Jared Diamond, Biologist

    I think that quote from Jared in this video is a very profound point that I hope Sunday's discussion will reinforce.

    December 21, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Nick Bostrom is Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University ( As far as I can tell this initiative is the only effort on this planet to comprehensively address the problem of Global Catastrophic Risks ( Does anyone know of another effort? Bostrom's effort is focused on assessing risks. I have not found evidence that Bostrom or anyone else is working to mitigate these risks on a comprehensive basis (does that frighten you?). There are several organizations dedicated to mitigating particular risks (such as the B612 Foundation that I mentioned in yesterday's comment).

    This short 15 minute video introduces the taxonomy that Bostrom has devised for discussing the broad scope of the issue of Assessing Global Catastrophic Risks:

    December 20, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Weather Underground founder and extreme weather expert, Jeff Masters lays out the most serious weather-related disasters that he fears in this TED Talk:

    Unfortunately, Masters is not very detailed about providing solutions (he does suggest several options). So during the meetup, we will need to supplement the discussion with some solutions to these possible catastrophes.

    One of the things that this talk really got me thinking about is the risk of several 1 in 30 year disasters happening back-to-back. We may be able to weather one or two such disasters, but if one of the big ones (bigger than Superstorm Sandy) hits at the same time as five or more of the small ones (and some hit the Russian and Indian grain belts too), would civilization as we know it survive?

    Please spend a few minutes thinking about how we can better weather the kind of dangerous storms that Masters talks about and bring your thoughts to the meetup on Sunday.

    December 19, 2012

  • CJ F.

    An asteroid collision with Earth killed the Dinosaurs and every land animal over 5 kilos. The asteroid Apophis, discovered in 2004, will come close to Earth on 9 Jan (only 9 million miles away or about 36 lunar distances away), in 2029 it will come closer than our weather satellites, which will put it on very close collision course in 2036 (but it will probably miss). The asteroid (29075) 1950 DA has the highest likelihood of known objects to collide in 2880.

    Astronomer Phil Plait's TED talk discusses the problem and an elegant solution:

    A six minute video:

    54 page document from the Association of Space Explorers:

    25 page NASA document:

    The B612 Foundation:


    December 18, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Stephen Petranek's TED Talk "Count Down To Armageddon" was my first inspiration to discuss this topic. Petranek lists 10 ways the world could end; but, significantly he offers solutions too. During our discussion we will look at these 10 ways the world could end (and we'll consider other catastrophes as well), we'll look at his solutions, and we'll discuss other solutions that the group can devise as well.

    Here is his interesting 29 minute talk:

    December 17, 2012

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