The Future Watch
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Equation and what it may mean for us
A Catastrophic Event, as defined by The Future Watch, is an event which, at a minimum, causes the fall of modern civilization. This page is intended to provide a comprehensive list of all plausible events of this nature. If we have not listed one such event, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to rectify the situation. Eventually we would like to link each event to its own page which would analyze the event in detail. If anyone has any particular knowledge regarding a possible catastrophic event, and would like to contribute to the page, please feel free to submit to us an analysis of the event, its magnitude, its likelihood, and ways of preventing or mitigating it. We will of course give full credit to any author whose analysis is used on the site. Please include documentation for any controversial statements of fact.
Category: Suicide by Weapon of Mass Destruction
Nuclear Weapons: Nuclear weapons were the first technology to be developed that allowed our species to render itself extinct by choice. And, indeed, we quickly built (and yet retain) enough of these weapons to do so. That said, we survived the Cold War, and the political climate between the major powers has improved. Furthermore, the fact we survived the brinkmanship of the Cold War suggests that the leaders of major nuclear powers can be trusted to behave responsibly with their arsenals. It isn't easy to become a leader of a major power. Someone who does so has normally had to survive years or decades of infighting. Such a person normally is ambitious, smart, rational, and power-hungry enough that they won't choose to sacrifice their ideals, their countries, and their lives, in a haze of mushroom clouds. So, while a large scale nuclear war is possible, and it could cause the end of civilization or of our species, it isn't nearly as serious a threat as some of the others we face.
Bioweapons: Bioweapons are the threat of tomorrow. Like nuclear weapons, the first truly calamitous bioweapons will be (or have been) created and stored in secure government-run facilities. Unfortunately, unlike nuclear weapons,within the next three or four decades, incredibly infectious lethal bioweapons will probably be available to anyone with a few million dollars and a couple of well-trained scientists. The DOD (among others) is working on some interesting ideas for protecting against bioweapons - including some vaccines that could be effective against almost any virus. That said, advancements in bioweaponry still seem far more certain than the advancements in biological defenses. If bioweapons do become readily available to small numbers of individuals (as seems likely), then one or two hate-filled ideologues could end our species. The authors of this website believe this to be one of the most likely outcomes for 21st century man.
Nanotech Weapons: Many optimists envision a future in which self-replicating tiny machines are ubiquitous and perform a wide variety of tasks - from building perfect objects molecule by molecule, to swarming in your bloodstream and quickly repairing any damage to your body. So far, however, it's been very difficult to build useful self-replicating nano-scale machines. Quantum effects complicate the attempt, and the whole effort could achieve little success. That said, there is a darker side to the possibility of self-replicating nano-scale machines. Designed as a weapon, these invisible machines could chew through organic flesh and leave behind only millions of copies of themselves. Or, designed to do a constructive task, these machines, if their constituent elements were common, could replicate out of control and consume a significant fraction of our planet - destroying our species in the process. That said, while many futurists view nanotechnology as ultimately more dangerous than bioweaponry, the danger is almost certainly several decades further off.
Category: Suicide by Accident
Global Warming: Global warming isn't likely to drive us extinct. That said, we can't adequately predict how all of the world's feedback mechanisms will respond to an drastically increased amount of CO2 in the air and to a warmer planet. One possible result of our experiment with the planet's atmosphere is run-away temperature change (either warming or cooling). Although we don't know for certain how much of a global temperature change would be necessary to create an ecological disaster, such a change certainly isn't out of the question. Furthermore, a warming world will probably lead to increasingly violent weather patterns and to substantial desertification. Any of these changes could easily disrupt food supplies for much of the world, and thereby cause the collapse of civilization. Furthermore, even if climate change doesn't prove to be catastrophic, our increased CO2 levels are increasing the acidity of the oceans. If the acidity level increases too much, it could have a deadly effect on ocean life - which would in turn have major repercussions on other ecosystems and on our food supply.
Fuel Shortage: Civilization today is dependent on abundant cheap sources of energy. Without these supplies of energy, the world's economy would collapse, and, more importantly, we wouldn't be able to grow and transport even a fraction of the food the world's 6 billion plus people need to survive. The most important source of energy right now is oil. Yet our supplies of oil are limited, and many oil reserves are located in unstable parts of the world. Policy-makers finally seem to have begun feeling the urgency for us to develop alternative sources of energy. That said, if we face unforeseen technical or political difficulties, and we fail to end our dependency on oil before supplies of it run low, then civilization will face collapse.
Economic Collapse: The economic future of the world looks bright right now. Europe, America, Japan, and several other regions of the world have modern, industrialized economies which enable their people to enjoy easy access to all of the necessities, in addition to good educations, and many luxuries. China and India are both growing rapidly, and between the two of them, they contain over 1/3 of the world's population. That said, there is some uncertainty about the future of the world's economy. America is deeply indebted to foreign lenders - perhaps dangerously so. Both European and American governments have made large financial commitments to their people - commitments which are easy to grow and difficult to shrink. These commitments could necessitate burdensome taxes that stifle their economies. Furthermore, advancements in technology may lead to a future where machines replace workers in most professions - rendering almost unemployable a large fraction of society. Large scale economic disruptions have had cataclysmic effects in the past, and they may again.
Massive Crop Failure: There a number of situations that could lead to widespread crop failure, some of which have already been mentioned. There are a few other ways in which we could imperil food supply, however. We could accidentally (or purposely) kill off an important pollinating agent (bees, some birds). Or, we could continue becoming increasingly reliant on one or two strains of a small number of plant species - which are highly vulnerable to pests that are specialized to eat that particular strain of plant. If crop failure, for any reason, is sufficiently widespread and affects enough species, then the end of modern civilization will be the result.
Suicide by Strangelet: This category could more properly be termed "suicide by scientific experiment with possible catastrophic effects." Generally speaking scientists are responsible, reasonable, moral people. That said, their job is to conduct experiments, and, very infrequently one of these experiments does contain a small potential for disastrous results. This situation can arise in every branch of science, but the possibility of destruction can be particularly spectacular when it results from a physics experiment. The new Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory smacks gold ions together at nearly the speed of light. When it does so, for an incredibly short period of time, the protons and neutrons in the ions are torn apart into a sort of "quark soup." Physicists don't know all that much about the behavior of this "soup," which is why they want to experiment. Several unlikely scenarios have been raised for how experiments of this nature could cause a catastrophe. The most likely of these possibilities (the one that is still given the most credence from the greatest number of physicists) is that a negatively charged strangelet could be created. If this strangelet had a reasonably long half-life, it could potentially convert the entire Earth into strange matter (destroying everything in the process). Another particularly horrifying (although even more unlikely) possibility is that our experiments inadvertently trigger a transition to a lower vacuum state. In layman's terms this would mean the end of everything in the universe (although the catastrophe would propagate at the speed of life - so most of the universe would continue to exist long after we were gone).
Suicide by Technological Advance:
The adoption of new technology
normally precedes complete knowledge of the repercussions of the technology. For example, we adopted
a new system of raising and feeding animals - only to discover that our system
helped spread a prion that decayed brains (including, apparently human
brains). Imagine if prions had spread far more rapidly and had less effect
on cattle and greater effect on humans - anyone who has eaten beef would be at
real risk of having their brain turn to sponge. Likewise, new evidence
continues to come to light that cell phones have a greater effect on the brain
than was previously thought. Will two or three decades of frequent use
from an early age lead to widespread health problems among our youngest
generation? In a similar vein, there is speculation that cell phones may
be the cause of our current bee shortage - a shortage that threatens a number of
crops. We are adopting new technologies every day - and any one of them
could have unforeseen effects. In the worst case
scenario, one of these surprises could threaten our
Replacement: We are rapidly developing faster computers and better machines. If these advancements continue, machines will probably replace humans in the workplace. This has already begun to happen with unskilled workers, and it will eventually happen at all levels of the workforce. Furthermore, advances in computer technology make it likely that we will develop computers that are smarter than ourselves in every way - and which are capable of completely emulating the thought processes of a human brain. Once this occurs, we will have, in some fundamental way, lost control of our machines. If they do not make good decisions for us, we will be unable to effectively oppose them. We may be unable to realistically predict what end this situation will lead to.
Alien Attack: One possible explanation for the lack of evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligent life is that technologically advanced species exist, but they did not lose the violent edge to their competitive drive as they expanded into space. In such a universe, the galaxy is a dangerous place, and technologically advanced species remain hidden for fear of attracting unwanted attention. In this scenario, an advanced intelligent species might reasonably conclude that it is safer to eliminate potential competitors before they can become a threat. We've happily obliged any species that wants to kill us by providing a century's worth of radio signals, and, indeed, we've gone further than that to proudly send out signals to the stars in an attempt to contact other species. As a result, we may be awaiting the arrival of an alien attack. Unlike the movies, this attack probably won't be something we can fight against. A large mass accelerated up to relativistic speeds and aimed at the Earth would hit us almost before we knew it was coming - and it could easily wipe out all life on our planet. Advanced self-replicating machines could overwhelm our defenses, and, in fact, consume our planet. Suffice to say, if an intelligent species knows about us, and wants to kill us, it will probably be very easy for it (so long as we are dependent on a single planet, anyway).
The Wrath of God: There are actually two possible versions of this event. One is the mystical version - God exists, he is angered at the people of Earth for their sinful ways, he destroys Earth (or the entire universe) in his rage. The alternative version is that our planet doesn't actually exist as a physical entity - we exist in a virtual reality simulacrum (we might be biological entities hooked into a virtual reality system, a la The Matrix, or we might simply be complex computer simulations). In this case, the plug could literally be pulled on the computer, and thereby our world. It's very hard to guess at the likelihood of these scenarios.
Category: Natural Death
Super Volcano: There are a small number of so called "super volcanos" on Earth. Every million years or so one of these erupts. Around 75,000 years ago, the Toba Caldera in Indonesia erupted, and sent enough ash and sulfur dioxide into the air to affect the global climate. This is believed to have resulted in the deaths of over 50% of the humans alive at the time. Many geologists believe that the Yellowstone Caldera is overdue for a massive eruption. That said, the odds of such an eruption happening in the next few hundred years are incredibly low.
Asteroid Impact: Asteroid impacts are believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and they may have been responsible for some of the other mass extinctions in Earth's history. An asteroid large enough to wipe out human civilization might have as high as a 1/300 chance of hitting us in 2880. Furthermore, we haven't charted many of the comets and asteroids that could potentially hit us. That said, the odds of significant harm to our species from an asteroid impact are extremely low for the foreseeable future. A slightly greater threat is that many nuclear nations don't have the technical capacity to tell an asteroid explosion from a nuclear explosion. In a tense situation, it's slightly possible that an asteroid entering our atmosphere could trigger a nuclear war.
Gamma Rays: Gamma Rays are thought to be a possible cause of the Ordovician Extinction roughly 450 million years ago. A large spike in the quantity of Gamma Rays hitting Earth could destroy the ozone layer - leading to the extinction of many terrestrial species. Both Supernovae and Gamma Ray Bursters can produce such a spike. Furthermore, this could occur without much warning. That said, there is no reason to assume that this sort of event will occur within the next several million years.
Epidemic: While bioterrorism is the greatest biological threat to our species, a natural pandemic remains a real possibility. The Black Death killed over 1/3 the population of Europe. Many infectious disease experts believe that we are overdue for a flu pandemic. Some strains of the Ebola virus have mortality rates near 90%. If such a disease becomes easily transmittable between humans and has a decently long incubation period - then it could sweep the globe. The same is true of many new antibiotic resistant bacteria that we've created by the indiscriminate abuse of antibiotics. All in all, a pandemic is not unlikely during the next several decades - although the odds are that it won't be deadly enough to cause the collapse of society.
We Don't Exist and Other Philosophical Twaddle: It's surprisingly hard, if one has any doubt, to prove that we exist. And, if we do exist, we really can't demonstrate that we have a remotely accurate conception of reality. We can't even know whether the universe, if it exists, follows a logical set of rules. All of this is pretty irrelevant to the practical realities of life - we basically have to take it all on faith. But, it is possible that we could one day realize that we don't actually exist, or that one person thinking the wrong thoughts could sort of wake the universe up to our non-existence, and thus end our illusion of existence. In any case, while it's impossible to quantify the likelihood of this sort of possibility, we also probably don't need to worry overmuch about it.