Survival Limitations

It seems to me…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
.” ~ T. S. Eliot (The Hollow Men).

Everyone prefers an optimist but Pollyannaish predictions fail to convey the possibility of negative occurrences whereas pessimistic Cassandra-type warnings might better convey the likely dire consequences of future events. I’ve recently written several postings concerning the potential catastrophic outcome associated with such activities as artificial intelligence – this is more general and developed out of my thoughts concerning the probability of intelligence surviving sufficiently long to develop detectable extraterrestrial communications.

There have been numerous attempts to estimate the number of life-supporting communicating planetary systems in the universe. The Drake Equation,

\displaystyle N^{*}=\int_{0}^{T_g} R^*(t) \,dt

where the number of stars in the galaxy, N* is related to the star formation rate R*, originally proposed by Dr. Frank Drake at the University of California–Santa Cruz in 1961, is probably the estimate with which people are most familiar. Many critics consider the model to be overly simplistic and have proposed numerous changes including additional potentially relevant parameters[1]. E.g., the equation probably should include effects resulting from alien civilizations colonizing multiple star systems. It also should consider how many times an intelligent civilization possibly evolved on planets where it originally developed at least once as several prior intelligent species could emerge during the same planet’s lifespan.

Regardless of how the approximation is derived, it is estimated there should be at least one million other planets with a sufficiently intelligent species capable of communications just in our galaxy – so why have they not been detected (at least not so far)? Since all the factors in the equation are only estimates, it is very tempting to criticize their values. Everyone, including Stephen Hawking has done so.

Intelligence, Hawking believes, contrary to our human-centric existence, may not have any long-term survival value. Hawking believes there are other forms of intelligent life out there that have been overlooked and warns if/when we pick up signals from an alien civilization “we should be wary of answering back until we have evolved” a bit further. Meeting a more advanced civilization, at our present stage, “…might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don’t think they were better off for it.” Hawking might at least be partly correct in that intelligence actually could diminish the probability of species survival.

My primary criticism of the Drake Equation is that it is not complete – it only considers those parameters estimating communicative life existence. Earth has experienced several mass-extinctions. An additional set of parameters is required providing an estimate on the probability of intelligence evolution process disruption. We should be able to place limits establishing probabilities of mass-catastrophic events sufficient to reset the intelligence development process.

One problem (there admittedly are quite a few) is any analysis is primarily based on our own planet – we haven’t any meaningful observations of conditions elsewhere so our options are somewhat limited. While the Drake equation was intended as an analysis of possible extraterrestrial communications, we also are assessing the probability of our own species’ potential survival. I’m sure others will be more than happy to comment on what these parameters and their values should be.

Several parameters in the basic Drake Equation; e.g., fl – the fraction of planets that actually develop life and fi – the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life has developed; are still relevant but require additional consideration. There is a lengthy list of additional possible so-called catastrophic events, some of which will be briefly considered here, some more feasible than others, so this will not constitute a complete list.

A Catastrophic Event is a possible natural occurring or human-caused termination event affecting either all life or resulting in a substantial disruption to civilization. Other factors – some of which, while possible, remain unsubstantiated and difficult to assign any meaningful probability of occurrence. Many of these border on science fiction and while it is not possible to totally dismiss them, their probability of occurrence is normally considered to be extremely low. Representative examples include extraterrestrial contact, non-electromagnetic communications, etc.

The effect of extraterrestrial contact could be either a positive or negative. Stephen Hawking and others have observed that any contact with a more advanced culture or civilization normally negatively impacts the less developed culture. If that more advance culture is benign however, there is much that could be learned.

Another possibility is that though we do not currently know of any form of communications not dependent upon electromagnetic radiation, being the only long-distance communications method of which we are yet aware, the probable existence of other more efficient means of communications cannot be totally dismissed.

There are numerous possibilities, in addition to the two just mentioned, potentially resulting in a catastrophic event both positively or negatively affecting the extent of natural events; e.g., human dispersion to off-planet colonies substantially reduces catastrophic possibilities from entirely natural events such as an asteroid collision or human-caused nuclear-winter. It is not possible to fully address each of these potential events in this brief summary; consequently some are essentially only mentioned.

There are numerous potential causes of ecological collapse, the situation where an ecosystem suffers a drastic, possibly permanent, reduction in carrying capacity for all organisms often resulting in mass extinction. Mass extinctions can happen for a number of reasons but the two primary categories being natural events and those resulting from human activity.

Natural catastrophic events include the possibility of termination resulting from solar flares, supernovae, black hole explosions or mergers, gamma-ray bursts, galactic center outbursts, or other similar occurrences, many of which are difficult to accurately estimate.

Calculations indicate that the Andromeda Galaxy is on a collision course with the Milky Way. Andromeda is approaching at an average speed of about 140 kilometers (87 miles) per second and impact is predicted to occur in about 3 billion years. Our Sun, as a result of normal stellar evolution, will exhaust its hydrogen core and become a red giant in about 5 billion years. While either of these events obviously qualify as a potential catastrophic event, they are sufficiently far in the future to not be of immediate concern (regardless, there is nothing we currently could do to prevent them).

Major asteroid impacts have caused large-scale extinction on Earth in the past. Most famously, the Chicxulub impact 66 million years ago is widely believed to have caused the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. It is estimated that only about one percent of extraterrestrial objects, including asteroids, have to date been found – 158 have been identified larger than 1 kilometer capable of totally destroying civilization. Over 2000 between 30 and 1000 meters sufficiently large to destroy a city or seriously disrupt civilization also have been identified.

Throughout history there have been a number of significant pandemics – outbreaks of diseases which cross international boundaries and infect substantial numbers of people. The risk from a global pandemic is not that a single contagion would kill everyone; it’s that a pandemic could kill a sufficient number of people that the rudiments of civilization; e.g., agriculture, the economy…; could not be maintained resulting in death of the survivors. Somewhat similarly, natural selection could create antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria capable of devastating the world population and causing a global collapse of civilization.

The Permian-Triassic extinction event, which rendered something like 90 percent of the Earth’s species extinct, is believed to have resulted from volcanic eruptions able to cause significant global cooling and disrupt agricultural production. There are seven known supervolcanoes (or megacaldera) in the world located in Yellowstone, Long Valley, and Valles Calderas in the U.S.; Lake Toba, North Sumatra, Indonesia; Taupo Volcano, North Island, New Zealand; Aira Caldera, Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyūshū, Japan; and the Siberian Traps, Russia. Any of these theoretically could have the destructive capability to send the entire planet into a volcanic winter. As with pandemics, the risk isn’t so much that the event itself will kill everyone as that it would make continued survival untenable for those who lived through it.

A hypercane is a hypothetical class of extreme hurricane that could form if ocean temperatures reached around 50°C (122°F), which is 15°C (27°F) warmer than the warmest ocean temperature ever recorded. Such an increase could be caused by a large asteroid or comet impact, a large supervolcanic eruption, or extensive global warming. While capable of causing unimaginable destruction, the actual cause of the oceanic temperature increase would most likely be more catastrophic than the hypercane.

Colony collapse disorder is an ailment of unknown cause affecting honeybees (Apis mellifera) characterized by sudden colony death due to the disappearance of all adult worker bees in a hive while only immature bees, the queen bee, and the honey remain. Honeybees perform some level of pollination in nearly 75 percent of all plant species directly used for human food worldwide; an estimated seven out of the 60 major agricultural crops just in North American would be lost. While colony collapse disorder could cause significant economic losses, it is doubtful the result would be catastrophic as no staple foods would be eradicated and, given time, other pollinators would eventually replace the honeybee.

Dysgenics, also known as cacogenics, is the accumulation and perpetuation of defective or disadvantageous genes and traits in offspring of a particular population or species, lack of natural selection, or the tendency of more intelligent couples to have fewer children which could sufficiently lower average health and intelligence leading to an eventual collapse of civilization resulting in a catastrophic decline in the quality of human life or its total cessation. Current demographic trends if sufficiently extended, could create a marked decrease in the birth rate threatening civilization. Similarly, infertility among humans has been in decline and if this trend continues, eventually no fertile humans will be left to continue the species.

It is theorized that a tiny loss of telomere length from one generation to the next, mirroring the aging process in individuals, could over thousands of generations erode the telomere down to its critical level. Once at the critical level, outbreaks of age-related diseases would occur earlier in life finally resulting in a population crash.

While the end result is identical to possible catastrophic termination from natural events, our species has, or will shortly, achieve the ability to create various types of human-caused extinction events. The further technology and science advance, the more probable these types of events become.

Warfare and mass destruction have reached a point where available weapons threaten sustained life. Unconstrained nuclear war could result in massive numbers of deaths and what has been termed nuclear winter. If a sufficient number of nuclear devices were detonated concurrently, world temperatures could fall dramatically and quickly due to high concentrations of atmospheric dust and smoke disrupting food production and possibly rendering human life impossible.

The possibility of exponential advances in artificial intelligence (AI) could either be the greatest development ever made or totally catastrophic. Once computational systems sufficiently advance enabling them to improve themselves without human assistance, it could result in a spiral of ever-increasing superintelligence. If AI remains friendly to humans, this would be a very beneficial with the prospect of advancing research in a variety of domains. The risk is that AI would have little use for humans and either out of malevolence or perceived necessity eliminate us.

Nanotechnology is manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale with the goal of precisely manipulating atoms and molecules for fabrication of macroscale products. It could democratize industrial production substantially increasing the ability to develop highly destructive weapons. There also is a possibility that self-replicating nanotech would create a “gray goo” scenario in which it grows out of control and encroaches upon resources on which humans depend causing mass disruption and potential civilizational collapse.

Synthetic biology is an emerging scientific field that focuses on the creation of biological systems including artificial life that could be used to engineer a pathogen, a supervirus or superbacteria, more infectious and capable of mass destruction than one that evolved naturally. Most likely, such an organism would be created as a biological weapon either for either a military or a non-state actor. The risk is that such a weapon would either be used in warfare, a terrorist attack, or accidentally escape from a lab. Either scenario could threaten humanity if the bioweapon spreads beyond the initial target and becomes a global problem. As with natural pandemics, actual extinction would only occur if survivors were unable to adapt to a massive population decline.

Experimental accidents such as nuclear and high energy physics research could conceivably create unusual conditions with catastrophic consequences. Scientists were concerned that the first nuclear weapons test might ignite the atmosphere. There is a remote possibility that Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN might initiate a chain-reaction global disaster involving black holes or false vacuum states. Though these concerns have been refuted, there remains some general concern.

The consequences of technological unemployment from robotics and computerization advances could result in increasing numbers of workers being replaced by work place automation. Sufficiently high unemployment would result in extreme levels of social discontent and escalating economic failure.

Catastrophe theory predicts a software-complexity tipping point when the integrated world becomes vulnerable to fatal and unrecoverable system errors. Modern technological dependency is becoming a fragile house of cards where mutually dependent system failures possibly could promulgate throughout the system escalating into a total collapse.

There are numerous catastrophic repercussions resulting from uncontrolled overpopulation increases. Some scenarios indicate simultaneous ecological (food and water production) and economic collapses possibly leading to global civil war where remaining habitable areas could be destroyed due to human competition. If continued at current levels, population increases will at some point necessarily result in social and economic disruption.

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: scarcity of water that could lead to approximately one half of the Earth’s population being without safe drinking water, overfishing, massive deforestation, desertification, or massive water pollution episodes.

It would be extremely difficult to actually mention all of the negative effects associated with climate and ecology change. Sea levels are rising due to the melting of glaciers and polar ice flooding low lying areas. More extreme droughts, tropical cyclones, frequent forest fires, and intense rainfall are projected. Widespread climate change ecosystem and extinction threats are causing extensive harm to polar life, coral reefs, and other unique and vulnerable ecosystems. Failure to limit global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius would also result in widespread social and economic disruption. It is not known at what point continued global warming could result in sufficient disruption to affect civilization or if humanity could survive warming of 4 – 6ºC (7.2 – 10.8ºF).

Global warming could, via a shutdown or slowdown of thermohaline circulation, trigger localized cooling in the North Atlantic and lead to cooling in that region. This would affect specific areas like Ireland, the Nordic countries, and Britain normally warmed by the North Atlantic drift resulting in the social and economic collapse of those regions.

If fossil fuels attain a level of scarcity prior to availability of economically viable replacements, it could lead to economic strain, followed by the collapse of modern agriculture, then to mass starvation. Nonrenewable substances, such as hydrocarbons, are a primary energy source for current civilizations but also used to produce plastics, lubricants, paints, textiles, medications, and numerous other products necessary to civilization.

Famine is a major problem in many parts of the world but human-related activity can greatly intensify it. High-quality agricultural areas being converted to urban usage due to population increases forces food production onto more marginal or less fertile land. Food riots have recently taken place in many countries across the world resulting from conversion of staple farm products from food production to use in biofuels causing world oil prices to spike to more than $140 per barrel (the current price is only about $55 per barrel), increased prices for grain used to feed poultry and dairy cows and other cattle, and leading to higher prices for wheat (up 58 percent), soybean (up 32 percent), and maize (up 11 percent) in a single year. An epidemic of stem rust on wheat caused by race TTKSK (Ug99) is currently spreading across Africa and into Asia is of major concern. While the cause might vary, millions of people face starvation.

Global economic and political system collapse could result from a severe, prolonged depression with high bankruptcy rates and high unemployment, a breakdown in normal commerce caused by hyperinflation, or even an economically-caused sharp increase in the death rate and perhaps even a decline in population. Hyperinflation occurs when a country experiences very high and usually accelerating rates of inflation and rapidly eroding currency values. If sufficiently prolonged and widespread, hyperinflation could result in economic collapse.

Extreme economic inequality where wealth is primarily concentrated among a small percentage of the populous has historically resulted in economic collapse. If sufficiently extreme, severe economic and social disruption would be probable. (Note: the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, is about 0.65 worldwide and about 0.81 in the U.S. – the highest in the world and at a level normally associated with social unrest.)

Overconsumption is a situation where resource use outpaces the sustainable capacity of an ecosystem leading to increased conflict over dwindling resources. This could result from overpopulation or competition among developing economies where demand exceeds carrying capacity. Excessive unsustainable consumption eventually exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment (ecological overshoot) and subsequent resource depletion, environmental degradation, and possible ecosystem collapse.

Worldwide market failure resulting in economic collapse could be triggered by any number of perhaps relatively minor causes similar to the 1929 depression or 2009 recession. Banks would be forced to close. Food, gas, and other necessities would be unavailable. If local governments and utilities were affected, water and electricity would fail. The economy would revert to a bartering economy as the primary means to obtain food and other services.

Governance policies are subject to failure and occasionally exacerbate whatever problems they were intended to fix. Any delay or failure in responding to a threat capable of causing human extinction would thus have hugely negative consequences.

If a world government developed, misguided policies could cap progress leading to stagnation and civilization reversal. While extremism of any form could be detrimental, religious or puritanical influences could impel a back to basics rejection of societal advancement and an end of advanced civilization.

There are almost certainly other dangers out there with grave potential impacts that cannot be imagined. Unfortunately, the most important thing for which we can prepare is the unforeseen and unknowable. In nature, that which we discount as either unlikely or impossible is probably likely to happen.

It most likely will be at least 100 years until we are able to establish totally self-sufficient colonies on other planets even within our solar system. That next hundred years will also see unparalleled advancement in science with much of that development increasingly able to result in some catastrophic event. As we primarily react only to an actually perceived threat rather than one which is only possible, it is this period when survival as a species is most threatened.

Pandora’s box has been opened and we haven’t any way of knowing all that was let out. Either way, the lid can never again be shut.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Drake Equation, Wikipedia,

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, AI, AI, Aira Caldera, Andromeda, Apis Mellifera, Artificial, Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence, Cacogenics, Catastrophic, Chicxulub, Civilization, Climate, Climate Change, Communications, Crisis, Crops, Disaster, Disease, Drake Equation, Dysgenics, Economy, Employment, employment, Environment, Environment, Extinction, Extinction, Extinctions, Extraterrestrial, Farm Land, Farming, Farms, Finance, Frank Drake, Gini Coefficient, Gini Coefficient, Global Warming, Global Warming, Honeybees, Hypercane, Inequality, Inequality, Inequality, Jobs, Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyūshū, Lake Toba, Long Valley, Megacaldera, Nanotechnology, North Island, North Sumatra, Pandemic, Permian-Triassic, Plague, Siberian Traps, Society, Space, Stephen Hawking, Supervolcanoes, Taupo Volcano, Telomere, Termination Event, Threats, Unemployment, University of California – Santa Cruz, Valles Calderas, Volcanoes, War, Weather, Weather, Yellowstone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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