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About This Wiki
The Preserving Humanity Wiki is a resource for those who aren't just interested in identifying threats to humanity but in strategies for avoiding or limiting those threats. By humanity, we refer both to the human species and to what are typically seen as the more positive attributes of the species: that is, the quality of being humane. By preserving, we refer to the long-term survival of what remains a still-young species.
The rationale for this wiki is that, although human beings are currently the dominant species on the planet in many respects, like other species we exist in a vulnerable state. The quickest way to extinction, of course, would be via a cataclysmic event. Natural species-threatening catastrophes include events such as the impact of large meteors, the eruption of so-called super volcanoes, and cosmic radiation events. Potential human-made catastrophes include things such as nuclear warfare, biological attacks, and - further into the future - the misapplication of technologies such as nanotechnology or genetics.
But the focus of this wiki also extends to A) major cataclysms that threaten large swaths of humanity even without threatening the actual extinction of the species, and B) extinction processes that are not the result of a single event. After all, not all species disappear as the result of sudden catastrophes. Indeed, such catastrophes might be the exception rather the rule when it comes to extinctions. Therefore, this wiki also examines other reasonable theories of extinction.
Unlike any other Earth species that has come before, as far as we know, humanity has the ability to foresee, plan for, and sometimes even forestall threats to its future. We hope that this wiki will serve as a kind clearinghouse for rational ideas and accurate information about how to preserve the species. The focus is intended to be empirical, scientific or futuristic rather than mystical, religious or gratuitously apocalyptic. The goal is to help make humanity more resilient in what often feels like a hostile universe.
It should be noted that there are other websites devoted to human catastrophes and extentions. There's Armageddon Online for those interested in All Things Apocalyptic. And if you like some deft humor and sly insights thrown into your End of the World scenarios, there's Exit Mundi. There's also some fine insights in parts of Wikipedia, such as the Human Extinction page.
Preserving Humanity is different in that it's a wiki with a purpose other than entertainment and education. We're looking for for potential remedies and mitigations, even if some seem naive or preposterous. It's unlikely humanity can "solve" a problem such as super volcanoes without considering some truly silly ideas along the way. But even some ideas that seem silly today may turn out to be rather visionary over time. Therefore, we shouldn't be afraid to imagine potential remedies that are not yet possible. Humankind has got to envision innovations and strategies before it can implement them. This requires bright, thoughtful and imaginative people, and we hope this wiki will attact them and allow them to put their collective wisdom to good use.
The Current State of Humanity
There are over 6.7 billion people on the face of the planet, according to the World Population Clock of the U.S. Census Bureau. This is quite a number considering the fact that our species is only thought to be about 150,000 years old. Not only there are more humans than ever before, but recent progress in terms of agriculture, sanitation, medicine and other sociotechnological systems allow many people to live longer, healthier lives than their forebears did. Over the last half a century, life expectancies have risen from 48 to 67 years for women and from 45 to 63 for men, according to data from the International Labour Organization. A recent article in the New York Times (Kolata, 2006) notes that humans in industrialized countries have physically changed quite dramatically over the last 100 years. They tend to be taller and sturdier than before, with certain chronic diseases such as heart problems and arthritis occurring a decade or more later than they did among relatively recent ancestors. Average I.Q.s have also been on the rise.
In many ways, of course, this is all excellent news. It means that human beings are an astonishing successful species, able to simultaneous increase both population and health. But an increasingly large global population of increasingly large individual mammals who are living in high concentrations in most of the habitable world can also be viewed as vulnerable, from an ecological point of view. That is, sudden global disasters can produce can produce terrible famines because of the extent of the population. Disease can be spread more easily from person to person due to high population densities and modern transportion technologies. Moreover, the powerful technologies that allow humans to thrive can be turned against the larger ecosystem or, indeed, against other human beings, creating proportionately greater risks to the species. Although people tend to have some vague awareness of these dangers, they also tend too busy with their day to day lives to pay much attention to the matter.
The Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans or the tsunamis that ravaged parts of Indonesia in 2004 are examples in microcosm of how people can exist in even the most vulnerable of circustances and yet somehow fail to prepare for an all-too-likely event. The whole of humanity could likewise fail to prepare for the predictable disasters that could deliver a terrible - and perhaps mortal - blow to humanity.
Approaches to Thinking About Human Extinction
"Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice." -- Robert Frost
Despite the success of the human species, some observers believe there may well be an increased likelihood of some extinction event occurring in the relatively near future. There are at least two schools of thought that concern themselves with, in the words of author and philosopher John Leslie, "doom soon." The first school looks at the question though a probalistic lens. The idea seems to have sprung from the mind of astrophysicist Brandon Carter and was then picked up up by John Leslie, who discussed the idea in a book called The End of the World. The "doomsday argument" is that the very fact that we are alive at this moment increases the chances that the species will become extinct in the not-so-very-distant future.
Imagine, for example, that you're in a kind of lottery draw. The Powers That Be wind up choosing your ticket out of a bin in the second try. What are the chances that there are few or many tickets in the bin? It's more likely that there are few tickets, of course. By the same argument, it's more likely that we are not at the beginning of humanity's existence on Earth but that we're alive at the same time as a sizable portion of the rest of humanity - let's say 10%. This implies that humanity will not be around for millions or billion more years (McGuire, 2002). There are various explanations as well as refutations of the doomsday argument, but it remains a compelling idea in the literature.
A second school of thought is less concerned with abstract probabilities and more concerned with threatening tendlines. It might be called the "mounting risk" argument. The emergence of nuclear weaponry marked the first time humankind had invented a weapon that threatened its survival. Today, some believe other emerging technologies are adding to the amount risk facing humanity. In 2000, Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy published an influential article called "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" in Wired magazine. He wrote, that "we have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology [GNR] - pose a different threat than the technologies that have come before." He argues that such technologies will potentially be able to replicate and will be within the reach of individuals or groups who are bent on large-scale destruction or even global annihilation. Unlike would-be nuclear terrorists, such people would not require access to mined and refined nuclear materials. Joy describes these GNR technologies as potentially leading to "knowledge-enabled mass destruction" (KMD). This is not to say that Joy or those who share his views believe in the inevitability of human extinction, but Joy outlines just how difficult it might be to prevent future GNR-related disasters.
Neither the "doomsday" nor the "mounting risk" arguments lead to a case for the inevitable extinction of humanity in the short-term, but they do represent cautionary tales. Perhaps, through sufficient presence and prescience of thought, humanity can boost the probability of long-term survival. But there are no guarantees, and the chances might even be against us.
Natural Threats and Possible Solutions or Mitigations
There are many potential threats to humanity, some more likely to occur than others. The goal here is to describe the potential threat and then suggest possible solutions, preparations or mitigations. We've divided the threats into two basic categories: natural and human-caused. In truth, though, categories can blur. Global warming can be a natural phenomenon, but these days it may well be influenced by human activity. Ice ages have come and gone throughout Earth's history, but a nuclear winter might spark the next one.
(NOTE TO POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTORS: we've begun by putting in links to sources that might be helpful to writers in describing the phenomena outlined below. As the sections are filled in with research prose, the URLs will disappear, be incorporated into the prose, or be transferred to the reference section of the wiki.)
Asteroids and Comets
Among the culprits that are deemed most likely to result in extinction events are asteroids and comets. Some research suggests that one of these was responsible for the biggest extinction event in the world's history. It occurred about 251 million years ago during the Permian-Triassic period, killing off 70% of land species and 90% of ocean species. One line of evidence is the discovery of an impact crater about the size of Ohio that's been found in Antartica. It's estimated that this crater, which is about 300 miles wide, was caused by a space rook that was up to 30 miles wide. Another line of evidence is research that analyzed deposits of deposits of "Buckyballs," which are a type of carbon that contain a cavity within. Researchers apparently found a helium isotope of extraterristrial origin inside the cavities of the Buckeyballs. Even if there was a huge impact during the Permian-Triassic period, however, the impact of the object alone was probably not the sole cause of the extinctions. The impact likely triggered other major events such as massive volcanic eruptions, changes in sea levels and ocean oxygen, and climate changes (Stricherz, 2001).
Researchers also believe, of course, that a comet or asteroid was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, which occurred some 67 million years ago (Recer, 2001). It's believed that the crater for that impact is in the Yucatan peninsula. The evidence for this Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event impact is stronger than for the Permian-Triassic event. It's not known if the other three major extinction events were were caused by massive space rocks, but some circumstantial evidence exists that they were.
Thanks to various Hollywood movies, the idea that another asteroid or comet could drive humans into exinction is probably the most well-known natural danger of all those listed on this wiki. It may be also be - based on the historic record - among the most realistic of threats. To gain a clearer picture of the regional environmental impact that a space rock would have on Earth, readers can go to the interactive website known as the Earth Impact Effects Program.
Potential Solutions and Preparations
Watch and Learn
The first step toward avoiding asteroids and comets is tracking and otherwise gathering knowledge about them. The experts are, in fact, already tracking what are commonly known as near earth asteroids, or NEA.
Deflect or Destroy
Detecting NEAs is, however, only the first step. The next step is learning how we can deflect such objects away from the planet. Some have suggested that that the easiest way to deflect a space object that has been identified well in advance is to ram something into that object. That is, we'd try to knock the object off course via kinetic impact and then see if that impact did the trick. If not, we'd try it again.
So-called super eruptions are another type of natural phenomenon that pose a major threat to human civilization and, perhaps, the species as a whole. This risks of such eruptions may well be higher than the risk of an asteroid or comet impact.
Associated with "super volcanoes," these eruptions have occurred periodically throughout Earth's history. Such eruptions are larger than anything humankind has witnessed in recorded history. Although the odds of such an eruption occurring at any given time is low, the odds are still five to ten times higher for such an eruption than for a space object large enough to devastate the planet (Britt, 2005). One of the larger super eruptions could have about the same impact as an asteroid that is 1.5 kilometers in size. Super eruptions have historically occured more frequently than large-scale asteroid impacts: some say about once every 100,000 years compared to once every half a million years or so for large space rocks (Rincon, 2005).
At this point, there are about 40 known potential supervolcano "hot spots." Unlike with potentially destructive space rocks, no one has arrived at a method of preventing such events. "The bottom line is that when one of these eruptions occurs, it's going to be a global disaster," noted Michael Rampino, a geologist and professor of earth sciences at New York University, as reported by ABCNews. "The only question is when and where."
Some theorize that humankind was nearly driven into extinction by a super erruption that occurred about 74,000 years ago in what is today known as Lake Toba. The Volcanic Explosivity Index reached the maximum of 8 for that explosion, erupting 2,800 cubic kilometers worth of material. Some experts believe this event killed off much if not most of humanity, causing a genetic "bottleneck" that would explain why the entire global population has such similar DNA. It may be that we are all descendants from a very small population of as few as 10,000 to 1,000 people who somehow survived the Toba Event.
So, what exactly happens during a super eruption? First, there'd be utter destruction within the local area of such a blast. It would create enormous pyroclastic flows that cover thousands of square kilometers in burning ash. Second, there'd be astonishing amounts of rock, dust and ash thrown into the atmosphere. It would cover the landscape for hundreds of miles in any direction. Some estimate that if the Yellowstone Caldera, a known super volcano, were to errupt, the fallout would cover half of the continental United States. In many areas, there could be up to a meter of volcanic ash (Britt, 2005).
Just a single centimeter of such ash can badly hinder agricultural output. Some crops are completely destroyed by even a few milimeters of ash. Obviously, starvation on a large regional scale could occur. Third, though, are the global repercussions. The massive amounts of dust and gas in the stratophere would likely lead to a "volcanic winter." No one can be sure of what such a volcanic winter would look like or how long it would last, but some evidence from the Toba eruption indicates it lasted as long as six years, notes Super-Eruptions: Global Effects and Future Threats, a report from a Geological Society of London Working Group. Some computer models even suggest that a super eruption could lead to enough global cooling to kick the world into another Ice Age, although this remains far from certain.
At any rate, a volcanic winter would likely result in years of agricultural disaster on a global scale, leading to starvation on massive scale after initial stores of food supply are used up. This might well result in the collapse of modern civilization and, adding in a complex array of unpredictable factors such as subsequent wars over desperately limited resources, perhaps even the extinction of the species.
Potential Preparations and Mitigations
For the moment, there are no known solutions to the super eruption problem. So what can be done? One idea is to properly fund research into this area. We need to better understand the dynamics and impacts of super eruptions, gain a clearer understanding of the geological record of these events, and perhaps get a clearer idea of just when and where such an event might occur. That is, where are the true hot spots? What might we do if one of them erupts?
Second, nations must start to collectively prepare for the inevitability of such an event. Individual national disaster plans won't be enough. When such an eruption occurs, it will be both a regional and global disaster. The Super-Eruptions report asks, "What might happen if several billion people needed evacuation from most of Asia, and, simultaneously, three or four years of severe volcanic winter threatened agriculture throughout North America and Europe? This is not fanciful, but the kind of acute problem and inevitable consequence of the next super-eruption" (p. 20).
One type of initiative that seems logical, given the potential nature of a volcanic winter, is a global food storage program. This seems a daunting task, given the fact that hunger continues to reign in many regions of the world. But today's hunger is less an agricultural problem than a political one that has to do with allocations and economics. The ability to grow more food than humanity needs day-to-day would seem an achievable task, but determing how and where to store it would be massive logistical and political problem.
Other mitigation and survival strategies are more speculative for now. There's clearly a need for disaster preparedness experts, researchers, non-governmental organizations, and government officials to form task forces to examine an this issue, which has been mostly ignored. Below are some other preliminary mitigation proposals:
- Fund research to develop a larger variety of edible plants that that can survive in soil conditions likely to exist in the event of a super eruption or other disaster (such as nuclear war or asteroid strike). Such plants would also need to be able to grow in significantly colder conditions in which there is less light. More research could also be done on high-volume agriculture that uses artificial light and/or techniques such as hydroponics. The same or similar research might someday be useful in learning how to grow plants in other forbidding extraterrestrial environment such as Mars.
- Carry out large-scale international rescue-and-evacuation exercises. Such exercises could forge closer international ties, improve the logistical performance of multinational operations, and harden communication infrastructures, which would be sorely tested in the event of a global disaster.
- Ensure that both national and international initiatives - such as the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction - are contemplating and preparing for disasters that would ensue in a super eruption.
Human-Caused Threats and Possible Solutions
The gravest human-made danger facing humanity could well be nuclear weaponry. There's little doubt that a full-scale nuclear war would kills hundreds of millions of people, and perhaps many more, rocking and potentially ending civilization as well know it. Whether such a war would lead to the actual extinction of humanity is a matter of debate. It would depend on range of factors that are so complex and interrelated that no one can say for certain how they would play out. There's no way to check the geological record for clues, as we can for asteroid strikes and the largest of volcanic eruptions.
The only thing we know for certain is that a full-scale nuclear war would bring almost unimaginable human suffering on a global scale. First, there would be the victims of the immediate blasts. Second, there would be those made ill or killed by the radioactive fallout. Third, there are those who would be affected by the climate and other environmental changes that follow such a war. A nuclear winter could, for example, be similar to the volcanic winter described in the Super Eruptions section.
Based on what occurred during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts of World War II, we have an idea of the kind of devastation that would be wrought, although a modern nuclear war would result in catastrophe by many hundreds and perhaps thousands of times worse. Some experts simply assume it would result in a kind of doomsday for humanity. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has, in fact, created a symbolic representation of the danger humanity faces from nuclear weapons. Called the "Doomsday Clock", it is currently set at five minutes to midnight. The last time it moved, in 2007, it moved closer to midnight, aka "doomsday" as a result of various trends that the organization views as troubling. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also provides estimates on the current global nuclear stockpile.
Because the U.S. and other nations continue to defend nuclear weapons as playing a vital role in their national security plans, there's little hope that the global threat represented by these weapons will disappear soon.
Possible Solutions and Mitigations
Environmental Hazards Leading to Ecosystem Failures
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence
Intentional Extinction Events
Information on Species Extinctions
So why bother trying to save humanity, which so obviously has an ugly side to it?
Given emerging technologies, at what point are humans no longer human? Should we care?
How could the law of unintended consequences play out as we try to make humanity more resilient?
The Global Business Network, a scenario consultancy, notes that "scenarios are tools for ordering one's perceptions about alternative future environments in which today's decisions might be played out." Scenarios are are a tool used by various businesses to gain insights into possible futures and potential responses to those futures. Shell, for example, is a corporation that has pioneered this techniques of futures thinking. Shell produces a set of global scenarios, making summaries and excerpts available to the public. Wired.com also provides information on scenarios and how to build them.
We invite authors to craft detailed scenarios that focus on the challenges that humanity may face in coming years and how it may deal with these challenges. Scenarios can focus on a specific problem or a group of related problems, and they can be set various time frames. But it should be noted that scenarios are not as much about "predicting" the future as they are about allowing us to make better, more-informed decisions in the present. After all, although a cliche, it's largely true that what we decide as a society today will help shape the world of tomorrow.
Kolata, Gina. "So big and healthy Grandpa wouldn't even know you." The New York Times, July 30, 2006. Retrieved from http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/07/30/healthscience/web.0730age.php
McGuire, Bill. A Guide to the End of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.