CPSP218G Fall Semester: Earth, Life & Time Colloquium
The End of the World as We Know It
Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Many cultures have stories of the End of Times, when the current world comes to an end (and sometimes
a better one is born from the ruins): Revelations, Ragnarok, etc.
Even today, we can reasonably for see the "End of the World As We Know It":
- That is, sufficient change in the global circumstance that the quality and style of our
lives would be radically transformed
- Not necessarily the same thing as the total destruction of Life or the whole Earth (although
those would certainly count!!)
A major potential problem: resource depletion:
- Renewable Resources (esp. Food and Water!) are necessary for our existence. If we wind up mining rather than
farming these, horrible consequences.
- Non-renewable Resources can only be mined. These include nearly all energy resources and
most construction/manufacturing materials.
Pandemics: there have been many plagues in the past that have killed tens or hundreds of
millions of people in very short periods of time. These were often facilitated by relative ease
of transport (caravan lines, sailing ships, major ports, etc.). In the modern world, travel is
an order of magnitude or more even easier, and population densities even higher.
Climate Change issues:
- Crop-growing regions will be displaced polarward (i.e., on the North-South Axis, which is NOT
the easy direction to compensate for: viz. Guns, Germs &
- Rising sea-levels and changes in water distribution results in massive refugee migrations
(world already has 25 million environmental refugees: greater than number of war- and polictical-refugees
- Disruption of infrastructure to transport food, medicine, people, energy, etc.
Nuclear War: obviously total nuclear war is less of a threat now than in the Cold War, but
such political conditions could potentially rise again.
Biowarfare: either actual intentional use of biological agents with low survivability, or
unintentional release (whoops!).
But not all major catastrophes need to generated by humans in any way, shape, or form. Looking at
the geologic and fossil records, we see past instances of:
- "Supervolcanoes, including flood basalts: the latter are implicated in some major mass
extinctions (inlcuding the greatest of all, the Permo-Triassic Extinction).
- Asteroid Impacts, including the Cretaceous-Tertiary impact that wiped out the Age of
- The K/T impactor was by no means the largest in Earth History. Some were vastly more damaging.
Here is a computer simulation of truly giant impact of a
scale not seen since the first 500 million years of Earth history. (From a Japanese documentary about
Earth History, with English subtitles).
- Supernovae, Gamma Ray Bursters, and other Cosmic Explosions: there are many extremely
energetic types of explosions that exist in the Universe. If some of these were to occur close enough
to the planet, they could sterilize large sections of it or otherwise cause massive disruptions.
Some people (esp. Science Fiction writers and futurists) have proposed future ways that humans
could end the world as we know it. Some examples include:
- The "Grey Goo": nanotechnology out of control, where "disassemblers" (hypothetical nanomachines
which take apart existing matter to create new objects in new configurations) get loose. Problem with this
essentially magical version of nanotechnology in general is that it neglects the fact that both energy storage/manipulation
systems and information systems occupy space, and that mechanical forces are far weaker than nuclear ones.
- The Singularity: aka "The Rapture of the Nerds", speculation based on extrapolation
of computer technology (we upload our consciousness into software) and overenthusiastic predictions of
nanotechnology (see above). Big question: where does the energy to run and maintain the Singularity come from?
History reveals that small-scale "Ends of the World as We Know It" can and do happen. Witness the
collapse of China's Golden Age of Exploration. During the late 1300s and early 1400s, Chinese explorer
Zheng He led
fleets of ships far larger and more advanced
than contemporary ships of Christendom or Dar al-Islam throughout the Indian Ocean and nearby South Pacific.
After decades of continued exploration, however, the Chinese Empire reduced its external trade, stopped
exploring, and spent money almost exclusively on internal matters. As a result, China (potentially
the world conquering power) was sidelined and European Christendom became the culture to
take guns, germs, and steel to the New World.
Last modified: 10 August 2007