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":

A major potential problem: resource depletion:

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:

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:

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:

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