diamond geezer

 Monday, February 19, 2024

What if the world ended? It could happen.

It could happen in . Or . Perhaps . Even .

I'm talking global catastrophe and/or societal collapse, not just a massive recession or a slide into unrecoverable dystopia. It doesn't have to involve the death of every single person on Earth, though it might, it merely has to kill off the vast majority. It might even be reversible across multiple generations, but not across any current generation so it'd basically end life as we know it. And it could happen. Imagine if it did.

However the end of the world started it'd likely lead to your untimely death. We're talking something bad enough, whatever it is, to disrupt the systems that support our collective existence, either very very quickly or over an excruciating period of time. It's debatable which of those would be worse.

It might be humanity's fault. Potential doomsday scenarios include the unintended release of a biotechnological weapon, a cyberattack which irrevocably takes down electricity grids worldwide or the much vaunted threat of unrestrained artificial intelligence. The latter probably wouldn't be a Terminator-like invasion, more a loss of control to some all-powerful system that no longer respected or required our existence. At present AI generates hilarious cat photos and fake news, but what if its evolution unleashed unforeseen and unsafeguarded outcomes?

It might come from the environment around us. An agricultural collapse destroying our food chain, the unstoppable spread of global drought, a supervolcano blocking out the sun behind a thick veil of ash, or of course rising sea levels making significant inhabited areas uninhabitable. We had a sharp reminder of our fragility in 2020 when a pandemic effectively shut down the world over the space of a few weeks, then kept us in our place for a couple of years. It screwed the economy and innumerable lives but we got lucky there, the virus wasn't the instant lung-killer a future bug could be.

Or it might come from 'out there'. An asteroid on a collision course is Hollywood's most-favoured scenario, a rock of sufficient size to pulverise the planet or merely wreck our atmosphere. Or perhaps a solar flare which disrupts our technology and fries our chips, with consequences far worse than the Carrington Event which hit Earth in 1859 before we'd become so reliant on communication. Or the unexpected arrival of alien life which either takes offence or was never intending to be friendly anyway. We could go from "what's that blip?" to "wow, they exist!" to "oh f*** they're shooting at us!!" within the space of one final week.

It'd make a mockery of all those plans we had for our futures. That world tour you intended to make in your retirement - should’ve gone earlier. That pension you scrimped and saved to service - should’ve spent the money up front instead. That child you thought you'd bring into the world to take their place in a brighter society - sorry, there won't be one. It is conceivable that everything humanity's built up could be erased by the end of next year, or the turn of the next century, or even by this time tomorrow morning. We make long-term plans based on normal upbeat scenarios, but dire outcomes predicated on minuscule probabilities are always there.

The timescale of upcoming destruction could be critical. The end could come at the end of a long inexorable chain of events clearly signalled for years or even decades. Climate change is one such driver, a foreseeable crisis incrementally tightening its grip on the planet, like boiling a frog but on a wider scale. We know things are going to get worse, just not how, where and when, indeed one of the chief issues holding back serious action is that the most catastrophic impacts are likely to occur beyond the lifespans of those making the decisions.

Or the end could come in the medium term. For example a comet spotted, an orbit calculated, a terrible realisation and a date set for the extinction of everything. Likelihood says, and Hollywood confirms, that society would probably break down long before the final day as the population realised working for a salary was fundamentally pointless and illegal actions no longer had significant consequences. All sorts of doomsday scenarios are really doomsweeks or doomsyears, and living through such a riotous period could be as horrifically destabilising and casualty-packed as the ultimate event.

Or it could all happen really fast. Nuclear war is perhaps uppermost in this regard, because it doesn't take long for entrenched beliefs and anger to spiral out of control into a mutual button-pressing event. Your life could be proceeding utterly normally right up to the moment an unexpected news headline breaks, bringing with it the nightmare realisation that everything will be swept away within minutes. Or imagine there's a scientist somewhere about to power up a pioneering particle-related experiment for the first time but unintentionally triggering a global chain-reaction that erases humanity in a split second. You'd never realise it was about to happen, and following your evaporation never realise it had.

It's worth remembering that end of the world predictions have been with us for centuries, some based on fact and others merely superstition, but the end of the world has yet to come. We fear the emergence of a killer disease but so far it hasn't evolved. Nuclear war could have laid waste the planet at any time over the last 60 years but still hasn't. Only one comet has ever had supremely calamitous consequences for life on earth, so the next is ridiculously unlikely to emerge tomorrow. We might even get our collective act together and solve the issues of climate change before these tip us into oblivion. These are all minimum probability/maximum risk scenarios, easily enough to wipe us out but individually unlikely enough that they don't permanently weigh on our minds.

I mention all this now because in the event of imminent catastrophe I probably won't have time to blog about it. If it suddenly transpires we all have hours to live then writing philosophical musings is unlikely to be on anyone's list of priorities, if indeed it'd still be possible for others to read them. Communication is likely to get very difficult as the end approaches, perhaps impossible, leaving us all isolated with much we'd like to say but nobody to share it with. In our final hours we may all be left wondering what's happening out there, reflecting alone on the ultimate futility of it all, and that last hilarious killer message will have to remain unsent. With today's post I feel I have at least said something.

The Doomsday Clock remains set at 90 seconds to midnight, as close to calamity as it's ever been, not least because the more technologically advanced we become the easier it is to do away with ourselves. One careless software update, one modified bacteria let loose or one vengeful megalomaniac in the hotseat is all it might take to undo the whole of human civilisation. On a selfish level I'd quite like any extinction event to take place after I’ve died a natural death because then I'll never know anything about it, plus I'll have enjoyed my entire allotted lifespan. But there's no saying if and when the world will actually end, and it could always happen sooner rather than later.

It could happen in . Or . Perhaps . Even . But let's hope not.

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