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January doldrums ideal for pondering the end of the world

January already got you down? It might get worse before it gets better, at least if you subscribe to the pseudoscience – and even that’s used charitably – of Blue Monday, which is on the horizon.

Based on a public relations exercise in 2005, the third Monday of January is Blue Monday in the Northern Hemisphere, born of a combination of winter weather, post-Christmas debt, broken New Year’s resolutions. And, oh yeah, the whole Monday thing.

What better time to dwell on the end of the world?

Forget about how much money you spent shopping or the amount of snow the township plough just dumped in your driveway. If life as we know it ended tomorrow, would any of that matter? Ever have mattered?

There’s a thought designed to perk up your day, Monday or otherwise.

Speaking of the world’s end and other sunny thoughts, the sun is at the heart of the eventual obliteration of the planet. Eventually, the sun will begin to run out of fuel, expanding to engulf much of the inner solar system. Whether or not that includes the Earth, life here will be wiped out.

As that scenario is more than five billion years off, it’s not surprising very few of us are worried today. Still, it is the ultimate end if nothing else happens in the meantime. That, however, is not a safe bet.

Today, we are already killing the planet, just far more slowly. While the Earth would not be reduced to space dust, it’s not inconceivable to think of the place bereft of human life. The third rock would continue circling its star – until the sun goes through its death throes, that is – oblivious to the loss of Homo sapiens.

According to the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, there are a variety of scenarios that could see catastrophic consequences unfold – from volcanic eruptions to pandemic infections, nuclear accidents to worldwide tyrannies, out-of-control scientific experiments to climatic changes, and cosmic hazards to economic collapse.

We haven’t determined all of the risks. And of those we’ve identified, we can’t always pinpoint just how big the risks are. There’s a pretty good probability, for instance, that a big asteroid will crash into the planet eventually. It might be tomorrow (well, probably not) or in 50 million years, but something akin to the collision that’s believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago will play out again.

The cosmological risks – the sun becoming a red giant, collision due to galaxies passing through each other or freezing as the universe expands – are of such a distant future, that we can largely ignore them. The other risks are the kind that might play out in this century, perhaps.

Prior to 2100, the chances more than a billion people will be killed by war is 30 per cent, according to the FHI’s Global Catastrophic Risk Survey. By engineered pandemic or nanotechnology run amok, 10 per cent. The risk of human extinction is much lower, but still in the range of one to five per cent.

Natural disasters, in particular a super-volcanic episode such as the one that nearly wiped out humans 75,000 years ago, could spell ruin for civilization even if they didn’t kill off the species. The ash and other particulate spewed into the air would be akin to the nuclear-winter scenarios commonly discussed during the Cold War, lowering temperatures globally for decades.

That would be counter to the most talked about environmental issue in recent years: global warming, aka climate change.

While the Future of Humanity Institute sees the short-term risk from climate change as relatively small, the risk grows with the decades and even centuries, if we make it that far.

Whether or not we’re inducing climate change, if the changes are severe enough, they will have consequences for how we live … if we live.

The Earth has undergone massive changes in a history that’s included humans for only a tiny, tiny fraction of time. The convulsions and catastrophes that preceded us may have shaped our existence, but the ones yet to come will have a direct impact on us.

Natural catastrophes aside, we’re also likely to do ourselves in – either as a species or a civilization – by something manmade, from a biological agent to artificial intelligence run amok.

As FHI’s Nick Bostrom postulates in his vulnerable-world hypothesis, there may in fact be a level of technology at which the destruction of civilization becomes inevitable. It’s a least something worth considering he suggests in an exercise

“One way of looking at human creativity is as a process of pulling balls out of a giant urn. The balls represent possible ideas, discoveries, technological inventions. Over the course of history, we have extracted a great many balls – mostly white (beneficial) but also various shades of grey (moderately harmful ones and mixed blessings). The cumulative effect on the human condition has so far been overwhelmingly positive, and may be much better still in the future,” Bostrom posits.

“What we haven’t extracted, so far, is a black ball: a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it. The reason is not that we have been particularly careful or wise in our technology policy. We have just been lucky.”

We don’t know of any prior civilizations that have been wiped out by its own inventions, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, especially given the unprecedented rate of technological change we’re experiencing.

For some people, the thought of humans having an impact on global climate or unleashing Skynet is as inconceivable as humans ceasing to exist. That doesn’t make either improbable or even unlikely. (As noted, on a cosmic scale, the end will come.) But science tells us more than 99 per cent of all species that ever existed on the planet are now extinct. We differ from all of them in our ability to think, recognize the dangers and, perhaps, do something to alter coming threats. That doesn’t, however, make us immune to the outcomes.


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