7 Deadly Ways Human Civilization Will End, According to A Short History of Nearly Everything
Let me be perfectly clear here, none of these things will end the world. The Earth will go on just fine, probably. It apparently always does. It just won't involve human beings - or, possibly, life more complicated than bacteria - anymore. Most species last around four million years, a milestone we passed a while ago. Statistically, it has been said, all species are extinct
Yellowstone National Park: No, I am not starting this list with a joke. All of the wonderful geysers that people will drive hours to see are caused by volcanic activity. Despite this being common knowledge, especially among the park's caretakers, Bob Christiansen of the United States Geological Survey could not find the recessed volcano's caldera, the mouth from which lava could spew. It was only once NASA coincidentally took some photos and handed them over, believing they might make a nice poster for the visitor's center, that anyone realized the truth. Almost the entirety of the 3,472 square miles of the park is caldera. Yellowstone National Park is one of the largest active supervolcano on the planet. (While "supervolcano" and "megacaldera" are not used by volcanologists in their academic writing, the terms are evocative enough that I will persist in using them.) It has been posited by people who would know that another eruption of Yellowstone would cover North America at least one centimeter deep in ash, significantly more closer to the blast site, which may not sound like too much but which would certainly kill all plant life. All this volcanic ash would clog machinery and any that you (or any animals) breathed in would mutilate your lungs, as it is fine, corrosive glass that does not dissolve in water. Any of you who have dealt with fiberglass insulation have a fair idea of how the human body reacts to tiny shards of fine glass, though it would literally be everywhere and in everything. Your skin and eyes wouldn't stand a chance. Of course, if you were within 1000 miles of the blast, you would die instantly owing to any number of immediate issues, such as heat that would nearly vaporize you and a million tons of rock traveling at speeds that would make the Concord seem downright sluggish. Even if you manage to survive - and you should understand that this is by no means a certainty - the ash would likely block out the sun for years, leading to massive global cooling, which (as you shall read a little on) can become a vicious cycle.
So how likely is this? That depends on who you ask. Park geologists point out that Yellowstone seems to blow every 600,000 years. It last exploded - quite spectacularly - 640,000 years ago, so it is due. The Toba Blast 74,000 years ago (a much smaller explosion than Yellowstone would give us) nearly drove the human race to the brink of extinction, sparing only a few thousand individuals from which we all now descend. On the other hand, Yellowstone seems to be releasing its volatiles, which it would need to keep for a truly devastating eruption, and the magma chamber is cooling and crystallizing. Still, the process of releasing volatiles has been so powerful in the past that it has literally blown away sixty miles of mountains. More recently, an underground explosion blew a hole fifteen meters across and it is unlikely that Yellowstone officials would have the slightest inkling the next times something like this happens. We are frighteningly in the dark when it comes to the actions of the only planet on which we will ever live.
Bacteria/viruses: In the history of humanity, plagues pop up and die out, though often not before they have killed vast swathes of the population. The last notable plague, the Swine Flu, killed more people in World War One than battle did, snuffing out as many as eighty percent of the soldiers in some platoons. Unlike most illnesses, this one afflicted mostly those in their twenties and thirties, sparing the elderly and young children. Of course, we need those people in their twenties to thirties to make more people, so this could have been rather more devastating than it was. For a while, we were quite good at extinguishing many bacterial illnesses with antibiotics. Unfortunately for humanity, we are rather too eager to use this weapon, willfully ignorant of the fact that this gives bacteria every chance to mutate a resistance, which has already happened enough that we've had to run through a gamut of various drugs. In fact, 80% of the antibiotics used in America are given to farm animals to make them a bit hardier. It also makes them breeding grounds for our eventual demise, but who doesn't want a cheaper Big Mac? As if this resistance were not worrying enough, it should be noted that bacteria can readily share genetic information. For all extents, bacteria are all the same organism. This means that a resistance that one bacteria gains can be used by all bacteria. And why shouldn't they? This is their planet. We only live here because they have let us so far.
There are also viruses. Peter Medawar once said of viruses that they are "a piece of nucleic acid wrapped in bad news." Viruses are not alive, they are merely instructions that attach to a living cell and order more of these instructions to be replicated and passed on. Nevertheless, they are capable of killing millions. In fact, some of the most lethal ailments on Earth are viral, many of which are transmitted by mosquitoes who blithely inject it directly into your bloodstream. Encephalitis, malaria, West Nile Virus, and so on are all given to you by mosquitoes. So far, the Human Immuno-Deficiency Virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS, is not among them (any HIV the bug sucks up is digested) but viruses are just as keen to evolve as bacteria. The moment one HIV mutates around this is the day we had better find a cure for the infection or our species will swiftly dwindle to only a few individuals who never left the permafrost.
So how likely is this? It is honestly one of the likelier things that could happen. Where plagues were once geographically isolated, an infected person can now spread it across the globe in a day thanks to airplane travel. Just note the occasional SARS or TB scares. We are giving our germs every chance to see the world, strengthening them through hand sanitizer and antibiotics to become superbugs, such as methicillin resistant staph aureus (MRSA). It does not seem a matter of if we will die out from a plague but when.
No, don't pop a pill! That isn't going to help us.
Earth passing meteor: Movies have lied to you. Should a meteor be headed toward the planet's surface, we cannot send Bruce Willis up with a nuclear missile to blow it to pieces. At the absolute most optimistic - if that is indeed the term we want to use here - we might have six months of awareness before any such meteor came into a collision course with our planet. And that, of course, is only if someone with the right telescope happens to be looking at exactly that patch of sky at precisely the right moment, which is decidedly unlikely. Much more likely is that we would be blithely unaware and then a giant space rock would utterly obliterate us, plunging us into a winter that would not ebb for decades. Don't worry, the meteor would cause earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic explosions everywhere. Debris it scattered into space would rain utter destruction upon the entire world, setting the surface aflame. You wouldn't live to see tomorrow, let alone would you be alive long enough to starve to death. If you happen to be directly under the path of the meteor, you won't even be crushed. Instead, the very air around you will heat to such a point owing to compression that you will simply disappear in a puff of vapor.
Even should we manage to spot the meteor, we will not send up a rocket and blast the rock to smithereens with a nuclear weapon (and then, we would simply be pelted by a series of intensely radioactive space rocks, hardly an improvement). We no longer even have the plans to build a rocket capable of traveling far enough to imply our safety from the meteor (they were discarded in a NASA housecleaning) and it would take us more than six months to build a space shuttle for these purposes under the best conditions. All we could really do is watch and wait, hoping the meteor would pass us by in favor of the much higher gravity of the Sun, which is really no better than the dinosaurs managed.
So how likely is this? Well, we really don't know. It could happen tomorrow. It could never happen again. It's all a matter of probability and there is evidence that it has happened at least six times before Homo Sapiens evolved. But aren't you thrilled we keep cutting NASA's budget?
The reincarnation of Thomas Midgley Jr.: Mr. Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth history." He was a petroleum engineer who wanted to alleviate the engine knocks in cars. He did this by inventing tetraethyl lead, or TEL. This pumped untold amounts of lead into the air and environment. In fact, your blood lead level is something like seventy times that of your ancestor who died before Midgley endeavored upon his experiments. What is especially galling is that he swore it was perfectly safe and held demonstrations wherein he would pour tetraethyl infused gas over his hands and hold it up to his nose, knowing first hand that it was highly dangerous because he was already experiencing acute lead poisoning. Any lead you ingest never leaves your body, which is why it is so dangerous. You can soothe yourself by saying that TEL is banned almost everywhere, mostly, but the fact remains that it is going to take quite a long time for the environment to recover. You, personally, still suffer because of Midgley. As will your children and their children.
Oh, but Midgley was not done. Not by a long shot. After people started to wise up that spewing a neurotoxic metal out of their tailpipes was something of a bad plan and sought to ban it, Midgley set his mind to refrigerants and discovered chlorofluorocarbons, also known as CFC. These are a rapacious atmospheric component that gobble up ozone something like twenty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide and are the main component of the so-called hole in the ozone layer. (The ozone layer absorbs 93-99% of the ultraviolet rays that would otherwise make your skin resemble a pizza when you left your house. By its nature, it is frighteningly thin, somewhere between an inch and a foot.) These are still being pumped into the atmosphere at a staggering rate by companies in more countries than you would imagine, despite being outlawed.
So how likely is this? One man invented both of these chemicals, with a knack for the unfortunate that borders on the savant (he, incidentally, ended up killing himself when be became tangled in the cords of a contraption he invented to help him get out of bed). Who knows what is being invented and discovered now? Our destruction could only be a phone call away, with three easy payments of $24.95. Operators are standing by.
Climate change: I do not simply mean the climate change that is being caused by the neo-Midgleys and your insistence upon taking the SUV to the bottom of your driveway to check your mail, though this obviously contributes. The fact is that our planet happens to like ice ages quite a bit. There is evidence to suggest the whole of human civilization has occurred in during a geologically short vacation between catastrophic winters. I don't happen to like driving in the snow. I am fairly sure I would have more trouble were there to be glaciers. We, as a species, are sub-tropical, having descended from primates that evolved in jungles. We do not do especially well with extreme cold.
All it would take is one especially cold winter to start the process going. The unmelted snow would reflect the sunlight back, reducing the temperature further and causing more snow, which would reflect more sunlight. And so on.
Climatologists believe that a planetary increase of as little as six degrees could increase the violence of the weather exponentially. The last time the world warmed so much, so quickly, almost everything on Earth died.
So how likely is this? Probably fairly likely, in the long term. On the plus side, we will get plenty of warning owing to increasing harsh weather, such as Hurricane Katrina or that Indian tsunami of a few years back. Our best bet is to disturb the atmosphere as little as we can manage and enjoy our trough of nice weather while we have it.
The Sun: This is not to be confused with the below. I'm not especially worried about our sun going nova because we keep fairly careful tabs on one of the main reasons we even exist. However, it should be kept in mind that without much warning at all, the Sun could let loose with a solar flare that would instantly obliterate almost every living creature on the surface of the planet. Even if it didn't get so far as to roast us like marshmallows, the effects on the ionosphere would be catastrophic to us. We rather require that our magnetic shielding stay just where it is if we are to be alive even a few minutes from now.
So how likely is this? We really don't know (again), because it would not leave any sign behind. As far as we know, this could have happened innumerable times in the past or never before. At least we are paying fairly close attention, at least as much as we pay attention to anything. We would likely get the message that something was a bit off, not that we could do a thing about it. Even were you to burrow, it is unlikely you would survive the aftermath, leaving the Earth to be repopulated by a few dozen submariners (and they are not terribly keen to let women go down with them).
A supernova: This is something of a tricky one, since it really could happen at almost any time. It would fry the surface of the planet, both with intense radiation and heat. Some extremophiles may remain, but that will be about the extent of life on Earth for quite a long while. Our kind will almost definitely never be seen again (it's quite miraculous that we were seen in the first place. Intelligent life is hardly the end product of evolution, nor are we remotely near its "end"). Unfortunately, owing to our disinclination to turn our eyes skyward, we would have almost no indication. Fortunately, the information that a nearby (within 10,000 light years) star was going nova travels at the speed of light. Unfortunately, so does the destruction.
So how likely is this? Stars go nova almost daily… probably… we think. Just because we don't happen to notice this, does not mean it does not happen. The universe is far bigger than we are capable of imagining. We don't think any stars in our galactic neighborhood are keen to blow up anytime soon, but we are barely at the beginning of our astronomic study.
Xen likes listing various things in sevens. He might actually be obsessive compulsive in this way. We try not to mention it to him.
Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.