The crunch comes when we recognize that societies must continually solve problems in order to keep growing. But the solution to these problems requires ever more complex structures. Ultimately, a point is reached where all the resources of the society are consumed just in maintaining the system at its current level. At this point, the society is experiencing a complexity overload; no further degrees of freedom exist for coping with new problems. When the next problem appears, the system cannot accommodate it by adding more complexity. So it collapses quickly through an X-event that rapidly reduces the complexity overload.
You’re probably wondering what sort of “X-event” could create so much havoc that our society would have trouble coping with it for months or years at a time — if ever. Here are a few possibilities.
1) Death by Physics: Destruction of the Earth through the Creation of Exotic Particles!
This is an unlikely yet fun one, if your idea of fun is seeing the entire earth destroyed.
Did you know that when American scientists were first developing a nuclear bomb, there were genuine concerns that the temperatures created by the explosion of a nuclear weapon might be hot enough to set the earth’s atmosphere on fire? That would have quickly baked all of humankind like a giant pot pie. There was enough worry about this possibility that Robert Oppenheimer called for a study on the matter, which concluded that “a nuclear fireball cools down far too rapidly to set the atmosphere aflame.” Since you’re still alive to read this column, happily that was one government report that turned out to be right.
That brings us to the Large Hadron Collider, where scientists are creating mini “Big Bangs” and temperatures a million times hotter than the center of the sun. On the one hand, this has the potential to teach us a lot about physics and the creation of the universe. On the other, we’re toying with powerful forces we don’t understand. Some people even think it has the potential to destroy the planet by creating a black hole. Others fear it could set off a chain reaction caused by strangelets that could wipe out all life on earth. The good news is that it’s probably safe. Probably — and if it isn’t, all of us will be dead before we can yell at the scientists who killed us anyway; so why worry?