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?
2) Digital Darkness: Widespread Failure of the Internet!
The Internet has morphed into the nervous system of the global economy. It’s how you can go to an ATM anywhere and get money. It’s tied into the cash registers you use when you buy from chain stores. It’s how supermarkets and companies like Wal-Mart know where to ship their inventory. Airlines and trains are also dependent on the net for scheduling. All of that is aside from the hundreds of billions of dollars in daily economic transactions and people who rely on the Internet to communicate.
What happens if the net goes down, not in a limited area for an hour or two, but across the entire United States or even the world, for months at a time? With nations like China engaging in organized, sophisticated cyber attacks and hacking, we’d better prepare.
Of course, in an age where sophisticated malware like Stuxnet and FLAME penetrate and take down government systems, it may not be possible to fully secure any system connected to the Internet. Also, all of that assumes that a lone security expert like Robert Kaminsky, who found in the DNS system that which would have allowed him to “reassign any web address, reroute anyone’s e-mail, take over bank accounts or even scramble the whole Internet,” doesn’t exploit weaknesses in the design of the Internet to bring it down.
You think people get aggravated when Twitter or Facebook is down for a couple of hours? Well, imagine having the entire Internet down for a couple of months with no idea when it’s coming back up. At that point, a “fail whale” would be the least of anyone’s problems.
3) Running on Empty: Drying Up of World Oil Supplies!
Peak oil theory has consistently been proven wrong. So, are we likely to run out of oil? No, because as it becomes more expensive, other alternatives will become more attractive. Yet and still, this isn’t Star Trek. Science moves slowly and even after advances become tenable, it still takes time to roll them out.
That’s extremely important because there are relatively few large sources of oil. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates combined account for 60% of the world’s oil reserves. Imagine a couple of very plausible scenarios occurring at the same time — perhaps a war between Israel and Iran along with a civil war in Saudi Arabia. If that were to happen, you could easily see the price of oil double or even triple overnight with no easy fix. No technological alternative could immediately fill the gap and the rest of the world wouldn’t be able to produce enough to make up for the shortage.
In poorer nations, that would make oil such an expensive commodity that it could practically shut down their economies. That wouldn’t happen in wealthier Western countries like the United States, but you could see gas lines, enforced conservation, and dramatically reduced economic growth coupled with runaway inflation. If oil pipelines and refineries were damaged in the fight or other oil producers decided to gouge instead of helping to alleviate the problem, it’s entirely possible the economic pain could drag on for years and make the Carter era look like, well, the Carter era with twice as much Jimmy Carter!
4) I’m Sick of It: Global Pandemic!
Over the course of human history our species has endured some monumental pandemics. In the 1300s the Bubonic plague killed roughly 100 million people and reduced the population of Europe somewhere between 30% to 60%.
Keep in mind that the population of the earth was probably only somewhere around 450 million back then; so that would be roughly the equivalent of a plague that killed 75 million people in the United States today. The Spanish Flu was even worse. It also killed roughly 100 million people out of a much larger population, but it did it in about six months. If something that severe hit today, it would eradicate roughly 350 million people worldwide over the same timeframe. The scary thing is that it’s entirely possible a new natural plague could hit or, worse yet, an old virus re-engineered as a bioweapon could be loosed. While we have better sanitation than the old days and medical science has advanced considerably, it’s still entirely possible that our own personal Andromeda Strain could cause so much population loss and economic damage that it could take decades to overcome.
5) Technology Run Amok: Intelligent Robots Overthrow Humanity!
Ever seen I, Robot, The Matrix, or read Michael Crichton’s book Prey about Nanobots run wild? Then you get the general idea. At this early juncture in history, where machines aren’t very advanced, a robot rampage seems like an idea that should be left to science fiction. Is your toaster going to hop on over and treat you like a croissant while you sleep? It’s laughable.
Except that line of thinking ignores a key trend: if Moore’s Law continues to hold up, we should have computers that are as smart and mentally flexible as human beings by 2020. Put another way, by 2021 we may have computers that are smarter than the average person and increasing their intellectual superiority by the year. The idea that we can command and control intellects that far exceed our own seems plausible as long as they’re greatly limited in their capacity. However, what happens if and when we have androids as advanced as Data from Star Trek or The Terminator? It’s entirely possible that when that day comes, it could be the beginning of the post-human phase of life on earth.
More on the Future from John Hawkins: