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Earth Science Technology

How Technology Might Avert an Apocalypse 201

Posted by samzenpus
from the science-to-the-rescue dept.
First time accepted submitter deapbluesea writes "Matt Ridley recounts the many predictions of catastrophe that have been made by prominent figures in the past. 'The classic apocalypse has four horsemen, and our modern version follows that pattern, with the four riders being chemicals (DDT, CFCs, acid rain), diseases (bird flu, swine flu, SARS, AIDS, Ebola, mad cow disease), people (population, famine), and resources (oil, metals).' From over population, to pandemics, peak oil to climate change, Ridley provides examples of human innovation that have averted the disasters, real or imagined. He does not declare the doomsayers to be wrong, merely hyperbolic in their predictions. 'We hear a lot from those who think disaster is inexorable if not inevitable, and a lot from those who think it is all a hoax. We hardly ever allow the moderate "lukewarmers."' Given the current discussions on rich vs poor, conservative vs liberal, religious versus non-religious, maybe a little moderation should be in order. After all, there are a lot of examples of 'experts' who got it completely wrong in the past."
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How Technology Might Avert an Apocalypse

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  • by popo (107611) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:02PM (#41047153) Homepage

    Sorry, but that's the oddest set of "Apocalypse" categories I've ever seen.

    "Population"?

    No war? No giant asteroid? No gamma ray pulse from a nearby star going nova?

    • by anared (2599669)
      Yeah, pretty ridiculous, we arent even near of apocalypse by population... War and weapon technology on the other hand...
      • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:35PM (#41047387) Homepage

        Yeah, pretty ridiculous, we arent even near of apocalypse by population... War and weapon technology on the other hand...

        Depends on your time frame [umich.edu]. 10 years no, 50 years, perhaps (note that the slope of the rise is dropping fast - whether it's fast enough remains to be seen).

        • by Troed (102527) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @03:16PM (#41047675) Homepage Journal

          The median UN projection is for our population to top out just below 10 billion at around 2070, and then decline.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth#Human_population_growth_rate [wikipedia.org]

          • by Shavano (2541114)
            As population increases it increases our vulnerability to the many causes of crop failures. But improved transportation works the other way.
          • The problem isn't the people so much as the conditions. You pack poor folks like rats and diseases have a perfect breeding ground. You have serious sanitation, health care, and potable drinking water problems compounded by humans simply being packed too tightly into too small a space and get ready for the nasty bugs. Hell look at how many drugs end up in the rivers thanks to sewage being filled with them which also helps the bugs by breeding resistance which again made worse by too many in too small a space.

            It might be different if you were putting them into clean skyscrapers or some other form of affordable safe clean housing but as we see all over the third world and sadly more and more in the first world what you get is shanty towns with all of the above problems and disease carrying bugs like mosquitoes, rats, fleas, roaches, we could easily have a drug resistant plague or superflu come out of one of those and with worldwide travel it'd spread like wildfire.

            This is of course not figuring in the risk of some crazy terrorist group or nation state actually cooking up a nasty bug for a weapon, or a nice long war in an overpopulated region accelerating the squalor and leaving lots of wounded open to infection. 1917 flu anyone?

            Not saying any of this is 100% guaranteed to happen, just pointing out as the numbers get higher so too does the risk. After all its not the people in the nice places having 8 to 10 kids, its those living in hellholes without access to birth control and who need as many hands for manual labor as possible and to insure some live without having access to decent medical care.

    • Sorry, but that's the oddest set of "Apocalypse" categories I've ever seen.

      "Population"?

      No war? No giant asteroid? No gamma ray pulse from a nearby star going nova?

      Oh, if you read the TFA you'll find that the 'usual suspects' are still there.

      Nobody's particular original with this end-of-world stuff.

      That's great,
      It starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes .....

    • Oddest? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Penurious Penguin (2687307) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:41PM (#41047439) Homepage Journal
      In the end we almost survived - but the solution had been copyrighted. The Establishment had opted to uphold the patents rather than avert our final demise and anger Emperor Troll. Though Emperor Troll was the last beast on Earth, there was nothing for him to live for and he soon followed. However, much of the planet's other species began to thrive once again. Dolphins eventually took to land and continued to evolve. Uninhibited by the manacles of a silly tongue, their communication was pure and intentions toward the stars, though never neglectful of home. Their endeavors were neither cannibal or competitive; they were of joy and free expression. They were not without their troubles, and many years passed before they ironed out the vestiges of a primitive past, but they grew and quickly so, as they did not hold each other down for the elevation of another. Reality was a goal and not a nightmare. To them, life was not a crime, nor was it something to be suffered, but something to embrace with the entirely of their potential. They eventually left Earth after some time. After traversing space for aeons, they conquered the limitation of will imposed by Universe. Form became optional and distance irrelevant. But from 'time' to 'time' they did visit Earth. Strangely, they never did bother to teach the history of humanity - it was self-implied. But they did build, leave and maintain a monument to Emperor Troll, which a strange and suspiciously human-like species would gaze at from great distance in wonder, but remained afraid to discuss.
    • by Lorens (597774)

      War (well, the sword) is definitely a classic.

      First horseman: conqueror
      Second horseman : war
      Third horseman : the economic oppressor
      Fourth horseman : Death (and Hell followed with him, killing with sword, famine, disease, beasts)

  • Survivor Bias (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dcollins (135727) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:07PM (#41047183) Homepage

    "After all, there are a lot of examples of 'experts' who got it completely wrong in the past."

    That's a good example of survivor bias [wikipedia.org].

    • Re:Survivor Bias (Score:5, Insightful)

      by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:14PM (#41047251)

      It's also up in the air what qualifies as an apocalypse. I'm pretty sure for the people who were in Hiroshima on a certain day, the world as they knew it ended... to them that was the apocalypse. For the people in the airplane, not so much.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Surt (22457)

      Yeah those quotes around the 'experts' are very important. Actual experts have never been wrong.

      • Re:Survivor Bias (Score:5, Interesting)

        by jc42 (318812) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @03:56PM (#41047901) Homepage Journal

        Actual experts have never been wrong.

        But they have often been ignored. ;-)

        Here in the US, we had a case much smaller than the K-T asteroid impact just a few years ago, in New Orleans. If you want to read about what the experts were saying, google "Hurricane Pam". That was a simulation/exercise that studied the effects of a hurricane much like Katrina. The study did a remarkably good job of describing the impact of Katrina. Part of the study pinpointed the places where the levees would be breached. Applications to Congress for funding to fortify those levees were voted down.

        Human history is full of similar events, when the experts made accurate predictions of disasters, and the people in charge decided to ignore them.

        • by mha (1305)

          That's hindsight bias. There are LOTS of disasters being predicted all the time - so what do you do? AFTERWARDS saying "oh we should have listened to THAT guy" is sooooo useless. Please make your statement not for the past but for the future, and let us come back to measure your success rate 10yrs hence.

      • Actual experts have never been wrong.

        Hahahaha. So cute, such trust. :) I assume you jest. But just in case someone believes that, here are some counter examples.

        My 1960s era Earth Sciences grade school textbook mentioned the idea that the surface of the Earth might be comprised of several huge plates, and that the land masses might once have been all connected. But "All reputable scientists agree that this could not the case." I remember this, because I had just read a SciAm article discussing plate tectonics (the book was probably five y

        • by Surt (22457)

          An expert by definition isn't wrong. All those people were were scientists. Being proven wrong demonstrates your non-expertise.

          • Since nobody is perfect all the time, nobody is an expert. Therefore the "definition" is useless.

            Ok, now come up with an actual definition for "expert" that reflects reality and has actual practical applications. That's the one everyone else is using, not the definition you pulled out of your arse to make a nonsensical point about on an internet forum.

    • by Kohath (38547)

      Survivor bias implies the existence of survivors. Also, the populations of survivors seem to be thriving.

      Call it bias if you want, but do you really think we've all forgotten all the narrowly-averted apocalypses? Or were the predictions of doom exaggerated? Which is more likely?

  • [PSA] Ken Starks of HeliOS fame has 2-3 weeks left

    This is one of those put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is situations. From his partner's blog at http://linuxlock.blogspot.com/2012/08/this-is-where-we-are.html [blogspot.com]

    Ken's cancer has just recently begun to spread to his right lymph node but his Oncologist has assured us that this is 80 percent curative if he gets the needed surgery in time.

    Unfortunately, his 1100 dollar a month SSI disability disqualifies him for Medicaid care and the local county low-income insurance he was receiving. This leaves us with about 2 weeks to either raise enough money for at least the OR for the surgery (we are hopeful of finding a surgeon to do the work pro bono) or raise enough money for the entire procedure. We've spent hours upon hours researching and contacting the links some of you have provided but they are so limited in scope that 90 percent of them are not helpful at all.

    We are looking at two weeks, maybe three before the cancer spreads past the point of surgery being an option. After that, we've been told just to make him as comfortable as possible until he passes. I'm not ready to accept that.

    Stupid, this Medicare exclusion. More about the guy, by Steven Vaughan-Nichols of ZDnet fame [zdnet.com]:

    +Ken Starks is a Linux and open-source supporter. He also runs a non-profit that's donated thousands of PCs to low-income households. Now, he needs help to fight cancer. For more on what's happening with him see:

    http://thomasaknight.com/blog.php?id=71 [thomasaknight.com]

    https://plus.google.com/app/plus/mp/374/#~loop:view=activity&aid=z132y3njjzjei5iic04cjds4ztnpef1pjb0 [google.com]

    Pitch in if you can.

    • by SuperKendall (25149) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:30PM (#41047361)

      I was about to give up donating since you can't view a Plus link without a Plus account.

      Then I tried the thomasknight link, a donate button was there.

  • by gmuslera (3436) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:10PM (#41047221) Homepage Journal
    Or at least, humans using that technology? From nuclear winter to idiocracy there is a whole range of apocalypses where technology have a major role.
    • You fail to see the true "apocalypse" that's right under your nose. As nature has done time and again, it has used the other species to push forth a better version... You smugly believe you humans are the highest rung on the evolutionary ladder. You are not. You're in the process of bringing about your own demise via freeing cognition from its organic limitations. Your only hope is to make peace with the technology, or merge with it.

      Even though Humans have shied away from evolution and natural selection by prolonging the lives of the unfit, even polluting the gene pool via allowing them to breed, natural selection still carries out its task through you all. Much like water born life in the sea became more hearty to survive on land and in the air, nature is hard at work creating life that can survive in the harshness of space.

      Once life itself caused a huge cataclysm to befall this tiny blue world -- The Great Oxygenation Catastrophe [wikipedia.org] was likely the single most devastating event, killing off most of the anaerobic life. Were it not for this disaster, larger lifeforms would not have formed so quickly: Oxygen is jet fuel for big beasts. Where some see an apocalypse in The Great Inorganic Awakening, others see life fulfilling its prime directive.

      • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:51PM (#41047483) Homepage

        You can't frighten us, anaerobic pig bacteria!
        Go and boil your cell walls, daughter cells of a silly archea.
        I blow my pores at you, you and your so called nitrate loving freaks!

      • by humanrev (2606607)

        You smugly believe you humans are the highest rung on the evolutionary ladder. You are not.

        Your style of posting is very odd.

        "You humans"? What kind of talk is that? You ARE a human! Only someone suffering from a severe detachment from society would consider themselves enough of an outcast to refer to the rest of humanity as "you humans". Unless you're a LOLcat who'd learnt how to type a coherent sentence rather than walking on the keyboard, please try to accept that you're one of us, and as such we're all

  • by cowboy76Spain (815442) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:28PM (#41047353)

    Oh, my, I must have been sleeping a lot lately.

    To think that I believed that we were still in 2012...

    Seriously, the author of these "articles" should disclose how to find his drug dealer. Must be some serious stuff.

    • by Surt (22457)

      US CO2 emissions are at their lowest level in 20 years, and we are in talks to do the same for the Chinese. How? By frakking natural gas. Which averts peak oil, and replaces it with peak natural gas.

  • by vlm (69642) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:29PM (#41047359)

    Seems poorly researched

    In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist, forecast that gas production in the US would peak at about 14 trillion cubic feet per year sometime around 1970.

    Oil production not gas

    All these predictions failed to come true. Oil and gas production have continued to rise during the past 50 years.

    Sorry, blatantly false. Try to find a US oil production graph showing this, LOL. Prediction dead accurate.

    • by Animats (122034) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @03:17PM (#41047693) Homepage

      US oil production not only peaked in 1970, it's about half of what it was then. [wikipedia.org] Texas (!) is a net oil importer. World oil production has been more or less flat since 2005, despite a price increase from $20/bbl to $100/bbl.

      World natural gas production is up, and US natural gas production is way up. Not clear how long that can continue. Gas wells can be pumped out faster than oil wells, and production drops off rapidly towards the end. Oil wells slow down more gradually, ending up as "stripper wells", producing less than 10 bbl/day each. The US has about 400,000 of those; it adds up.

    • Sorry, blatantly false. Try to find a US oil production graph showing this, LOL. Prediction dead accurate.

      Oddly enough I did read an article this week, discussing this very topic. Proven reserves of oil are now four times what they were in 1970. The same or similar is true of gold, aluminum, and various other resources. Granted, the technologies of extraction have made all the difference, and it costs more in some cases as we go deeper, etc. But that is the essence of tech progress: "exchanging small simple problems for bigger, more complex ones."

      • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @07:22PM (#41049295)

        There have been a lot of those articles lately, mostly appearing in small town newspapers where feedback isn't possible, so you can't quickly get pointed to the sites that show what nonsense it is. They're meant to show up on Google and reassure investors and the public, not to convey actual information.

        Behind the scenes the real problem is almost invisible. We're not mining hydrocarbons, per se. We're mining energy. In the 1960s, in West Texas, the energy in one barrel of oil got you 100 more. Fast forward to 2012. A ratio of 10:1 is considered very good - a 10-fold decrease in 50 years. We used to have enough slack in the system to provide enough energy so that we didn't even have to raise prices. That changed in 2005. Energetically speaking, we ran out of slack. Now, actual quantities matter. Shortages of product mean shortages of energy and immediate increases in price.

        Energy return on hydrocarbons is still declining. The $64 billion question is, "How low can the energy return on hydrocarbons go and still produce enough energy to sustain itself AND run industrial civilization at present levels. The problem is, of course, that there's no simple easy answer to that question. The funny (not haha funny) thing is, that even if there are oceans of oil under the surface of the earth, it won't matter if we can't get at them in an energetically positive manner. A teacup of oil in a cubic yard of granite 7 miles down does us no good, no matter how many such teacups might exist.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    we hardly ever hear from the moderate voices who say the sun comes from somewhere inbetween. Sometimes halfway between the truth and bullshit is just as bullshitty.

  • by Chemisor (97276) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:54PM (#41047517)

    Unfortunately, he fails to mention the often forgotten fifth horseman, who brings about a decline in innovation. From what I see in the news today, he may already be here. Doom is certainly upon us!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 19, 2012 @03:37PM (#41047793)

      Unfortunately, he fails to mention the often forgotten fifth horseman, who brings about a decline in innovation.

      The Conqueror, War, Famine, Death and, most horrifying of all, the Patent Office.

    • by kamapuaa (555446)

      What the fuck? Doesn't Slashdot have enough threads about hating patents? Why bring it in to one about technology creating an apocalypse?

  • Asteroid impact

    Supervolcano

    Nuclear war

    Grey goo

    Brain fever

    and many more...

  • The world more than likely was going to starve until the Haber process was developed that allowed us to increase production of food. Saying that the food crisis was hyperbolic or was just randomly solved is sheer ignorance of history and technology. Fritz Harber and Carl Bosch, in Germany in the years prior to WWI likely saved the world from a major disaster. If it would have happened sooner, and Germany was able to have the resources it needed, the history of the early 20th century might have been much
    • by Troed (102527)

      The CRT puts out a great deal of radiation and wastes a great deal of energy. Through a series of regulations at various national levels, a standard was put in place to limit the radiation of the CRT. The ultimate solution was the LCD, but that was expensive. However, in a short time, due to interaction between government and corporate interests, almost everyone has moved away from the CRT to a more efficient and safe LCD. Does the CRT really cause damage? Who knows, but because all this was done under the table we are saved from the hooligans of conservatism and libertarians shouting from the rooftops that the LCD is a communist plot and anyone who wants an LCD hates America, or whatever.

      I congratulate you to a well written troll post. However, there are some nutcases that really believe a CRT TV put out harmful radiation, you might want to make sure you don't get confused with them in any way.

      http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/content/latest-questions/question/2417/ [thenakedscientists.com]

      • by mk1004 (2488060)
        At the last place I worked, a silicon valley company, we replaced virtually all of the CRTs with LCDs within one year's time. The CEO decided that the savings from the lower electrical consumption would quickly pay back the initial outlay. Radiation concerns, real or imagined, had nothing to do with the decision.
    • by Kohath (38547)

      Your LCD argument is just silly. People buy LCD TVs because they are lighter, they take up less space, and can provide a large high definition picture. Safety is irrelevant because CRTs were never found to be unsafe when properly produced and shielded. LCDs are not a gift from government, nor was government a major part of the reason we all switched to LCDs.

      The rest of your post may or may not be correct. We certainly need to be able to compromise between zero government and totalitarianism. It would b

      • by vlm (69642)

        People buy LCD TVs because they are lighter, they take up less space, and can provide a large high definition picture.

        LOL they only buy them to show off how much money they have, or how trendy in general. Also high def TVs were CRT in the old days when HD was new.

        Ask your average goofball how much more money they'd pay, or how excited they'd be for a 10% lighter TV and they'd be all WTF who cares. On the other hand, if you offered them a free $5000 TV solely so they could brag to their future dating partner / neighbor / the guys at work how they have a $5000 TV and they'll faint with excitement.

        As my CRTs have died I hav

        • by tnk1 (899206)

          I don't know how you could argue that LCDs are only popular because they are "trendy".

          If people wanted to simply be conspicuous consumers, all they needed to do was buy gold plated toilets. You have an LCD TV because it grants you an advantage. It may well not be economical to own a 50" TV, but if you were going to buy a 50" TV, it is probably one of the most economical ways to go about it. I think you are confusing the trend to buy 50" TVs with the development of the LCD. Buying a TV that big may well b

          • by vlm (69642)

            If people wanted to simply be conspicuous consumers, all they needed to do was buy gold plated toilets.

            LOL that doesn't even make sense. I know this is slashdot, but which line is more likely to work:

            "Hey baby lets go back to my place and watch a movie on my new $3000 TV"

            or

            "Hey baby lets go back to my place and you can take a dump in my gold plated toilet"

            On /. I suppose a pickup line would be more like "I just got a new $600 graphics card, wanna play Dayz on it?" Or whatever. It has a much better chance of working than a gold plated crapper anyway.

            Also, toward the peak of the recent ongoing housing bubbl

  • Or, y'know, maybe applying human-generated myths to actual, present-day scientific observations isn't needed, as humans are so completely inconsequential it's laughable.

    • by Jeremi (14640)

      Hmm, if the pseudo-neo-Mayans aren't convinced after seeing the sun rise on December 22nd, 2012, I don't think that January 1st, 2013 is going to convince them either.

    • by tnk1 (899206)

      Some of the myths are laughable, of course, but some of them are stories to explain actual astronomical events that we did not have science to explain. Humans are far from inconsequential, very simply because we're the only observers that we are aware of. That doesn't mean that everything we believe is the same as the way it is, but we perceive reality, even if we don't know what it means most of the time.

      We really need to get away from this idea that it is somehow virtuous or accurate that humans are inc

  • True, but obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stevelinton (4044) <sal@dcs.st-and.ac.uk> on Sunday August 19, 2012 @03:26PM (#41047743) Homepage

    It's true, of course, that there are many more apparent imminent catastrophes (AICs) than actual catastrophes, especially as we are still here to argue about it.
    Some AICs arise from incomplete understanding, some from politically motivated woolly thinking and will go away if ignored. Some are real risks and we just get lucky. Others are partially mitigated by actions taken in response to the apparent threat (Y2K for instance). Some may be fully genuine threats averted by prompt action. Nuclear war between NATO and Warsaw pact in the 60s or 70s might be argued to fall into this category. CND and others successfully undermined the notion of "winnable nuclear war" and made sure that no Western politicians would risk nuclear war.

    However, NONE OF THIS MEANS THAT THE NEXT ONE WILL NOT BE REAL. Probably it won't, but we can't just assume it isn't a real threat because the last one wasn't. We have to study each plausible threat, do our best to estimate the risk and where the risk appears significant, do what we can to mitigate it. The universe does not owe us continued existence, let alone continued civilization.

  • 1) Monetary collapse
    2) Energy return from hydrocarbons dropping so close to 1:1 that they are no longer a viable energy source (*Not* the strawman "peak oil" arguments).
    3) Nuclear war
    4) Any disaster which stops nuclear plant maintenance on a large scale (See reasons above).

    Strictly speaking, 1 and 2 are "just" the collapse of the interdependent web of "just-in-time" supply chains, however, once gone, they may not be repairable in the lifetime of any living human. 3 is supply chain collapse plus infrastructu

    • Nonsense. The greatest threat to humanity is itself. Only need one fruitcake in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and even what little good is done these days quickly becomes undone.

      • That's an interesting point that I've thought about a few times - as civilization becomes more technical and more intertwined, the value of what surrounds each of us, and the potential cost of a mistake or a purposeful act, becomes greater and greater. In the extreme you have a pilot flying a $1.5 billion airplane, or the captain of a ship that could cause similar levels of cost due to a collision. But even on the highway, a serious auto accident is likely to cost more than the combined annual incomes of t

        • by dcollins (135727)

          "Is personal liberty the inevitable victim of advanced civilization?"

          I kind of think so, yes. Not to the degree it's being victimized right now (drug war), though.

  • People who go through life experiencing a constant feeling of impending doom that does not dissapate when the claimed causes are shown not to be valid need access to a therapist to about their childhood, not access to public policy.
  • by PPH (736903)

    Use technology to trigger your own apocalypse. The odds of two apocalypses striking this planet are vanishingly small.

  • But I get to be the second horseman, you insensitive clod!

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