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Earth Science Technology

How Technology Might Avert an Apocalypse 201

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.


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

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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 []. 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 Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:38PM (#41047411)

    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 History's Coming To ( 1059484 ) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @03:16PM (#41047685) Journal
    Could you please explain how an extinction level asteroid impact can be ruled out? I believe we're getting to the stage where we might actually get some warning (a big improvement over the last few decades), but I don't believe we're in a position to divert one. Technically, yes, but politically, no chance.
  • True, but obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stevelinton ( 4044 ) <> 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.

  • Re:Classic Causes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @04:16PM (#41048051) Journal

    War is still very possible for two major reasons: Religions don't like democracy, and autocracies don't like democracy. As long as there are Religions with political power, war is possible. As long as there are nations in which the People are not the masters of their Government, war is possible.

    Even the beginner student of history understands that wars are almost inevitably economic in nature. Religion is a useful tool, but I doubt there are more than a handful of wars throughout history whose underlying causes were religious. Even the Crusades, whatever the high flying religious rhetoric used to justify them, were more about Western and Central European Princes getting a piece of the action in one of the most important trade corridors in the world.

    As to the claim about religions not liking democracy, that is pretty absurd. Modern democracy first began to grow in Protestant states, and that has economic underpinnings as well, as Protestantism was a useful tool for many European princes to break the political bonds with the autocratic Catholic Church. The growing mercantile classes, particularly in England, Scotland and the Low Countries, espoused forms of Protestantism very friendly to the notion of a thrifty sober working class, and it is this class that battled against the autocratic leanings of Absolute Monarchy (with all its Medieval and unspoken Medieval Catholic underpinnings), ultimately, in Britain at least, leading to one of the great revolutions in history; the Glorious Revolution which saw the Bill of Rights, 1689 enacted into law (and in one fashion or another inherited by pretty much all of Britain's former colonial holdings). This had solid Protestant underpinnings, so I would hardly say religion is an anathema to democracy.

    In the end even the Catholic Church ended up heavily liberalizing, though it has a far uneasier alliance with democracy than Protestantism generally does.

    As to autocratic states, well, they have little trouble doing business with democracies providing said democracies stay out of their internal affairs. China has no problem with Western democracy, since both have found a path by which everyone can make lots of money. Again, economics rules everything.

  • 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.

  • 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.

"The following is not for the weak of heart or Fundamentalists." -- Dave Barry