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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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  • 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 [].

  • 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 [] 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.

  • Oddest? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Penurious Penguin ( 2687307 ) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @02:41PM (#41047439) 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.
  • Re:Nature (Score:4, Interesting)

    by theshowmecanuck ( 703852 ) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @03:13PM (#41047665) Journal

    There's nothing sufficiently large to destroy civilization and also on a near collision path.

    FTFY: There's nothing sufficiently large to destroy civilization and also on a near collision path; that we know about.

    Assuming things, can get you killed, that's why we generalize. Obligatory car analogy. If I cross the street at a crosswalk (zebra crossing for almost everyone else outside of North America), I might assume that all drivers will stop to let me cross since it is the law. Always making that assumption will get definitely get me killed or seriously injured someday (hell, when I was young I was almost killed by a police car on an emergency run, lights no siren, while legally crossing the street one time... to be fair a bus on the outside lane blocked both our views, but thank goodness he was paying better attention than me... it's what made me not trust blind faith in traffic lights and crosswalk laws when crossing the street any more). Thinking we will always have sufficient advance knowledge of an extinction event asteroid will eventually kill us all. Precedent has already been set, not only in actual extinctions, but the fact that those size asteroids hit all planets now and then, including earth. I'm not paranoid about it. But I would be if I thought everyone thought like you. While it's not a big possibility in my life, it has a high impact if, well, it impacts. But on the upside, if it does happen, the outcome won't matter to humans after that.

  • 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.

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

    by mk1004 ( 2488060 ) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @04:30PM (#41048145)

    TFA was poorly done. It can be broken down as Global war, pandemics, wide-scale crop failure (Famine), and Global Catastrophe (extrasolar non-cometary impacts, Krakatoa+ volcanic eruptions, etc. Overpopulation by itself isn't a problem; it makes the first three worse: War over land disputes, pandemics spreading faster due to population density and air travel, and more mouths to feed leaves less margin in world-wide crop reserves.

    As a side note, I find it funny that religion is commented on as a possible cause of world-wide war. China is, by many measures, one of the least religious countries in the world. Their saber rattling over disputed land ownership, at least to me, makes them the most likely catalysis of the next major conflict.

  • I recall an experiment that was done about 40 years ago, I think in NYC. It involved a typical dilapidated tenement building that (I think) was due to be torn down. First the scientists interviewed the tenants, who were about to leave. Then they did their own survey, to determine how many rats were seen. Then (somehow?) they isolated the building and killed all the rats, and counted them. The result was that for every rat reported to have been seen, there were ten actual rats. If that is a reasonable ratio (and I think it is), then take the number of rats that the typical New Yorker sees in a year - let's say six, just to put a number on it - there are ten times that many. Human population of NYC is 8.5 million, so multiply by 60 to get 510 imllion rats. I wouldn't be surprised if that was close (1/2 order of magnitude) to the actual number.

    Yes, it's not good science to extrapolate from one old study on one building to the much different environs of an entire city, my memory is vague so I probably have everything wrong (except the 10:1 - I'm sure of that), etc., etc. But it's a reasonable hypothetical number to use as a starting point.

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

    by garyebickford ( 222422 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (cib73rag)> on Sunday August 19, 2012 @05:13PM (#41048457)

    Religions don't like democracy, and autocracies don't like democracy.

    Actually, as was pointed out 200 years ago regarding the establishment of the USA, to that time no democracy has ever survived more than about 200 years. Athens was the first democracy I can think of where bread, circuses and the threat of war were used by the leaders to stay elected (See Pericles). The result was a series of wars and the eventual demise of Athens. IMHO the peoples' virtue or lack thereof is the primary risk, and religion is just a convenient excuse or cause celebre'.

    As someone else once put it (more or less), democracies last until the people realise they can vote themselves bread and circuses. First the people are virtuous and hardworking, then they become wealthy as a result of that hard work, then they become complacent, then they become greedy/needy/decadent, then (since most people are no longer working their ass off), their system collapses, people start to starve, and revolution, war or takeover by the neighbors is next.

  • by Electricity Likes Me ( 1098643 ) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @05:47PM (#41048709)

    We have one billion chronically hungry people today [] and it's going to get far far worse in the coming decades. Man is more populous than the rat and is consuming the earth like a swarm of locusts consuming a crop field.

    Your first sentence does not follow for your second.

    There is more then enough food in the world today to feed the entire human race, plus some extra ones. Instead, most of it is wasted - not overconsumed - but wasted, because it's not possible to distribute it in an effective way.

    Population crises are never going to be a problem because we straight up don't have to feed all the people in the world. We don't now, and that's not going to change in the forseeable future. And, it's not like starving people are able to swim across oceans or defeat a modern army, so the wealthy nations aren't going to be overwhelmed by the poor.

    Additionally, let's suppose we did decide to feed everyone - which is a difficult endeavor. The infrastructure and education you need to make that a viable long term solution, empirically seems to have the side-effect of reducing population growth - if you succeed in preventing famine in an effective way, and start teaching farmers and educating women and children, then in every single place it's been tried, population growth levels off and then declines.

"If the code and the comments disagree, then both are probably wrong." -- Norm Schryer