Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice … so said Robert Frost in his poem Fire and Ice. It’s one of his most famous (and certainly most anthologised) poems, and I’m not going to argue with the late, great Mr Frost, but still … when you think about it, there are far more than two ways for the world to end. I’ve recently been reading Stephen King’s The Stand, in which the end of the world as we know it comes courtesy of a superflu pandemic, which is one widely-discussed prospect. But there are a number of other possibilities…
Post-apocalyptic fiction seems rather well suited to our troubled times, and I’m even toying with the idea of trying it out myself. Of course, the nature of the post-apocalyptic world depends on the nature of the apocalypse and so, to clarify my thinking (and also because I’m of a vaguely morbid turn of mind), here are some potential scenarios, complete with my own assessment of how likely I think each one is. (A little caveat: I am not an expert in any of the matters here discussed. There’s no need to panic, or indeed do anything at all, on the basis of this post. If you know more about these things than I do, feel free to chip in with a comment.)
Solar flares are magnetic outbursts on the sun which shower Earth with a surge of high-speed subatomic particles. The impact of ordinary flares is lessened by our atmosphere, but a superflare would be far more serious, destroying the ozone layer and frying Earth. Our sun seems to be relatively stable, generally speaking, but even a small fluctuation in solar activity could lead to disruption down here.
The largest solar storm on record – the Carrington Event, named after the astronomer Richard Carrington – occurred in 1859. The geomagnetic disturbances were such that the Northern Lights could be seen as far south as Cuba, while telegraph operators recorded sparks flying from their equipment. Of course, in 1859 the world largely ran on steam, so such phenomena caused little actual damage. If it happened today, we might experience extended power outages, disturbances to satellite technology, and disruption of GPS systems (which are part of everything from your smartphone to aircraft).
Probability: this non-astronomer guesses it to be about 2/5. Counter-arguments welcome.
War is something of a constant in human history, but the potential scale of destruction in modern times is larger than it’s ever been. The number of nuclear weapons in the world today is staggering, and while it might be argued that the presence of a nuclear arsenal actually helps to ensure peace (mutually assured destruction), there are no guarantees. There are other types of weaponry too, which might lead to widespread destruction; bioweapons, for example, are relatively cheap and easy to produce, which might make them appealing to a terrorist group or rogue state.
Yes, it’s a sci-fi favourite, but that doesn’t mean it’s outside the bounds of possibility. AI and robotics are becoming ever more sophisticated, and rapidly so, so who’s to say that machines might not one day equal, or even surpass, humans in both intelligence and consciousness? The robot revolt, with robots rising up against their human masters, is a fictional trope, but perhaps what will actually happen is a symbiosis between humans and machines, a possibility that is discussed in Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus (which I recommend). Whether this counts as the end of humankind or the next rung on the evolutionary ladder depends on your point of view.
We’re not talking about a recession here, but about something that will make the 1929 Wall Street Crash look like the merest blip. We had our last experience of economic crisis in 2008, but perhaps that was just a little foretaste of what’s to come. The potential causes of an economic breakdown include an oil embargo, an Internet super-virus, or terrorist attacks.
In the event of a total economic collapse, a number of things might happen: banks would close, and demand for food and other provisions would outstrip supply. Should the collapse effect governments and authorities, even the most basic necessities, such as water and electricity, might cease to be available. Within a relatively short space of time, we could revert to a barter-style economy, and that’s the optimistic scenario. If things got really bad, it could be a case of each man and woman for him- or herself, at least for a while.
Disruption of the Ecosystem
The Earth is a magnificent and delicately-balanced organism, but we humans are rarely content to stick to our own little niche. Human activity is having a massive impact on biodiversity, often in ways we can’t see or don’t consider until it’s too late, and the consequences could be profound. If, for example, certain pollinating insects were to become extinct, it could lead to widespread crop failure.
Bacteria and Viruses
Oh, those pesky little microbes … too tiny to be seen, too potentially serious to be ignored. The Plague killed a quarter of Europeans in the fourteenth century. Influenza ended at least 20 million lives between 1918 and 1919. Modern medicine offers a degree of protection, but we can’t afford to be complacent: diseases such as cholera and measles are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, and the ease and speed of international travel means that those nasty pathogens can spread farther and faster than ever before.
Direct Asteroid Impact
Tacky Hollywood treatments notwithstanding, this prospect is less a possibility than a certainty in the fullness of time. Why, in 1908 a 200-foot-wide comet fragment exploded over the Tunguska region of Siberia with nearly 1,000 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Objects more than half-a-mile wide (one of which comes, statistically, every 250,000 years) would lead to firestorms, followed by a period of global cooling. Humanity might survive such an impact, but there’s a real possibility that human civilisation would not. An even bigger asteroid might lead to an extinction-level event.
Probability: a chilling 5/5; it’s a question of when rather than if.
Ah well … I was planning to end this post with a few cheery and reassuring words about how unlikely any of these scenarios are. As I sit here typing these words now, it occurs to me that we’re very vulnerable indeed. Actually, we’re doomed. If one thing doesn’t get us, something else will. Does anyone have any comforting words, or do our post-apocalyptic fantasies actually stand a chance of coming horribly true?
In the meantime, here’s some suitably doom-laden music to accompany the end of the world…