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Existential threats

Here's another game it's useful to learn how to play if you want to write near-future science fiction: spot the Existential Threat.

An existential threat (for purposes of this thought experiment) is some phenomenon or activity — it may be natural or may be human-contrived — that threatens, in ascending order of threatliness, the survival of (1) technological civilization, (2) the human species itself, (3) life on Earth, or (4) the universe. It may also be qualified by the probability of it happening annually. Obviously, a type 3 event that occurs on average once every ten billion years is nothing to lose sleep over (that's the estimated life expectancy of our planet), while a type 1 event with a probability of 10% per annum is definitely worrying.

Before I invite you to join in and supply some of your own, here are some pointers:

The classic example of a human-contrived type 1 existential threat was (and remains) a super-power level nuclear war. While human civilization could survive a limited nuclear exchange (for example, between India and Pakistan, involving less than 250 warheads), a full-scale US/Soviet war fought between 1965 and 1985 would have involved between 10,000 and 50,000 nuclear warheads, most of them thermonuclear, and almost the entire developed world would have been reduced to rubble. In some regions, the consequences of such a war would have approximated a type 2 threat: the UK, for example, discontinued civil defence in the late 1970s after estimates of the surviving population after 6 months dropped to 2% of the pre-war population.

I'm not attaching a probability to this particular threat, but we came horrifyingly close on several occasions over the past 60 years (the time of greatest danger probably being late 1983, during the Able Archer/Operation RYAN crisis).

Other speculative type 1 human-contrived threats include: massive anthropogenic climate change (80% of the human population lives within 200 miles of a coastline, so rising sea levels would result in really serious resettlement issues), a catastrophic failure of the global financial system coinciding with energy price instability, and so on.

There are natural type 1 existential threats, too. A Carrington event such as the coronal mass ejection of August 28th to September 2nd, 1859, would wreak havoc with electricity grids worldwide, destroying high voltage transformers and blacking out very large parts of the globe: it could well take years to rebuild infrastructure after such a magnetic storm, and our current dependence on just-in-time logistics means that we might not be able to weather the inevitable shortages.

Again, a supervolcano eruption probably qualifies as a type 1 threat — or possibly a type 2 threat, depending on magnitude. The Yellowstone caldera erupts roughly once per 600,000 years, and produces an ash fall on the order of a thousand times greater than the Mount St Helens eruption of 1980; one supereruption resulted in ash deposits over 30cm deep more than 1500km away from the caldera. The last eruption, 640,000 years ago, blasted around 1000 cubic kilometres of rubble and dust into the sky: the effects on insolation would be global, resulting in worldwide crop failures for many years after such an event. Yellowstone is not the only active supervolcano on Earth, and an eruption of any one of them is likely to have drastic global effects.

I suspect there would be human survivors from even a major supereruption — but such an event would probably mark the end of global civilization and possibly reduce the survivors to early iron-age techniques for a while.

Type 2 human-contrived threats are somewhat rarer, insofar as nobody is likely to do such a thing deliberatelyTom Clancy fantasies aside, nobody actually wants to render the human species extinct. [WARNING: commenters who contradict me on this will be asked to provide formal references or shut the hell up. A lot of groups assert that proponents of rival ideologies want to do horrible things, but on examination this almost always turns out to be propaganda.]

We are probably capable of intentionally exterminating humanity. One method was discovered more or less by accident by Australian vaccine researchers in 1996: we now know (more or less: I don't think anyone's been crazy enough to test it) how to create a genetically modified strain of smallpox likely to be highly contagious and have 100% mortality in humans (by using the gene coding for interleukin-4 to suppress cellular immunity in its victims). Other, more expensive methods might include using gravity tugs to tug 200 metre near-earth asteroids towards the Earth, rather than away from it — presumably to one-up the annoying neighbour bragging about their 100 megaton H-bomb.

But deliberate human-origin type 2 threats aren't that interesting, because they presuppose the presence of a moustachio-twirling super-villain who wants to kill everyone, including themselves, and who can convince enough followers to join in to make a decent fist of the project: this is, on the face of it, unlikely.

What are the accidental type 2 existential threats we might create over the next century?

I'm not going to discuss climate change: it's too obvious, and besides, it's a third rail for intelligent discourse on this blog. Nor am I going to discuss the prospects of a hard take-off hostile singularity: you've all seen the Terminator movies, right? And the grey goo scenario is somewhat discredited these days.

In fact, I'm going to eschew anything on the Wikipedia list of risks to civilization, humans, and planet Earth and look for something new.

One possibility is a population implosion. While the convention wisdom asserts that we're in the middle of a population explosion, the reality is quite different; developing countries almost invariably pass through a demographic transition, as female education and emancipation, and reductions in child mortality, result in smaller families. Today, most of the developed world has a total fertility rate of under 2.0, where 2.1 is around the level required to maintain a stable population in the long term.

If half your children die before age 5, and you expect to rely on them for support in your old age, you might well want a big family for practical reasons. But if they all survive and there's a state pension system, the work and expense involved in raising them is a significant deterrent. Interestingly, human parents seem to judge their desired family size by reference to their neighbours. If the average family size is 6 children, then having an extra 1 or 2 is not significant — but if the average family has 1-2 children, having 3 or 4 marks one out as somewhat abnormal. Thus, once the demographic transition has occurred, it may actually be quite difficult to raise the TFR again.

We're currently living through an "overshoot", as TFR drops like a stone world-wide but the people born during previous baby booms remain alive. Over the next century, barring breakthroughs in anti-ageing treatment, we can expect our demographic balance to shift significantly towards old age, and then a purely natural population crash.

The risk of a type 2 threat emerges if it turns out that maintaining our technological civilization requires a certain minimum work force and number of specialities that cannot be maintained by a much smaller population, following such a crash: at this point things get hard to predict, but if we're diverting lots of labour into supporting the elderly and infirm, the young aren't going to have the energy or inclination to raise large families.

Mitigating factors would include the development of nursing robotics or medical treatments for old age. Oh, and there's some early evidence pointing to a possible stage six demographic transition in which TFR in developed countries rebounds towards 2.0 (in which case we're probably in a metastable system and there's nothing to worry about in the long term). But it's still an issue that bears consideration.

Other contributory factors to an extinction-level population crash would be the development of a real-life experience machine as per Nozick, or of other technologies capable of delivering supernormal stimuli (as implicitly described in my novel Saturn's Children). Nozick's philosophical experience machine was designed as a thought experiment to undermine ethical hedonism; but running such an experiment for real on a stressed population that is already in a demographic spiral would be extremely risky.

Anyway, it's your turn now.

Can you think of a new, plausible end-of-humanity scenarios that doesn't feature in this list? (Please provide reasoning and footnotes ...)



Evolution might turn up something nasty, does not have to be a decease.

What if something highly efficient came along and replaced our algae with something that skipped photosynthesis for something that didn't result in free oxygen.


How about NDM-1 gram-negative bacteria? Aside from this specific example antibiotic resistant bacteria pose considerable threat. It's been two generations in the first world since we've had to deal with infection as a common cause of disease, this links to some of the reasons for the lower levels of children per family that you've described.

Barring great increases in technology to shorten pharmaceutical bench-to-bedside from >10 years to worse as more and more resistance genes evolve and the tactic of switching to another antibiotic (MRSA treatment with vancomycin will fail if VRSA becomes more prolific) fails to work.

This could have secondary effects on population, the elderly are often most vulnerable and as you have pointed out a larger percentage of society is soon to fit that bill. In addition to social care how will the healthcare for all these vulnerable people be paid? It's also a big worry that once we dip bellow a certain threshold we loose specialities, combined with the difficulty in rebuilding civilisation (easy access resources are gone) it's a very worrying topic.


Heck, how about the fact that previously nearly eradicated childhood diseases are making a comeback due to the fact that some parents don't want to vaccinate their kids? Epidemics of polio or diphtheria would have the double whammy of hitting those oh-so-rare kids.


This is difficult...

Peak oil could be a type 1, depending on how we respond to it and how technology develops over the current peak that we have.

A combined type 1 and 2 could be ecological crashes across the world brought about by a combination of climate change, intensive farming techniques, high population levels and resource over exploitation.
See for example Canadian grand banks cod fisheries, palm oil plantations, the Amazon rainforest current trajectory of deforestation, algal blooms off China, the Texan and Russian heatwaves, soil loss in farming and peak phosphorous.

A type 3 would be a gamma ray burst near enough and pointing in the right direction. Such a scenario would be a nice thriller in a future with FTL travel, and also one without FTL travel, since different responses can be imagined.

Now, none of these are guaranteed to work and the peak oil and peak ecology ones depend upon us not getting our shit together and doing something about the problems.
Did I hear some sarcastic laughter?


Eh. Herd immunity is going to take care of the idiots. And Wakefield has been so discredited that I suspect most people are past that. At the very least the incoming generation will be fine.

Certainly nothing to get existential about.


This isn't even a Type 1 threat. You both seem to have forgotten that humanity made it to the late 18th century without even vaccination, let alone germ theory or antibiotics.


What about the possibility that our technological development reaches a level that our current socio-economic structures cannot support?

Given that our current economic structures don't really have a reverse gear (an economy is growing or in serious trouble), could we just run into a wall where we don't have the tools to continue adding complexity and technology but don't have a reverse gear.

Sets us on a downward spiral. Difference is that, unlike most times in history, being one world economy, we decline as a single block rather than the decline in one area enabling someone else to rise up.

If this occurred once easily accessible natural resources, particularly for power generation have been used up, then you might need a given level of technology just to keep the lights on. Once you drop below this the decline could be quite swift.

This kind of couples with the population decline idea (because you need a given pop level to support a given tech level) that Charlie raised, but doesn't require it. I'm more suggesting that there may be a level of tech, beyond which we don't have the socio-economic tools to go.

If our power needs require us to reach or maintain a technological level we can't support then there is a serious problem.

Depends on how far back in our technological development we have to drop before it counts as a type one threat, but we have a very complex infrastructure supporting the level of population we achieve on this planet - if that infrastructure fails we might drop quite far back until the population is reduced to a supportable level (what level of population could the UK support without petrol driven agricultural vehicles and artificial fertilizers for example?)

Relates to Charlie's comment:
"reduce the survivors to early iron-age techniques for a while."

The "for a while" bit interests me. What would be the implications of trying to return from an iron age technology now given the amount of "low hanging fruit" in the way of natural resources we've mined in the last two hundred years or so? I'm particularly, but not solely, thinking that there aren't many places now where you just make a hole and oil bubbles out of the ground - you now need a sophisticated technologically adept mining operation just to get to the stuff.

How are we doing for easily available iron ore that could be got at by an iron-age civilisation? Or is it so abundant that that will never be a problem.

(Charlie - please shout if I'm taking this critically off-topic here)

Credit for these thoughts goes to reading Azimov and Niven at an impressionable age.


Evolution or engineering of a bacterium with a much more efficient nitrogenase enzyme[*] and its release or escape into the wild.

As this bacterium becomes widespread, increased levels of ammonium and nitrate ions in the biosphere fertilize an initial global surge in plant growth. Subsequent die-back and eutrophication perturbs entire ecosystems, leading to global food shortages, rioting, general break down of civilization, mass starvation.

Having most bodies of water turn into stinking black de-oxygenated acidic soup eventually wipes out entire plant and animal genera. Increased atmospheric CO2 levels and consequent global warming just makes the disaster worse, similar in effect to the Permian-Triassic extinction, a.k.a. "The Great Dying."

After several hundred million years, most large-animal environmental niches, including a new high-intelligence technological species, have been re-filled by creatures descended from pigeons.

[*] Nitrogenase enzymes, found in the commensual bacteria in the root nodes of legumes amidst other places, are some of the slowest acting enzymes known. That's because the N2 -> NH3 reduction is hugely energetically disfavoured, and it takes a lot of metabolic input from the bacterium to drive the process.


At what point do we speciate, and can we consider the resulting populations to be homo sapiens?

If we presume a type 1 event splits populations into small widely separated groups, say by making the intervening terrain impassable and reducing transport options to rafts and reed canoes, then each population would inbreed and diverge. When they finally meet up again, they would be related but not interfertile, and well on the way to becoming divergent species.


Peak oil could be a type 1, depending on how we respond to it and how technology develops over the current peak that we have.

Could be, but its little remarked that peak oil per capita (the amount of oil available per head of population) occurred back in the 1970s. Civilisation seems to have coped (which is not to say that a very sudden falling off of oil production couldn't have pretty serious consequences, though I doubt that they would, in themselves, represent a type-1 scenario). Most likely, I think the greatest risk is in a combination of circumstances, none of which would represent a type-1 threat in themselves, but coming together, could result in one (one might take peak oil, global climate instability, an ageing population and an epidemic of a nasty anti-biotic disease or three together and I wouldn't care to have to live through the results).


Well, the branes could bump into each other again and that might be bad.


"what level of population could the UK support without petrol driven agricultural vehicles and artificial fertilizers for example?"

Well, we could put a bottom limit on that -- it supported 15 million at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Maybe 20 million given modern improved crops.

Accidental self-inflicted type 1; collapse of the global food supply because of mono- or near-monoculture issues. Resulting upheaval could end tech civilisation.


I know AI is on the wiki list, but there's a sort of variant that isn't and could pose a hard-takeoff singularity risk.

It's this -- uploading is likely to start out being an experimental process which is destructive of the original brain and have a fairly high chance of failure.

So who's going to be the first person uploaded? I'd say chances are good it'll be a condemned Chinese prisoner... so that process might result in a fairly hostile machine intelligence. If they escape? No rapture of the nerds for anyone. Increasing tech integration means that the later that the singularity gets initiated, the more chance that it poses at least a level 1 threat.


The "for a while" bit interests me. What would be the implications of trying to return from an iron age technology now given the amount of "low hanging fruit" in the way of natural resources we've mined in the last two hundred years or so?

I'd rather not explore that line of thought yet, but I suspect the answer can be summed up in two words: "very hard".

(Seas overrun by inedible jellyfish, the best farmlands exhausted and scorched by rising temperatures, the easily accessible gas and oil fields all tapped out, the easily accessible surface metal ores largely extracted ... except for the vast rubbish tips, it's not looking good.)


I've always thought that Niven's wire (a hyperstimulus) would end civilization.

There are cosmological events that could have civilization ending consequences - if the sun output goes up or down 10% for a thousand year, say. Or even less for less time, I'm not sure how the numbers would play out.

Other idea would be an epidemic of iron or copper or oil eating bacteria/prion/etc. You could imagine gas guzzling bacteria spreading from car to car via gas pumps, not too differently from STDs on humans. However STDs are easy to stop so maybe a copper eating bacteria would be a better idea. They would first spread on the surface of cables across the world, not causing any massive consequences. Then they would start eating *into* the wires...

A spiral of protectionist policies would have dire consequences. I'm not sure they would send us back to the iron age though.


I'm going to stick my neck out and say 40 million. Circa WW2 the UK was effectively under siege by sea and by air, and oil was needed for war machines, not farm tractors. Nevertheless, the population of 50 million-odd didn't starve -- although there was tight rationing.

The only reason I'm not saying "everyone, given modern improved crops and a war footing with rationing" is that we've lost a lot of our agricultural sector in recent years and climate change appears to be delivering frequent droughts in the south and south-east, which would be Bad.


I think you're overstating the impact of those events in your scale. "The End" of technological civilization takes a bit more than a nuclear clash between two super powers. That's not to say it wouldn't be seriously bad. Recovery would take centuries, but it wouldn't be the end.

Let's call it a Type 0.5 event, as in temporary widespread destruction.

Another Type 0.5 event I could imagine, though, would be a worldwide civil war. A complete fragmentation of political entities, without weapons of mass destruction, but lots of weapons of mass starvation. Think about the civil wars in the late Qing Dynasty writ large. However, even then fragmentation eventually leads to isolation and independent developments become possible - although it can take a very long time.


An infrastructure collapse doesn't sound like iron age tech remaining-- there'd still be too much usable stuff like stainless steel knives left. And while some easy resources are used up (note that it took something a good bit better than iron age tech to take advantage of oil bubbling out of the ground), metals are going to be concentrated in ruined cities and landfills.

Demographic collapse could look like the overworked geniuses bit in "The Marching Morons", only without the large majority of stupid people and without the population being geniuses. I've never seen a non-post apocalypse scenario in sf of everyone scrambling to make things work when there isn't enough time or knowledge.


My definition of "iron age tech" is about anything prior to 1800.


Type 1 - Essentially climate change linked.

The Sun goes into a low energy output cycle, putting us into a miniature ice age.

At least, I thought this might lead to something plausible until I thought about it. Even if this occurred during or after peak oil, but the US and China, as well as other countries, have massive coal reserves.

People care less about global warming. The boom in renewable energy seen during the 2010's is forgotten about as countries bring mothballed coal plants back online and even start adding capacity. We develop better scrubbers, eliminating almost all trace radioactive elements, mercury, and other harmful particulates. What we pour into the sky is pure, clean, smoke. Carbon emissions skyrocket.

The more conservative state that all the evidence points to this being a short cycle, that they are calling it a 'mini' ice age for a reason. They even state that the evidence is inconclusive, that the so called ice age could end next week.

Few listen. Record snowfalls in northern and far southern regions, lower temperatures across the globe, and growing ice caps seem to allay all fears. Nuclear is scary, and fusion remains 5 years off.

20 years pass when astronomers start seeing increased activity on the surface of the sun. "The Ice Age has ended!" they proclaim.

Society at large treats such news with skepticism. Entrenched energy interests fund opposing studies. People claim that our current economic progress would not survive without coal. What would power the electric cars we all started to use when petrol prices went through the roof?

Once again, the scientists are right. When the Ice Age ends, we have an order of magnitude more CO2 in the atmosphere. Policy makers continue to sit idle as the issue is clouded by lobbyists and interest groups.

Within 10 years no one is able to deny that there is a problem. The maldives are fully underwater. Record highs are set one summer, then broken the next. Thermohaline Circulation which has limped along until now finally dies.

The oceans become less bountiful. Rainfall patterns change drastically. Food production drops dramatically, nowhere near enough to support almost 10 billion human beings. Markets crash, and crash again.

The rich countries use coal-energy to desalinate massive amounts of seawater, or to pull fresh water up from the ground, but it is not enough.

People starve to death. People die in wars over food. Babies are not born due to strictly enforced population controls.

The economy as we have come to know it limps to a halt.

Technological society does not completely collapse, but it is a shadow of what it once was.

I wanted to write a shorter post but did not have enough time.


These guys seem to be calling for a fully voluntary Type-2 event. But VHEMT Volunteers are realistic. We know we’ll never see the day there are no human beings on the planet. Ours is a long-range goal.


I don't count the VHEMT as a type 2 threat, because participation is voluntary.

To qualify for type 2 threat status, they'd need to want to make it compulsory :)


I kind of like a scenario associated with Comment #1:

Deliberate meddling with photosynthesis for greater food production via replacement of RuBisCO. If they succeed in improving the efficiency greatly and it spreads everywhere (plants are the ultimate macroorganisms for cross-species gene-spread), then there's a decent possibility that we're all hosed. Ecosystems will crash where one key plant absorbs the change and then out-competes all of its rivals.

Even if the spread didn't cock up the plant side of all the ecosystems out there, there's still a good chance that cows (and other ruminants) wouldn't survive if it spread to grass (soluble protein in grasses is largely RuBisCO, IIRC), eating vast amounts of fast-growing, water-weak grasses without enough protein to sustain their rumen bacteria.

On the pro side, these giant, fast-growing superweeds might draw down enough carbon to do some serious AGW mitigation, if they can find an equilibrium in the ruins of their shattered ecosystems.


Tractors made a big appearance during the war. Horses need so much farmland to support them. and some jobs are much slower, which does make a difference. Heck, food imports mattered during the Napoleonic Wars, though not so much for Britain.


Tractors can be powered electrically, don't forget.

And places like California and Israel have spent a lot of research money working on ways to get around their water limitations which might be harsher regularly than drought in the UK.

My suspicion would be, everyone and then some, especially if people stop eating so much meat, but that an interval to rebuild soils while weaning off of chemical fertilizers might help avoid some uncomfortable belt-tightening in the early years.


It seems likely that the closest that the world came to a nuclear war was the Sino-Soviet border war in 1969. The USSR seriously considered a first strike on China, going so far as to actually approach the USA to see if the Americans would stay neutral in a nuclear war between their two enemies. Nixon made it very clear that a nuclear attack on China would be viewed as an attack on the USA. The 1983 incident was a coincidence of a major exercise and a glitch in a sensor system; while a war was possible, the readings from the new sensor system looked most like a glitch not what would be expected from an actual launch. And even if it was interpreted as a launch it looked more like a single mad commander than something approved by the US government. So unless the Politburo


Suppose peace-mongers manage to convince most of the governments to dismantle their strategic weapons stockpiles. No more thermonukes on ICBM's... and so on.

Sounds neat, huh.

But then China, which has always been very keen on considering itself the center of the world decides it doesn't need the rest of us, covertly inoculates over years it's own population against some kind of nasty, bioengineered virus and arranges a, simultanous, world-wide release. If the stuff had a long incubation period, everyone could be infected before the first people start dying..

A 5/6ths type 2 event.. that solves most of the problems with overpopulation, habitat loss, etc. Technology survives okay, and it would also bring world peace to boot.

For bonus points, they could arrange to infect their own citizenry with something less lethal with similar symptoms, but far less deadly, to make 'cui bono' less obvious . Or declare that they may have a stockpile of medicine that seems to help, but sorry, only enough for our own subjects..

Anyway, since no one can nuke China in retaliation, everyone except them dies and they inherit the planet..


Possible motive for Type 2, human-contrived: dead man's switch, subsp. "If we die, so does everybody." This provides a large incentive to everybody else to make sure that Operators do not die, either by their acts or by those of third parties. So in this case, intended as a survival mechanism not a destructive one.

It also requires extraordinary stupidity and manifestly bonkers self-confidence on the part of the would-be Operator, as well as the auxiliary assumption that no worker at any stage will have silently sabotaged it - having necessarily nothing to lose in the event of activation, and full-on tests being just as necessarily impossible.

These considerations hearten me considerably more than my faith that nobody in power believes in the active mood of après nous, le déluge. This faith is a great deal more limited than my faith in such a diabolical plan's utter, inherent, and top-to-bottom fallibility. Given all this, I concur with you on being much more apprehensive of volcanoes and big rocks from the sky - which, even in my most scaredy-cat humours, seldom seem to try my courage unduly.


I've always been kind of uneasy about the Higgs particle-- sure, I know, oscillations in the inter-quark coupling constants are probably exponentially stable, but it's been a while since anyone has actually seen one, an' maybe that's not just happenstance. This would also explain why we've never been visited by alien civilizations-- the first civilization to 'discover' the Higgs is also the last.


Implausible. If the Chinese government was crazy enough to contemplate such a measure, they'd be taking out their trade partners -- there'd be massive economic collapse at home. Not to mention supply chain disruption to essential imports. China is not an autarky.

(And that's before we consider the risks of blowback: (a) if the plot is exposed there's likely to be prompt nuclear retaliation from the USA (and possibly weaponized smallpox from Russia), and (b) once you release a plague you can't necessarily predict whether it's going to mutate. With six billion incubators and a billion-plus vaccinated citizens to protect there's a high probability of something going wrong, especially if corners were cut in the vaccine production process.)

Charlie-Bob sez, they'd have to not only be psychopaths -- collectively so -- to contemplate such a total war fought with biological weapons (because that's what it is), but they'd have to be worryingly blasé about potentially fatal failure modes. In other words, rash. Not characteristics one associates with the CPC leadership.

And incidentally? I'd be pleased if you'd refrain from posting further speculations that reek of racist xenophobia. I'm taking this one at face value for now: do it again and I might start drawing conclusions about your state of mind.

At what point do we speciate,...
You underestimate probably the time required to speciate.

The Neanderthals and Sapiens (Cro-Magnon) populations started to diverge about 500k years ago. But, as late as 80k year ago, we were still partially interfertile. There's been a few recent studies that postulate a limited fertility (only male neanderthals would be fertile with female sapiens, while the reverse would not yield any viable offspring).

So, to really speciate, you need durations in excess of half a million years with close to zero interaction between the populations.


Implausible. If the Chinese government was crazy enough to contemplate such a measure, they'd be taking out their trade partners -- there'd be massive economic collapse at home. Not to mention supply chain disruption to essential imports. China is not an autarky.

True, they are selling most of what they make abroad, and saving the money instead. That's been changing a bit.

Mutations are a problem.. IMO, that's why no one will ever attempt anything like that. With bioweapons, no way of being sure.

Nuclear retaliation may not be a factor thirty-forty years into the future. The large thermonuke stockpiles are expensive to maintain. And forty-fifty missiles could be concievably stopped by an anti-ballistic missile shield.

Anyway, I cribbed the plot from a book by Greg Bear, where the virus wasn't deadly, but just made people unstable, which was supposed to later lead to global anarchy and chaos, which the mustache-twirling villains were prepared to outlast..


Basement or garage bio-engineering. The basic equipment is not expensive and it is not terribly difficult to do. Now, if you want a specific end point, then it gets difficult, very difficult. And if you want to do it safely, then it gets expensive. A madman may not care much about safety and if all he cares about is producing something nasty, as opposed to a specific nasty, then it is possible.

If you think that such a madman is unlikely, then substitute a fundamentalist of your least favorite religion.


There are multiple flavours of antinatalism: eco minded extinctionists, religious, ethical, hedonistic, maybe a new highly effective antinatalist meme appears and goes global and population collapses below the effective maintenance level.

Can't imagine what could propel such a meme in the face of current pronatalist memes and instinctual drives, but it would certainly be interesting. Maybe some undeniable proof regarding the nature of the universe or human cognition, though that doesn't sound visceral enough.

Hmm.. the LHC has discovered the great old ones exist beyond the veil, awaiting to devour our souls upon death, the only escape is not to be born in the first place.


On the topic of speciation, endogenous retroviruses (jumping genes)( and balanced translocation (sticky chromosomes) ( can produce populations that cannot interbreed. The family in China with 44 chromosomes are physically no different from the human norm, but often they can't interbreed with 46-chromosome people and produce viable offspring. Over time, we could end up with two (or more, if it happens again) genetically incompatible "species" competing for resources. Does it could as an existential stage 2 threat if our species is replaced by a successor that looks more or less the same?


Energy shortages cannot cause a type 1, because nuclear is an existance proof of sufficient energy supplies. It doesnt matter how dangerous or unpopular it is: It exists, and if energy supply shortages end up threatening industrial civilization, it will get used and given sufficent raw energy imputs, the specific type of energy needed doesnt matter, it is all convertable.


Actually, I am having real difficulties coming up with senarios in class 1 and 2 that are not also level 3s.
Major economic crashes with death counts in the billions? sure. Lots of things could cause that. Wiping out advanced tech without killing everyone? Hard. Wiping out humankind with an event that doesnt take the entire biosphere with it? Harder. - Crash agriculture, and you get a fairly serious mass extinction via starving hordes eating everything that moves, and a lot of things that do not, and at the end of the day, when equilbrium arrives, there is going to be a lot more surviving humans around than almost any other species, and tech probably bounces back stupidly quickly as well (you cannot eat books!)

.. Okay. lets see. The methlab nuke: either a single discovery, or a combination of breakthroughs allow a very small group or a single driven individual to turn easily acquired ingridients into WMDS. The how-to hits the net. Since there is no shortage of crazy people, bye, bye Earth.

The Philosphy/Physics Disaster: Many Worlds is conclusively proven and after thinking it through (but not far enough!) people start commiting suicide over bad life choices and adverse events in order to prune their existence tree; Earth ends up really empty.

The Physics Trap: The reason for the fermi paradox turns out to be that there is, in fact, a physics experiment you can do which will set the atmosphere on fire/melt the earths crust. Oops.


Okay I thought of one: A simple party trick, maybe outgrown from all those neuropsych tests that disprove free will. Something easy to do and apparently harmless "Look when you do X you can't/have to do Y" but which unavoidably sinks in and leads to existential nihilism as the implications percolate.


Mobile phone caused tumours overwhelm the medical system, with the collapse of private and government health insurance ultimately leading to societal collapse due to the interconnected nature of insurers and banks. I'm assuming a higher powered phone than those currently in use.

A fad toy that expands in water goes down drains in such numbers that sewerage systems collapse on a scale never seen. The resulting public health debacle cascades due to massive shortfalls in public infrastructure spending during the 2010's and 2020's.


I've always thought that Niven's wire (a hyperstimulus) would end civilization.

At least in the US, cable TV is making inroads here. Marry that to a holodeck/Matrix technology and you've got the Dream Palaces. (See Laurence Manning's "The Man Who Awoke.") I've always thought of these as the human race's Roach Motel - people check in, but they don't check out.

And there's a recent thread on Metafilter re: the power consumption of cable DVR boxes that adds another piece to the puzzle.


Scenario: a drug (antibiotic? psychotropic?) is massively over-prescribed, to the point that much of the substance is flushed through user's bodies unchanged and thus enters the water supply. Large segments of the population thus become involuntary recipients of the drug, with unpredictable effects - widely divergent dosages, possible interactions with their own prescription and/or recreational drug use, plus the various side effects that the pharmaceutical industry already has to put in the increasingly-fine print.

(traces of Prozac found in UK water supply)


My favourite pipe-dream of universal catastrophe involves meiotic drive loci spreading through humanity, messing up the sex ratio of newborns until eventually there's a population crash, doom, destruction, and so on. It's interesting to speculate, in a smug Malthusian kind of way, over the difference between a bias towards boys and one towards girls. The former would probably have the world get rather more aggressive and politically extreme in its progress towards grimmeathookdom, while the latter might even be more pleasant for a while until the young'uns run out and things begin the long slow slide into Crapsack.

Of course, it would have to be a very effective segregation distorter for this to work, and the tendency would be for an escape mutant to spread rapidly even if technology didn't intervene - and as such technology has recently arrived, it's thankfully unlikely to pose a lethal threat now. Sorry if I'm wasting your time.


Sorry: that's garbage.


Thanks for the "Able Archer 83" link. I had no idea we were so close to an actual nuclear war. This should be required reading for the "St. Reagan ended the Cold War (and enacted economic miracles as a side dish)" cheerleaders.


And that scenario's garbage too.

Per capita human excretory volume -- liquid waste -- is on the order of 2 litres/day. Per capita water consumption in the UK is on the order of 150 litres/day. So there's a 1:75 dilution to start with, before we consider that sewage isn't recycled into drinking water directly.

More to the point, over-prescribing of drugs to the extent that a biologically active titre is present in urine is ... let's just say it's inadvisable and move swiftly on, shall we? (TL;DR on a semester of pharmacodynamics and drug metabolism is that this just doesn't happen -- therapeutic indices are too narrow, and drugs aren't generally excreted unchanged anyway: they're metabolized and their metabolites are vanishingly rarely pharmacologically active in the same way.)

The traces of Prozac in the UK water supply are small enough that you need mass spectroscopy or NMR or immunoassay to detect them; 5-9 orders of magnitude too dilute to have any effect on the public.


Phosphorus depletion when it hits home is going to be pretty brutal with the result that we can't keep fertilising the prairies to grow crops to feed to cattle or turn into ethanol. Whether it will hit us before we run out of the cheap gas needed to make synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, I will leave to the others.

I'm more of the opinion that it won't be one thing that kills us off, it will be an escalation of events - a border squabble over water like those we can expect in the Middle East leading to something nastier seems far more likely to me than a big bang.

Speaking of big bangs, after a century of fairly mild vulcanism, Iceland seems to waking up again. A big eruption there would have locally catastrophic effects and if the theories of Grattan et al are correct, the entire northern hemisphere would experience crazy weather, drought and acidic pollution. If the Laki eruption was the cause of crazy weather in 1783 then we're looking at massive droughts as far as the Nile Valley, India and China.

Anyone fancy a nice game of global thermonuclear war?


I suspect that the threat will not be from one of the big, well known risks, but rather from some feature of our technological civilization that has positive feed backs.

One feature of our civilization is increasing specialization. This may make us very vulnerable to smaller problems, e.g. a bad pandemic, when key skills are lost which then escalates to complete breakdown of whole economic systems. We had a taste of this in the 2008 financial meltdown.


Carbon emissions turn ocean water into carbonic acid, destroying the base foundations of the ocean food chain, thereby causing mass starvation and imploding the seafood economy. This plus increased desertification leads to massive food shortages, global riots, resource wars and class revolts. I kind of wanted to write a story about it but I'm lazy


Ah, an interesting question - it's the flip side of minimum number of people/size of the ecosystem that can sustain current levels of technology.

So assume the world wide ecosystem starts thrashing: can a relatively isolated population armed with all the panoply of modern tools? Hmmm . . . lets say something like area around New York, NY with a number of working nuclear reactors and a ready supply of processed uranium. If you're thinking this is a direct reference to Cities in Flight, you'd be correct :-)


And that scenario's garbage too.

Actually, glad to hear that. Not that I was too concerned about it really happening.


The Solar system has just passed through the Galactic plane, and the amplitude of the merry-go-round oscillation that Sun executes is about 100 pc or so:

It's been tentatively tied to dinosaur extinctions but the community still has arguments about it, and it's hardly an 'impending crisis' sort of thing I think you're looking for.

Interestingly, the WISE satellite should dig up the closest brown dwarf to the Sun, so you can spin something about that....


Oops. Lap Dog and Keyboard Cat. Can a relatively isolated population with the entire kit of modern tools at it's disposal maintain anything like a pre-Collapse level of civilization? I'm guessing that if an interstellar ark with perhaps five to fifty million inhabitants can do it, then so can equivalent region on Earth.


An infectious disease evolves that does nothing except makes those infected infertile after an incubation of X years. If this is sufficiently infectious then it's infected everybody (or enough to get you below the maintenance level) by the time you notice it's there. At which point, if human cloning isn't developed sharpish, you're in Type 1/2 territory. Not sure if that can be fleshed out into a serious existential threat or not.

Type 3 (very speculative) -- all theories of particle physics beyond the standard model (supersymmetry/string theory/whatever my colleagues in the theory group come up with next) give rise to new particles (they also have to have some interaction with normal, everyday matter). Suppose one of these particles happens to catalyse proton-proton fusion (presumably through some weak interaction). Dump some of this in the sun either by human action or cosmic bad luck, and ker-bang.

Similarly, microscopic black hole wanders across the earth and has a snack. Or not-so-micro black hole wanders past the sun.

Or common or garden local supernova, or a near miss with an large brown dwarf strips the earth from the solar system. Or self-same brown dwarf falls into the sun.

Basically, anything cosmically interesting we've seen in the galaxy or can speculate about happening in the cosmic past is sufficiently high energy to end the earth.


Congrats on the VHEMT link and reference. I was thinking of
that one, but you beat me to it. :-)
In a way, VHEMT and a demographic-transition-on-steroids
population implosion have considerable similarities. Both
are just cranking up contraception a bit. On the timescale
of a human lifetime, both are quite slow. Even if total
fertility went to 1.0 and stayed there, population would halve
every generation. It would take 3 halvings, say 90 years,
before the population was even back down to 1 billion - which
was certainly able to sustain a 1900-level industrial
civilization - and the stored knowledge and machinery and
capital stocks would still be there, so I'd expect that our
current level could be sustained at that population. Now,
if the population shrank another factor of 8 below that,
it is less clear what could be sustained...


Frank Herbert researched that a couple decades back and wrote a book called "The White Plague," in which a grief-crazed American biologist whose wife had been killed in an IRA bombing decided to build a nasty pathogen. At the time, Herbert concluded that all the necessary equipment could be purchased for around 2-300,000 dollars. Given better technology and cheaper electronics, I don't know what the current cost might be - could be more, could be less...

Regardless of the specifics of building an engineered plague, on a more general level, the barriers to entry for supervilliany have definitely gotten lower over the last twenty years.


I would be tempted to point readers at Cyril M Kornbluth's story "The Marching Morons" to illustrate one way the world seems to be going. One hopes that the advances of technology since that story was published in 1951 have made it less likely but I'm still not completely sure.


One of the common themes here is advances in technology making it easier for madmen to get their hands on world-ending technology. Vernor Vinge said some interesting things on the same subject in "Rainbows End." What are your thoughts on that?


Re hostile uploads: What if the first attempt isn't on a human?
Suppose a house cat is uploaded - and the combination of the
upload and existing software technology winds up self-improving
enough to "foom", but with feline views on play and prey as
a starting point...


Some variant of the "Nine Billion Names of God" scenario? Our simulated universe is turned off once we discover we are a simulated universe, or we overwhelm the simulation with greater demands on processing power as we pick it apart in ever more detail?

That last is mediated by the widespread, commercial production of quantum computers.

Charlie-Bob sez, they'd have to not only be psychopaths -- collectively so -- to contemplate such a total war fought with biological weapons (because that's what it is), but they'd have to be worryingly blasé about potentially fatal failure modes. In other words, rash. Not characteristics one associates with the CPC leadership.
And incidentally? I'd be pleased if you'd refrain from posting further speculations that reek of racist xenophobia.

I'm including that last bit because I'm possibly a racist xenophobe in certain respects - but of course I'm not being prejudiced, I'm just stating the facts ;-)

Specifically, I've become increasingly worried over the last twenty years or so that a certain subclass of people, known colloquially as "the rich", can really mess things up for everyone else in the pursuance of their own increasingly divergent interests. And after the usual perfunctory "who coulda known", they then proceed to commandeer resources to construct enclaves, bolt-holes for themselves which exclude 99.9% of the population. Which will be bad on two counts; not only are the guilty being spared any accountability for their actions (and at the expense of the innocent at that), those resources could spell the difference between total collapse and pulling back from the brink by the skin of our collective teeth.

Are the rich, collectively, capable of acting like ammoral sociopaths, and are they capable of behaving extremely rashly in the pursuit of their own immediate short-term benefits? I'll let people decide that one for themselves.


A reverse version of the retro virus from "Darwin's Radio". In this case it affects the CNS, reducing intelligence and making our level of civilization impossible to maintain. Since viruses are very difficult to control, this might be able to infect humanity irreversibly if it disrupts our one major feature, intelligence.


"Tom Clancy fantasies aside, nobody actually wants to render the human species extinct"

That was poorly worded, I'm assuming, since I would expect that everyone is willing and able to accept that there are nutters out there that would "want" to rid the Earth of humans, were they to get the chance. The question I think you're posing is whether or not such people or groups exist _and_ have the coherence, planning capacity and resources to affect anything like that kind of impact.

I'd tend to agree with you that the latter scenario is unlikely, given that most of the required motivations are antithetical to any kind of large-scale effort.

However, because of this, one obvious type I scenario is that technological and scientific progress brings us to the point that any individual can have such broad impact. If anyone can build a bomb that would kill half the population of the world, I think someone would do so and use it. The question is: where is that threshold of technology where we become an immediate danger to ourselves?


As a biologist, I find it hard to believe that something could evolve or be engineered to be a serious threat to humanity.


Without "the poor", "the rich" won`t be rich anymore.


Also as a biology I'm surprised you would say that. We already have endemics that have killed millions (HIV anyone?) and the black death killed 1/3 of Europe. Charlie himself mentioned the ease at which smallpox could be made so much worse.

In the developed world we aren't bothered by disease thanks to our better sanitation and antibiotics but it's entirely conceivable (as I mentioned in post 2) that we could get hit by a plague along the lines of how HIV has hit africa.


What if one or more physical constants changed in the solar system? Something that wouldn't preclude life, but perhaps only a feature of our electronic technology, rendering it unreliable or useless?


Could imagine that LHC or some other high energy physics research creates "Something Bad" (micro black hole or something even more bizarre)

Could even take it a step further ala Permutation City and have scientific research reach into some meta framework and by so doing invalidate the physical laws that govern our reality.


Charlie, WW2-era UK didn't have a lot of time to prepare to self-sufficiency, and had to fight a war to boot. If we assume that transition to a lower population is slow and peaceful, I think the number could much lower...


Cosmic rays man, just - cosmic rays. Much stronger than anything humanity can create, and the Earth is still here.



The "List" includes vacuum phase transition, which would thrash the entire universe with bubbles expanding at near light speed as we transition to a lower energy state.

Instead of a virus that dumbs us down, how about a very subtle phase transition event that ever so slightly changes the way certain chemicals interact in our brains, slowing down our thought processes and effectively dumbing down all life on the planet. Oh, wait, never mind, that already happened.


>> What about the possibility that our technological
>> development reaches a level that our current socio-
>> economic structures cannot support?
>> Given that our current economic structures don't really
>> have a reverse gear (an economy is growing or in serious
>> trouble), could we just run into a wall where we don't
>> have the tools to continue adding complexity and
>> technology but don't have a reverse gear.
>> Sets us on a downward spiral. Difference is that, unlike
>> most times in history, being one world economy, we decline
>> as a single block rather than the decline in one area
>> enabling someone else to rise up....

Unless this happened very slowly I expect it would be much worse than you state. It wouldn't be a downward spiral, it would be a cliff. Food supplies are dependent on power for irrigation & transportation. With subsistence level farming, expect 99% of the current population to die. Some because they don't know how to subsistence farm, others because they're defending their crops against invaders (or because the crops are plundered by invaders). And others because the area won't support a dense population at a subsistence level. It might take 3-4 years before we reached the 99% dead level. Wandering groups would be host to multiple diseases that earlier people has social customs to avoid. Eventually the population would get low enough that diseases that require dense populations would die out. Then you'd just have things like measles, typhoid, diphtheria, amoebic dysentery, etc. Societies can live with those. O, and look for malaria to make a BIG comeback.

And, of course, most metals will be in an unavailable form. Once we've lost electricity, we won't be able to recover most metals. Recovering them generally will require electrolysis (in a water free bath). Even coins are fancy alloys these days, and are partially plastic. (Well, at least in the US.) This may mean that we'll never recover. OTOH, gold will generally remain metallic, so it *would* be possible. Just quite unlikely after a couple of decades. And probably impossible after 3-4, because the knowledge will have been lost. (Current books are not nearly as durable as earlier books were, and are increasingly being replaced with electronic media.)


another possibility would be an EMP event, been done in a few novels


Here's a couple of neat ideas.
a) Genetically engineering weeds to produce Sarin
b) Genetically engineer a microbe to release free chlorine in saltwater, probably by photosynthesis


Well, let's take a look at the Black Death in Europe. Dense population, medieval medicine - and it still only killed one third of a population.


How about a Super variant of Bilharzia?

Virus carrying, immune to existing countermeasures, Bilharzia?

Just thinking nastily, and of parasites, along the lines of what sort of horrors might be evolving with climate change ... either on their own or with artificial aid.


Plastic coins? WUT?


I've got one that falls sort of into the pandemic category and its one that does occasionally keep me up nights. What if a prion disease becomes widespread? Its got a fairly long incubation period and can tear up CNS tissue in a big way. Allow for contamination of world food supplies (and perhaps the way the USDA is plugging its ears and covering its eyes going "I can't hear you!") and widespread global transportation, the only ones coming back from that may be the very isolated or the vegetarians.

How is it human related? By the global supply chain where you can get a frozen US steak almost anywhere.



A precursor to DOOM might be the next headline that is along the lines of ...

"'Super' locusts nothing special ... "


One more.
A sterilization virus for rabbit control was developed, but not deployed, in Australia. It worked IIRC by causing scarring of the fallopian tubes. How difficult to modify for a Human vector?


But the civilisation of that time was not as complicated as that of today. If there is a collapse of 1/3 today we may not be able to run our society.


You know what? Cross my previous comment, I just got an awesome idea for a really deadly engineered bacteria.

Yep, we are all going to die horribly...


It would probably cause collapse, and then explosion of the resistant population right back to the level it was before. 8-)


PS. In rabbits, I mean, not in humans...


Good stuff, Mr. Stross. I’m somewhat skeptical of the eco-doomsday scenarios because as I recall there was a lot of hysteria about them forty years ago, yet we’re still here, there are more of us than ever, and things aren’t that bad. Science seems to have a pretty dismal record of predicting the future of systems as complex as our entire planet.

Personally I like the extreme black swan scenarios that are so far-fetched and unprecedented that no sane person takes them seriously. Things like an invasion of our universe by extra-dimensional Lovecraftian demons, invoked perhaps by some new kind of scientific sorcery. Or an experimental physicist creating a black hole or finding a “bug” in the fabric of reality and destroying the universe. Or the “global brain” turning into some kind of malevolent, alien super-intelligence that goes insane and wrecks civilization. Or a “global Rwanda” scenario where humanity goes collectively insane and starts butchering each other with kitchen knives. Or a “devolution” scenario where the least intelligent among us continue to have the highest birthrates, resulting in a “stupidity explosion” that culminates in the collapse of civilization and a new dark age.

We are living in an incredibly unstable, unsustainable global civilization, and the progressive project seems at risk of failing totally in this century. If I had to make a prediction it would be this: the future is more of the same, but to greater extremes. More extreme wealth and poverty, more extreme weather, more disruptive technologies, more extreme politics, more lethal wars, more extremes of good and evil, intelligence and stupidity, decadence and austerity, faster computers, smarter robots, better rockets, deadlier diseases, more collapse, more construction, more madness, more order, more chaos, more life, more death. Until the End.


a) They will lose competition with weeds that don't waste energy producing sarin.
b) You know that chlorine is used to kill microbes, right?


You could sterilize 98% of the female rabbit population and it would bounce back quite rapidly. Myxomatosis was up to 95% fatal. Human civilization would find it difficult to cope with such a rapid sterilization event, although scitech would probably find solutions within a 20 year timeframe.


The point is, governments change, people at the top change, and technology is continually giving more power at a cheaper price.

China might not (currently) be a reasonable guess, but Idi Amin might well have acted that violently and that rashly. And he would have had a lot fewer people he wanted to protect. There have been others. I don't really know the mental states of Nero and Caligula, but it wouldn't surprise me if they would have gone for the plan. There are lots of crazy people, and occasionally they end up in charge of governments. For that matter, I suspect I could find an apocalyptic Christian who would consider it the fulfillment of Revelation. (Fortunately, this person wouldn't be politically powerful, but some of the politically powerful apocalyptic Christians here in the US cause me to wonder...)

This isn't racist, as I don't think any particular group of people is composed of entirely sane people, and I can't think of any country that hasn't had a few leaders that were probably one way or another. And I'll include China, here. They were the country that had an Emperor who tried to destroy all previous history as a personal insult. If he'd been able to, he might well have felt that any succeeding history was also an insult.


"a) They will lose competition with weeds that don't waste energy producing sarin.
b) You know that chlorine is used to kill microbes, right?"

Weeds produce scents, and don't seem to lose out. Most especially the brambles in my garden have no problem producing blackberries, and the nightshade no problems either. Japanese knotweed makes resveratrol. Maybe it would only be a seasonal thing.

A microbe with a partial chlorine metabolism is not impossible. When oxygen producing bacteria first appeared they poisoned the entire biosphere.


Actually, with rapid sterilization, NO ONE DIES. Humanity would have lots of time to fix the problem.

Hmmm.... You know, I think a rapid random sterilization of like 95% of humanity could actually be beneficial...


Ice-Nine? Or more specifically some scenario involving a self-propagating alternate forms of an existing material. Vonnegut definitely picked the best one - water - but conceivably something that would affect something in the atmosphere would spread even more quickly.


This one is a little far out, but it's a type 2 threat without being a type 1 threat. Say there's an extremely popular semi-automated system for information and favour exchange, that is nearly a monoculture (like if Coffee&Power and Twitter had a merger and had the same kind of market share that Windows does on personal computers, but extended over to cellular phones and such). Information exchange systems have 'preferences' -- things that can be said in 140 characters work better over twitter, and things that can be said in an image macro work better on imageboards, while things that take a while to say and are fairly complex but still easier to put into words than into images or sounds tend to work best as books. Any information exchange system that constitutes a monoculture and is significantly more active/interconnected amplifies those aspects of culture it most effectively transmits. Particular types of information exchange mechanisms can encourage deindividuation (such as forced anonymous posting on imageboards), which does have a tendency both to make a crowd into a mob (or a superorganism, arguably -- the group doesn't act like a group of individuals anymore) and discourage types of ideas that directly contradict the group egregore. If such a mechanism had a built-in favour exchange system, the superorganism has hands as well as a spine. If such a mechanism is then highly susceptible to ideas that are dangerous to the individuals making up the superorganism, those ideas may well still be executed by many members. If this particular aspect is not discovered until, say, 90% of cell phone and computer users use it frequently, we suddenly have a semi-autonomous organism made of people working against people, with no mastermind (and no one person who even knows all of what is going on). Such a situation may make several human-driven existential threats far more likely than were they orchestrated by a moustache-twirling crazy.

Not that the above idea would make a good novel, of course. Very hard to write about emergent superorganisms in the present tense from the perspective of a part of an emergent superorganism without making readers wonder precisely how much LSD you spilled on your toast.


Type 2 - Happiness

Absolutely deadly, no escape.

There was once a mouse with a lever delivering electro-excitation of the nucleus accumbens.

Tired, but too happy to feel it, hungry, but too happy to feel it.

Pressing the lever. Pressing the lever.
And then dead.

Do you believe, understanding would change anything? Could you really manage to live alone in this dour and grey world afterwards
and not turn it back on? Just for a blip? Just for half-a-second?

For the "No"s, I don't believe you...

(An entertainment system with a brain interface? It's better be good, when I put my World of Warcraft on hold...)


It would be outlawed. Now, imagine heroin was even better. Would that change anything?


How about an airborne rabies virus?



It already exists. Mainly on 4chan...


The right question is, "why there is no airborne rabies virus?".


People's average ability to do IQ tests has been steadily improving for the past century. Look up the Flynn Effect.

I don't know if this is proof, but books about the philosophy behind popular culture didn't used to be commonly available.


All sorts of possibilities for subtle and not so subtle brain effects. Changing nerve conduction to reduce conduction speed to slow us down, chemical imbalances that reduce desires for novelty, increasing connectivity causing epilepsy. Caused by biological or chemical agents. I'm sure this has all been explored in SF before, even if the details are different.

Newer details might be compounds that bind to ion channel proteins in axons. The source might be some biological adaptation of a pathogen.


The threshold where we become an immediate danger to ourselves is the creation of nuclear weapons. Even atomic as opposed to thermonuclear, can suffice.

This is clear because we've already had a few known close escapes (though those were based around thermonuclear...but before thermonuclear there were cobalt bombs).

Remember, nothing says that the people in charge of a government will be sane. To me it seems as if they are less likely to be sane than people picked at random.

OTOH, it's also true that the larger the number of people who have access to massive threats, the greater the level of danger. Biologic weapons appear to be more readily available then nuclear weapons, cheaper to acquire and maintain, and sufficiently deadly. Though this hasn't been proven experimentally. OTOH, it's been decades and AIDS still isn't under control, so the circumstantial evidence is quite strong. (AIDS isn't artificial, but something worse could be.) Remember, the techniques of infection don't need to be invented if they can be scavenged from natural sources. And the "common cold" virus is quite easy to come by. It's the technique of attack that would need to be innovative.

So currently we've reached the point where any mildly successful company could afford to wipe out the world. But probably wouldn't, because it would a) cut into profits to do the development and b) wipe out the customers. But thanks to the "war on drugs" there are lots of undercover chemical labs that don't do careful checks on things.

Well, today it's difficult enough that it's unlikely. That doesn't say anything about 5 years from now. Currently there's a lot of progress being made in the computer modeling of chemical and biological reactions. So the amount of experimentation required is dropping. (But currently it requires a pretty fancy computer to get the results in any reasonable amount of time.) So in 5, 10, 15 years...

But the answer to your question is that we are already an existential threat to ourselves.


It turned out that what they thought was the pleasure center of the brain was actually the "do it" center. Ever had a hard time ending a video game even though you weren't enjoying it?

This, of course, is just a nitpick. Inappropriate compulsions to act could cause as much damage as addiction to pleasure.


I am old enough to remember the polywater scare.


(1) Coincident events
[a] - Aquifer exhaustion + drought
[b] - Volcanic eruption + maunder minimum
[c] - thermohaline circulation shutdown + Volcanic eruption

(2) Coincident event + black-swan event
[a] - Asteroid strike near populous city during war maneuvers (pick your country)
[b] - German E coli strain becomes even more virulent, typhoid-mary's abound + catastrophic spring floods
[c] - Coronal Mass Ejection hits earth during worst winter/drought/plague on record

(3) Singleton events:
[a] - a catastrophic meme develops (Think Monte-Python's "Worlds Deadliest Joke" level)
- proof we're inside a simulation (whats the point becomes prevalent)
- proof that runaway expansion of the Universe is accelerating much faster than expected, catastrophic expansion within generations
[b] - The solar system exits its current supernova cleared bubble into MUCH heavier interstellar winds than expected...
(for extra fun have it coincident with a Solar Minimum)
[c] - A catalyst found that strongly binds H20 into an un-potable ultra-heavy water, interestingly the only sample was lost at sea off a container ship
[d] - Simple genetic switch is found that controls higher human brain functions, unfortunately its easily turned off by a single mutation
(The converse of a Brain Wave - Poul Anderson scenario)
[e] - Catastrophic oceanic methane hydrate release


Yes the deranged depopulationist biologists, perhaps sponsored by some diabolical elites who see the dramatic culling of the global population as the best solution to our Malthusian problems, might be the most serious existential threat we face. I have absolutely no doubt that there are many resourceful people this diabolical. From a purely Darwinian perspective, depopulating the world while setting yourself up to survive and thrive in the aftermath makes perfect sense!


"Given that our current economic structures don't really have a reverse gear (an economy is growing or in serious trouble), could we just run into a wall where we don't have the tools to continue adding complexity and technology but don't have a reverse gear."

Then we'd experience economic hard times while continuing at a static level of technology. Not a civilization-ender.

Our margin of production over survival is huge. Much larger than any previous civilization. So we're much less likely to completely collapse due to economic troubles than any other civilizations. The Anasazi starved due to climate shift and crop failure - we would have to cut back on the luxuries.

Same for peak oil: even if it ran out entirely, oil can be made from coal. It just gets more expensive. Economic distress maybe, collapse of technological civilization no way.


Not plastic coins, coins that contain plastic. The coins themselves are a kind of fancy sandwich alloy, with, IIUC, a plastic layer between parts to adjust the electrical characteristics so that vending machines will accept them.

If you look at the putatively silver quarters you will see that it's really a sandwich with a copper alloy layer in between two silverish layers. (I think the silverish layer is still a silver alloy...but it has a lot less silver in it than the older quarters did.) IIUC, even the 1 cent pieces have been changed to a fancy alloy...and they still cost more as metal than their nominal value as a coin. There are repeated moves to eliminate them, but so far none of the moves have gotten very far. The govt. doesn't want to admit how devalued the currency has become.


Setting yourself to survive in a depopulated world is not trivial.


A very subtle dumbing-down phase transition? Been done, by one of the greats: Poul Anderson's _Brain Wave_.


What coins contain plastic? Any links?

Re: metals in a post-apocalyptic world. What about all the electric wires? All the rebar?


1) A mistake with externally survivable genetic engineering. It's not very likely, but at least there's a way to make money from trying to do it. My favourite candidate is an altered plankton intended to generate fuel, with either the fuel or a deliberate feature suppressing competing organisms.

2) A digital, encrypted currency makes tax evasion almost perfectly easy, completely disrupting first government and then commerce. Inspired by bitcoin.


One could see a biotech savvy prankster coming up with an E Coli variation which secreted psilocybin, followed by the inevitable countermeasures for blocking those receptors (which then removes an intangible something from human consciousness).

Likely Type 3 (massive inconvenience, some people die) or Type 2 at the worst, although the survivors are likely to be dullards.


Suppose that remotely operated warfare becomes accessible to the masses. I see that Rule 34 already has the idea of basement fabs that criminals can use to make guns, but scale it up a step. The V-1 "Buzz Bomb" needed no exotic materials to produce, ran on almost any fuel, was easily constructed with 1940s manufacturing, and carried 850 kg payload. You could replace the crude analog guidance system with something smartphone-based, reduce the payload and increase the range because with advanced guidance you'll land on the target rather than near it, and also have it fly lower to reduce radar visibility (another advantage of better guidance).

The payload could be a variety of explosives or even 1930s vintage chemical weapons. Nerve gases probably require too stringent handling controls to be successfully deployed, but plain old mustard gas or nitrogen mustards are realistic for someone who can fab up a bit of apparatus.

As the first Gulf War showed, you can cripple an industrial civilization simply by smashing the expensive infrastructure with conventional weapons. Precision weapons' PR is all about reducing civilian casualties, but that was not the primary goal. They were developed so you could reliably destroy a target with one bomb or missile instead of a whole wave of bombers. With good basement fabs and widely available consumer electronics, you no longer need to be a national government or suicidal to deliver bombs right on target.

Who would possibly want to build and use such things? Maybe people who think they're heading off an even greater existential threat by (e.g.) targeting fossil fuel power plants and electrical interconnects. Maybe nihilistic pranksters -- LulzMissiles.


E.coli colonizes babies soon after birth. I guess with their plastic brains, they'll just develop immunity to it.


Brain Wave


On the other hand, "reality shows" would've been laughed off TV twenty years ago. Maybe the average is slightly smarter, but the variance is increasing at a hell of a clip.


New "New Coke" with insufficient long-term testing renders a sufficinet fraction of teenagers sterile before anybody figures out what caused it -> Type 1 event. "New Coke" deliberately ambigious re. legal/illegal recreational drug.


Yeah, and water fluorination is really a communist plot...


For a bio-epidemic (I know it's on the banned list, but it's been mentioned quite a bit) something like Ebola that is very lethal and spreads rapidly... slow down the speed of death slightly so it can really spread, esp by increasing the asymptomatic period. That's the stuff of nightmares. There are others, like weaponised Marburg that do this sort of thing already...

Outside of that some accidental ones... fusion power tests go awry. That's a lot of very hot, fast moving plasma to punch holes in the surrounding environment and release a lot of energy into it. You get landslides, possibly nice long run-off tsunamis AND a weather catastrophe all in one. I can't do the maths to work it out exactly, but if it's in the wrong place I suspect we could get a humanity killer at least.


Erm, "a lot of very hot, fast moving plasma"? That's what nuclear bomb does.


Oh, as follow-up to the last: if the scenario is even slightly realistic, then remote control mutual destruction between governments is also much more plausible. Suppose that (e.g.) North African autocrats get an industrial-base-inna-box courtesy of some sort of fab technology. Successfully building nuclear weapons is still a bit tricky and likely to trigger all sorts of international backlash, but what about simply building low cost conventional cruise missiles? Build LOTS of them, tens of thousands, and distribute them widely so that the launch sites can't be destroyed by surprise.

Now you have enough firepower to threaten much of the EU with serious destruction should its members or the USA decide it's your turn for regime change. The great powers have grown accustomed to shooting in other people's back yards without danger of the violence following you home, but there is no reason that this state of affairs should persist indefinitely. There's also the exciting twist that great powers may underestimate poorer non-nuclear states due to this long historical imbalance, and learn the risks of assuming it's a bluff only after the first cluster munitions start raining down on Toulouse.


I would be tempted to point readers at Cyril M Kornbluth's story "The Marching Morons" to illustrate one way the world seems to be going.

Oh dear Cthulhu ...

* headdesk *

(The Marching Morons scenario doesn't work because humans, oddly enough, breed back towards the mean. Morons have lots of kids? Fine: most of them will be normal, some will be brighter than normal, and some will be morons. The same rule of thumb works in the other direction, which is why the Einstein dynasty hasn't exactly set string theory ablaze.)


See also a novel titled "Accelerando" by some guy named, er, Strauss? Stress? Name's on the tip of my tongue, honest ...


The evolutionary biology in "Darwin's Radio" is about as accurate a guide to the field as Robert A. Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold The Moon" is to Elon Musk's business plan at SpaceX. Which is to say, not very.


In your scenario, if a poor african country can suddenly build tens of thousand of extra precise cruise missiles, then Europe\USA already have MILLIONS. So they can and will target everything.


Then we die.

(Any fundamental constant variation that stops electronics working probably also buggers up electron transport in mitochondria.)


What, like Chlamydia?

We have such diseases already; they're not contagious/pathogenic enough to do a major population control number on us.


You have just described about 70% of the mcguffin in John Barnes' chilling SF technothriller "Directive 51". I suggest you go read a copy right now (but not if you're depressed -- it's potentially wrist-slittingly depressing).



Pathogens that are contagious and lethal render their host species extinct. This is not an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) so there is selection pressure for them to evolve to be either less contagious, or less lethal.

The fittest pathogens are highly contagious parasites that do not cause noticeable degradation of their host's survival fitness.


Sure, then it's mutually assured destruction without the technical and normative barriers to entry that keep nations out of the nuclear club. Not as devastating as the nuclear version, but an aftermath that looks like Iraq, January 1992 is still pretty devastating. You don't have to kill most of the people or even destroy most of the buildings in a nation to cripple industrial civilization.


An appropriately aimed gamma-ray burst from a quasar could pull off a type 2 or 3. Not being a scientist, I'd be interested in what would happen if passes through the sun or one of the rocky planets first or just makes a glancing blow on the earth.


That does lead to an interesting "existential threat." Imagine another really bad economic event, once again traceable to the banks/poor regulation. Radical groups of both the left and/or right decide that the political process as currently defined is not working to protect the people, and these radical groups declare "micro war" against the financial industry, and also decide to attack their political representatives.

This leads, via fairly predictable paths, most probably over-reaction by various anti-terror and security forces, to a civil war that essentially brings down civilization - 500 pound bombs dropped in New York neighborhoods on the houses of suspected resistance leaders, weddings blown up by tank fire, etc. (News headlines from the last ten years essentially write the plot here, but it happens to ordinary citizens of Europe and the US.)

The banks win (duh) and we end up with an essentially feudal economy, including massive deaths, because everyone who can operate a soldering iron or program a VCR becomes the object of suspicion.

If someone wanted to take it a little further, banks and right-wing megachurches could merge, or at least become very, very collusive.


Almost all "what if" SF has a key element of science or technology unreality. Since SF has covered all these scenarios before, I don't think it hurts to put any variant into the SF idea genealogical tree.


That's not the only reason the Marching Morons won't march. Gene flow in human populations is way, way, *way* too high for anything like Kornbluth's postulated intelligence segregation to persist. You'd need no breeding between smart and stupid people at *all* for thousands of years, not limited breeding for a few hundred as he suggests (and we don't even have that).


For fairness' sake, an American danger. Genetic engineering gets to the point of designer babies, and the default design is tall, lean, athletic, intelligent, good-looking, ambitious, and hypomanic.

Think of the folks who gave us the financial crisis, only prettier. There are more of them, they're smarter, and they're more energetic. They could come up with disasters humanity 1.0 can't even imagine.


Oops, I'd forgotten that part. Many Thanks!


If regression to the mean was that powerful, evolution would be impossible.


"Any fundamental constant variation that stops electronics working probably also buggers up electron transport in mitochondria."

And photosynthesis and... I don't know what, or how far, we can modify physics without breaking everything, e.g. all of chemistry and biology.


We really are living in a Bostrom simulation. The grad student running it runs out of quota. Or our population growth causes memory usage increases (because of the need to track a larger number of simultaneous mental states), the VM runs out of memory and so the process segfaults.

Or, not very differently, Douglas Adams was right. The mice learn what they needed to know, then turn us off.


.. The reason the marching morons doesnt make sense is that evolution is slow, and technology is fast. The generational span of humankind is 20 years, it takes hundreds of generations to effect any real change and waaay before that comes about, genetic engineering will have completely thrown that rulebook into the bin. Human evolution is Over. Done, finished, no longer relevant at all. Your reproductive fitness no longer matters, only your memetic fitness - the traits humanity has in 10000 years will be the traits humanity wants to have.

Hmm.. This could be really kind of unstable. Each generation is going to modify its decendants according to the values it holds supreme until you reach a form that is either Incapable of modification (This is a type one exinction!) unwilling to modify, or honestly incapable of further improvement within the limits of biological systems - which would.. Not look even remotely human - most likely not think very much like us, either.


More to the point, massive genetic engineering could drive a Human speciation that would cause divisions that make modern (or ancient) racism seem trivial


"Any fundamental constant variation that stops electronics working probably also buggers up electron transport in mitochondria." For most possibilities, yes (and the same with
most of biochemistry and the rest of chemistry). I've read
speculations that there might be situations where the vacuum
might undergo a phase transition and give the photon a nonzero
rest mass. If the rest mass were much smaller than the energies
involved in chemistry (say an electron volt) then chemistry is
only weakly affected, but e.g. the 50Hz/60Hz voltages in our
power grids would be screened. (I'm unfortunately very fuzzy
on how large a volume has to be how cold for how long for this
to be even in principle possible - high temperatures suppress
this kind of symmetry breaking but the article that I vaguely
remember seemed to imply that room temperature on Earth isn't
enough to prevent a symmetry breaking with a sub-room-temp
rest mass).


Maybe I'm a pessimist but probably more like twenty five to thirty million. I think you're underestimating several factors, the proportion of food we import (I know we can do without South African tomatoes in winter, but you have to replace the calories). The yields of our indigenous crops are going to crash without high tech support - compare yields of organic grown, low intensity (sustainable over the long term) and high intensity farming methods (Not sustainable on a multi decade level, ever hear of Velcourt?).

Starting point Organic on good land loses between 5% and 25% of it's potential yield to pests and weed competition under ideal circumstances Low/medium intensity - old time family farm yields approx two to three tonnes per acre utilising crop rotation, animal manures and green manures plus minimum application of a fungicide/herbicide when essential (minimum costs). High intensity,mass nitrogen application herbicide/fungicide/insecticide applied on a strict regime CAN yield eight to ten tonnes per acre but it can't do it on a decadal time scale You impoverish the soil to the extent it will take decades to bring it near it's original fertility.

Average age of working farmers in the UK is now over sixty and few youngsters want to follow. There won't be enough people who know how to grow food in industrial quantities without major tech support to keep enough alive


Pervasive DRM.

The entertainment industry bribes and blackmails politicians worldwide to mandate hardware-based DRM be embedded (at the silicon die level) in all electronics. A deadman switch will permanently fry the chip if it is unable to contact the RIAA licensing server, or if unlicensed works are detected. Even electronics in cars and appliances must have this, after hackers repurpose an air conditioner control module. Printers and photocopiers are so encumbered that everyone switches to cheap tablets.

Libraries, suffering from budget cuts, reduce their printed collections and move to e-books.

Then the RIAA forgets to renew their domain name, and every processor in the world gets a 404 error when connecting to the licensing server. With a billion whiffs of ozone, global telecommunucations, transportation, and industry slams to a halt. Food rots in fields while the cities starve. Hordes fight over the few remaining paper copies of medical and engineering texts needed to rebuild civilization.


I don't know if this is a real problem or not. I'm just spit balling. Could we tip the oceanic salinity balance? More people and industrial applications divert more and more fresh water from rivers and streams. The oceans become saltier faster killing species that are unable to adapt. This in turn kills humans as a large source of food disappears.

Because I'm not very familiar with the system; I'm probably way off. But, it seems like a fairly closed system. Fresh water comes from ice and precipitation that collects salt and minerals on it's way to the ocean. Oceanic evaporation cycle starts the process over again. So, how does the ocean get rid of salt?

The realistic time frame of this though would probably allow us to develop tools to sequester the salt from desalination processes.


Post war American Mills were plastic. Antibiotic and birth control drugs are found in high streams, from skiers I guess.
Well Yellowstone is getting ready now. But if it holds off for another thousand years or so, we may have to give up American but humanity would manage. If they paid attention to it.
DR. Evil could make one of Herman Kahn's big bangs to make us do whatever. And Austin Powers could make him drop it. If we get past Global Warming's co2 in the sea, I would worry about DNA based disease. One of your glum English SF writers did a book on a maddened doctor doing that to the Irish and anybody who had Irish in them. That kind of thing is more likely than home made a-bombs I think. A breeding population has always lived after plages, but Germany and other places were big changes from almost wiped out by the Black Death.
I read years ago that by the odds a near star should have already gone Nova and wiped out life here. Someone with the right kind of degree got very upset with me for repeating that. And then got very still.
In the rest of the world the bread fall on the butter most of the time. In English SF it always falls butter down.


143 responses and no one has mentioned alien invasion. "O tempora, o mores!"

Seriously, it's at least as plausible as a lot of things proposed here and on Wikipedia. You even see it from those crazy SF authors now and then...


That had paragraphs. No, really.


Ohno's description is not that far away from how corporate behaviour evolves. Individuals may not be evil, but the end result may be an insurance company which denies medical claims as a matter of policy.

As far as "ideas dangerous to individuals making up the superorganism", well, that's part of the reason for HR departments: to handle layoffs.

Emergent behaviour from corporate structures is an understudied field; the case has been made that corporations are sociopathic - have to be, as those tend to be the last ones standing.


Beautiful. I love it.


Besides, we already take eggs from ovaries and grow them in uteruses -- completely skipping the fallopian tubes. The first human grown that way is Louise Brown, who was born in 1978.


Frank Herbert's "The White Plague." See my post above. BTW, Herbert was American. I met him once and he was a very pleasant man.


Multi generational toxic effects. IE, roundup ready soy has been found to cause sterility after 3 generations of animals eating it. It's not something we normally test for, so something that animals aren't normally exposed too with a similar effect might go unnoticed until the exposure is already finished in humans.


Well I did mention invasion by extra-dimensional Lovecraftian demons, which I think you'll agree is much more multiversally cool, current and correct than the rather outmoded Wellsian War of the Worlds scenario. Any civilization capable of invading Earth from other star systems would have little reason to do so; however, there's no telling what kind of vast, cool and unsympathetic intellects might be regarding us with envious eyes, watching us keenly and closely across the gulfs of inter-dimensional space, scrutinizing and studying us, slowly and surely drawing up their plans against us, in any of the infinity of parallel dimensions which exist right under our noses!


You seem to have wandered in from a Laundry novel. :)


Human sterility isnt a threat, regardless of cause - assisted reproduction is much too cheap for that to ever be a problem. If every single child born was a test tube baby by nessesity, that would be an expense large enough to actually show up in economic statistics, but it would be indefinately sustainable. Now, if we manage to fuck up the reproductive cycles of.. oh, say, all the mammals, that would have major effects on ecosystems. Still not a world ender, tough, as causing universal sterility is.. kind of implausible.


The mechanism is difficult to see. Even DES produced second generation deleterious effects only when the descendant was already in utero.

That said, I have little confidence in corporate goodwill regarding mutagenic effects of their products; Roundup has already been shown to create malformed chicken and frog embryos in lower doses than used in agriculture.

I suspect Type 2 events will likeliest be caused by a corporation covering up deleterious effects until too late, then another product interacts with the first and causes a Global Fuckup. As any aeronautic accident investigator can tell you, disasters are almost always caused by more than one thing going wrong.


Another variant of the "dark age" alluded to in "Glasshouse". I really hope we are smarter than that, because if not, we might deserve to die out. (Then the apes can take over and make different mistakes). ;)


Your scenario sounds like the climax of Mary Gentle's _Ash_ to me. We are the miracle workers now. :)

(btw, human evolution has not stopped. Selection by pathogens proceeds, sped up greatly by our habit of clustering into cities where diseases spread easily, as does selection among spermatozoa. Look at our genome and those two places are where the majority of selective sweeps happen anyway, even in species with rapidly changing external phenotypes like us over the last few milion years.)


Err, unlikely a problem with fluoxetine:

Concentration was about 18 ng/l, you would have to drink about 500.000 l to reach a dosage of 9 mg, which is lower than the one used in the smallest dosage unit. Now norfluoxetine has an exceptionally long plasma half life (about 16 days), but still, 30.000 l a day is something of a challenge.

On another note, all this enviromenatal panic surely shows up in excreted cortisone, which also gets into our drinking water.


Yes, it would only wipe out the poor and Third World


One of my favourites is the end of plate tectonics, leading to some problems with all kind of elemental cycles. But that'd take some time to happen; even if al plate tectonics stopped, there'd still be hot spots and like.

On another note, one of the joys of the demographic transition is that there is a negative correlation between education and social status of women and number of children. That's one of the tenets of right-wing nuts everywhere, see "we are outbred by stupid immigrants", fun is, given a blatantly genetic interpretation of intelligence[1], immigration might slow this decline, since uneducated immigrants endowed with genes for intelligence could have more children than educated(random rant about spoiled brats barely passing school deleted) autochton dimmwits. Now, how long till you have not enough people able to man the machines?

For a related scenario, societal justice is implemented, and everybody get's allocated to a job of his potential. Problem is we realize to late society depended on a lot of people in jobs worse than their credentials(system administrators, I can hear you). And the plumbers...

Or look at the splitting of educational fields, which depends on somebodyy at least understanding some parts of different fields. Imagine expenential growth keeps going, but the augmentation of the human intellect just doesn't happen, and we are increasingly faced with problems that are beyond the level of sensible administration.

Just some thoughts, sorry if they come of as nutcase, just trying to think of something besides the usual global pandemic/exhaustion of resources/we poison ourselves memes.

[1] Let's ignore things like questions about heritability of intelligence of IQ in non-WEIRD people, the utility of IQ in maintaining machinery etc. and the oft-neglected question what IQ is anyway.


Err, coming late to the party, I failed to notice "Marching Morons" have been mercilessly bashed already. Even so, the children of the "morons" wouldn't just breed back to normal, IMHO there would be something of a Mendelian splitting, with some children even dumber, some smarter and most like their parents; about speed of development, influence of gene flow etc., I agree.


In re the Marching Morons, the problem would not be so much heredity as it would be their upbringing, at least on the time scale we'd have to be concerned with.

IIRC that in the States, at least, religious fundamentalists breed more and earlier than more-educated and -liberal folk, and at least with the Quiverful movement this is by design, with the intent to increase their political power, with the side effect that a larger percentage of the population would be ignorant, but religiously acceptable.

What a terrible run-on sentence that was.


In order of plausibility,

1. Some innocuous bacterial strain starts to express a protein that acts as a prion disease in humans. If it was a known agent, we would possibly catch it in time for only a type one event, but a novel pathogen would remain undetected until it was pervasive; after several years of incubation, the first cases of dementia start to occur, three years later humanity is no more.

2. Implantable interfaces become nearly ubiquitous; a coronal mass ejection causes malfunctions which incapacitate or kill a large percentage of the population. The survivors are unable to maintain the infrastructure, cities start to burn, the resulting mini ice-age inhibits agriculture, and finishes off the now tech-less survivors.

3. All the extropian fantasies are true! With disease a thing of the past, safe living environments, and resources enough to provide a happy existence for everyone on earth with essentially no human effort. In this environment, we start being selecting solely for social prowess and secondary sexual characteristics, the genetic component will not reach a fatal point alone, but the problem is exacerbated as education follows along the same lines. We end up like the birds of paradise, finely tuned for life without struggle, but unable to cope with predators or adverse conditions. The eventual breakdown of our technologies leads an eventual fall.


I am amazed that Marching Morons is still taken seriously - average IQ is actually rising, just look up the Flynn Effect.

Even if that were to reverse, natural selection takes a long time. And the ability to genetically engineer for intelligence is very close to hand. So why does anyone still worry about this?

Never underestimate some people's desire to look down on everyone else, I guess.


Here is something else to be worried about:


I totally forgot about "Robot Nation"

Now imagine this scenario a decade or so out as robots pretty much do everything, freeing up mankind to pursue: Endless MMO play, the golden age of Arts, or whatever Utopian time killer you prefer.

Endless play and no need for hard skills, then along comes a Coronal Mass Ejection..

The EM pulse takes out all circuitry not grounded with refrigerator sized resistors. Bit of a hard landing as all stumble out blinking in the bright sunshine..

Resistors on powerlines -->


Hmm... Able Archer 83 sounded awful. Perhaps we're just here because of a multiverse. Most other Earth's are smoldering ruins, but anthropic reasoning and all means some fraction of the many worlds dodged a few of these nuclear bullets.

Back to the topic at hand!

(1) Daniel Suarez's Daemon scenario seems possible. Near term robotics, some clever social engineering managed by some not so intelligent bots, and voila you get a severe crisis. Not really existential level crisis through, unless they get nukes and (and the bots won't be smart enough to worry about self preservation).

(2) Basically a rehash of other comments: How about computer games getting too smart? NPCs get so good, they start chasing gamers outside of the game. Or some idiot makes a Lovecraftian game, runs it on a cloud of quantum-servers, and makes an all-too-high-fidelity simulation of the Elder Gods?

(3) I discover that I'm a Bolzmann Brain. All my memories and everyone I know, and this blog, are nothing more than the result of a fluke, once every gazillion-year arrangement, of virtual particles in an otherwise empty and absolutely cold dark void of nearly maximum entropy. On realizing this, I freeze to death.


"The Machine Stops" - Forster


Ah the multiverse.. such an easy way out of dealing with quantum entanglement.

Anyway here is a scenario for that:
See it turns out that quantum computers tap into other universes to compute problems just like we thought, only... It seems that at each quantum collapse we subtract a bit of energy from each of the other nearby universes that our computation ran on (can't escape thermodynamics dude).

After a few years of success at expanding our use of quantum calculations the following becomes true:

(1) -- All nearby universes to those who master quantum computing are dead ones, those further away in the multiverse are dying (in a low/high entropy sense).

(2) -- Those universes that master it and are nearby to each other unknowingly battle out thermodynamic deprivation/enhancement cycles.

(3) -- Eventually an "Arms race" ensues once quantum users discover the other.. a race to maximize the others entropy.

(4) -- Sadly it turns out human brains use quantum calculations also and once we have killed off the nearby universes our brainpower plummets..


Or the idea where the world is the target of a Schrodinger's Cat quantum experiment.


I'd note the following:

1) The Global Financial Crisis is still in process. The US banking system is still extremely broken, and has not been fixed. The global capital accumulation system is currently looking for other areas to speculate in, now that they've managed to break housing and business investment to the point where there isn't a reasonable and consistent return on investment.

2) They've discovered the global market in food.

At least part of the rising costs of food lately are being caused by the actions of financial speculators from Wall Street. They're playing their money games with derivative futures in the various food markets, and driving up the costs of food for ordinary folks. We are looking here at the potential for a financially generated famine, one which would happen despite a more-than-adequate food supply for the majority of human beings around the world (which, it could be argued is pretty common for famines these days)

Combine this with a few other issues which are starting to surface, such as the gradual decline of soil fertility, the long-term destructive nature of monocultural farming, intellectual property issues reducing global seed banks, over-reliance on F1 hybrids as cash crops, various biocide-resistant strains of insects and bacteria surfacing, global over-engineering of taste preferences toward the hyper-sweet and overly-greasy, and there's a fair chance our particular group of high-maintenance plains apes are going to find themselves in a great deal of trouble when it comes to maintaining a food supply. The really fun thing is, we will have done it to ourselves.

On a slightly smaller scale: let's say there's a few years where volcanism kicks off a bit more frequently, putting a lot of gas and ash into the air on a fairly regular basis, making air travel if not more risky than it is at present, at least more unreliable (for examples, look at the disruptions caused in North America and Europe last year from the Icelandic eruptions, and the disruptions caused here in Australia very recently by the eruptions in Chile). Now, at present there are a lot of things which are predicated on there being a source of very reliable, very rapid long-distance transit - things like intra-continental or intercontinental sporting exchanges, business exchanges, and political discussions. If air travel suddenly starts becoming a real risk, or a real luxury (something which is also happening as a result of the rising price of oil products) it will cause some very widespread disruptions, firstly on the personal level, but probably percolating up the ladder to the political level. For example, consider what might happen if the loss of readily available global air travel makes things like the Olympic Games, the United Nations, and so forth into less of an "everyone can participate, see?" event, and more of an event where "you have to be this wealthy to participate". It could exacerbate existing rich state/poor state issues to a massive degree.

I strongly suspect that removing any crucial mediatory technology (and in this case, "air travel" is just an example) would have a rather umm... interesting effect on global politics and culture. Another example might be the existing tendency of governments to want to put firewalls around the internet to prevent their citizens learning nasty new tricks from the rest of the world (and before anyone says "it couldn't happen in the first world", please note that the current Australian government is going to be starting a trial of a precursor system to this within the next month or so. At present it's just a few ISPs, removing stuff which could be counted as "child abuse" from their feeds, but please note it's being overseen by the same mob that was seriously proposing an HTTP firewall to block various types of "abusive" content). Remove the easy means of interaction between people on different sides of the planet (or even different sides of the same continent) and you allow small divisions to multiply. Consider, for example, the difference in scale between the sizes of the various European countries, and the sizes of countries like the USA and Australia (and again, consider the respective sizes of states in each of these nations, and the order in which these various states were founded or delineated).

I suspect there'd be an upswing in the amount of warfare happening; I also suspect there'd be a lot of very happy firms (mostly from the US, but the arms industry is everywhere these days) quite willing to sell everyone involved enough toys to make for a lot of fun and games for all concerned.


1. A shale or clathrate gas extraction accident results in uncontrolled release of enough CH4 to trigger larger CH4 releases from induced melting of tundra and we get the extreme GW scenario.

2. An experimental viral vector that blocks photosynthesis is released. All photosynthesis eventually drops to a very low level and with it atmospheric O2.


Nobody else reads Peter Watts?

Blindsight is the opposite in some ways of The Marching Morons: we genetically engineer a variant Homo Sapiens, all of whom are extremely dangerous high-functioning sociopaths. Useful sociopaths, though, as long as the safety restraints work. When they don't, a large portion of humanity has retreated into VR and while technically this isn't a Type 2 because those humans are still alive, they're basically frozen snacks.


The O2 levels would only need to drop enough to make combustion engines inefficient and starve us of most of our energy production.


Its so much more suited for blockbuster movie status if O2 levels climb instead of fall...


OK. You are right. But the bread and butter still stands.


I would agree completely were it not for the exception to the "breed back to the mean" concept that seems to being posed by the 300-odd million people just south of me. But maybe that's just me being cynical...


Apart from that last bit, this is fairly close to the plot of Asimov's The Gods Themselves


I recalled reading Asimov's story as a child and thought twisting it from power generation to "No quantum free ride" seemed like a fun use of the multiverse.

Its really hard to come up with something totally original.. I've been trying to figure out all the ways tapping/modding the underlying meta-laws in the universe might be "A really bad thing (tm)" , then recalled "Well of the Souls"..


A possible Type 1: the trend that started in China of selecting for male embryos expands and spreads to India and Africa. If it also spreads to Europe and America (and don't say it can't; we have a lot of religious crazies who think of women as a necessary evil, and would be very happy to make them unnecessary), it could cause a very sudden drop in population, possibly reducing the population below the level required to sustain technology. Doesn't seem really likely to be that drastic, but I will bet that the initial effect of sex selection outside of China is going to be coming down the pike Real Soon Now.


Very low probability Type 3: chaotic interactions between Jupiter and Earth destabilize Earth's orbit, tossing it out of the Solar System; everything freezes. I don't think that could take less than many years (it's basically a parametric pump, with the effect on Earth adding on each time around, like pumping a playground swing, so it should take quite awhile), but it might take less time than would be required for us to bail and set up an ecosystem somewhere else).


Unless we actually get to the paperless office (and that's not likely, we use more paper now than we did 30 years ago), some mutant fungus that ate all of our paper could trash technological civilization. Add peak oil so we can't make a plastic replacement, and we're in trouble.


Billions of years of evolution couldn't create a microorganism that eats cellulose that fast. So - no way.


That's not The Marching Morons, that's Idiocracy.


Say, what happened to those prions you guys put in the air when the mad cows were burned. I know it seemed like a good idea at the time but what's up now? I remember reading a short story about how the non cow eating Indians were in England and other places trying to save some of us.
Any smart kid could make antibiotic resistant germs at home with trash and antibiotics. In much of the world anybody can buy antibiotics over the counter. He would die too, but he is still thinks like a kid. And if he really hated Daddy and Mommy and the mean kids at school. Or if the party killed everyone that meant any thing to him. It's not just save to make anybody mad now days.
Where they have sex trips, pimps give their girls, and boys, antibiotics to make them look good. That way they make more money longer before they die. I heard it from medics about the places GI's were going in the 60s. Maybe it was Army BS. But I keep reading about it even now. I expected what we called the antibiotic resistant "Black Syp" would get out. Not Aids. Back then some believed there was a secret base where GI's who had it would spend the rest of their short lives.


Pathogens don't really cut it as a species-killer: there's always a resistant population.

Plant pathogens, doubly so: I can see one major crop collapsing, maybe two - but there is sufficient diversity across the grass family to ensure the survival of wheat or rice - and definitely one or more of the broadleaved crops we grow for cattle.

However... If plant species can't be eradicated by disease, they can be displaced by super-weeds. I think that Rubisco is the way to go: the laughably-inefficient photosynthetic enzyme that feeds all life in Earth can (in theory) be improved by two orders of magnitude.

It's not a simple 'tweak', and it would need extensive re-engineering of the plant to cope with the increased output and - especially - to eliminate bottlenecks in handling minerals (and nitrogen) . But it is within the reach of a foreseeable technology.

Pest- and herbicide- resistance would be needed: not a simple exercise! Also, I'd modify a member of the grasses to ensure that a selective weedkiller ends up killing any cereals the superweed competes amongst.

The icing on the cake would be a previous reader's suggestion: no free oxygen released by super-photosynthesis.


Rabbits are an example of where the nice, simple, obvious math of early ecology falls over badly. It's down to the logistic equation, which looks to predict stable populations in balance with food supplies.

Details of the math, and the problem, are here. Since rabbits breed like, well, rabbits; potentially several hundred descendants a year; it's hardly likely you can either knock back the population with a disease, or maintain a stable population.

Humans breed much more slowly, which means the math might make a useful prediction. But rabbits don't control nuclear weapons.



By the way, why are you posing this question ?
Is it part of the research for a potential story ?
Just curious.


Also, it isn't hard to imagine some of the "intelligent" being what we would think of as depraved and violent. It doesn't need slavery, it just needs some of the [redacted] to go past the sort of chanting reported here.

There's all sorts of reasons why the genetic split of "The Marching Morons" couldn't be sustained. That's one of the uglier ones.


Schroedingers Cat is only a _thought_ experiment used to explain some things about quantum physics to the unfamiliar recipient. At no point did he or really wanted to stick a cat in a box.


Good summary.

There's some odd behaviour patterns that I've seen in farming. Produce prices have gone up, and land prices have risen remarkably. There are tax implications, but if I'd seen profits jump from £10,000 to £100,000 I wouldn't invest the money in farm land. The financial leveraging is crazy.

But there is an almost emotional attachment. You tend to see farming as a multi-generation thing. Mostly, it's batch production, usually one batch per year, very different from most industries. There's a tendency to build on that to a "them against us" attitude.

The people who will profit from the jump in land values are the bankers and estate agents (realtors?).

I wonder where the money is really coming from, even how much land is changing hands. I don't read Farmer's Weekly any more.

(Velcourt is a big farming company, apparently still running.)


I think he's playing with you, Charlie.


Can you give a reference for that claim of sterility from Roundup-ready soya?

I have, over the years, seen much wittering from people who seem to think that there is no way of killing the plants. They don't know, it seems, about selective herbicides and crop rotations.

So I am disinclined to accept unsuppoorted assertions of this sort.


Supervolcano - like Yellowstone would totally stuff North America, and cause severe problems elsewhere, but it would not crash civilisation. PArticularly as one would get some warning - ground bulgin, heaves, water-temperatures rising, pre-eruptions etc .....

A severe Coronal Mass ejection or a Carrington Event would cause much more disruption, even now.
What happens if we lose every single satellite, and at least half, and more likely 80-90% of our computing power, including the chips built into almost everything?
Would we even have mains electrical power?


Want something new?

"Two-thirds of the world's surgical instruments are make in the city of Sialkot in northern Pakistan and 70% of the UK's registered manufacturers are based in the city." [from the BBC]

That's not quite an existential threat, but it does illustrate some of the vulnerabilities of the modern world, with the concentration of suppliers and the apparent lack of checks made by the organisations they supply.


Making antibiotics-resistant microbes is easy. Making bioweapons is hard. OK?


If you're American and talking about Mexico, you've been swallowing racist propaganda. (Hint: your numbers are wonky. Unless you're Canadian and talking about the USA instead ...)


It's not going to spread to the UK; while pre-natal sex testing isn't illegal per se it's NHS policy not to tell the parents the sex of the child, and AIUI sex-based abortion is illegal.

I suspect that particular craze is universally illegal within the EU in principle as it's probably a violation of the ECHR.

And I suspect if sex-specific abortion became a significant issue in the USA it would be one that the anti-abortion nutters would latch onto with glee as yet another wedge with which to push back against the legality of abortion.

What should be worrying is the possibility of pre-natal techniques for selecting the sex of children at conception.

(As for the one child per family policy in China, you might have noticed Beijing doing an abrupt about-face on homosexuality in the past decade? They have Pride marches over there, now, with tacit political approval. The gender imbalance they got during the OCPF years is noticeable, but small enough that social acceptance of homosexuality among men will suffice to rebalance it.)


Billions of years of evolution couldn't create a microorganism that eats cellulose that fast. So - no way.

Actually, cellulose is readily digestible; just ask your neighbourhood termite nest.

The historical problem wasn't cellulose, it's lignin. Oh, and the fact that trees tend to be covered in protective bark and are chock-full of interesting toxic chemical defenses against being eaten.

Paper tends to be low on biocidal alkaloids, has had the lignin mostly stripped out, and has been rendered down into nice pre-digested fibres of roughly even length in a matrix of silica. I'd say the real problem retarding decomposition is the lack of water.

Even so, we have this problem in miniature today -- a lot of wood pulp based papers are slightly acidic, and over decades they oxidize away. This is giving us a real preservation problem wrt. newspapers and magazines from the 1920s to 1950s, and it's not necessarily going to get better.


The Plastics Problem. Ecological - Uncertain approaching to Likely Type2. Plastics persist in the environment (possibly indefinately). Most of these find their way into the oceans, where they float in the water column. Over time they break down into smaller and smaller infitesimals. We already know that larger plastic lumps kill aquatic vertebrates when ingested, when they get small enough and in sufficient quantities they can repeat the same trick with Zooplankton. The effects of a large scale disruption would lead to simultaneous collapse of global fisheries together with Oceanic Algae Bloom as there normal herbivore is wiped out. REF: 'The World Without Us' A. Weisman.2007


"what level of population could the UK support without petrol driven agricultural vehicles and artificial fertilizers for example?"

Well, we could put a bottom limit on that -- it supported 15 million at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Maybe 20 million given modern improved crops."

Except you (and most of the rest of the developed world) has been busy paveing over a lot of the best agricultural land since then.


"And that scenario's garbage too.

Per capita human excretory volume -- liquid waste -- is on the order of 2 litres/day. Per capita water consumption in the UK is on the order of 150 litres/day. So there's a 1:75 dilution to start with, before we consider that sewage isn't recycled into drinking water directly."

He forgot to say...


It's a homeopathic medicine :)


Joey J@:

We can't realistically tip the ocean salinity that much / that fast, but we can and are buggering up the surface salinity - added freshwater from glacier melt / precipitation is messing up warer overturning near estuarine and coastal areas. This is leading to hypoxia -
the deep salty water is separated from the air, leading to very low oxygen.

Search on "hypoxia ocean" for examples; eg.


I'm not sure if it is mentioned already, but something like "depressed former super power (aka USA) undergoes drastic political change (aka voting tea party in presidential office) and enacts dumb policy (to be named), resulting in WW3"?

(And the Wind-up Girl scenario, genentech company DRM goes awry and makes it impossible to grow nightshades ...)



Artificial fertilizers ain't gonna leave the scene. There's a lot of shale gas, and everyone would agree that it'd be better to save elsewhere to produce them.

It's ecoidiot nonsense, worrying that we're gonna run out of NG.


"Billions of years of evolution couldn't create a microorganism that eats cellulose that fast. So - no way.

"Actually, cellulose is readily digestible; just ask your neighbourhood termite nest.

I have a vague recollection that as part of their oil independence program Sweden was/is putting significant resources into developing cellulose eating bugs[1] to produce biofuels from wood pulp. Now, my understanding is that normally these kinds of engineered microorganisms die very quickly when removed from the very specific range of conditions they've been "bred" for but lets say (for the sake of a plot device) that someone (deliberately or otherwise)comes up with a cellulose eater which can live outside the carefully controlled conditions of a laboratory or industrial bioreactor...

Since According to Wikipedia[2] (yes, I know...) "Cellulose is the structural component of the primary cell wall of green plants, many forms of algae and the oomycetes. Some species of bacteria secrete it to form biofilms. Cellulose is the most common organic compound on Earth. About 33% of all plant matter is cellulose (the cellulose content of cotton is 90% and that of wood is 40–50%)" I'd say that with all the green plants and a significant proportion of the algae at risk the paper is going to be the least of our problems and we're looking at a potential Type 3 scenario!

[1] For certain wider ranging values of "bug"



"Plant pathogens, doubly so: I can see one major crop collapsing, maybe two - but there is sufficient diversity across the grass family to ensure the survival of wheat or rice - and definitely one or more of the broadleaved crops we grow for cattle."

Actually quite close to what I was thinking of suggesting: widespread adoption of GE crops leads to monocultures in staple crops followed by natural or man-made pathogens wiping out the harvest. One major crop probably wouldn't be civilization threatening but bonus points for the pathogen targeting an otherwise beneficial trait specifically engineered across several major food crops. Then its a race between mass starvation and trying to grow and distribute new seed stock.

@Lanius - the scenario being discussed up thread was: "what level of population could the UK support without petrol driven agricultural vehicles and artificial fertilizers for example?" And the trouble isn't so much running out of gas as extracting it if you have a technological collapse.


19: Charlie, small engine technology is well within those limits, with the proviso that vulcanized rubber and metallic aluminum were discovered after 1800. But rubber is basically tree sap -- figs produce a useable latex, as do dandelions -- and if you're trawling junk heaps, aluminum is ridiculously common. From there, you can build a generator.

The modern Third World doesn't quite do this, though they will repair small engines to an amazing point -- hence the horrible air pollution due to badly tuned mopeds etc -- but a small engine is a ridiculously useful thing, and as the palm oil price spike has shown, agricultural oils can and will substitute for fossil fuels. Here the tropical climates have an advantage. (Of course this is why historically they have been exploited. It's not for the dance music.)

Had the superpower North wiped itself out in 1983, and despite the billions of deaths, it's pretty unlikely that Recife or Kuala Lumpur or Accra would revert to 1800 levels of technology. The great universities would be the Third World's technical schools, and the enormous repair and refurbishment sectors of the local economies would switch to production. It would not be pleasant, but it would neither be Mad Max nor a return to the Age of Nelson.


Until about three years ago, I was running a vehicle with a pre-computer engine. A Series III Land Rover has a very durable engine which is fixable with quite low technology. Spark plugs might be a bit difficult to replace, but I suspect it would still be usable after a Carrington event.

Land Rover was still supplying new vehicles to the African market with non-electronic engines, specifically their early turbo-diesel. It was also being supplied to the military market, presumably because of EMP survivability.

It would need some different seals in the fuel system to run on biofuel, and adjustments to ignition timing. It would need some modification to avert valve-seat erosion. But these big, inefficient, rather crude, engines do tend to keep running.


@ 203 & 209
NUUcleear war 198? ...
The Developed South like australia and NZ would also have been around as would Brazil - see John Wyndham on this one.

As for feeding the UK
We could support our PRESENT population, provided certain transport/re-structuring measures were taken.
Apart for Onions, I buy almost no vegetables, because I have an allotment.
So for every two adult people you need an (Approx) 10x30-metre plot of land carefully cultivated, for veg.
Plus land for dairy and meat-raisng, plus wheat/barley.
You will need to SERIOUSLY re-arrange transport for people to and from their plots, and where those plots are, and people's working weeks.
But the area then put down to Allots. is somehwere between the areas of the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, distributed around and inside the towns and cities.
The rest is down to "professional" agriculture for the remaining foods that can't be easily grown in/on allotments.
The DIFFICULT bit is the one-to-two year changeover period, if you don't get sufficient warning of whatever is screwing you around.


Another problem may have started already: at some point the mantle will cease to be hot enough to push water (entering at subduction zones, mostly chemically combined with other minerals) back up to the surface and out of mantle materials. From that day forth the oceans will start to lose water in considerable quantities.

Further, it is possible that this has already started. We may have 'only' a hundred or so million years to solve the problem! Imminent disaster!

(an even less imminent disaster involves the Earth losing all its water to space. It *is* losing water to space, despite the magnetosphere. However at current rates we have about fifty billion years before we run out. But the Stasis would have to figure out a fix.)


The effects of lingering shards of technology would extremely non-linear. A few of those "Internet server plugged into your wall socket" devices that are supposed to happen soon plus a solar panel or ten could make an unpredictably huge difference.
There will be knowledge monasteries. See "How Ireland Saved Western Civilization" (non-fiction) or "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson.
Sorry, you did say you didn't want to go here, but I couldn't resist.


@211 - an all out nuclear exchange between superpowers would certainly have involved nuclear strikes on Australia and NZ.


For a terrifying variant of this, see Tiptree's _The Screwfly Solution_.


Plastics in the water column are currently being digested by microorganisms. There was something about digestion in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in last month's SciAm.


All of Peter Watt's books are germaine here.


Asteroid strike near populous city during war maneuvers (pick your country)

The signature of a nuke is obvious in seismic, IR, and pretty much every other form of observation. That's without getting a WC-135B CONSTANT PHOENIX sortie to sample the plume and note the lack of radioactivity, or the fact that there was no associated electromagnetic pulse.

(Tag, which should be the Vertric community motto: "You know when you've been nuked.")


Jessica @ 214
"Ireland saved Western civilistation" ??

C'mon .. this is a very bad Roman Catholic christian joke in extremely unpleasant taste.
Given the record of the multiple deliberate obliteration of scientific and technical knowledge by the church.
What was preserved was kept in Byzyntium, or transported to the not-yet-dominated-by-by-the-ultras islamic area, or kept in Egypt (though both sets of religious nutters eventually trashed that one ....)


In the event of this national emergency we could plough up /divide into allotments all of the U.Ks golf courses .. problem solved.


This presumes that all of the UK's golf courses are on good arable land. They're not, particularly in Scotland where some of them struggle to keep decent greens and tees, and the rest might make rough pasture.


Greg, from what I remember of my schooldays, it was Julius Caesar, Hengist_and_Horsa, and straight into St. Augustine. It's still easy to forget the Celtic Church was around.

You risk a bit too much of the Sellars & Yeatman.


Dave, I don't know how compatable your school "history" "teaching" is tom mine, but I only really became aware of the Celtic Church's existance in the last 10 to 15 years.


The question of how much agriculture the UK could sustain without fossile fuels is simple: "As much as it does today, more if need be". The actual imputs to fertilizer production are hydrogen, atmospheric nitrogen, heat and pressure. None of those actually need come from fossile sources, and a single hydroelectric installation could more than easily cover the entirety of UK demand. Tractors can be modified to run on ammonia, so the same production facility and logistics chain could also supply the agricultural sector with fuel, so peak oil as a threat to mechanized agriculture is, basically, complete nonsense - it would not even significantly impact production costs.

I've never seen a non-post apocalypse scenario in sf of everyone scrambling to make things work when there isn't enough time or knowledge.
You might find the "ring of fire" novels interesting then. I'm not going to claim that they're high art, but, the premise is that a patch of ground in West Virginia in the modern day "swaps places" with a patch of ground in Europe in the 1600s, including an entire coal-mining town and all the people visiting for a local wedding. They explicitly deal with the issue of "gearing down", using their remaining industrial equipment while it still works to build tools that will let them survive at a lower tech level, rather than trying to maintain their baseline tech level going forward.

As an 11 year old driving different fueled tractors on the farm I recall that propane fueled ones were quite boring and non-smelly. While the over-rich injector mixture on the diesel ones were impressive to a kid... flame coming out the stack several feet and heavy diesel fumes, you really felt it was doing work! I'm guessing ammonia fueled ones would have their own unique smell..


Here's a link to the Wikipedia pages on the "Ring of Fire"/1632 series - may contain spoilers:-

What if the first attempt isn't on a human? Suppose a house cat is uploaded - and the combination of the upload and existing software technology winds up self-improving enough to "foom", but with feline views on play and prey as a starting point...
Hm... don't we know some random SF author who had essentially this scenario, implied but perhaps not explicitly spelled out, and with the first uploads being a colony of lobsters and the second upload being essentially a housecat? I feel sure Charlie knows who I'm talking about.

"What happens if we lose every single satellite..."

That raises an interesting point. Would loss of a technology throw us back to approximately the point before that technology, have no effect, or throw us back a lot further because we cannot easily recover the earlier technology?

In this particular case, if we lost all our satellites because of really bad orbiting debris, what might happen. We would lose our weather monitoring and return to the 1950's level of weather forecasting, so severe weather damage would be harder to stop. Communications would rely on ground links again, but they are fiber optic, so not so much of a problem. But if we lost all our CPUs permanently, how long would it take to rebuild older technology at the 1960's/70's level?


Now you mention it, that does seem vaguely familiar.


"If plant species can't be eradicated by disease, they can be displaced by super-weeds..."

I don't think so. Any weed can be killed by resorting to mechanical weeding (human if necessary) or by fire in larger areas.

Triffids only became a threat when almost everyone went blind.


Okay, time for me to take a stab at the original task. Most of my own doomsday scenarios revolve around a monoculture of some kind or another (biological, cultural/memetic, technological, whatever)... and I suppose this one's no different.

I'm thinking of a "type 1" event based partially on a "White Plague" (Herbert) idea, partly on a "Zodiac" (Stephenson) idea, and partly on the concept of peak oil.

Basically, some really smart folks in a group of ecological extremists think that we're not weaning ourselves off fossil fuels "quickly enough", and decide to take measures "for our own good as a species". They engineer a pretty fragile bacteria, so fragile that almost any immune system can stop it when it's in its active phase, but that's very very good at extracting energy from simple hydrocarbons. That is, it eats oil and natural gas and coal. It has a more durable "spore" form, and that's used to spread it widely, the idea being "when it's clear to everyone that we can't rely on cheap fossil fuels anymore, humanity will finally focus on what they need to".

And they release it, and humanity doesn't refocus. Technological society has its energy plug pulled very rapidly (compared to prior rate of depletion, at least), and collapses, as this thing eats coal seams and drinks oil wells, and infects reserves.

(And for bonus points, while that's going on, while there's chaos and distraction in what remains of the media, nobody notices that this stuff is also good at eating other energy stores that aren't bound up in active metabolisms that defend against it, like, oh, say, stored ethanol and, after some mutations, stored sugars and starches...)


@charlie: And I suspect if sex-specific abortion became a significant issue in the USA it would be one that the anti-abortion nutters would latch onto with glee as yet another wedge with which to push back against the legality of abortion.

Ahh, the Wall Street Journal had an op-ed recently decrying! decrying! the horror of sex selection in the third world. Of course, it ends with a screed about how having "choice" is the root cause -- not systematic problems in India's tradition culture, or a global economic system that drives certain "choices".

Suspect no longer. The professional propagandist is always on the hunt for material -- just combine novelists with prostitutes, and there you have your template.


I think that the author of the 'uploaded cat' series was the same person who wrote Clockwork Robber Barons vs the Zeppelin Zombies of Mars (you will have to page down to see the cover art)


I'm surprised that lack of potable drinking water hasn't come up. It's not that there isn't enough fresh water, but there's a growing shortage of fresh water that doesn't have disease, pollution, or salt in it. Even in the United States we have entire lakes and rivers where if you fall in that's a quick trip to the emergency room if you know what's good for you.

After that, there's a shortage of water in places where people need water.

Mostly, this issue affects third world countries, especially in Africa, but it hits them hard already. In the United States we've already got water rationing issues on the West coast. Granted, we use water like morons. Fixing a lot of that problem will just require that people in deserts get used to not having grass lawns, and the entire golf course being a sand trap.

This won't even come close to being an extinction level event, but it will depopulate some areas of the world.

HOWEVER, if we combine our current water issues with something that knocks out big chunks of the electrical grid, or peak oil, there are some areas of even first world nations that would be in for a world of hurting. A lot of places are dependent on electrical and fossil resources to pump and clean water from distant places.

In addition, we put oil on the crops. Most pesticides and fertilizer that let crops do well with less water are derived from oil. The result is that big chunks of the world depopulate and migrate. It would be a mess, but a mess that creeps up slowly if it's peak oil, or catastrophically if a solar flare wrecks the electrical grid.


In the United States we've already got water rationing issues on the West coast. Granted, we use water like morons. Fixing a lot of that problem will just require that people in deserts get used to not having grass lawns, and the entire golf course being a sand trap.

Or just maybe that growing veggies in the desert just maybe isn't the best way to use water. It's my understanding that 90% of California's water goes to agriculture. So having people in ration their personal use is a bit absurd at times.

But hey. Ain't politics grand.


How about a variation of the DRM failure previously mentioned, but applied to OGM crop foods?

For example, Monsanto&C nearly reach their dream target and replace 90% of the world seeds with some kind of terminator-enabled seed, maybe also including other food sources like cattle and pigs (they have some patent in that field too), but some mismanagement/expiring antycopy gene/runaway disease that target the DRM genetic switch wipe out a consistent percentage one or more years of world food production.
The following wars and famines do the rest of the work.

I seriously doubt such a scenario would reach level 2, but under some circumstances it could very well reach level 1.


some really smart folks in a group of ecological extremists think that we're not weaning ourselves off fossil fuels "quickly enough", and decide to take measures "for our own good as a species".

There's your problem:

Observation suggests to me that environmental activists -- like other shaved apes -- fall between two extremes: smart and dumb. And then there are the corporate ones.

The dumb ones can just barely walk and chew gum: they stick spikes in trees in logging territory and picket businesses they think are naughty. General impact on civilization: zip, except when they go a bit too far and have to be arrested to stop them harassing people.

The smart ones are smart enough to know that getting government on your side is a huge force-multiplier, so rather than taking direct action they join the lobbying ecosystem or go into academia to provide ammunition for the lobbyists.

The corporate ones ... well, Greenpeace has a turnover in the tens of millions a year: it takes a lot of money to keep those ships at sea, so they're oriented around fundraising and what is effectively green marketing/PR campaigning.

What you're asking for is effectively for a bunch of smart/corporate environmental activists -- folks who already have a viable, respectable, non-criminal framework to work within -- to adopt the (counterproductive, criminal, no-force-multiplier) tactics of the dumb ones. "I know what! We've spent forty years becoming respectable and gaining mass support -- why don't we try something else that's illegal and has unexplored and potentially disastrous failure modes, instead? What could possibly go wrong?"


Alex Tolley @ 230
Every satellite is just the START.
Look up the Carrington Event ... supposed to be approx once-every 500 years, statistically.
Telegraph wires MELTED.
Unprotected chips, especially those in use, will just fry. If we know one is coming, there might, just be time to power everything down, and put grounded shielding around as much as possible.
Even that would cause massive disruption.
You aren't thinking nearly seriously enough in terms of effects


I'm still struggling to see what sort of new/unknown threat, either a single cause, or a domino effect is going to have global impact.

Heart breaking disruption yes, but nothing that would throw us back to pre- C20th technology on a global scale.

Are we left with irrational acts or is it just a failure of imagination...


Greg - note that I changed the condition from a flare to just orbiting debris, so that only space systems would be taken out.


Haven't you ever watched Whale Wars? I'm not sure where on the spectrum those guys fall--it takes some smarts and organizational skill to fund and run a fleet of anti-whaling ships, but some of the things they do are incredibly reckless and stupid. It's an interesting show.

Not that they seem to have an anti-human bent.


From an economic standpoint -- and make no mistake that China is an economic entity -- that would be pure suicide and kick it up to Type 2.5. Basically, a big chunk of China's economy is selling other people stuff; they are at a critical transition point, where their own population is not wealthy enough to afford everything their manufacturing produces; wiping out the rest of the world will leave an immense manufacturing/export surplus that cannot possibly be balanced without a hard crash. If you kill off everyone else, who's going to buy your stuff?

It may be possible that the Chinese could threaten to release this super-wargerm 'if our demands are not met! (Our words are backed with BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS!)" Alternatively, they can release it and threaten to withold the vaccine. But I'm not convinced that the Chinese government is that ridiculously suicidal and that they would recognize that the mutation cycle for such a wargerm could rapidly make it immune to any sort of vaccine or other immunological measures.

tl;dr: The Chinese government, for all their faults, are not entirely foolish as to commit that sort of economic or biological suicide.


Your reference to the Carrington Event reminds me of a bit of low-grade probably-unfounded paranoia that I'm actually right in the middle of!

Some reports indicate that we're entering a cycle of minimal sunspot activity. There's some talk about a "little ice age", theories that the next 11-year cycle will be of particularly low activity, and some people cite a 70-year period that began in 1645 that had comparatively little sunspot activity.

Folks, particularly those who have been following nuclear industry regulation, or the crumbling infrastructure of the United States, may be familiar with the phenomenon of regulations and guidelines being relaxed in the absence of actual disasters related to those regulations -- if nothing is blowing up, then it's easy to argue that the lowering of standards is better than the expense of replacing infrastructure.

Imagine 20 to 30 years of low sunspot activity, the relaxing of standards, the decay in orbital infrastructure, and then a sudden spike in solar activity. Do GPS networks shut down? Do communication networks shut down? Depending on how bad things get and what economic, energy, and political crises are going on at the same time, I'd guess this could range from "meh" to "annoying" to "pretty darned bad".


The recent solar minimum was indeed very quiet, but AIUI solar activity has been quite high in the last year or two, with several very large CME events (only one of of which was aimed at Earth IIRC).


The story is based on flawed understanding of biology - here's P. Z. Myers' explanation:


Water rationing is a issue in the States because States and developers keep moving people into places without enough water. When the big one hits LA they will find there is no water within a tank of gas.
About water on earth. Some years ago, I've got to find something else to say, there was a scientist who said pics from space showed ice falling into the atmosphere. He did some work on how much new water fell and it was a lot. Did it hold up? If anyone knows I'd like to know too.
Back in the Cold War a think tank looked into how many people were needed alive for American to still be America. It was a long time ago, but I think they said less than half. So the rest were surpluses. All of us could fit into Texas. I'm not saying we really could but there is room TO just live, how is something else. So we are already spread out.


Ahh, the Wall Street Journal had an op-ed recently decrying! decrying! the horror of sex selection in the third world. Of course, it ends with a screed about how having "choice" is the root cause -- not systematic problems in India's tradition culture

So what do they consider the root cause of dowry burnings, honour killings, and rape?


Nestor @34: "Hmm.. the LHC has discovered the great old ones exist beyond the veil, awaiting to devour our souls upon death, the only escape is not to be born in the first place."

Finally, the first sane argument I've ever heard supporting the anti-natalist movement.


I think the most likely cause of a type 1 event is that so called "neo-liberal" economics continues to be followed by governments of all strips. The delusion that sovereign money regimes must run long-term balanced budgets is very widespread and seems to be a most robust and very damaging meme.

Plastic money would be a good idea if plastic wasn't made from oil, which may be more expensive in the long run than metal. Using valuable metals for money is silly since money has no intrinsic value.

We should move to electronic money as soon as we can make our computers EMF proof, and hack proof, and ubiquitous, but that might not happen soon, so the best short term solution might be paper money and wooden coins. Money that has a significant commodity value is just waste of resources.


If you're immortal, why would you want to spam the world with immortal children? The financial and resource problem of people owning things and then never dying and freeing up those resources would be catastrophic in the long term - and that's not counting the depletion of biomass if people did continue to breed.


Computer nerds working in the outer system upload the wrong program by mistake and thousands of comets that were meant for the terraformation of mars are sent of at the wrong time. in the wrong trajectories. Instead of heading straight for one precise side of Mars they scatter all over the inner solar system, plastering every human settlement there and destroying Earth's ecosystems.

Yes, the computer program included a subroutine saying to the automatic object detctors that they didnt have to worry about these incoming rocks becasue it's all well planned.


Ahem: around 75% of the earth's biomass is believed to be locked up in prokaryotes and archaea. Us eukaryotes are a minority, and most of us are unicellular protozoa floating in the Pacific ocean.


Somehow in all my hears of reading SF I had managed to miss "TMM". I'm fairly glad that I did. As an idiot teenager who was convinced he was surrounded by idiots I might have found it inspiring. As it happens I thought the name dropping at the end suggested that it was a critique of the idea that the idiots were taking over but it seems the morons missed that :)

Now where do we look for existential threats. The obvious "human stupidity" related ones have all been taken, we know what asteroids look like, being bushwhacked by vacuum collapses and unexpected supernovae isn't interesting* & the elder gods aren't coming**.

Being civilised is becoming dull.

This is where we come in. In 26 days my employers will be enering orbit around your planet. We have no interest in invading***, and are only interested in trade. We offer a wide variety of existential threats, tailored to your civilisation.

Anything from antimatter bombardment and thermodynamically impossible nanotech to psychologically irresistable invisible friends and quark matter sex toys will be made available if appropriate****.

We guarantee that no threat on offer will ever be found in SF or other literature*****, and will seem completely original and unexpected****** to all concerned.

Anyway... Type 1, 2 and 3 existential threats available on demand in a planetary system near you. Real soon now. And the less said about the little robot men in "a game of unchance" the better. That wasn' tus.

*If you expect them they might be.
**Thank Shub Niggurath.
***Subject to prompt payment.
*****Subject to book burning.
******Blah mindwipes blah. You aren't going to remember anyway.


Mind control (drugs, direct computer stimulation of the nervous system) becomes real. Millions of people are hacked and turned into brain-eating zombies.

257: | @119:

Yeah, that's already possible. Look up "trans atlantic model" in your favorite search engine. If you didn't care to keep it below 4kg to keep it in the "model" category that would be a very simple proposition. You could build thousands for less than it costs to design a single conventional bomb. If you could hit bull's eye with one out of every five you could do some serious damage, but seriously, ELE? No way.


The woods are full of religious and political groups who are very sure that the answer to ALL our problems is to just go back to The Good Old Days. Some combination of these groups get into power in enough places and start smashing everything “Unclean,” burning all the books, and FLUSH goes civilization. Well, not flush because these guys will have destroyed the water and sewer systems too. It seems more than a bit unlikely but it has been pretty bad in some places. Remember what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.

Another, related possibility is the tragedy of Easter Island, where, for religious reasons all the trees were used-up transporting statues. No trees, no boats, no food, and, whoops, very few people. Ordinary over consumption is bad enough, but add a religious angle and you just can’t stop, or except substitutes. Now pick your favorite critical resource today and add in some religious (or political) reason we just can't stop using it.

It would take a very unlikely combination of circumstances for this sort of thing to do the dirty deed all by its self, but added to other events, it might very well be enough to kick us over the edge.


Religious zealots to save the end the world? Oh please. Like infectious disease, religious ideas can't be very deadly and very fast spreading at the same time. If they kill off the host population too quickly, they are bound to become extinct themselves. See Koresh. See Aum Shinrikyo.


Locusts. A lot of locusts.

Finally, the first sane argument I've ever heard supporting the anti-natalist movement.

I was moderately pleased with myself until I realized I got it from Warhammer 40k's Eldar, whose souls are all eaten by Slaneesh when they die.

Mo and Bob have a similar rationale for not having kids in the laundry, of course.

Actual real life antinatalists do tend to focus a little too much on the suffering aspect of life, I'm not planning on having kids myself, but on a good day I feel the enjoyment one can get out of life probably counts for more, considering we're pretty much engineered towards dissatisfaction as a default state.

Anyway, it's obviously a self limiting meme though there have been popular expressions such as the Cathars who believed a Christian variant of "The world is run by Cthulhu"

The Old Testament God had created the world as a prison, and demanded from the "prisoners" fearful obedience and worship. The Cathari claimed that this god was in fact a blind usurper who under the most false pretexts, tormented and murdered those whom he called, all too possessively, "his children". The false god was, by the Cathari, called Rex Mundi, or The King of the World. (...) Sexual intercourse and reproduction propagated the slavery of spirit to flesh, hence procreation was considered undesirable

The Cathars were big enough that they had to be supressed via internal Crusades, so who knows how big they could've got if they had prevailed.

IIRC some Buddhist societies also almost collapsed due to religious celibacy becoming generalized so in our global worldwide memetic soup it's not completely inconceivable a highly attractive celibate/antinatalist philosophy could go universal.


Actually, if there is an order of magnitude more carbon dioxide, crops will probably have lower yield. Right now the CO2 level is towards the lower range of what plants like. Photosynthesis doesn't work well or maybe at all below about 200ppm, and currently we have about 390ppm. Crop yield peaks around 1000ppm, so it would probably have fallen off markedly by 3900ppm, so I think there would be recognisably too much CO2 for our good even if the temperature remained low.

CO2 levels make a significant difference to crop yields, which is why greenhouses in the Netherlands, and probably in other places, pay for cylinders of CO2 to raise the level inside to about 1000ppm


On the face of it we are vulnerable to infrastructure collapse more than ever before. The necessary level of infrastructure to keep the current population alive is many stages removed from starting by banging the rocks together, even assuming that all the necessary raw materials can easily be salvaged (as may be the case).

Today's tech uses much less energy to run, and materials to build than yesterdays, and that advance is presently continuing. However, in some respects its functioning is easier to disrupt. For example, one could just about imagine a cosmic ray burst that would render many of the smaller geometry chips inoperable. Cars might fail, but if they did, instead of doing a bit of crude mechanical engineering to bodge the carburetor back into working order as you might two decades ago, you'd need a new engine computer. That probably could not be made because the tools to make the tools are broken. Tractors, transport, even power generation could be much reduced.

In principle you could probably make thermionic valves using old milk bottles, glass jars, and so on, with bits of metal and filaments from old lightbulbs and so on. From that you mighht be able to bootstrap up to semiconductors, given that much of the basic phyusics and engineering must still be printed on paper somewhere. You try doing that in practice, sufficiently to assemble anything useful at all quickly!

Lack of transport to truck food into cities might be the breaking point.


For deliberate Type 1.5 threats, how about the Soviet (and perhaps now Russian) doomsday machine known as "Dead Hand"? (For another reference, Dead Hand: the Untold Dangerous Legacy won the Pulitzer Prize.


PZ Myers is a classical demotard.

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To paraphrase and build upon Arthur C Clarkes famous remark. "Any advanced technology [we no longer understand] is indistingushable from magic". We may have a future where all our technology is sealed "no user serviceable parts inside" type stuff (iPad is the first of such magic devices) that are manurfactured on "no user serviceable parts inside" magic 3D printers.

Already so much is beyond the comprehension of a single individual, even with lifetime of study. The time a scientist could understand all of science passed perhaps 300+ years ago.

Going further, there may come a day when we forget we once built this stuff.

Maybe theres a potential fictional work in this, a far far future fantasy story where the "magic" starts to break down across the kingdom andstop working, magic incantations no longer work predictably (voice commands throw errors or are ignored), creatures conjured up of dust disintegrate into powder (nanobots fail to hold form). Cauldrons no longer produce magic when ingredients added (Cornucopia nano-fabricators no longer accept feedstock matter). All because it's been a thousand years since anyone understood how these machines work.


We are walking colonies of our single celled ancestors with some of their contemporary associates hitching a ride. I wonder sometimes, if we aren't just elaborate spacesuits for the bacteria that inhabit our bowels.

They may some day decide we aren't needed anymore.


Late to the game, but...

I'm with Bruce Sterling. He wrote a 1-page for Science/Nature years ago where the last Homo sapiens sapiens had finally gone extinct, and nobody cared, because everyone, by that point, was modified in some way (including the Amazonian tribesmen).

So my best prediction for humans going extinct is that our descendents no longer want to define themselves as Homo sapiens sapiens. It's too embarrassingly old-fashioned.

As for the death of technological civilization: as I've noted before, the world is littered with dead cities, killed predominantly by floods or droughts. Cities become especially vulnerable when they depend on complex irrigation systems.

Nothing I've seen about our varied settlements convinces me that we've solved these particular vulnerabilities. Problems with water supply are likely our future civilization killer. Doesn't particularly matter whether they are caused by a natural mega-nino, a large volcano, or climate change.

If you want a distant second candidate, throw in earthquakes, because major cities are often located near active faults (because that's where the springs come to the surface, and people always settle near readily available water first).


The best indicator of a Kids IQ is his Dad's IQ. But it's not the only thing and it's not all the time. So its not all hereditary. There are indications its not all that important for most. BUT IF YOU ONLY READ THE R/W... There is a lot more to IQ than the BELL CURVE.
Weeds grow better with more CO2 that food plants do.
Back before the R/W went to war over the facts of Global Warming. It was said that if we did not start doing something then, we would be spending all our time and money on fires and floods. Well?
What nobody wants to talk about is that a base raining tree or flat surface with a base running down it would pick co2 out of the air without cut backs on industry. The base and the co2 form a safe mineral. Brine water down coal burning power plants stacks have cut co2 by %80 in tests.
But the money is better off in the richest men's banks. Someone will soon say that here.


There's a more plausible reason for that kind of world.
It is one where limited AI in the form of invention machines running genetic algorithms turns out both theories and designs of machines that work, but are beyond Human comprehension. We end up with the tech, we know what its primary function is, but no idea what side effects might ensue. We would be like stone age people shopping in the modern world for magical things eg medicines, weapons, talking demons, horseless chariots, metal birds etc

We get what we ask for, but not necessarily what we want. One such algorithm recently deduced Newtons laws by observing a pendulum. It's not much of a leap to imagine one of those turning out a TOE, but incomprehensible to Humans.


HOLY BAT WASTE!! THAT THING I SAID ABOUT DEMOCRACY IS LIKE A RAFT . IT AND THIS BLOG ARE ON GOOGLE ALREADY. Well, here is what was said. Monarchy is like a splendid ship, with all sail set; it moves majestically on, then it hits a rock and sinks for ever. Democracy is like a raft. It never sinks but, damn it, your feet are always in the water. (Fisher Ames, 1758-1808


Homeopathic prozac, maybe ;)


While I don't think PZ Myers is at his best with this article, IMHO he is arguing a little bit to much with emotions and ethical reasons, which is fine when damning deportation to the sun, in TMM, but not really that helpful with discussing the data[1], I agree that education of the masses(tm) is of paramount importance.

At least, in the case of idiots from minority groups or the working class it could be genetics or impoverished environment[2].

In the case of idiots from the elite, well, you get my idea[3].

That's especially the case since in many countries educational success of the children depends more on the status of the parents than anything else.

On another note, let's try the contrary scenario; we use gene therapy and like to improve our neurocognitive abilities; to late do we realize that most of Einstein's children dying at an early age and one of his sons developing schizophrenia were not random incidents...

Or we learn the hard way why certain deleterious alleles got stuck in our gene pool:

[1] Incidentally, in the 1950s to 1970s many biologists talked about the accumulation of bad mutations in the human population (incidentally often tied to early environmentalism), and not just the usual suspects, like Konrad Lorenz; R. A. Fisher's "Genetic Theory of Genetic Selection" contains some chapters on eugenics, and for all things Jacques Monod mentioned it in "Chance and Necessity". Which doesn't exclude all of these guys erred, it just seems the reasoning was infectious for people who could have known better.

[2] Incidentally, there are some studies that imply the Flynn effect is mostly due to improved results for the lower percentiles, while the higher percentiles didn't improve much.

[3] Well, or they don't care because they don't have to excel.


I am not Canadian but I live in Canada. However I'm not going to take this any further as what was intended originally to be humorous has appparently been taken far too seriously.


Sorry, but it's very easy to confuse heredity and environment here. Is it heredity or environment which produces those frighteningly smart kids which have grown up in fandom? Try to disentangle a wall of bookshelves from genes.

What I think you've overlooked is the point about the TMM story is entangled with class-war issues, and that people from the lumpen masses do rise to the top. The genetic combinations for intelligence are appearing everywhere--there's no genetic them-and-us. What drives the divide is a lack of effort to breach it, a failure in the environment.

And then you use the word "demotard".

There is a real quality problem for universities, and it isn't just a problem for the USA. So why drag in that particular political insult. I doubt you really know what left-wing politics is. From my point of view, all the parties of current US politics are right-wing loonies. But don't worry, we don't want to infect you with our socialist cooties. If you believe in a permanent ruling class, fine. We shall just snigger quietly when you're not looking.


Here's an existential threat for you. PTerry is right, and all our mountain ranges are in fact hibernating trolls. The human races habit of chopping big chunks out of mountains for all those lovely minerals goes down badly when they wake up.


Please do not feed the troll. (Lanius is banned from this thread. And possibly elsewhere, until he she or it calms down.)

I'd also appreciate folks laying off any discussion of IQ: it's a poisoned well, with "scientific" racists lurking nearby to mug anyone who tries to drink from it.


The important caveat to add is that crops love extra CO2 as long as all their other needs for nutrients and water are being taken care of. Which works fine in controlled greenhouses, but in the rest of the world means that the extra CO2 doesn't make anywhere near as much difference, because the plants have a shortage of water or nutrients. Thus the "CO2 is plant fertiliser so there'll be no problem" idea of denialists is wrong.


Nestor @261:

If one chose to embrace the idea of a "Creator" the concept of the demiurge fits the facts much better than that of a "good God". Clearly many aspects of the human condition and the world itself could only exist if they were the product of a stunted mind.

This is about as far as I'll go with my concessions. You'd need a spiritually inclined population for the self eradicating philosophies to "work" in a sufficiently irreproducible way, which just isn't the case in (at least) most western civilizations.

I think that most people that don't contribute to the gene pool (don't) do so for practical considerations.


Probably couldn't make it to global scale, but I studied with a Buddhist lama (Karma Kagyu (Tibetan) lineage) who said that Buddhism had impoverished India. Because for millennia all the folks who would have been the innovators and scientists withdrew from society and meditated instead.


Strictly speaking, for the purpose of showing what the preservation of knowledge might look like in the future, it does not matter whether that book was true or not. After all, I paired it with another that was fiction.


Maybe they didn't strike you as relevant, but look at #223 and #224. They relate fairly directly to how effective the RC church has been at suppressing other views at various times in history (but you'll need to learn about the Chriatian Celtic Church to realise it).


From that you mighht be able to bootstrap up to semiconductors, given that much of the basic phyusics and engineering must still be printed on paper somewhere.

ISO 9000 standards are tending to get rid of paper. To get certified a company has to show that there's a process so only "latest" copies of documents exist. In large companies with many people using many documents this can be a real hassle/nightmare. So many companies now BAN paper documents. At least those that document internal processes and procedures. They keep them online. So if all the computers stop working you have an issue of the processes that are used to run the company are no longer available.

We may have a future where all our technology is sealed "no user serviceable parts inside" type stuff (iPad is the first of such magic devices) that are manurfactured on "no user serviceable parts inside" magic 3D printers.

I don't know. Something tells me that the iPad and the Arduino both becoming popular during a similar timespan isn't actually a coincidence.

When I was a kid, the device I used for general purpose productivity-type computing and for learning-and-hacking type computing just happened to be the same device. I've thought about it, and ultimately, I do not care if the same is not true for my nieces and nephews, as long as they do have access to both a productivity environment and a hackery environment.

(Honestly, I'd rather they learn on an Arduino than on a hackable iPad anyway; the Arduino starts small enough to really rap your head completely around, just like the old 8-bit systems I had as a kid, and unlike modern desktop systems and iPads. I want them to really intuit that there's nothing magical in there, it's all built out of understandable parts, so I want them to have a completely understandable building block at a young age. I had planned to dig out an old TRS-80 when the time came, but building robots and sensors with an Arduino is certainly more interesting, and gets into more hardware hacking too.)


Virtual sex becomes subjectively more enjoyable than the real thing for most people, and widely affordable.

Earth's population plummets.


Yeah but quite frankly if I permanently lost 95% of my procedures files my efficiency would rise. The other 5% have hardcopy backups no matter what the management consultants say because they actually matter (unlike the consultants)


I'm not advocating the anti natalist position, just pointing out examples where it almost became mainstream. The Cathars weren't fully celibate, just the perfecti, but as part of their philosophy a Cathar parent wouldn't have any comeback to the typical teenager complaint that "I didn't ask to be born" other than "Yeah sorry my bad".

Following on the previous post's theme on life extension, if life extension came to be in the form of increasingly comprehensive maintenance so that people could essentially keep themselves going semi-indefinitely with increasing medical costs it would remove a lot of the incentives to have children.

Add to that increasing AI competence in human realms, no need for AGI or any sort of hard takeoff, just ubiquitous artificial replacement of all human tasks, young people would have a hard time competing against increasingly selfish oldsters and their own lack of competitiveness vs automated systems.

The economics of that situation would probably encourage any and all flavours of antinatalism.

Throw in some superstimuli entertainment systems and we're done.


Well, i still believe that
[p << 1] The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage
and you don't even need the Doomsday Argument or its derivates (Simulation Argument)
Earth=Limited Space, vastly depleting resources ,
growing Population and nowhere else to go. Do the Math, it will be over soon (within the next 500 years i assume.()

[[--MODERATOR NOTE: note that this forum uses HTML, and that the less-than sign ('<') is therefore not a normal character. I have repaired your posts--]]


Well, i still believe that
[p << 1] The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage
and you don't even need the Doomsday Argument or its derivates (Simulation Argument)
Earth=Limited Space, vastly depleting resources ,
growing Population and nowhere else to go. Do the Math, it will be over soon (within the next 500 years i assume.()


Dammit, whats wrong here, its cutting my messages
of course my preamble was
[p << 1] The human species is very likely to go extinct
before reaching a posthuman stage


[p} the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage


Most of our history was working with incomprehensible to fully understand things - plants and animals. As long as they don't break down too frequently, we learn to deal with them in a less than purely deterministic way,which is adequate for many purposes. Why should our technology become more like living things and thus, while incomprehensible to almost everyone, are robust for long term use.

Of course, that allows for other dangers... :)


Maybe I am off. But I wonder if the Holy Roman Empire is what sat on the Celtic Church. They were not Holy, not Roman and did things for power. I can remember old English black and white horror movies that were full of monks doing bad things because they were RC.
This is not on post here. But some liberal police chefs worried of a scanner for sale that downloaded smart phones. Who you called, who called you, where you have been, etc. Just now on TV was news that its happening in some States without warrants. Others have banned it.
My date on the raft thing was off and is now on Google.


I wonder if the threat to our "technological civilization 1.0" won't be some internal structural feature, perhaps something to do with the network topology of our economy. We are prone to believe that global civilization is such a complex web that it is very robust, especially compared to earlier great civilizations. We have seen with the spate of financial crises over the last few decades, culminating in the 2008 bust, that this is not true in at least one economic sphere. Perhaps we have other hidden break points in our networks that are equally much more fragile than we assume.

Thus the existential threat is not some thing we can point to, but rather a feature of the every more complex networks our civilization is evolving. As TC 1.0 becomes the globally dominant form, any major failure is going to be difficult to recover from, as we have largely eliminated the competitors.


I am glad to see that I am not the only one that paid attention to that:

One method was discovered more or less by accident by Australian vaccine researchers in 1996: we now know (more or less: I don't think anyone's been crazy enough to test it) how to create a genetically modified strain of smallpox likely to be highly contagious and have 100% mortality in humans...

If I recall correctly, the initial mutated strain of mousepox had a 100% mortality rate in the mouse population they tested it on. A vaccine was developed, and given to a second mouse population. The mousepox was then introduced into this second population, with a resulting 70% mortality rate.

If anything causes any of the existential threats you propose/mention, we can probably count on human stupidity to lead the way. (To conduct an experiment without being 100% sure of the results is no way to go through life - to paraphrase a line from Animal House)


I think that's very possible. What we have of a theory of complex networks certainly suggests that networks need not be robust; there are failure modes that involve critical nodes, without which the network breaks. This dovetails with criticality theory, which says that there is always a possibility of a system cascade failure in any system which runs long enough (see also lack of long-term stability in many-body systems like the solar system).

We've discussed the potential dangers of just-in-time logistics before; ISTM that just-in-time thinking is spreading to many less familiar areas (server provisioning is one example) where the timescales may be even shorter than in physical logistics, and perhaps the effects of failure even more pervasive.


I've always wondered if telling stories about people in a manner that lines up with the real emotions of those people makes them more likely to commit criminal acts.


Interesting New Scientist article on

Is there a lesson for us here in our interpretation of our culture?


Libraries, suffering from budget cuts, reduce their printed collections and move to e-books.

This is the only flaw in your scenario. Paper books are still cheaper than ebook packages, because there are a handful of cartels who have an effective monopoly on medical/technology ebooks and price gouge libraries accordingly. (See: Elsevier's business model, which is to regularly charge 400-1000% of the paper edition for the ebook/ejournal).

You'd have to break the ebook pricing cartel and establish some sort of regulated pricing system that makes ebooks dirt cheep compared to paper books, before libraries would switch entirely to electronic resources. Possible yes but not likely. But assuming Elsevier goes bankrupt and an iTunes style a la carte ebook vendor fills the void, selling trade journals and technical books for $1.99 a pop, sure.


On designer babies/humans/etc...
Everything I ever learned in this case came from Star Trek: "Space Seed"

Now if I could just get my ergonomic cubicle chair redone in soft corinthian leather, I would be slightly more content in my current contracting position.


Mind control (AKA television) becomes real. Millions of people are hacked and turned into brainless consumer zombies

I fixed it for you...


No marching morons? Are you sure?

Ever read the message boards of any political website? (right or left, take your pick...) And since the rules of "free speech" don't apply, any posting that doesn't walk lockstep (or goosestep) with the political leanings of the website will usually be moderated out, as well as the expulsion of the poster from said website. I personally enjoy getting booted from the Huffington Post as often as I can, usually as a result of posting some rather simple facts. Like how many windmills and acres of solar panels does it really take to supply the energy currently provided by everything above those two items on the following chart.

When the numbers start going down, that's the scenario that is going to start the real problems.


I'm so glad I don't live in a world that has this "television" of which you speak...


"telling stories about people in a manner that lines up with the real emotions of those people makes them more likely to commit criminal acts." STEVEN KING thinks so. He believed the closer to the edge they were the easier it is to go over it.
I think movies do even more do. I think there was a jump in fun killing when horror movies changed from being about people running from the bad guy, to being the bad guy and liking the power. Some fun killers said they were were dissapointed there was no big kick when they killed.


That's the ticket! I feel much better now.

Urgh... must.. have... iPad... urgh....


Once again, all bow to M. Stross and the best collection of commenters on the intertubes.

Got any more hand grenades in your pocket Charlie?


Having just finished Ken MacLeod's "The Restoration Game", would the discovery made at the end of said book count as a Type 1, 2, 3, or 4 catastrophe?


But the Irish monasteries that are claimed to have preserved knowledge right after the fall of the Roman Empire until the Vikings started attacking Ireland were not under centralized Roman Catholic control. Rome was always frustrated by the lack of control it has over Christianity in Ireland. (Which was actually controlled by the local aristos)
It was to take control in Ireland that Rome gave England the green light to invade Ireland. (In those days, it was England that was Rome's ally. Ironic.) The modern Irish Roman Catholic Church was only founded in the late 1600s/1700s with Jensenists (ie Calvinists pretending to be Catholic for survival's sake) from France.


The end point is the same for just about anything that collapses infrastructure in a major way: more Fukushima events than our civilization/species can endure.


I think we are at peak 'moron' right now, as applies to those seeking political office in the US.
... or is that peak political pandering by politicians who are deliberately proud of their ignorance?


Ref "low hanging fruit" post #14 :
I suspect in that scenario, the world's new Tycoons would be those who own the most landfills.

A. Near-free real-estate
B. Huge supply of mostly already processed materials
C. Huge supply of already almost converted fertilizer.
D. Near-free energy (methane and carbon burning)

All it takes is investment in some cheap mass-produced robotics.


For extra-solar disasters, having Betegeuse go supernova and blasting us with gamma rays, a likely bad scenario since it is roughly 520 LY away.

For human-caused disaster, having the 'greens' and those with a truly good intent either:

[a] lowering CO2 levels & increasing O2 levels to the flash-point level. That may take a while, since present O2 levels are around 21% and the flash-point is supposed to be 26%;

[b] methane hydrate mining becomes the next energy craze, with safety measures ... being the standard of the oil industry. Japan is currently engaged in mining and has inspired the warning:

-> said major risks being increased global warming, the same warming possibly triggering an Ice Age, as well as undersea landslides caused by the mining that cause massive tsunami


The CO2 denialists may not be wrong with regard to crop yields. It's just that the major crop producing areas will move North, to Canada and Russia


How are we doing for easily available iron ore

Western Australia is basically iron ore in the north and coal in the south, separated by a band of bauxite. I hear they have soil in some places too, but I haven't seen that bit.

The problem with WA is the soil - you need at least railways to keep people alive in much of the state just because you can't effectively farm it. There's a reason the aboriginal population was ~1M pre-invasion. So while you could keep mining going, building it from scratch might be more challenging. On the other hand, railway lines last a very long time in most of the state.

Oh, and Charles @ 239: you mean like Sea Shepherd? Started as ecoterrorists and still have wide support for activities that some people consider beyond the pale.


How are we doing for easily available iron ore

Western Australia is basically iron ore in the north and coal in the south, separated by a band of bauxite. I hear they have soil in some places too, but I haven't seen that bit.

The problem with WA is the soil - you need at least railways to keep people alive in much of the state just because you can't effectively farm it. There's a reason the aboriginal population was ~1M pre-invasion. So while you could keep mining going, building it from scratch might be more challenging. On the other hand, railway lines last a very long time in most of the state.

Oh, and Charles @ 239: you mean like Sea Shepherd? Started as ecoterrorists and still have wide support for activities that some people consider beyond the pale.


Voters want there Pols to be sure, not smart. Always have. The smarter you are the less sure you are. ---“What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” – Adolph Hitler. ---"In in politics, stupidity is not a handicap.---Napoleon Bonaparte ---They were so strong in their beliefs that there came a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness. Louise Erdrich
---From the totalitarian point of view, history is something to be created rather than learned. George Orwell, Essay: "The Prevention of Literature" (1946) Like now!


One of Vernor Vinge's scenarios? IIRC, A Deepness in the Sky has the Qeng Ho fleet arriving in a system where the local civilization has been optimising financial, manufacturing, agricultural and delivery networks to increase efficiency for centuries, and finally has no remaining slack to take up in the event of the slightest disruption.
And when the fleet arrives, collapse is imminent, and some weird bureaucracy (the parks department? air traffic control?) has seized power and declared martial law in order to hold things together a few more months?


SEF @ 304
Please don't!
I just had the "TV Licence inspector" at my door yestern eve. He was told to get off the property and stay off the property, or I would call the police....
{ I don't have a TV - haven't since, erm, err .. 1975-ish? )
I hope they will go away, and not have a bullying legal rush of blood to the head - as happened in Edinburgh in (?)1979(?) .....
Watch this space.

@ 310
Both I and Jared Diamond would disagree with that one ...
It's mistaken whole-national policies that screw countries and civilisations.

@ 313 [b]
WRONG - look up Oxygen-levels in the Carboniferous atmosphere ......

Malcolm @ 318
This is an old story.
I've always been VERY suspicious of "perfect" just-in-time etc manufacturing and similar processes - they are just too obviously vulnerable.
People WILL repeat this particular mistake.

Arthur Wellesley, of all people, spotted this one:
- referring to the Napoleonic armies he had been fighting: "Now their system is like a magnificent piece of horse-harness, it fits perfectly, and suits its task very well, until something breaks; and then you are done for. Whereas I made my campaigns of knotted rope; if something broke, I tied a knot, and carried on."
Recorded in a conversation with Wellington, whilst Boney was still on Elba!


#294 - A quick piece of Wikifu surprised me in that I didn't realise that the HRE had included the Netherlands (at least some of the time). OTOH the Celtic Church (I don't accept the argument that "absense of evidence is evidence of absense", particularly when evidence is known to have been destroyed) was generally confined to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, so was outside the HRE anyway. Accordingly, I don't see what the HRE had to gain from suppression of the Celtic Church.


Jessica, check comment #320; I think we actually agree.


No, they are wrong. I've never seen anyone with any plan biological/ ecological knowledge say otherwise.
The zones appropriate for growing plants moving north thing is also a red herring in itself - there'll be a fair bit of disruption involved in changing crops. And lets not forget that the Canadian shield is not exactly optimal for growing anything. I don't know about Russia.


So just where are 'they' going to get all that oxygen?

(Converting all of the CO2 won't do it, it'd change the amount of O2 by less than a twentieth of one percent, out by at two orders of magnitude or so.)


the Canadian shield is not exactly optimal for growing anything

Why? In the predicted scenario, rainfall will change, and soil acidity can be changed (in particular, note that coniferous forest is a known cause of acid soil).


You may remember that much of Canada was covered by an ice sheet a few thousand years ago?

When the glaciers advanced down from the arctic at the beginning of the sequence of ice ages, they basically shoved all the topsoil south. To give you an idea of how far south, look at the Great Lakes: they're largely the remnant of the vast inland sea left behind when the ice sheet melted/retreated.

In other words, Canada's fertile topsoil ended up in the United States. What's north of the border was scraped down to bedrock by glaciers, much like the highlands of Scotland (which have had their pine forests removed by humans but which aren't exactly famously fertile farmland -- they're good for supporting grazing sheep, and that's about it).


Have you seen the Canadian Shield?

It's horrible. It's a mixture of swamps and granite knobbles. It's had all the soil scraped off it by recent ice ages, and the result is something that's perfect for wilderness, and sod all use for anything else. In Ontario, they built a railway across it, but it still takes 24 hours for a train to get from Toronto across the province, the terrain is so hostile.

Farm it? No.


Yes; I also remember that one of the main economic activities of the prairie states (Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan) of Canada, and of Southern Ontario, is presently agriculture, and that one of the main economic activities of the northern parts of said states is presently forestry. Stuff grows in Canada pretty much anywhere South of the Arctic circle.


See #327, and justify why you think that swamps won't change if climate does. Also bear in mind that I live in the Scottish islands, on a landscape that was glaciated at about the same time as the Canadian shield.

I'll ignore the railways straw man if you will. Just take note that I do know about CP Rail, and how much of a nuisance they regard Via Rail as being.


@319: I just had the "TV Licence inspector" at my door yestern eve. He was told to get off the property and stay off the property, or I would call the police....

TV Licence inspectors actually exist? I've always thought they were purely folklore like the Tooth Fairy. I had TVLA threatening me with a visit from one for about five years and never saw hide nor hair of one.


The swamps are there because of the terrain - falling rain cannot drain away. This means that the declivities become first lakes, and then as organic matter grows, swamps.

Give it long enough, and you may eventually get a layer of peat so thick you can grow stuff on top, but that'll take a very long time indeed.

Geography trumps climate.

As for the exposed rock, it's very, very old, some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. The places in the world where mountainous terrain does get farmed is usually new volcanic terrain, where the breakdown products produce fertile soil. This isn't the case here. For productive crop farming, you want not just surface and sun and water, but also soil.


This message comes to you from the top of 300 vertical feet of Lewisian Gneiss. I'm looking out over several square miles of peatlands, shallow lochs (drainable given the will etc) and highly fertile soils



Okay, let's try this (very sci-fantasy, but hey, why not?):

Many-worlds (a new alternative universe for each possibility, constantly splitting off)


Anthropic principle (we're here, in this universe, because it and its properties are selected to best suit us).

Fairly standard, cos the latter implies the former to some degree; but how about if something changes, and we find ourselves no longer in the AP-selected universe? We are now in one no longer best suited to humanity's continued existence. Even better, our technology has advanced sufficiently to a) allow us to know this (for drama, only a few short years too late, allowing plenty of if-onlys), and b) allow us to know what will come next... :)


Alberta at least up to Edmonton is extremely fertile soil. Even the soil in backyard gardens there is impressive.
So a longer growing season would increase yields there.
That might apply to much of the prairie areas.


OK ... hows this (apologies if it's here already but the thread is HUGE!).

Nuclear Fusion is perfected and overtime, as it is just so darn efficient and cheap, it takes over. No need for smelly coal/oil/gas etc. So the only power on the planet is now fusion (bar a few old wind turbines and the occasional hydro ...).

Let's assume most ground traffic is electric now too ... past peak oil, etc.

So, all ticking along lovely when there's an almighty solar flare that knocks out e v e r y t h i n g!

No worries ... just start it all up again ... oh wait ... we need 1.21 gigawatts (or suitable large number) to kick start the fusion reactors ... Ooooops!

Population intact. Gizmos intact. Unable to run anything as there's no power, other than around the old wind farms and hydro plants.
Oh ... and Iceland's geothermal presumably?


No worries ... just start it all up again ... oh wait ... we need 1.21 gigawatts (or suitable large number) to kick start the fusion reactors ... Ooooops!

I rate that as unlikely. Fusion reactors can't store energy -- only produce it at base load. So to meet demand spikes, the grid's going to need stuff like the Dinorwig pumped hydropower system -- able to come on stream at about 10 seconds' notice and supply up to 1.8Gw for half an hour or so. Per wikipedia, "the original purpose of the scheme it is claimed, was to deal with the difficulty that National Grid would have had if the large numbers of nuclear power stations then planned had been built. These are technically and economically inflexible, ideally needing to run at full output all of the time and, effectively, storage capacity was needed for some of the night-time power when the demand for power dropped off." That'd kick start a reactor, wouldn't it?

Secondly, every current generation nuclear plant has not only got incoming grid power, but diesel backup generators to keep the coolant circulating. Due to secondary activation of structural components of a fusion reactor due to neutron absorption, fusion reactors will also need backup cooling power once they've been running for a while -- not to mention some way of rebooting them in event of a grid black-out.


Report them under the Data Protection Act for holding incorrect records. It applies to both paper records and computer data.


Sure ... we know they need to be able to be booted but I thought this was a what if scenario ...
Hey Ho ... I'll get my coat ;-)


Depends upon what you mean by "fertile" - it's not primarily alluvial, not terribly rich in organic matter, and it's pretty light and tends to blow away in a high wind.
Prairie is best left as prairie - farmers tend to degrade it below its natural productivity, after an initial peak in yield after groundbreaking. If the autochthonous plant community is left in place, shortgrass prairie, at least, is good grazing land indefinitely - look at the bison biomass that it used to support.


Actually, during the period between the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire and the Viking raids, the Roman Catholic church throughout western Europe was in practice highly decentralised and largely under the control of the local aristocracy - so in that way, Ireland wasn't all that different. Where the difference came was that, on the continent, the lowest level of the old Roman ecclesiastical hierarchy - the bishops - generally continued in existence, but in Ireland, the hierarchy had never existed and instead the church was organised around the monasteries.

By the way, knowledge monasticism can work (and has worked) after a fashion, but it only works efficiently over long periods in science fiction novels and Christian apologetics. A case in point is one of the ways in which the Irish "saved civilisation". Some late Roman aristocrats actually tried knowledge monasticism, converting to Christianity, founding monasteries (often complete with libraries) amd taking over their local bishoprics. The problem was that the knowledge they were trying to preserve was always something of a closed book to their barbarian rulers and, over the next few generations, came to seem less and less relevant (and more and more incomprehensible) to their own ex-Roman descendants.

Then Irish monks moved in. Not being Roman by origin, the Irish had always had to work at learning Latin and understanding Latin books (and their relevance). This was Christianity for barbarians, rather than one whereyou already had to be culturally Roman to join in. Barbarian aristocrats jumped for it in a big way, setting up their own Irish-style monasteries and so on. After a generation or so, the barbarian aristocrats did decide that Irish monks were rather too disrespectful and obstreporous, and partly Romanised their monasteries - but not so far that they were shut out again. And some at least of this lot of monasteries stayed intellectually active for a few generations - most then disappeared but a few survived though usually intellectually inactive, with the old books pushed into the backs of cupboards until some wandering scholar passed by a few hundred years later and decided he was interested in them. If you really want to preserve knowledge, cupboards, attics and (dry) cellars can be good.


In America. there were prairies that were so rich "the grass grew as high as a horses belly." If you drive there now you will find soil so useless that its filled with tumble weeds for days. Looking to make things better Congress passed the Homesteaders Act. There had been a few years of untypical rain and anything would grow. Remember all those westerns with the poor homesteader trying to farm over the objections of the ranchers. The ranchers were right. After a few good years the top soil dried out and blew away. Now it's the almost the most useless land that's not covered in cement. That could happen in today's prairies. We should make it real cheap to live there and not on the still good farm land around the cities.


Charlie replied: "I rate that as unlikely ..."

... well, er, yes. An asteroid is unlikely, but I thought we were playing "what if".

Charlie also said "... That'd kick start a reactor, wouldn't it?".
Well, what if it wasn't enough ... someone screwed up or some other unlikely (aka what if) scenario ...
How about the stand-by power was enough to cover the old fission nuclear but no one upgraded it to cover the booting of fusion stations - after all, it was still able to cover the shortages and store some surplus overnight ...

Anyway, I rather liked the idea of scientists scrabbling around to try and hook up enough old power sources to kick start the first fusion power station, all the while the rest of the World sits looking at all their labour saving devices and wonders how the hell to do it manually ... but hey ho ...


That would be the series starting with 1632M? I don't know what it is, but I seem to be the only person who didn't love it. It may have been too cheerful for the era for me, but I'm really not sure what I didn't like about it.


The current Chinese government is very pragmatic. I assume this is a combination of remembering Mao as a bad example and seeing that the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn't a good thing for a lot of Russians.

The thing is, the details of the past get forgotten, perhaps especially if the past can be used for self-congratulation. I think a lot of what leads Americans to think they can do nation-building is that it worked with Germany and Japan after WW2. However, I also think the reason it worked is that it was done carefully is that the way Germany was treated after WW1 was a major cause of WW2. The "carefully" part got lost.

Imagine a China 25 or 50 years out-- it's incorporated Taiwan successfully and it's doing quite well economically. I don't think it would do world-wrecking destruction so perhaps it doesn't belong in this thread, but I do think it might be smug enough to do some very stupid things.


TV licences ...
No, inspectors are real - I met one about 15 years ago, the last time they tried this...
I got so fed up, I actually wrote to them, rather than just ignoring their threats, and the promised to leave me alone ...
Which they did for 13 months, then it all started up again.
Approx 1% of the UK population don't have TV's - that's 600 000 people.

There was a briefly-notorious case in Edinburgh, in (I think) 1989, where a family of 4 with two teenage children, who were HEAVILY into books, music, the arts, were persecuted by the TV fascists - it got to quite a high-level court (TV bastards had falsly obtained a warrant for search, whic was torn up in front of the police as being falsly-sworn!) before it all came spectacularly unstuck.
Google references are difficult to find for it ....


Soil acidity can be changed? Wow.
Maybe you have a few gigatonnes of lime handy?
Also coniferous forests will happily grow where crops won't.
You are new to the Western Isles, aren't you? Perhaps you have read of their history of agriculture? Or rather lack of agriculture?

There's more than just the soil to worry about - lack of cover for crops etc in the western isles (Which have such high winds that they developed their own architecture to deal with them) means that growing crops is difficult.


I grant that a lot of message boards are depressing, however the question is whether they're getting worse in a way which implies that people are generally becoming less intelligent rather than just that more people are online.


I've got cable TV.

It's realy hard to find something worth watching for a couple of hours. Wasting your whole life in front of the set, even in holographic 3d - no way.

Now, Fallout NV did ruin my productivity for a few months...


Someone beat me to it? I've been working on something like that for years >.

I'll look into it.


I absolutely hate "1632" series. The town is dropped into seventeenth fricking century, and everyone takes it in stride?? No suicides, nobody goes into denial, no weird religious cults are formed? And every 16th Century person, from illiterate peasants to the Pope, accepts American for granted after only a little exposure? Sorry, but people just do not act that way -- on either side.

Also, I hate books where everything goes for the protagonists. Mike Stearns never makes any mistakes, Melissa Mailey never makes any mistakes, Balthazar's family never makes any mistakes. Whereas their enemies invariably either make a mistake, or their plans go bad through plan bad luck. Luck is ALWAYS on the side of Grantville.


To be fair, though, HR rarely lays off the whole company when things are going well (the equivalent of a civilization-ending result of dangerous memeplexes in a superorganism). More reasonable models might include (1) something less like a corporation and more like a suicide cult, or (2) corporate superorganisms find single organisms of dubious worth and use the corporate equivalent of antibacterials for 'hygenic' reasons. Neither of these are easy stories to tell realistically and understandably without telling it from the POV of a superorganism, suitably anthropomorphized.


The experience machine already exists and survived 19th Century Chinese attempts to ban it. As existential threats go it's been not so great actually.


Do you mean opium? Or do you have something else in mind?


Sex selective abortion seems to be culturaly specific here in the US to certain immigrant communities; The same ones that have the problem in the rest of the world...

It does happen.

And they really are "Actively Ignorant" here in the Shadow of the Great Satan of Retail. Check out our congresscritter (Steve Womack, R-AR), this guy was a National Guard Bird Colonel? (O-6); He goes right along with the Republican agenda. Scary, good minor charachter for dystopian future.


Re, US western Water/AGricultural policies.

It's not growing veggies, but "thirsty" crops like cotton (See the Aral Sea) and Alfalfa.


maybe theyre going to invade as missionaries..
and if you dont like the rules ofthe great BHYUQYGD , you get a proton laser through the head


An alteration in the mental proclivities of children catalysed by the change of educational medium. (ie Information technology interface). Existing IT systems have already been identified as having changed the way in which children learn ( abeit positively).


Opium and its derivatives were what I had in mind, yes.


It's realy hard to find something worth watching for a couple of hours.

I've had cable (or satellite) TV too, and I tend to agree with you.

Wasting your whole life in front of the set, even in holographic 3d - no way.

Yet somehow the average American can somehow find time and reason to watch an average of four to eight hours a day, depending on whose statistics you believe.

Now, Fallout NV did ruin my productivity for a few months...

Then make that experience even more immersive and interactive? At the risk of drawing our host's ire by referencing a media franchise he doesn't care for, I find the concept of 'holodiction' all too believable, for at least a substantial fraction. Yes, I include myself there. Back in the day, BBSs (text only) were sufficiently interesting to generate the term 'modem addiction' in certain circles.


"...corn was as high as an elephant’s eye..." from "O What a Beautiful Morning" in Oklahoma, the film version.


I have a really spiffy set up with a TV and two DVR/VCRs. My cable company, Comcast, just changed lots of channels to where you have to use one of their digital devices. Well, I tried that, and it only works on my TV. On the other hand, most of what I watch is on the primary channels that have told all the cable companies that if they're made digital, the cable companies can't show material anymore. I only watch three channels other than the primary channels, and I can watch them on the computer. I suspect a time will come when I watch everything on the computer.


The "1632" books are the only reason I am back reading SF. It got too never ending glum for me. But it would not have worked that way. They were still burning midwifes for cutting back the pain and death God said woman had coming to them. BUT I CAN HOPE THEY COULD HAVE MADE A DEAL.
In the intellectual book world the fallen state of man demands that the butter side always hits the floor. In the real world it will most of the time. Not all the time.
The land can be changed for the better too. I read that a WW-1 Vet moved into a wind dried useless part of France. Learning as he worked he planted trees. After years he turned it into a parkland. Then he was arrested for messing up the park. The truth came out and he was put in charge of the New Park.


Selective crop planting can change soil acidity too; you don't have to use chemicals.

"New to Western Isles" - For what value of "new"? 15 and a bit years and counting. I've not got Martin Martin, but I've got histories and stuff back to Dr Johnston's "Journey to the Western Isles", know archaeologists who report grains back to the Neolithic.

Also, would you like me to tell the barley that it can't grow here, or will you come and do it yourself? ;-)


Also, I hate books where everything goes for the protagonists. Mike Stearns never makes any mistakes, Melissa Mailey never makes any mistakes, Balthazar's family never makes any mistakes. Whereas their enemies invariably either make a mistake, or their plans go bad through plan bad luck. Luck is ALWAYS on the side of Grantville.

Have you actually read the series? ;-)

Mike makes mistakes regularly, and admits the fact.

The Abranels(sp) mostly (apart from Rebecca) act as financiers, so all it takes is for them to have good judgment on whether or not they'll get a return from $project.

As for Grantville having "good luck", well if your enemies being initially ignorant of, and then underestimating the value of, force multipliers such as modernish rifles, if that's "good luck" then I'd say "guilty as charged". You might also want to check some of the wider "Ring of Fire" stories such as "28 Men" (print published in Ring of Fire 5).


You've all missed one:
Cats with (opposable) thumbs.
Level 2, maybe even 3 I reckon.


I, for one, welcome our new feline overlords!


Some day I really have to post the talking cat sidekick off-cuts from "Iron Sunrise".

TL;DR: in an early draft, Wednesday had a semi-feral half-uplifted cat as comic foil and co-conspirator. However I realized in time that publishing two novels in succession with a talking cat[*] in each one might get me labelled as the talking cat guy, so I ditched him.

[*] Aineko isn't a talking robot cat, but a surprising proportion of readers don't seem to understand the distinction between a talking robot cat and a vastly transcendent AI who has found that humans are more easily led by the nose when you use a cute, cuddly sock-puppet instead of a dalek.


@361: I read that a WW-1 Vet moved into a wind dried useless part of France. Learning as he worked he planted trees. After years he turned it into a parkland. Then he was arrested for messing up the park. The truth came out and he was put in charge of the New Park.

Sorry, that's fiction. See


With the usual caveats, I fully realise that Aineko is a transcendant AI who uses a cat avatar, but I'm not certain that the end result of that is so very different from a catdroid using a felus felus brain in terms of the tactical interaction between Aineko and his? people.


I'm just tickled that 'dalek' has apparently become a common (vice proper) noun.


Have you actually read the series? ;-)
Three or four books, yes.

Mike makes mistakes regularly, and admits the fact.

OK, no MAJOR mistakes

The Abranels(sp) mostly (apart from Rebecca) act as financiers, so all it takes is for them to have good judgment on whether or not they'll get a return from $project.

Oh yes. You really think a 17th century Jewish clan would be happy with one of their daughters marrying a no-name Gentile? Even if there is a clear return on the investment>

As for Grantville having "good luck", well if your enemies being initially ignorant of, and then underestimating the value of, force multipliers such as modernish rifles, if that's "good luck" then I'd say "guilty as charged".

How about "luck" as is picking up what must be the most capable woman in all of Germany in their first battle? Or always "finding" things they need, like scuba gear and speedboats?

But those are all minor problems as far as I am concerned. My biggest problem in "1632" is, PEOPLE DO NOT ACT LIKE PEOPLE. I read several other "group of moderns transported into past" books. Suicides, denials, depression and SERIOUS lack of common ground with the locals make them believable. "1632" is not.


The Large Hadron Collider. Some unknown mechanism makes subatomic black holes linger for longer than predicted; they feed on particles and grow. Of course this is a product of the collider itself, for the process is not replicated in nature. Particle collisions do not naturally create macro black holes, but miniature black holes created in particle accelerators stick around long enough to grow. All technical civilizations ponder the nature of the subatomic world, all eventually build large particle colliders, all are swallowed up, hence Fermi’s Paradox.


Hey, I have triffids in my kitchen!


Aineko isn't a talking robot cat, but a surprising proportion of readers don't seem to understand the distinction between a talking robot cat and a vastly transcendent AI who has found that humans are more easily led by the nose when you use a cute, cuddly sock-puppet instead of a dalek.

If the BBC is listening, let them hire you to write this. The Daleks have tried everything else, right?

Unconvincing sock puppet with cat whiskers: "Human! I-require-tuna! Tuna! You-must-comply!

Crochet knit tabby: "Hurry! You-must-return-and-dangle-string!"

Sorry, that's fiction. See

On the other hand, the basic story is repeated in reality more than once. A few months back my local paper covered a fellow who'd gotten up to some unreasonable number (250,000?) in his own planting project.


"..the easily accessible surface metal ores largely extracted ... except for the vast rubbish tips, it's not looking good.)"

That'd be the least of their problems. They could live off mining the ruins of cities for quite a while - centuries?


"Nuclear retaliation may not be a factor thirty-forty years into the future. The large thermonuke stockpiles are expensive to maintain. And forty-fifty missiles could be concievably stopped by an anti-ballistic missile shield."

Not really, considering that:
(1) A 'small' stockpile might be a couple of hundred warheads on several delivery systems,
(2) An anti-ballistic missile shield would be defeatable by using other delivery methods,
(3) Even against ballistic missiles, an ABS with 95% effectiveness (on the first real-world test, when many of the counter-measures haven't been seen in real life, and when the attack would undoubtedly take into consideration that shield) would lead to a couple of dozen warheads getting through.


Yes, it very common not to realize (although I am surprised Charlie has fallen for it) that if Earth is somehow depopulated, survivors will be literally surronded by usable metal, much of it in the form of fully functional machinery. Far from "failing to maintain Iron Age", they would go back to "electricity age" within a couple generations.


I'm not worried about metal; I'm worried about fuel.

There used to be places where crude oil welled up and pooled on the surface. Not so much any more. There used to be easily accessible deposits of high quality anthracite coal. Again, not so much any more.

While there's lots of metal kicking around in our cities and spoil heaps, the next civilization to bootstrap won't be running on petrol-powered internal combustion engines in personal automobiles.


I don't know about now. But all the ABS tests were faked then. They classified everything about the tests and told MIT they would lose all military funds if they did not shut up the guy who was looking into open data on the tests. And proving what really happed. Now of course we know the are telling the whole truth... I see the MIT guy working working under lamps with pencils now.


Well gosh. I never heard of "The Man Who Planted Trees" obviously. But I did read a long ago, supposedly true article in the Readers Digest that named names and dates. It could have been made up. But it was printed as real. But it looks like you have more facts on your side. Your citation said it had happened in real places.


I bet you are right!! I was young then and must have believed. Good going. It would still help in lot of places. FDR did a lot of that kind of thing back then.
As for oil. Venezala has almost as much oil as the rest of the worlds known oil. As it runs out it will be worth spending more to get the smaller oil paches. Kansas had working oil wells that were capped back when OPEC first jumped the price. I think the owners of the oil are saving it for later. Natural gas can be made into a gasoline like liquid that's better than gasoline. In the 1970s it would have cost about .17 dollars a gallon.
For now I am a lot more worried about the co2 going into the sea. WASHINGTON (AP) — "A study released Tuesday says the world's climate is not only continuing to warm, it is also adding greenhouse gases even faster than in the past....added that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide increased faster than it has in recent decades...."a clear and unmistakable signal from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans."


urr, there is a dot there. its cents. 17 cents.


paws4thot @ 362
"Western Isles" & crop-growing.
Erm, isn't it Tiree, the island beneath the waves, that has more sunshine than almost naywhere else in the UK, and was recorded as growing TWO crops of barley in one season, in ... 1764.

@ 364
At least one variety of cat, the Norwegian Forest, have their front "thumb" claws significantly separated from the rest. Which is why they can climb things significantly better than other varieties of cat.
Couple that with the intelligence of a Birman or Aby (our Birman tom understands, and can open, objects with lids - oh dear) and you could be in for lots of fun!

"The Man who planted Trees"
Here it is called The Woodland Trust


There's a saying that bad news always comes in threes. So we should be looking at sets of circumstances that provide existential threats rather than single causes. Global warming + Solar dimming + Solar Flare.

The effects of particulate pollution in the atmosphere may be reducing the solar radiation hitting the ground by as much as ten percent. So if a natural or manmade accident grounds aircraft, closes factories, stops traffic for a prolonged period (a year?) we get a sudden rise in temperature on top of global warming. One hot arctic summer melts permafrost, releasing tons of methane. Runaway greenhouse effect.


Well maybe that's a bit of an extreme example but whenever technological disasters occur it is always a combinations of failures instead of a single component's failure. Fukushima didn't have adequate backup generators, Challenger had political reasons to launch in cold weather, Katrina's power was enhanced by the loss of delta marshes.


One end to "homo sapiens" I do foresee is that some form of nano assembler / teleporter system, similar to what was used in Glasshouse. The early versions only work on a cryogenically frozen person owing to long scan times, and and assembler doesn't have the speed to keep the feet from starting to rot, before the top of the head is done. To work, they use a simplified organism 5-10 chromosomes, no junk DNA, and generic as everyone has identical DNA except for brain, mind, and sex for everyone printed out. The output of the system will be FAR from human at the biological level.

All cells have a off switch that can halt all cell functions, for future scans, and when assembled in the off position do NOT rot, but can be assembled just above freezing, and slowly brought to body temperature.

The first people will transport to avoid death as medical procedure, with the knowledge that they MUST teleport once a month or so, as they are poorly put together and have a limited "shelf life" in the 1st generation. DRM & intellectual property issues will hold back improvements in shelf life as the corporations will NOT want their I.P. infringed on and will limit the length that someone can exist without a new copy being run off.

Although the shelf life may not be extended, the ease of future teleportation, backups, and extended functionality will encourage more and more people to travel this way. Only the initial teleport would require the slow freeze and scan at a hospital.

Sooner or later, medical doctors will be out of a job, and homo sapiens will be extinct as it is more profitable to work and improve on "teleport sapiens".

Odd cancer? Go get teleported. Overweight? Hangnail? Broken arm? Car accident? Teleportation will "cure" everything. With an teleported person, no weird reactions, every body the same, except for looks, sex, and cosmetic issues.

Childbearing will be a major issue, but at the 1st teleport a error-corrected copy of the DNA will be kept on file.

Some may say that this is a “definition” issue, but not a true loss the human kind, but I don't see ANY true homo sapiens as a species making it past 2150 or so as they die out from old age, but some from either of “teleport sapiens ” or other technological modifications making the new beings incapable of interbreeding with an old style “homo sapiens” without technology, and by definition that means that homo sapains are extinct.


How about "luck" as is picking up what must be the most capable woman in all of Germany in their first battle?
I presume you mean Gretchen Richter? Everyone has to be somewhere, and I'd submit that she had equal or greater good fortune in meeting the only group of people in 1632 who were prepared to let, even help, her reach her full potential.

Or always "finding" things they need, like scuba gear and speedboats?
I refer you to the original project parameters, where they've basically got what the town selected as a base town for "Grantville" actually has. It's not like every other house had a speedboat; there were about 4 or 5 in the entire town.

But those are all minor problems as far as I am concerned. My biggest problem in "1632" is, PEOPLE DO NOT ACT LIKE PEOPLE. I read several other "group of moderns transported into past" books. Suicides, denials, depression and SERIOUS lack of common ground with the locals make them believable. "1632" is not.
3_500 "Uptimers", and suicides, deniers and depressives don't really make "good stories", so you concentrate on the ones who're not curled up into little balls moaning "this isn't happening". As for "lack of common ground", have you never heard the saying "the enemy of my enemy is my ally"? That instantly gives Mike and Gustavus Adolphus common ground when confronted by Tilly.


1632 is the only reason I am back reading SF. Everywhere else the bread always falls butter side down. What's so wrong about it falling butter side up to make so many so mad?
In the books there are Suicides, denials, depression. I could not see it can't see it working because of religion. But now that is covered. It's seen as a miracle and nobody dares buck the will of God. Just sit back and enjoy, no matter how hard it is. Its just a story.
Oh Mikes the union leader I was I had had. But he is not making 1, 5 and 10 years plans. When something goes the way he wants he pushes with out waiting.


this may have already been suggested, having skimmed too quickly the above entries. the same people who are really into custom order genetic sequence printing in their basement kludge together a crude brain - machine interface, not very advanced, but enough to make you raise your hand in front of a senate committee, which promptly outlaws everything to do with it. this sparks, of course, serious black investment projects into exactly the kind of stuff we're not ready for yet. and when it is done crudely, leaked and blueprints/geneprints/schematics torrented, you get the best street high anyone has ever experienced. and it runs on windows.

botnets of crackheads anyone? maybe they are crossed with a few extreme christian sects... I live in Kentucky, never under estimate the high tech redneck.


"[2] Incidentally, there are some studies that imply the Flynn effect is mostly due to improved results for the lower percentiles, while the higher percentiles didn't improve much."

Not surprisingly. Children in the bottom 25% of the developed world's societies have it rough, but imagine what it was like in 1950 for the bottom quartile - now imagine what it was like in 1900 for the bottom quartile.


"The important caveat to add is that crops love extra CO2 as long as all their other needs for nutrients and water are being taken care of. Which works fine in controlled greenhouses, but in the rest of the world means that the extra CO2 doesn't make anywhere near as much difference, because the plants have a shortage of water or nutrients. Thus the "CO2 is plant fertiliser so there'll be no problem" idea of denialists is wrong. "

I don't have the cite, but the effects of increased CO2 are being studied. The good news is that plants do respond to increased CO2 levels (unless and until they hit the next bottleneck).

The bad news is that this isn't enough to deal with increasing CO2 levels - increased plant growth won't make up for it.

The further bad news is that, in general, the most responsive plants are weeds.


FYI: On TV, they just said the Yellowstone calder is baking more tree roots.


For that matter, what fraction of atheists have children?


That would be an interesting proper survey. I'm atheist, materialist, but knew I didn't want kids when I was six. I'm not sure they're connected.


Ammonia is immediately dangerous at concentrations of 300 parts per million (wikipedia). Of course, if the alternative is losing twenty million people to starvation, then the designers should configure the engine to burn completly, route the output through a filter and a water tank, and specify that the user should wear a gas mask. The gas mask might not happen, but the use of ammonia ought to represent an industrial risk with hazard pay, not something we just can't do.


It's not going to spread to the UK; while pre-natal sex testing isn't illegal per se it's NHS policy not to tell the parents the sex of the child,..

Actually untrue - it's down to individual hospital trusts policies, not a universal NHS policy. Some do, some don't.
I have personal knowledge of this, I attended all three of my wife's babies routine 18 week scans, in the past seven years - two in London, one in Cambridge, and was offered the knowledge of the sex of the baby each time - we declined the first two (wanted the surprise) but accepted the third time.
Some trusts (Aberdeen for instance apparently) don't offer. So much for a universal health service!

Going further, there may come a day when we forget we once built this stuff.

Maybe theres a potential fictional work in this, a far far future fantasy story where the "magic" starts to break down[...]

I highly, highly recommend you read The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It takes place in an "Urth" of the far-future where the vast majority of people essentially have the means, knowledge, and culture of Europe in the middle ages, while they live among the detritus of what had clearly been a much more advanced civilization (in the form of a crumbling, hemisphere-spanning city). The premise is interesting, but the writing itself is what people can't seem to find enough praise for. Effusions such as "Gene Wolfe is the best living writer in the world today." So, I won't go on to describe it further. Just… you should check it out.

I will say, though, that you should look at a photo of Gene Wolfe, and, with the knowledge that, in addition to his literary contributions, he is the man who invented the machine that cooks Pringles potato chips/crisps, you should develop probably-apocryphal suspicions about the provenance of that brand's logo and mascot.


I believe the greatest threats lie just outside the area of greatest intellectual discomfort.

in all sorts of group, responsibility is passed from one to another so that every member (for example) becomes assured most unjustifiably that he is free from accountability only to the end that the forces of entropy will lead to the eventual decline of all conscioinability toward the heart of corruption. such events are instantly followed by revolution and scapegoating.

but who feels comfortable admitting that they are part of such a thing? The answer is of course is that nobody does. Even the people who force themselves to think about their own involvement never feel comfortable considering it. And what if the situation where much worse than that?
taking into account just, simple human limitations (that is not even considering moral or ethical standards) the mind has limits to the discomfort it can endure.

this is why I say that the greatest threats are threats which lie outside the intellectual and psychological limitations of man, to endure discomfort.


I nominate MDR Tuberculosis. I don't think it could actually wipe out humanity, we've been dealing with it for too long, but it could definitely muck up global civilization. I definitely remember reading about a case of major medical panic because some moron with MDR-TB decided to hop on a plane to go to a wedding or some such thing.

Think about the amount of damage AIDS has done, especially to the human infrastructure of the developing world and then remember that AIDS is actually fairly hard to spread. If people had cracked down hard on the AIDS epidemic when it started, instead of waiting until spread to affluent Westerner's it wouldn't have disappeared, but it wouldn't have exploded the way it did and you could put a big dent in the transmission just with consistent condom use (which is sadly, harder than it sounds). TB on the other hand, is airborne. So, instead of patient 0 for the epidemic having to get the disease, then go and have lots and lots and lots of sex, which takes time and effort, and isn't especially reliable, they just have to get on a plane and cough. It can make the jump between socioeconomic classes if a panhandler coughs on a businessman.

The best way currently, to prevent transmission of TB (given that it takes weeks and weeks even if you have antibiotic responsive TB for you to stop being contagious) is to essentially lock you up. Now imagine that instead of weeks and weeks its until you die, which can take years. Travel becomes discouraged, as no one wants to risk introduction of new sources of infection, and whump, there goes the global economy.

The one mitigating factor to this is that with current electronics everyone could stay home and still effectively collaborate globally on a cure... if they bothered. A lot of the problem with TB now has come because its a disease of the poor, so no one bothered getting them medication and forcing them to take it.

I'd also like to say that I don't think that sex-selective abortions could really cause extinction. The death of women's rights certainly, but all those families who only want boys also want their sons to marry, creating a tragedy of the commons. The Indian type dowry system, where you essentially pay someone to take your daughters off your hands would collapse pretty fast if the supply and demand for women got skewed badly enough. Given the rate of human reproduction and the fact that there are segments of the population which don't practice it, and that those segments would probably segregate out to some extent (women raised in Western a gender-equality paradigm would mostly be reluctant to marry into a system that treats women like cattle) I think it would balance out.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 26, 2011 10:36 AM.

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