Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Collapse Step-by-Step, Part 1: Unevenly, Unsteadily and Unequally

My Front Yard Garden in Kincardine, Ontario, Canada — May 23, 2017
Recently planted and freshly rained on.

Some months ago I promised to finally get around to writing a set of posts dealing with the specific nature of the collapse that lies ahead of us, and how we might best cope with it. In the meantime I had a few things to cover to lay the foundation for such a discussion. Well, I have finished that foundation, and the time has finally come for a closer look at collapse.

Out there in the real world, it's gardening time and I've just finished getting the majority of my gardens planted. Beans and squash will have to wait until it warms up just a little more. But now I have more time to work on this blog.

I've just finished a series of four posts ( 1, 2, 3, 4 ) on threats to mankind's continued existence which brought me to the conclusion that there is around one chance in five that we'll be extinct by the end of this century, and almost a certainty that we'll experience at least some degree of societal collapse during that time period.

So I think my readers could be forgiven for getting the impression that I am expecting some sort of apocalypse. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The collapse I am expecting is of the slow, bumpy and "yucky" variety. I've talked about this before, but always briefly, trying to squeeze a lot of information into a few sentences. It's a topic that I think deserves to be looked at in more detail.

I was listening to one of KMO's C-Realm Vault podcasts (#247) the other day and he gave a very clear exposition of what I also happen to think about mankind's future. So full credit to KMO for putting the seeds of the next couple of paragraphs in my mind. How they grew once they got there is entirely my responsibility. And by the way, do consider subscribing to the C-Realm Vault, those podcasts are definitely worth the price of admission.

I think it likely (80%) that we will avoid extinction during this century. Eventually of course, like almost all species, our days will come to an end. But that's most likely some hundreds of thousands of years away.

I do expect we will see a significant drop in our population during this century. Also a big decline in the amount of energy we use on a per capital basis, and along with that the level of organization and technology we have at our finger tips will be reduced considerably. That's what I mean when I'm talking about collapse.

But I have to admit that the idea of apocalypse has quite an attraction. If you're a romantic kind of day dreamer (or a writer of apocalyptic science fiction), a quick and dramatic end of civilization does have a certain appeal. You can easily imagine you and your loved ones facing the challenges of survival, in a world from which have been removed all the irritating elements of modern life. You no longer have a job, you don't have to go to work and many other irritating demands on your time have disappeared. You can concentrate on what's important and the situation makes it pretty clear what that is. Further, your debts have been wiped out and along with them all those monthly bills.

If you've been anticipating something like this, perhaps you've even been developing useful skills and squirreling away just the sort of tools and supplies you need to get you through the rough parts. You might even end up being the hero of the piece. And in this sort of day dream it's easy to gloss over the unpleasant (indeed horrific) aspects of such a situation.

In contrast, I think my version of collapse is already nicely underway. Reality is already quite "yucky" for a great many people and can be expected to get worse as collapse continues and picks up momentum. The irritating parts of modern life seem to be getting worse and can be expected to continue in that direction. You may well lose your job, but the banks aren't going to go away just yet and neither are the bill collectors. And the whole thing is likely to take decades to unwind. Currently, and probably during much of what lies ahead, it won't be completely clear that a collapse is actually taking place and can be blamed for you troubles. More and more people will become intimately acquainted with what it means to be poor and for those of us who are first and foremost good consumers, this will be a bitter pill.

No doubt we will often ask, "Why me?" In large part the answer is that we've had the misfortune to be born into the period in history when the supply of high quality fossil fuels that has fueled the growth and increasing complexity of our civilization for the last few centuries is running out. And along with it the ability of the biosphere to absorb the byproducts of that burning without deleterious changes, especially to the climate. For more details, see my last post.

But why do I think the collapse will proceed slowly? Some writers who are aware of these issues point to the complex network of connections that is our modern global society and say that because those connections are so vital, that once a few of them break the whole thing will fall down like a house of cards, "apocalyptically". Perhaps, on a timescale of millennia, a collapse like this can be viewed as talking place "quickly", but for those who are living through the experience, far from it. A planet such as ours is a big place, and a society such as ours is a large and tenacious organization, with a huge amount of inertia. Powerful people, more than anyone else, have a vested interest in keeping things going more or less as they are. So we can be sure that every effort will be made to do just that. In the short term I think those efforts will often be somewhat successful. In the long run, of course, they may prove more harmful than beneficial.

Other's will point to the concept embodied in Seneca's curve, named for the Roman philosopher who noted that things take a long time to get going but fall apart quickly. I have no quarrel with this, but I must point out that our present society took hundred of years to get going—from the European Renaissance in the 1300s, to the late1900s when things started to fall apart. That's not quite 700 years. Or if you want to take it from the invention of the steam engine, starting around 1700, that's still around 300 years. So a collapse that takes decades, even most of a century, is still following Seneca's curve. Thanks, by the way, to Ugo Bardi for the graphic and a clear explanation of what's involved in making that curve asymmetrical.

What do I mean by unevenly, unsteadily and unequally? I'm talking here about the irregular progress of collapse on three different scales: geographical, chronological and social. So, geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal.

First, let's look at geography. Natural resources are not spread out evenly, nor are they becoming exhausted in any sort of regular pattern. The human population is also spread out very unevenly. The effects of climate change and other ecological disasters vary from place to place as well. It is a large planet and it's various parts are separated by physical distance and the artificial distance enforced by political borders, so what happens in one place does not necessarily or immediately effect another. I fully expect to see some countries in an advanced stage of collapse while (a few) others, or at least parts of them, are still very much living in the twenty-first century and successfully pursuing advances that seem like science fiction today.

Second, there's time. Events are going to proceed at different speeds over time, even reversing themselves occasionally. Sometimes things will get worse so slowly that only by looking back over a period of years will we be able to detect any changes. At other times it will seem like the bottom has suddenly fallen out of our lives in a single day or hour. And sometimes, to the delight of those who don't believe in collapse, things will recover to some degree. The argument will then be made that this is just part of an economic cycle—the sort that "happens all the time".

Third there's society, or class within society. This is largely a matter of power and wealth, which are clearly related.

Those with power and wealth have the ability, to some degree at least, to isolate themselves from negative changes. Of course, when things finally catch up with them, they are probably less mentally prepared to cope with the situation, having become accustomed to a high standard of living and having copious resources close to hand with which to solve problems.

The poor, on the other hand, have long experience coping with the sort of circumstances that occur as collapse takes a step forward. To them it's just more of the same old shit. What can't be changed must be endured and they are good at that. But some things are beyond endurance and if you are without the resources to respond, you're out of luck and it may be the end of the story for you.

One of the obvious responses of the rich and powerful to a contracting economy is to make sure they get a larger share of the shrinking pie. As a consequence those outside of their select circle are left with a smaller share of that smaller pie. Inequality between the various strata of society will keep increasing, in fits and starts of course (staying with the theme of this post).

And of course we'll see combinations of all three sorts of variation—things collapsing at different rates in different places and differently for those in different socioeconomic classes. Some areas, as desertification or sea level rise progresses, will be largely abandoned. In the cities, more and more people will join the ranks of the homeless, abandoned as worthless by the society around them.

For those of us in the middle and upper classes (the top 20%), living in peaceful and economically successful western countries, it may be hard to tell that collapse is even happening—certainly not right now, not locally and not to the people we associate with. Even though things aren't going nearly so well in other parts of the world or for less fortunate people in our own area.

It is very easy not to look beyond our horizons (geographically, socially or chronologically), and live within a false cocoon of security. People living in such a cocoon are unlikely to take collapse seriously, to prepare for what is coming or to respond quickly enough when it starts to happen to them. Nor are they likely to offer much help to people who are farther along the collapse curve.

The conventional mass media do a good job of reinforcing our sense of security by largely ignoring "collapse-like" events in other parts of the world. Examples that come immediately to mind are the triple-digit inflation, rising crime, and shortages of food and medicine in Venezuela and the famines in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, which, so far, have been almost completely ignored in the western media. Syria is, I suppose, something of a counter example, although the news coverage we've had has missed important points about what is really going on there.

Of course, if you go looking on the internet, you can find lots of information about things you hear hardly a word about in the conventional media.

Another thing that varies is the social acceptability of the idea of collapse. I remember reading books back in the 1970s that predicted collapse, then the subject was largely unheard of for years, until the first few years of the new millennium when it appeared in the guise of "Peak Oil". This really got going after the economic crash in 2008 and continued until 2012 or '13. Then it petered out—with the "success" of fracking, Peak Oil was declared dead and the concept of collapse was once again not something to discuss in polite company. And now in 2017, perhaps spurred by events in the USA, collapse is once more being discussed by ordinary people, not just us dedicated kollapsniks.

At this point I find myself in danger of straying into areas that are the subjects of my next few posts. So, not wishing to trip over my own feet, I'll bring this to an end, and wait until my next post to continue talking about the bumpy path that lies ahead of us.

Note: in my last post, I was a little confused about the exact relationship between EROEI and "surplus energy". I have now edited that post to correct the problem. Thanks to Anti Troll at the Doomstead Diner for pointing this out. And thanks to RE at the Diner for allowing me to cross post to his site.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 4: Conclusions

Sunset Over Lake Huron, May 3, 2017

In the first 3 posts in this series ( 1, 2, 3) I talked about global catastrophic risks (the kind of things that threaten human well being on a global scale), and existential risks (which threaten us with extinction). Of course, the distinction between the two is only a matter of degree. We looked at how to evaluate such threats in general and then evaluated a number of specific threats, looking at:

  1. Risk: what is the likelihood of this happening?
  2. Severity: what are the consequences if this does happen?
  3. Difficulty: how hard will it be to do something about this?
  4. Timescale: how soon will this happen?

Just to get us quickly up to speed, here is the list of threats that I classified as worth worrying about:

  • collision with an asteroid (or comet)
  • massive solar flare (coronal mass ejection)
  • economic singularity
  • human sourced pandemic
  • biotechnology
  • ecological disaster
  • climate change
  • resource depletion
  • population and agricultural crises
  • warfare

The first two are not manmade (non-anthropogenic), although our vulnerability to the effects of a massive solar flare is mostly a result of our love of cheap electronics, and electrical grids and an internet that are not sufficiently hardened. For the non-anthropogenic threats I looked at all four of the factors to determine if there is cause for concern.

The rest of the list are manmade (anthropogenic). All of them present a high degree of risk and a high severity, and all but two (a human sourced pandemic and biotechnology) are already happening and very likely to intensify in the near future.

The Wikipedia article on catastrophic and existential risks that I've been referencing in this series of post adds up all the various risks and concludes that the likelihood of human extinction by 2100 is around 19%. This seems fairly reasonable to me, though I'd place lower probabilities on risks like artificial intelligence and nanotechnology and higher probabilities on climate change, resource depletion, ecological disaster, and population and agricultural crises.

But there is a big range of outcomes between extinction and business as usual, including various degrees of societal collapse, entailing loss of life, organization and technology. I would argue that some sort of collapse is very likely—essentially a certainty if we don't take some corrective action soon.

What I haven't done as yet, for these anthropogenic threats, is look at the difficulty of mounting such a response or the likelihood of its being successful. In order to do this, I think it would be helpful if we could make some sense of all these threats and how they fit together in an interconnected, systemic context. And that is the subject of this post.

If indeed there is nothing that can be done, then we should relax, quit worrying and try to enjoy the ride. But remember, these threats are manmade. We are causing the problems, so can't we just stop whatever it is we are doing wrong? I think we should at least consider it. If that won't work, another alternative would be to accept what is coming and take steps to adapt. And it seems to me that the things we might do to adapt are also things that will reduce the severity of the situation we are facing.

In addition to the major threats listed above, there are also a great many minor economic, social and political disruptions happening these days which do not seem catastrophic on a global scale but may well lead us to the "death of a thousand cuts". With all this going on it is very difficult to sort out cause and effect and determine what our response should be. Conventional wisdom would have us treat the symptoms, the surface disruptions, but remains unwilling to consider that there might be anything fundamentally wrong with the system as a whole.

As we shall see shortly, much of the activity that is causing our problems is economic activity. At the same time, as more and more aspects of our lives become "monetized", we are giving up the last vestiges of self sufficiency and becoming ever more dependent on the monetary economy for our continued survival. To be so dependent on the very thing that is causing our problems is not a good situation.

This being the case, I think it would be helpful to look to the science of economics for a deeper understanding of what's going on. Unfortunately conventional economics (Neo-classical economics or Chicago School economics, henceforth referred to as NCE) is hardly fit to be called a science at all. It violates a number of physical laws and is inconsistent with actual human behaviour. These folks would have us look at the economy as a perpetual motion machine, in which money and goods go around and around, with no reference to the physical and biological aspects of the world, or the realities of friction and entropy.

Figure 1

There a number of myths being propagated by NCE, and since policy decisions are based on these myths, they represent a serious handicap in our attempts to cope with the challenges facing us.

  • The real economy is subject to the forces and laws of nature, including thermodynamics, the conservation laws and various environmental requirements. NCE ignores these issues.
  • Economic production requires physical work and the energy required to perform that work is a significant input to the process. NCE counts only capital and labour as inputs and when it finds that these inputs don't add up to match the outputs, it attributes the difference to "technological change". But in fact, the discrepancy is nicely accounted for by including energy as a third input.
  • NCE ignores the economy's boundaries with the real world, disregarding the flow of energy and materials into the system and waste heat and degraded materials out of it, and any effects that those flows may have.
  • NCE holds that a successful economy must grow, despite the fact that we live on a finite planet. It refuses to acknowledge the existence of real limits to growth.
  • It is basic to the scientific method that theoretical models are tested and proved or modified to match reality before gaining acceptance. In NCE this is often not the case—policy is based on models that simply have not been validated.
  • NCE is based on the idea that human beings always behave in their own best interests. In fact this is clearly not so—people are both far more altruistic and far more vindictive than NCE allows for.
  • NCE equates consumption of market goods with human well-being. In fact, once basic needs are taken care of, further material acquisitions contribute relatively little to happiness.
  • NCE fails to consider the importance of how wealth is distributed in a society and the negative effects of inequality.

But there is a another branch of economics—"biophysical economics"—that I think has a lot more promise. It takes into account all the factors that are involved in the existential threats we are talking about, and does not commit the ideological errors about human beings that plague NCE. Figure 2 below is the biophysical version of Figure 1.

Figure 2

Figure 2 is the "interconnected, systemic context" that links all the anthropogenic threats together and makes sense of them. Before we talk in detail about how this works, we need to have a closer look at some ideas that may not be obvious from the diagram.

1) We are looking at a complex adaptive system here—it is complex in that its behavior as a whole is not predicted by the behavior of the components. It is adaptive in that the individual and collective behaviors change and self-organize in response to events, adapting to the changing environment and attempting to increase their survivability. It is not easy to predict the behaviour of such a system, especially from the inside. Nor is there any guarantee that this behaviour will always lead to positive outcomes. Especially in a case like ours, where the individuals are human beings and groups of human beings who are not well informed about the overall situation.

2) Both the Earth Systems and the Human Systems depicted in Figure 2 are also dissipative structures. Indeed, I would say that the key to understanding what is going on in our world is to realize that this is the case, and to grasp what it implies.

Living organisms (including human beings), ecologies and economies are dissipative structures. So are human societies. All these structures maintain themselves by taking in energy and materials and giving off waste of various sorts. They maintain a reproducible steady state, but this state is not a matter of equilibrium, indeed it is definitely not in an sort of "balance" at all. If the supply of energy and materials falls below the appropriate level, this state cannot be maintained—death and dissolution follow. On the other hand, if a surplus of energy is available, these systems grow and become more complex.

Perhaps the simplest analogy I can give is that of a toy balloon with a small leak. As long as we can keep pumping in air, we can keep the balloon inflated. To accomplish this it takes material resources (air) and energy (to pump the air). If either of these is not available the balloon soon deflates.

3) When you see the economy as a dissipative structure, it becomes clear why energy plays such a critical role. What may not be quite so clear is why cheap fossil fuels are particularly important. We'll get to that shortly.

Years ago I started out thinking that money was what made the economy work. And money certainly has it's uses—as a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. But money is really just a set of tokens representing something much more fundamental—energy.

There was a time when almost all the energy used to make goods came from muscles, human and/or animal. We gradually developed tools and machines which made better use of that muscle power, but the industrial revolution didn't really get going until we learned to convert other forms of energy into mechanical energy to drive those machines. Primarily the energy of falling water and moving air (wind) and the chemical energy stored in biomass and fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a very concentrated source of energy and easy to move to where that energy is needed, so they quickly become very popular.

The other great thing about fossil fuels was that their price (basically just the cost of getting them out of the ground) was only a tiny fraction of their value in terms of the goods they could be used to produce. Thus the productivity of coal fired factories was much higher than that of muscle powered cottage industry. This led to a couple of centuries of unprecedented growth, fueled first by coal and then by oil and natural gas. And if that was the whole story, our industrial civilization would be doing just fine.

Unfortunately, there are some other things about fossil fuels that we need to consider:

  • They are not renewable on any sort of timescale that is useful to the human race.
  • We have already used up most of the easy to get at, high quality sources, the "low hanging fruit", so to speak. In the oil business this is known as "conventional oil", as if that sort of oil is the rule, rather than the exception.
  • There are lots of hydrocarbons left to dig/pump out of the ground, seemingly enough to last us a very long time. But they are either harder to access (tight oil and gas, deep offshore oil) or lower quality (heavy oil, tar sands, lignite coal).
  • We have recently developed technology that allows us to access and use more of these fuels. But this technology is expensive, both in terms of capital investment and the amount of energy needed to build, operate and maintain it.
  • Convenient as they are, burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which causes climate change with all its negative consequences.

For the purposes of the economy "surplus energy" is what's actually important. The "surplus energy" of an energy source is what's left over when we subtract the amount of energy required to access the source. A closely related concept is EROEI, "energy returned on energy invested".

In the "good old days" of oil, it only took one barrel's worth of energy to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground, leaving a surplus energy of 99 barrels. This corresponds to an EROEI of 100 (and a surplus energy of 99), and it means that in energy terms, that oil was cheap. Today, even conventional oil has a much lower EROEI, in the range of 10 to 30, and "fracked" oil or tar sands oil has a EROEI in the range of 3 to 5. As far as fossil fuels go, this ongoing reduction in EROEI is a pretty definite trend. Note that an EROEI of 3 gives a surplus energy of 2, part of the reason that low EROEIs are a problem.

If we look at the average EROEI of all the energy sources used by an economy, it can tell us a good deal the current state of the economy as a consequence of the availability of surplus energy. When the average EROEI drops toward 15, economic growth slows. As it drops further, it becomes difficult to raise capital for new construction or maintenance of existing infrastructure. Below 10 it is unlikely that a modern industrial economy can be maintained at all, and we would be forced to change to something less energy intensive.

To put this in perspective, the average EROEI of the world today is around 11 and it is headed lower. It looks to me like all those low EROEI hydrocarbons in the ground aren't going to do us much good.
Note: it appears that the pdf file with world economic data is no longer at that link.
Here is a link to the file on my Google drive.
Here is the blog post by Tim Morgan where the file was referenced.

Switching over to renewables has been suggested as a solution to the depletion of fossil fuels and to climate change, but there are several problems with this:

  • Renewables themselves have a low EROEI.
  • When you add in storage equipment to level out the energy supply from intermittent renewables (wind and solar) you roughly cut the EROEI in half.
  • Renewables generate energy in the form of electricity. But electricity only accounts for something less than 20% of our energy use. The rest is currently powered directly by fossil fuels. Some of this energy use promises to be very difficult to convert to electricity.
  • Renewables might seem to solve the climate change problem, but the change over to renewables itself would require burning a whole lot of extra fossil fuels, with the increased release of CO2 which that would entail.
  • And of course, when an economy has a low average EROEI, raising capital for new projects is hard to do.

All in all it seems unlikely that we'll manage to install anywhere near enough renewable energy sources to allow us to continue with "business as usual". Even our current relatively small scale efforts are contributing to "energy sprawl" (fields of wind turbine and solar panels popping up everywhere) and diverting capital from other important efforts.

EROEI is a good sort of measure, in that it lets us avoid talking in terms of money, and provides a good indicator for the "health" of the economy. Energy prices in dollars (or whatever) can be quite misleading, as they are affected by many other things than the availability of surplus energy.

During the last half of the 20th century almost every recession was preceded by a spike in the price of oil, which makes sense—cheap energy makes the economy grow and expensive energy slows it down.

In the 1990s, though, the EROEI of oil had declined enough to stop real economic growth. Governments responded by adjusting the way GDP is calculated, to make the economic situation look better than it really was. Those same governments intensified their use of debt to stimulate the economy.

In the financial sector of the economy, investors in search of high yielding investments substituted bubbles for real growth, first with the dotcom bubble and then with the housing and derivatives bubbles that led to the financial crash of 2008. Since then despite the creation of huge amounts of government and private debt, there has been no real return to vigorous economic growth.

It's interesting to note what was going on with the price of oil while this was happening. In the late 1990s, the price of oil was around $12 per barrel. From there it went up more or less steadily to around $140 in August of 2008. With the financial crash, the price of oil fell off to about $30 per barrel and then with the so called recovery, came back up to around $100 per barrel. Then in late 2013 the price of oil started to fall, went below $40 per barrel and has not gone above $60 per barrel since then. Currently (May 2017) the price is just below $50 per barrel.

Several things seem to be happening:

  • Demand destruction: the combination of low EROEI and high prices 2009 to 2013 slowed the economy down and reduced the demand for oil (and other bulk materials like steel). With average EROEI getting continually worse, the economy is not recovering, even with the current low oil prices.
  • Price wars: both the US and OPEC are pumping as much oil out of the ground as possible, keeping oil prices low.
  • The low oil prices are having a destructive effect on fossil fuel companies, lowering their profits and reducing the development of fossil fuel resources.
  • As Nafeez Ahmed explains, there is a lot of misleading information about amount of conventional oil that is left:
    According to Professor Michael Jefferson of the ESCP Europe Business School, a former chief economist at oil major Royal Dutch/Shell Group. “… the five major Middle East oil exporters altered the basis of their definition of ‘proved’ conventional oil reserves from a 90 percent probability down to a 50 percent probability from 1984. The result has been an apparent (but not real) increase in their ‘proved’ conventional oil reserves of some 435 billion barrels.”
    "Global reserves have been further inflated by adding reserve figures from Venezuelan heavy oil and Canadian tar sands— despite the fact that they are "more difficult and costly to extract" and generally of "poorer quality" than conventional oil. This has brought up global reserve estimates by a further 440 billion barrels."
    “...the standard claim that the world has proved conventional oil reserves of nearly 1.7 trillion barrels is overstated by about 875 billion barrels.”
  • This and a lack of understanding of the economic results of low EROEI, have led some to believe (especially in the US) that "drill baby drill" is the right strategy.
  • Resources needed elsewhere are being used on low quality fossil fuel projects.

In my opinion, it would be better not to waste capital on accessing lower EROEI fossil fuels, to accept the inevitable energy decline and try to make the remaining fossil fuels last longer, especially for uses that don't involve burning them.

Now you may have been wondering what all this has to do with catastrophic/existential threats, but as we shall see shortly, the anthropogenic threats listed at start of this post can be viewed as disruptions to the Earth Systems and Human Systems shown in Figure 2. And interactions between our economy and its energy supplies are at the heart of those disruptions.

They can be classified as primary, secondary and tertiary effects, based on their position in a cascading stream of cause and effect. It has taken us a while to get here but now, at last, we will take a look at those threats and how they fit into the biophysical economy. The individual threats appear in bold in the discussion below.

Primary Threats

To my way of thinking, the primary threat is resource depletion.

The diversion of resources for our use disrupts the ecologies which rely on those resources. Examples would be our over use of water, arable land, forests and fisheries. Note that we ourselves depend on those ecologies, so we suffer as well.

The use of those resources has led to a good deal of success for the human race and this, in the form of overpopulation and over consumption is a problem in itself.

Then there are all the immediate consequences of the depletion of resources on which we rely. This certainly applies to non-renewable resources, in particular fossil fuels, on which we rely to keep our economy running. As the resources become depleted we are forced to move to lower EROEI energy sources, and the economy suffers as a result.

But even renewable resources are also being depleted as we use them at a rate faster than they are being renewed.

And lastly, there are the effects from the degraded byproducts of our industrial processes, especially the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture and forestry.

Secondary Threats

The secondary threats are consequences of our profligate use of resources and their resulting depletion.

Earth Systems are disrupted by the downstream consequences of resource use. We use the environment as a sink for the byproducts of our industrial processes. Pollution, in other words. And when there is a sufficiently large amount of pollution, the Earth Systems can no longer cope and start to be damaged. This contributes to ecological disasters. While there are many different types of pollution, carbon dioxide and the resulting climate change is the one that is currently of greatest concern.

These are just some of the effects of climate change:

  • more extremely hot days, fewer extremely cold days
  • currently wet areas getting more and heavier rain (flooding)
  • currently dry areas getting less rain (drought)
  • intensification of tropical storms
  • less winter snow pack
  • retreating mountain glaciers
  • melting polar ice caps
  • warming oceans
  • sea level rise
  • ocean acidification

These changes are already having disruptive effects on our global civilization, which will only get worse as they intensify:

  • agriculture grows less productive with the disappearance of the reliable weather it relies on, in some areas it becomes impractical to continue farming
  • health effects of heat waves and the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate areas
  • damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure due to increasingly heavy weather and rising sea level

There is much that could be done to reduce CO2 emissions and slow and eventually stop climate change, but most all of this involves reductions in the burning of fossil fuels, resulting in even less surplus energy to drive an already stressed economy.

Inside the economy, the decreasing EROEI of the fossil fuels we are using causes economic contraction, which has a whole bunch of downstream consequences.

  • reduced profits for businesses, leading to closings and bankruptcies
  • unemployment, and lower wages and more precarious situations for those who still are employed
  • a reduced tax base makes it harder for governments to maintain the social safety net, fund their obligations, and keep their election promises in general

Our current financial system is optimized to facilitate economic growth and it does not work at all well when the economy starts to shrink.

Businesses turning to automation to counteract the effects of economic contraction cause even more unemployment (economic singularity).

The depletion of fossil fuels, fossil water and plant nutrients like phosphorous, along with climate change, are leading us towards an agricultural crisis. This is intensified by an ever growing population. The first sign of this happening is the increasing cost of food. which hits the poor first and hardest, leading to some of the tertiary threats.

Tertiary Threats

Climate change, economic contraction and agricultural crises lead to political and social disruptions: protests, revolution, terrorism (including use of biotechnology), food riots, famine, migrations, war and so forth. People squeezed together into slums breed human sourced pandemics. (There, I've managed to tie the whole list of anthropogenic threats together.)

Populist politicians with overly simplistic solutions gain power by making promises they have no idea how to keep and which largely couldn't be kept in any case. Right wing extremists in the west and Islamic extremists in the Middle East both react to economic stress and take violent actions which allow them to feed off each other. The mass media perpetuate misconceptions about what is going on and what it would take to fix it. And so on.

And if, as all this disruption progresses, should there be a massive solar flare or an asteroid strike, we'll be hard pressed to do anything but take it on the chin.

Conclusion

So, to get back to where we started, is there any action we can take to prevent this perfect storm of threats? Well, if you mean any action that will allow us to keep business as usual rolling along with "good" growth numbers, I think the answer is pretty clearly no. Our industrial civilization is going to collapse, to some greater or lesser extent. We can't prevent this, but we could take action to mitigate its effects, turning it into a slow and relatively gentle crash. I've written a series of posts called "A Political Fantasy" that goes into detail on that. As you might guess from that title, I think there's a big difference between what "could" be done and what is actually likely to be done.

Still, I don't think the situation is beyond hope. What we can't avoid, we can adapt to.

We need to drastically reduce the human population, and it looks like events will take care of this for us. We need to drastically reduce the amount of energy we are using, and again, it looks like events are going to do the job for us. Those with problems taken care of all we need to do is find ways to keep some fraction of the human population alive through all these events. And again, we won't have to make any horrible decisions about who to get rid of. Even with all of us trying as hard as we can, only a few of us will succeed.

It would we helpful to have a rough idea of what's ahead and the sort of things that will help to see us through. And, perhaps even more importantly, a clear idea of what won't help so we can avoid wasting time and effort where it would do no good. My next series of post, Collapse Step by Step will deal with exactly those issues.

To leave you something to chew on, I will say that forward looking people should be considering a move to a better location: well above sea level, out of the path of tropical storms, where it rains regularly, it isn't too hot and the population density is already low. If such a location was beyond walking distance from large urban centres, it would be ideal. And if you can make such a move before the majority of the population catches on, have time to get set up and reduce your reliance on the monetary economy, and become part of the local community, so much the better.

Credit is are due to the authors of three books which influenced me considerably in the writing of this post:

Sunday, 30 April 2017

What I've Been Reading, April 2017

Lake Huron Shore, April 30, 2017

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

Non-Fiction

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 3: Anthropogenic Threats

Lake Huron Sunset, at the entrance to Kincardine Harbour, April 12, 2017

In my last post in this series I referred to an article on Wikipedia about "Global catastrophic risk" which I had stumbled upon while researching existential risks for this series of posts. A good article, which gave me the idea of dividing those risks into non-manmade and manmade varieties to spread them over two posts. It has a pretty thorough list of non-anthropogenic threats (which I covered in that post). And it lists most of the major anthropogenic threats that I want to discuss in this post. But it fails to to tie those risks together in the way that I think is necessary if one is going to arrive at any sort of deep understanding of what is going on in the world today. I'll be addressing this in my next post —"Evaluating Existential Threats, Conclusions."

Artificial intelligence

There are two different threats in this area.

1) A Technological Singularity

The idea here is that we will develop general artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on itself, and that it will do so at an ever increasing rate, quickly out stepping human intelligence and continuing to grow beyond what we can even imagine (thus the term "singularity"). Such intelligence could constitute an existential threat if it doesn't have our best interests at heart or it it is confused about what those interest may be.

Based on this, several notable people (Stephen Hawkin, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and others) have expressed concern about the dangers of developing artificial intelligence. This is probably not a bad thing, in that it will likely make AI researches more cautious.

But I see several problems with the idea that general AI is a credible threat, mainly to do with the limits that exist in the real world.

But first, is general artificial intelligence even possible? Since I am a monistic materialist (there is only one thing, the material world that we see around us) I see my own consciousness as a software process running on the "meatware" computer between my ears. So, in principle at least, I can see no reason why similar software can't be developed to run on manmade hardware.

In practice, though, it will neither be simple or easy. "Singularitarians" point to the "law of accelerating progress", and it is true that technological progress has been accelerating for the last couple of centuries. They assume that progress will continue at an exponential rate. But they are disregarding the "law of diminishing returns", which we talked about in my posts on "The Collapse of Complex Societies." (1 2).

The advances in computer science and AI research are clearly a case of problem solving by adding complexity, and with that comes increases in cost which will eventually slow down the process and bring it to a halt. Essentially they are looking at the upward leg of a logistic curve and mistaking it for an exponential curve, jumping to the conclusion that it will continue upward forever instead of leveling off. In the real world, spurts of exponential growth always run out of steam and level off.

(Left: exponential curve  ---  Right: logistic curve)

Graphic of exponential curve, Peter John Acklam—Own work
Graphic of logistic curve By Qef Created from scratch with gnuplot, Public Domain
Creative Commons Licence

We already see this happening with "Moore's Law", a favourite phenomenon of the technological optimists. This is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The death of Moore's Law is already happening, making it seem unlikely that there will be a singularity based on growth in the power of computing hardware.

It will be interesting to see where the growth in the capability of software tops out, but I would say there is no guarantee we will achieve artificial intelligence even equaling human intelligence. And that is without considering the problems I expect over next few decades as decreasing surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction reduce the resources available for research. But that will happen very unevenly and I have no doubt that there will be a few institutions (universities, corporations) who hang on for quite some time and keep working on AI.

So let's assume for the moment that we do develop general artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on itself, and that it does out step human intelligence by a significant amount before it encounters limits and tops out. Before such an intelligence could do much harm it would have to have accurate knowledge of the physical world and some agency to act in that world (through robotics, presumably). But even then, we must remember is that intelligence is not a magic solution to all problems, it will not automatically be able to develop technology that can do whatever it and/or we want. It will be subject to the same limits as we are, since those limits are not some human failing, but are actually built into the nature of reality.

The main idea of this blog is that the problems we face are caused by our encountering those limits and cannot be solved, by intelligence or anything else, but are simply conditions that we must adapt to. I really do believe this is true, so I expect that a hypothetical artificial intelligence of a sufficiently high degree would reach the same conclusion.

So, it seems to me that the risks here are small, and the supposed negative consequences of AI are by no means certain. Accordingly, a technological singularity is just not a big worry for me.

2) An Economic Singularity

The whole history of the industrial revolution has been one of industries improving their productivity by replacing human labour with powered machinery. Over the last few decades, as the surplus energy available to our society decreased, business desperate for productivity gains to maintain their profitability have taken this process to new heights. Long before general AI becomes a problem, "narrow" artificial intelligence and robotics will have replaced most human workers. Many of us are quite worried about what will happen to the consumer economy when most consumers cannot find jobs. And more important, what will happen to the ex-consumers themselves.

Others argue that this is the beginning of a world without scarcity —that we will start with a guaranteed minimum income and go on from there to create a workers' paradise. I don't think this is likely for a number of reasons.

First of all, scarcity exists because we live on a finite planet and there really is a limited supply of the resources (energy and materials) needed to run our industrial civilization. Scarcity is not caused by high labour costs, and is unlikely to be cured by automation. We are experiencing a shortage of energy, not labour, and we would do better to adopt a policy of "rehumanization" —replacing automation with people, rather than the reverse.

In any case, those who are running the world's industries do not, for the most part, care in the least about their unemployed former workers. If you don't have a part to play in the BAU world, at the bare minimum if you have no money in your pocket to spend as a consumer, then you had best just go away. Of course, with fewer industrial workers, there will be fewer consumers and less of a market for the products of those industries. It would appear that the industrial/consumer economy will continue to contract, flying backwards in ever decreasing circles until it disappears up its own.... And as the ranks of the unemployed and homeless swell, they will have more and more reason to take things into their own hands and resort to violence against the system.

This is especially true in countries where lowering of taxes on corporations and the rich is seen as the primary way of stimulating the economy. It is true that lowering taxes can somewhat protect corporations and the rich from economic contraction in the short run. But it leaves the rest of the population even more exposed. And it leaves the government no alternative but to go further into debt to maintain its commitments.

Progressive taxation to fund infrastructure and social programs can, it is pretty clear, slow economic contraction and shield more of the population from the initial effects of collapse. But this too is a limited solution, as economic contraction continues and the tax base grows ever smaller.

The "economic singularity" is something that is already happening and is almost certain to get worse. It is definitely something to worry about.

Biotechnology

I see biotech (genetic engineering) as an area with a lot of room for advancement and a good deal of promise in helping mankind cope with the challenges ahead of us. So it pains me considerably to say that it is also a technology with a large potential for harm. I say this in particular because advances in technique are in the process of making genetic engineering accessible to people without proper training and who work in an unregulated environment. This increases the both chance of accidents and the opportunities for deliberate misuse.

I have no doubt we will see the biotech equivalent of improvised explosive devices used in terrorist attacks at some point in the not too distant future. These could take many forms but basically what we are talking about is an engineered pandemic, with the potential to spread rapidly and harm far more people than a conventional IED.

The risk is high and the potential for harm is great. So this is a threat that I would definitely worry about. It will be difficult to make preventative measures effective as techniques like CRISP become widely available. About all we can do is beef up the organizations that detect, quarantine and develop vaccines for communicable diseases.

Human Sourced Pandemic

Another similar threat not covered in the Wikipedia article is a pandemic originating from within human society. In my post on non-anthropogenic threats, I touched brief on the possibility of a pandemic arising from nature, but concluded I wouldn't be worrying about this because the risk was small. There is a significantly larger risk of a pandemic originating in the disease factories of hospitals, refugee camps and cities.

According to the evolutionary epidemiologist Paul W Ewald of the University of Louisville, the most dangerous infectious diseases are almost always not animal diseases freshly broken into the human species, but diseases adapted to humanity over time: smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, yellow fever, polio. In order to adapt to the human species, a germ needs to cycle among people —from person to person to person. In each iteration, the strains best adapted to transmission will be the ones that spread. So natural selection will push circulating strains towards more and more effective transmission, and therefore towards increasing adaptation to human hosts. This process necessarily takes place among people....

Looking at epidemics and pandemics through this evolutionary lens makes it clear that the most important condition necessary for the evolution of virulent, transmissible disease is the existence of a human disease factory. Without social conditions that allow the evolution of virulent, transmissible disease, deadly outbreaks are unlikely to emerge.

In the next few decades we are going to see more refugee camps and cities (and slums) growing ever larger. This is one to worry about.

Global warming (anthropogenic climate change)

There is simply no doubt left that human activities releasing carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) into the atmosphere are causing global warming. There was 0.6 degrees of warming during the twentieth century and since the turn of the century that has gone up to a total of almost 1 degree. By the end of the century there is expected to be a total of between 2.4 to 6.4 degrees of warming, depending on the level of emissions between now and then. Of course, those numbers of average over the whole planet. In fact, the warming is taking place unevenly, with more warming at high latitudes than near the equator.

This warming is causing many changes:

  • more extremely hot days, fewer extremely cold days
  • currently wet areas getting more and heavier rain (flooding)
  • currently dry areas getting less rain (drought)
  • intensification of tropical storms
  • less winter snow pack
  • retreating mountain glaciers
  • melting polar ice caps
  • warming oceans
  • sea level rise
  • ocean acidification

These changes are already having disruptive effects on our global civilization, which will only get worse as they intensify:

  • agriculture grows less productive with the disappearance of the reliable weather it relies on, in some areas it becomes impractical to continue farming
  • health effects of heat waves and the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate areas
  • damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure due to increasingly heavy weather and rising sea level

There are those who argue that the effects of anthropogenic climate change will be much more severe:

  • rendering much, if not all, of the planet unfit for human habitation
  • with further heating, much of the planet might become unfit for life of any kind
  • runaway climate change could eventually transform Earth into another Venus

Lots here to worry about, even if (like me) you take those last three points as unlikely. The rest of it is almost certain to happen. Another one to worry about.

Ecological disaster

This would consist of failure of ecosystems and loss of the services they provide us due to trends such as overpopulation, economic development, and non-sustainable agriculture.

This is already underway and it is definitely something worry about.

Mineral resource exhaustion

From Wikipedia:
Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and the paradigm founder of ecological economics, has argued that the carrying capacity of Earth — that is, Earth's capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels — is bound to decrease sometime in the future as Earth's finite stock of mineral resources is presently being extracted and put to use; and consequently, that the world economy as a whole is heading towards an inevitable future collapse, leading to the demise of human civilization itself.

Because we use the easy to access part of a resource first (the low hanging fruit), when we get to using the not-so-low hanging fruit, it is not just less plentiful, but harder to access as well. Even though we have developed techniques for refining minerals from much lower grade ores, it takes more energy to access each unit of such resources, making them prohibitively expensive long before they run out in any absolute sense.

The term "mineral resources" includes the fossil fuels that power our civilization, and for which there really isn't any practical substitute. Unfortunately, the authors of the Wikipedia article do not seem to be aware of the critical link between energy and the economy.

Resource depletion is a serious problem that is actually happen and will have even more severe consequence down the road. Definitely something to worry about.

Experimental technology accident

I find this pretty hard to take seriously. Those working with such technologies are very aware of the risks involved and go to great lengths to avoid them, since they themselves would be a ground zero if there is an accident. And measures are in place to reduce the seriousness of such accidents if they do take place. A small risk is thus rendered much smaller —insignificant, to my way of thinking, provide we continue to take the appropriate precautions.

Nanotechnology

I read Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology shortly after it came out in 1986. The heart of the idea was that we would soon develop nano-scale computers and robots which could accomplish fantastic things one atom at a time that could not otherwise be done at all. Presumably such powerful machines could be used to do great harm, or could do great harm if they got out of control.

Here we are over 30 years later and this is an area of technology that has not lived up what its promoters saw as its promise, for good or ill. I'm not worrying about this one.

Warfare and mass destruction

Since the end of the Cold War, we have had a few decades of relative relief from the fear of nuclear war. But the arsenals still exist and it is beginning to seem that international relations are deteriorating. With climate change and resource depletion as stressors they may continue to do so.

This is another one to worry about. We need to do whatever we can to discourage politicians with itchy trigger fingers.

World population and agricultural crisis

From Wikipedia:

The 20th century saw a rapid increase in human population due to medical developments and massive increases in agricultural productivity such as the Green Revolution. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. The Green Revolution in agriculture helped food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth or actually enabled population growth. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their 1994 study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says the study.

The authors of this study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will begin to impact us after 2020, and will become critical after 2050. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before. Wheat is humanity's 3rd most produced cereal. Extant fungal infections such as Ug99 (a kind of stem rust) can cause 100% crop losses in most modern varieties. Little or no treatment is possible and infection spreads on the wind. Should the world's large grain producing areas become infected then there would be a crisis in wheat availability leading to price spikes and shortages in other food products.

Definitely one to worry about.

My Analysis

I will have a great deal more to say about what this all means in my next few posts. But I think it is clear from what we've looked at so far, that the universe is a relatively benign place. True, there are a couple of non-anthropogenic threats that are worthy of our attention, but the threats we have created ourselves are numerous, they are not hypothetical—they are already happening and certain to continue, and they have as much or more potential for harm than anything nature seems likely to throw at us.

Monday, 3 April 2017

What I've Been Reading, March 2017

A few minutes late for sunset over Lake Huron, April 2, 2017

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. Some of the best ones are near the bottom.

Books

Fiction

I read three Ken MacLeod books this month. The Corporation Wars series (a third is due out near the end of 2017) are top-notch cyber space opera, and deal thoughtfully with artificial intelligence/consciousness issues. Intrusion tells a good human story involving at biotech and the surveillance state.

Non-Fiction

The non-fiction I've been reading this month is full of ideas which will show up over the next few weeks on this blog.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 2: Non-anthropogenic Threats

Last time, I talked about worry as a driver to action, and how to evaluate problems as to whether they are worth worrying about or not. I think that my approach does work for smaller scale, day-to-day problems, but I was mainly focusing on existential threats—things that promise, at the very least, to wipe out a large chunk of our human population and, at the worst, to bring an end to life on earth. And I promised to go into detail about some such threats.

Today we'll look at a number of "non-anthropogenic" (non-manmade) threats. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I think it is a good introduction to the subject.

Non-anthropogenic threats tend to be large scale—forces of nature. In many cases there is little we can do but run away and/or try to be well prepared to cope with their effects. Fortunately, when it comes to coping, similar preparations work for many different types of threats.

For those who like the precise use of terminology I admit to being a little sloppy in my use of the term "existential". As Wikipedia would have it:

A "global catastrophic risk" is any risk that is at least "global" in scope, and is not subjectively "imperceptible" in intensity. Those that are at least "trans-generational" (affecting all future generations) in scope and "terminal" in intensity are classified as existential risks. While a global catastrophic risk may kill the vast majority of life on earth, humanity could still potentially recover. An existential risk, on the other hand, is one that either destroys humanity (and, presumably, all but the most rudimentary species of non-human lifeforms and/or plant life) entirely or prevents any chance of civilization recovering.

They actually have a pretty good article on "global catastrophic risks"

.

A nearby supernova

And for this first one we'll look at all four of the criteria I mentioned in my last post.

From Wikipedia:

A near-Earth supernova is an explosion resulting from the death of a star that occurs close enough to the Earth (roughly less than 10 to 300 parsecs (30 to 1000 light-years) away[2]) to have noticeable effects on its biosphere.

On average, a supernova explosion occurs within 10 parsecs (33 light-years) of the Earth every 240 million years. Gamma rays are responsible for most of the adverse effects a supernova can have on a living terrestrial planet. In Earth's case, gamma rays induce a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere, converting molecular nitrogen into nitrogen oxides, depleting the ozone layer enough to expose the surface to harmful solar and cosmic radiation (mainly ultra-violet). Phytoplankton and reef communities would be particularly affected, which could severely deplete the base of the marine food chain.

Risk

Once in 240 million years? But actually, a closer look shows that the occurrence of supernovas is not a random event that can happen to just any star.

Type II supernovas mark the end of the life of certain massive stars that are bright enough so that they are hard to miss, especially if they are nearby. And it is possible to identify when they are nearing to end of their lives, to within some thousands of years, anyway. The good news is that the nearest of them is over 500 light years away, far enough not to be a concern.

Again from Wikipedia:

Type Ia supernovae are thought to be potentially the most dangerous if they occur close enough to the Earth. Because Type Ia supernovae arise from dim, common white dwarf stars, it is likely that a supernova that could affect the Earth will occur unpredictably and take place in a star system that is not well studied. The closest known candidate is IK Pegasi. It is currently estimated, however, that by the time it could become a threat, its velocity in relation to the Solar System would have carried IK Pegasi to a safe distance.

Even if a Type Ia candidate is lurking nearby, the odds of it being at the end of its life during my lifetime are small.

Severity

Earth's upper atmosphere, in particular the ozone layer, is very effective at blocking x-ray and gamma rays, so radiation from a supernova is not the main concern at ground level. But gamma rays can cause chemical reactions between nitrogen and ozone and deplete the ozone layer. There is the possibility that this effect of radiation from a nearby supernova could result in a mass extinction, and may have done so in the past.

Difficulty of Mounting a response

It is difficult to see how we could do much about the effects of a nearby supernova. As I've said before, it seems likely that our capacity for global scale responses to such challenges is either at of just past its peak. In other words, in my opinion, they are in the realm of science fiction—fun to dream about, but unlikely to happen.

Timeframe

It appears that there the likelihood of a nearby supernova in the near future is quite small.

Conclusions

The rarity of the event and the difficulty of doing anything about it would seem to make this a threat that there is no point in worrying about.

A Nearby Gamma Ray Burst

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are extremely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies. A nearby one (thousands instead of billions of light years away) would affect our upper atmosphere in the same way as a nearby supernova.

My evaluation is that we need not worry—the risk is small and there is little we could do in any case.

A change in the sun's output

Our Sun is a remarkably constant star, its output varying only by 0.1% over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. NASA has a good article about how this can affect our climate. And while it is true that the changes during the solar cycle do seem to be amplified beyond what one might expect, their impact is far from existential.

A large solar flare

From Wikipedia:

A solar flare is a sudden flash of brightness observed near the Sun's surface. It involves a very broad spectrum of emissions, an energy release of typically 1 × 1020 joules of energy for a well-observed event. A major event can emit up to 1 × 1025 joules (the latter is roughly the equivalent of 1 billion megatons of TNT.... Flares are often, but not always, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection. The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space. These clouds typically reach Earth a day or two after the event.

The Carrington Event (Solar Storm of 1859), from Wikipedia:

The Solar storm of 1859—known as the Carrington Event—was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm during solar cycle 10 (1855–1867). A solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth's magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record, September 1–2, 1859. The associated "white light flare" in the solar photosphere was observed and recorded by English astronomers Richard C. Carrington (1826–1875) and Richard Hodgson (1804–1872).

Studies have shown that a solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would likely cause more widespread problems for a modern and technology-dependent society. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth's orbit without striking the planet....

The probability of a solar storm striking Earth in the next decade with enough force to do serious damage to electricity networks could be as high as 12 percent.

Again from Wikipedia:

In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the current cost of a similar event to the U.S. alone at $0.6–2.6 trillion.

This cost would result from damage to electrical and electronic equipment that isn't sufficiently hardened against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). In and of itself, this would cause relatively few human deaths. But it would cause widespread and serious damage to our power grid, and our transportation, communication and computing infrastructure, which could leave many of us without the necessities of life while the damage was being repaired. And it would take many months to replace damaged power transformers which are a critical part of the power grid.

Both the risk and the level of severity seem quite high, and measures to mitigate the effects of such an event are definitely within our grasp, albeit at some considerable cost. I would say that this is definitely something to worry about. For the individual two actions come to mind immediately:

  1. Prepare for extended outages of the power grid, the phone systems, the internet and GPS and expect that many of your electronic devices will not survive the EMP associated with the flare.
  2. When your local grid authority announces that power prices will be going up due to measures being taken to harden the grid against large solar flares, rather than complaining, support them. The same goes for other infrastructure that may be affected.

A collision with an asteroid

From Wikipedia:

Small objects frequently collide with Earth. There is an inverse relationship between the size of the object and the frequency of such events. The lunar cratering record shows that the frequency of impacts decreases as approximately the cube of the resulting crater's diameter, which is on average proportional to the diameter of the impactor. Asteroids with a 1 km (0.62 mi) diameter strike Earth every 500,000 years on average. Large collisions – with 5 km (3 mi) objects – happen approximately once every twenty million years. The last known impact of an object of 10 km (6 mi) or more in diameter was at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago.

Based on the odds quoted above, large collisions are rare enough to disregard but asteroids large enough to survive their trip through the atmosphere (larger than 35 m in diameter) and less than 1 km. in diameter are more common and can still do enough damage on a local or regional scale that it may be worth doing something about them.

As is often the case, though, this threat is not completely random. Astronomers have already identified a large number of asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth and efforts are underway to identify the rest of them, map their orbits and determine if/when they are likely to constitute a threat. Because an asteroid's orbit is changed by the Earth's gravity when it passes nearby, this is an ongoing task. And occasionally large asteroids, that have been missed previously, do show up on surveys.

Several methods have been proposed to divert an asteroid and prevent it from hitting Earth. Some of these are within our current technological and economic grasp, at least for now. If we were to make preparations ahead of time and have the appropriate hardware standing by in orbit, we could even divert asteroids on fairly short notice.

Conclusion

This is one to worry about. There is appropriate action which an individual can support when voting, if nothing else. A comprehensive and on-going asteroid survey would be relatively inexpensive and would allow us to evacuate the population from the area where a small to medium size asteroid is about to strike. And if it turns up a larger asteroid that is headed our way, it would give us the option of trying to do something about it.

A reversal of the earth's magnetic field

The Earth's magnetic field does reverse on a regular though seemingly random basis. Since the magnetic field goes to zero during the reversal and that field plays a role in diverting cosmic radiation and solar flares, there is some chance that more radiation would reach the Earth's surface during that period. Currently, expert opinion says this is unlikely to be an existential or even catastrophic threat.

There is some (less creditable) chance that seismic activity might increase during a magnetic reversal, causing earthquakes and tsunamis. My guess is that if you live in an earthquake or tsunami zone, the preparations you should already be making would suffice.

An eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano

If the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park ever had another massive eruption, it could spew ash for thousands of miles across the United States, damaging buildings, smothering crops, and shutting down power plants. It would be a huge disaster.

From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintain that they "see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable." This conclusion was reiterated in December 2013 in the aftermath of the publication of a study by University of Utah scientists finding that the "size of the magma body beneath Yellowstone is significantly larger than had been thought." The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory issued a statement on its website stating, "Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a 'supereruption' in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not 'overdue' for a supereruption."

That's good enough for me, so I won't be worrying about this one.

A Pandemic arising from nature

From Wikipedia:

The death toll for a pandemic is equal to the virulence (deadliness) of the pathogen or pathogens, multiplied by the number of people eventually infected. It has been hypothesised that there is an upper limit to the virulence of naturally evolved pathogens. This is because a pathogen that quickly kills its hosts might not have enough time to spread to new ones, while one that kills its hosts more slowly or not at all will allow carriers more time to spread the infection, and thus likely out-compete a more lethal species or strain. This simple model predicts that if virulence and transmission are not linked in any way, pathogens will evolve towards low virulence and rapid transmission. However, this assumption is not always valid and in more complex models, where the level of virulence and the rate of transmission are related, high levels of virulence can evolve. The level of virulence that is possible is instead limited by the existence of complex populations of hosts, with different susceptibilities to infection, or by some hosts being geographically isolated. The size of the host population and competition between different strains of pathogens can also alter virulence. However, a pathogen that only infects humans as a secondary host and usually infects another species (a zoonosis) may have little constraint on its virulence in people, since infection here is an accidental event and its evolution is driven by events in another species. There are numerous historical examples of pandemics that have had a devastating effect on a large number of people, which makes the possibility of global pandemic a realistic threat to human civilization.

The Wikipedia article on Global Catastrophic risk estimates the chance of a naturally occurring disease causing the extinction of the human race before 2100 is .05%, or 1 chance in 2,000. So it seems that this threat is worthy of some degree of worry. But existing public health organizations are on watch for diseases spreading from animals to humans, and quarantines can be put into effect to control the spread of such a disease until vaccines can be developed. In case one finds oneself under quarantine, a well stocked pantry would be handy to have, and that is also a basic preparation for many other sorts of disaster.

Small scale threats

While volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and so forth may not be existential threats for the human race as a whole, they can be quite serious to the individuals who find themselves at ground zero. And in many areas the degree of risk is fairly high. Being prepared for emergencies is always a good idea, in my opinion.

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a couple of posts on emergency preparation, and I think they have stood the test of time.

The only thing I might add is that in some locations, taking the progress of climate change and/or growing political unrest into account may lead you to think about moving to a less hazardous location. This is best done sooner, rather than later, while the infrastructure to support your move is still intact and you can still get a least some of the value out of your home.

Looking back over this list of non-anthropogenic threats, it's interesting to note that the majority of them are not something to worry about. Of those that are worthy of our concern, a few observations can be made in the light of the collapse that I expect is coming during the next few decades:

  • A large solar flare in only dangerous because of the unprotected high-tech infrastructure that we have become dependent on.
  • Asteroid collisions, on the other hand, will continue to be a threat regardless of the level of technology we are using. An effective response to the approach of a large asteroid requires the capability to conduct operations in space, and an economy that is doing well enough to finance such expensive endeavours. Evacuating people from the areas where smaller asteroids will touch down would require some intermediate level of technology and financial support.
  • Pandemics are another thing again. Crowding millions of people together in large cities and making it easy to travel between those cities certainly makes it easier for a pandemic to spread. A smaller and less connected "post-collapse" population would be less vulnerable, but without the full force of modern medicine and public health infrastructure, they would be less resistant to infectious diseases in general.

In my next post I'll look at anthropogenic (manmade) threats and explain why I think some of them are more serious than the threats we've looked at this time.

Note on Wikipedia as a source:
some will no doubt have noted with distain that I have used Wikipedia as a reference throughout this blog post. But I was not trying to write an academic article, and I can assure you I do approach the information I find in Wikipedia with a skeptical eye. I've noticed that the biggest critics of Wikipedia are those who are disappointed that they can't find support therein for their favourite brand of pseudoscience. To me, that is a pretty good recommendation, and it supports what I have found, i.e. that Wikipedia does a pretty good job of excluding pseudoscience, and of presenting the current scientific consensus on most subjects.