MONDAY, APR 15, 2015

Expecting the Expected

Spoiler alert: Disasters have happened before



TUCSON (A-P) — There are few certainties, but every known past disaster will occur again, and in time one greater than any known before will occur. And then there are the unknown disasters no one can tell you about. It's all about when, not if.

Maybe we'll cruise through the 21st century without anything catastrophic happening. No one knows with the extreme certainty many humans crave. No predictions are being offered, but disaster is and should be thinkable. The only claim is that ______________ [fill in the blank] could happen. You may never need a Plan B, but then again you might. How should one feel about being on a cruise ship that has no lifeboats, afloat amid a vastness where there is no Planet B?

Natural Disasters

Pandemics: Although in 1918 about 50 million people died from the Spanish Flu, we have not seen a major pandemic, one where maybe half the population dies, since the 14th century when the Black Death struck. As population and crowding increase along with greater mobility, the chance of a new bug developing and rapidly spreading will only increase. As with most disasters, you'll have little time to escape. The danger here will be other people. The pandemic will spread too fast to expect science to find a cure in time. Your best hope will be a reverse quarantine where uninfected individuals isolate themselves from others before the die-off reaches their area. You might need to be self-sufficient for a year or even several years, so just staying in your apartment or suburban home isn't going to work for you. A pandemic is a disaster waiting to happen, and perhaps sooner than later

Volcanic Eruptions: Dust from the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, which affected the entire Northern Hemisphere, lead to the "year without a summer" and to the worst famine of the 19th century. When this happens again, you won't want to be in or near any major city. The Lake Toba eruption 74,000 years ago killed more than half of all humans living at the time. A volcanic collapse in or next to a sea can cause a monster tsunami causing ocean-wide costal devastation.

Supervolcanoes: There are six known supervolcanoes. The eruption of any of these would be a thousand times worst than any known volcanic eruption. The one under Yellowstone is coming due.

Impact Event: The Solar System still contains a lot of debris and Earth will continue to be struck by objects of varying size. Asteroids of 1 km diameter or larger impact Earth on average about every 500,000 years, which means that, though unlikely in the 21th century, it could still happen anytime. But one a mere 1/5,000th the size is far more likely and could cause destruction equivalent to a nuclear bomb. 

Famine: Often the consequence of other natural/man-made disasters and regional population overshoot, thousands of famines have occurred in historic times (1,828 in China alone). In the 20th century about 50 million people starved to death, and many more simply starved. A reasonable guess is that about two-thirds of the world's human population is being supported by unsustainable agricultural practices. Expect famine in the 21th century to be vastly greater than any seen before (read more).

Extreme Weather: Whatever has been the worst drought, flood, hurricane, cyclone, heat wave, little ice age, tornado, or blizzard ever known, there will be more to come of lesser, equal, or greater magnitude. The impact of such events, once regional, will become increasingly global.

Earthquakes: The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was the worst ever experienced in the United States, but worldwide 70 earthquakes have killed more people. Clearly, in the USA, the "big one" has yet to come. The disaster, however, will be confined in area and help can be expected unless, for whatever reason, the rest of the country is already struggling to get by.

Solar Superstorms: Back in 1859 a large solar flare took aim at our planet and knocked out telegraph communications throughout Europe and North America. Today a similar event would bring civilization as we know it to its knees and put us back in the pre-telegraph days. For a time: no satellites, no computers, no communications, no electricity, no water, no transport, no food—think economic collaspe, chaos, and expect a really bad year or so—full recovery, if it came, would take decades. Solar maximums occur every 11 years.

Man-made Disasters

Here the door is wide open to never before experienced disasters, not merely the ones we've already managed to create.

CBRNs: Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events, whether intentional terrorist acts or accidents, will happen. If the area affected is large enough, you'll need some place to go before the nasty "whatever" gets to you. A single nuclear devise exploded high over any developed country, by whomever for whatever reason, would create an electromagnetic pulse having devastating consequences. Iran is actively pursuing the development of nuclear weapons with the likely intent to use them. They have the ability to launch from ships to strike anywhere in the world. 

Civil Disorder: First World societies have avoided civil disorder by providing for the social welfare of those most likely to cause it. Wealthy nations can do this, and indeed, can't afford not to. The result is that a large percentage of their population is dependent on the state and have a well developed sense of entitlement. If not given what they feel entitled to (perhaps because there isn't more to give?), expect riots, increased home invasions, and marauding gangs when law enforcement falters. Your home will no longer be your castle.

Transportation Disruptions: On average the food you eat travels about 1,500 miles to get to your mouth. If for any reason trucks were to stop bringing food into your area, shelves would be bare in three days as that is all the inventory stores normally have on hand. Actually, once people saw that the shelves would soon be bare, panic buying or looting would mean the shelves would be bare even sooner. Even if you had a year's supply of food and water stored, how long would you survive in a city of increasingly desperate people?

Economic Collapse: The now global economic system is complex beyond anyone's complete understanding or control. Any mismanagement can have unforeseen, catastrophic results. In complex systems, a failure in one sector can take down the entire system.

Overshoot Disasters

While the other disasters mentioned so far seemingly just happen randomly, exponential growth in a finite environment has predictable consequences— namely overshoot and descent. Growth at some point will exceed the ability of the environment to support further growth. There is then a delay in corrective feedback and descent/collapse follows. In the struggle to survive, the environment is further degraded leading to a steep downward spiral.

Other disasters are like icebergs—maybe we'll get lucky and avoid them for a long time; maybe we'll hit one but not too hard, so it won't be so bad. Overshoot and collapse is different; it's like steaming full-speed ahead, through a fog, towards a continent. You will hit it; damage will happen—you just don't know exactly when crunch time will come. Will it be five years? Fifty? Five hundred?

Of course our ship could stop and change course, but doing so would require some collective intent and steely determination to overrule the full-speed-ahead crowd. Since there really is no one at the helm, making dramatic changes in course seems unlikely given the pervasive lack of foresight concerning things to come and the firmly vested interests most have in "staying the course." That some individuals have foresight may not be enough.

So, choose to work tirelessly to reform Growth Civilization 1.7.3, or prepare to lay the foundations for Sustainable Civilization 2.0.

It may be that, for long-term survival purposes, there are two types of people in the world: those who understand the exponential function and those who do not. If you're not sure what it's all about, consider looking into the matter—your fate, your children's fate, the fate of our species may depend on it.

What to do?

Understand the Exponential Function


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