The novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that emerged in the city of Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and has since caused a large scale COVID-19 pandemic spreading to more than 209 countries, territories and two international conveyances with more than 1,346,500 infected cases and more than 74,600 deaths till 7 April 2020, is the product of natural evolution, according to findings published in the journal Nature Medicine. The pandemic is unbelievably being spreading very rapidly and widely into a global catastrophe among the global catastrophes in the world history. A global catastrophe is a hypothetical future event which could damage human well-being on a global scale, even endangering or destroying modern civilization. An event that could cause human extinction or permanently and drastically curtail humanity's potential is known as an existential risk. These risks might be of two types, caused by humans or nature.
Potential global catastrophes which caused by humans include: technology, governance, climate change, and some non-humans or external risks. Examples of technology risks are hostile artificial intelligence and destructive biotechnology or nanotechnology. Insufficient or malign global governance creates risks in the social and political domain, such as a global war, including nuclear holocaust, bioterrorism using genetically modified organisms, cyberterrorism destroying critical infrastructure like the electrical grid; or the failure to manage a natural pandemic. Problems and risks in the domain of earth system governance include global warming, environmental degradation, including extinction of species, famine as a result of non-equitable resource distribution, human overpopulation, crop failures and non-sustainable agriculture.
Examples of non-human risks are an asteroid impact event, a supervolcanic eruption, a lethal gamma-ray burst, a geomagnetic storm destroying electronic equipment, natural long-term climate change, hostile extraterrestrial life, or the predictable Sun transforming into a red giant star engulfing the Earth. Scientists and sociologists fear that one after another of these catastrophic risks might contribute towards the collapse of modern society and civilizations.
Causes for collapse of society and civilization
Common factors that may contribute to societal collapse are economical, environmental, social and cultural, and disruptions in one domain sometimes cascade into another. In some cases a natural disaster like tsunami, earthquake, massive fire or climate change may precipitate a collapse. Other factors such as a Malthusian catastrophe, overpopulation or resource depletion might be the proximate cause of collapse. Significant inequity and exposed corruption may combine with lack of loyalty to established political institutions and result in an oppressed lower class rising up and seizing power from a smaller wealthy elite in a revolution. The diversity of forms that societies evolve corresponds to diversity in their failures. Jared Diamond suggests that societies have also collapsed through deforestation, loss of soil fertility, restrictions of trade and/or rising endemic violence.
Potential sources of risk
Some sources of catastrophic risk are natural, such as supervolcanoes. Some of these have caused mass extinctions in the past. On the other hand, some risks are man-made, such as global warming, environmental degradation, engineered pandemics and nuclear war. The Cambridge Project at Cambridge University states that the "greatest threats" to the human species are man-made; they are artificial intelligence, global warming, nuclear war, and rogue biotechnology. The Future of Humanity Institute also states that human extinction is more likely to result from man-made causes than natural causes as following.
Nuclear holocaust, World War III, and Cold War II
The scenarios that have been explored most frequently are nuclear warfare and doomsday devices. Mistakenly launching a nuclear attack in response to a false alarm is one possible scenario; this nearly happened during the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident. Although the probability of a nuclear war per year is slim, Professor Martin Hellman has described it as inevitable in the long run; unless the probability approaches zero, inevitably there will come a day when civilization's luck runs out. The United States and Russia have a combined arsenal of 14,700 nuclear weapons, and there is an estimated total of 15,700 nuclear weapons in existence worldwide. Beyond nuclear, other military threats to humanity include biological warfare (BW).
Nuclear war could yield unprecedented human death tolls and habitat destruction. Detonating large numbers of nuclear weapons would have an immediate, short term and long-term effects on the climate, causing cold weather and reduced sunlight and photosynthesis that may generate significant upheaval in advanced civilizations. Popular perception sometimes takes nuclear war as "the end of the world". In 1982, Brian Martin estimated that a US–Soviet nuclear exchange might kill 400–450 million directly, mostly in the United States, Europe and Russia, and maybe several hundred million more through follow-up consequences in those same areas.
Biotechnology can pose a global catastrophic risk in the form of bioengineered organisms like viruses, bacteria, fungi, plants or animals. In many cases the organism will be a pathogen of humans, livestock, crops or other organisms we depend upon. However, any organism able to catastrophically disrupt ecosystem functions, poses a biotechnology risk. A biotechnology catastrophe may be caused by accidentally releasing a genetically engineered organism from controlled environments, by the planned release of such an organism which then turns out to have unforeseen and catastrophic interactions with essential natural or agro-ecosystems, or by intentional usage of biological agents in biological warfare or bioterrorism attacks.
Terrorist applications of biotechnology have historically been infrequent. Noun and Chyba predict major increases in biotechnological capabilities in the coming decades. They argue that risks from biological warfare and bioterrorism are distinct from nuclear and chemical threats because biological pathogens are easier to mass-produce and their production is hard to control as the technological capabilities are becoming available even to individual users.
Many nanoscale technologies are in development or currently in use. The only one that appears to pose a significant global catastrophic risk is molecular manufacturing, a technique that would make it possible to build complex structures at atomic precision. Molecular manufacturing requires significant advances in nanotechnology, but once achieved could produce highly advanced products at low costs and in large quantities in nanofactories of desktop proportions. Molecular manufacturing could be used to cheaply produce, among many other products, highly advanced, durable weapons.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
It has been suggested that if AI systems rapidly become superintelligent, they may take unforeseen actions or out-compete humanity. According to philosopher Nick Bostrom, it is possible that the first superintelligence to emerge would be able to bring about almost any possible outcome it valued, as well as to foil virtually any attempt to prevent it from achieving its objectives. Thus, even a superintelligence indifferent to humanity could be dangerous if it perceived humans as an obstacle to unrelated goals. In Bostrom's book, Superintelligence, he defines this as the control problem. Physicist Stephen Hawking, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk have echoed these concerns, with Hawking theorizing that such an AI could "spell the end of the human race".
Cyberattacks have the potential to destroy everything from personal data to electric grids. Christine Peterson, co-founder and past president of the Foresight Institute, believes a cyberattack on electric grids has the potential to be a catastrophic risk.
Experimental technology accident
Nick Bostrom suggested that in the pursuit of knowledge, humanity might inadvertently create a device that could destroy Earth and the Solar System. Investigations in nuclear and high-energy physics could create unusual conditions with catastrophic consequences. For example, scientists worried that the first nuclear test might ignite the atmosphere. Others worried that the RHIC or the Large Hadron Collider might start a chain-reaction global disaster involving black holes, strangelets, or false vacuum states. Though these particular concerns have been refuted, but the general concern remains.
An environmental or ecological disaster, such as collapse of ecosystem services, world crop failure could be induced by the present trends of overpopulation, economic development, and non-sustainable agriculture. Most environmental scenarios involve one or more of the following: extinction of some plants, animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, scarcity of water that could lead to approximately one half of the Earth's population being without safe drinking water, pollinator decline, overfishing, massive deforestation, desertification, climate change, or massive water pollution episodes.
An October 2017 report published in The Lancet stated that toxic air, water, soils, and workplaces were collectively responsible for 9 million deaths worldwide in 2015, particularly from air pollution which was linked to deaths by increasing susceptibility to non-infectious diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. The report warned that the pollution crisis was exceeding "the envelope on the amount of pollution the Earth can carry" and “threatens the continuing survival of human societies”.
Mineral resource exhaustion
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. Ecological economist and steady-state theorist Herman Daly, a student of Georgescu-Roegen, has propounded the same argument by asserting that "... all we can do is to avoid wasting the limited capacity of creation to support present and future life [on Earth]." Ever since Georgescu-Roegen and Daly published these views, various scholars in the field fear that thus mankind will ultimately face extinction.
Global warming refers to the warming caused by human technology since the 19th century or earlier. Projections of future climate change suggest further global warming, sea level rise, and an increase in the frequency and severity of some extreme weather events and weather-related disasters. Effects of global warming include loss of biodiversity, stresses to existing food-producing systems, increased spread of known infectious diseases. In November 2017, a statement by 15,364 scientists from 184 countries indicated that increasing levels of greenhouse gases from use of fossil fuels, human population growth, deforestation, and overuse of land for agricultural production, particularly by farming ruminants for meat consumption, are trending in ways that forecast an increase in human misery over coming decades.
World population and agricultural crisis
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.
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), in their 1994 study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will begin to have an effect on the world after 2020, and will become critical after 2050. Since supplies of petroleum and natural gas are essential to modern agriculture techniques, a fall in global oil supplies could cause spiking food prices and unprecedented famine in the coming decades.
Global catastrophic risks and global governance
Insufficient global governance creates risks in the social and political domain, but the governance mechanisms develop more slowly than technological and social change. There are concerns from governments, the private sector, as well as the general public about the lack of governance mechanisms to efficiently deal with risks, negotiate and adjudicate between diverse and conflicting interests. This is further underlined by an understanding of the interconnectedness of global systemic risks. In absence or anticipation of global governance, only honest and transparent national governments can act individually to better understand, mitigate and prepare for global catastrophes.
Writer: Professor Dr. M. Zahangir Kabir (From Melbourne, Australia)
E-mails: [email protected]
BDST: 1430 HRS, APR 07, 2020