In the year 2050, will we still be fretting over the end of the world? A dark bit of quasi-fictional non-fiction . . . and some between-chapter excerpts from the upcoming science fiction novel EXISTENCE (UK | ANZ).
A Myriad Paths of Entropy
Does the universe hate us? How many pitfalls lie ahead, waiting to shred our conceited molecule-clusters back into unthinking dust? Shall we count them? Today, our means of self-destruction seem myriad – though we at Pandora’s Cornucopia will try to list them all! So adjust your AI-ware, your im-VR-sive wraparounds, your omnivision eyeptics and dive right in.
At one level, none of this is new. Men and women always felt besieged. By monsters prowling the darkness. By their oppressive rulers, or violent neighbors, or capricious gods. Yet, didn’t they most often blame themselves? Bad times were viewed as punishment, brought on by wrong behavior. By unwise belief.
We modern folk snort at the superstitions of our ancestors. We know they could never really wreck the world, but we can! Zeus or Moloch could not match the destructive power of a nuclear missile exchange, or a dusting of plague bacilli, or some ecological travesty, or ruinous mismanagement of the intricate aiconomy.
Oh, we’re mighty. But are we so different from our forebears?
Won’t our calamity (when it comes) also be blamed on some arrogant mistake? A flaw in judgment? Some obstinate belief? Culpa nostra. Won’t it be the same old plaint, echoing across the ruin of our hopes?
“We never deserved it all! Our shining towers and golden fields. Our overflowing libraries and full bellies. Our long lives and over-indulged children. Our happiness. Whether by God’s will or our own hand, we always expected it would come to this.
THE GREAT FILTER
Way back, about a century ago, physicist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues, taking a lunchbreak from the Manhattan Project, found themselves discussing life in the cosmos. Some younger scientists claimed that amid trillions of stars there should be countless living worlds inhabited by intelligent races, far older than ours. How interesting the future might be, with others to talk to!
Fermi listened patiently, then asked: “So? Shouldn’t we have heard their messages by now? Seen their great works? Or stumbled on residue of past visits? These wondrous others . . . where are they?”
His question has been called the Great Silence, the SETI Dilemma or Fermi Paradox. And as enthusiasts keep scanning the sky, the galaxy’s eerie hush grows more alarming.
Astronomers now use planet-hunting telescopes to estimate how many stars have companion worlds with molten water, and how often that leads to life. Others cogently guess what fraction of those Life Worlds develop technological beings. And what portion of those will either travel or transmit messages. Most conclude – we shouldn’t be alone. Yet, silence reigns.
Eventually it sank in — this wasn’t just theoretical. Something must be suppressing the outcome. Some “filter” may winnow the number of sapient races, low enough to explain our apparent isolation. Our loneliness.
Over ten dozen pat “explanations for the Fermi Paradox” have been offered. Some claim that our lush planet is unique. (And, so far, nothing like Earth has been found, though life certainly exists out there.) Or that most eco-worlds suffer more lethal accidents – like the one that killed the dinosaurs – than Earth has.
Might intelligence be a fluke? Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr said – “Nothing demonstrates the improbability of high intelligence better than the 50 billion earthly species that failed to achieve it.” Or else, Earth may have some unique trait, rare elsewhere, that helped humans move from mere intelligence to brilliance at technology.
Sound gloomy? These are the optimistic explanations! They suggest the “great filter” — whatever’s kept the numbers down — lies behind us. Not ahead.
But what if life-bearing planets turn out to be common and intelligence arises frequently? Then the filter lies ahead. Perhaps some mistake that all sapient races make. Or several. A minefield of potential ways to fail. Each time we face some worrisome step along our road, from avoiding nuclear war to becoming skilled planetary-managers, to genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and so on, we must ask: “Is this it? The Big Blunder? The trap underlying Fermi’s question?”
That’s the context of our story. The specter at our banquet, slinking between reflection and foresight, as we turn now to examine a long list of threats to our existence.
Those we can see.
As we embark on our long list of threats to human existence, shall we start with natural disasters? That is how earlier top-critters met their end. Those fierce dinosaurs and other dominant beasts all met their doom with dull surprise, having no hand, paw or claw in bringing it about.
So how might the universe do us in?
Well, there are solar superflares, supernovae, and giant black holes that might veer past our sun. Or micro black holes, colliding with the Earth and gobbling us from within. Or getting caught in the searchlight sweep of a magnetar or gamma-ray burst, or a titanic explosion in the galactic center.
Or what if our solar system slams at high-speed into a dense molecular cloud, sending a million comets falling our way? Or how about classics? Like collision with an asteroid? (More on that, later.) Then there are those supervolcanos, still building up pressure beneath Yellowstone and a dozen other hot spots — giant magma pools at super-high pressure, pushing and probing for release. Yes we had a scare already. But one, medium-sized belch didn’t make the threat go away. It’s a matter of when, not if.
The Lifeboat Foundation’s list of natural extinction threats goes on and on. Dozens and dozens of scenarios, each with low-but-significant odds, all the way to the inevitable burnout of the sun. Once, we were assured that it would take five billion years to happen. Only, now, astronomers say our star’s gradual temperature rise will reach a lethal point sooner! A threshold when Earth will no longer be able to shed enough heat, even if we scrubbed every trace of greenhouse gas.
When? The unstoppable spread of deserts may start in just a hundred million years. An eyeblink! Roughly the time it took tiny mammals to emerge from their burrows, stare at the smoldering ruins of T-Rex, then turn into us.
Suppose we humans blow it, bigtime, leaving only small creatures scurrying through our ruins.
Life might have just one more chance to get it right.
There is a hybrid kind of “natural” disaster that’s amplified by human action.
Remember back in 2026 — soon after Awfulday – when a band of crazies was caught “casing” the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary islands? Digging exploratory wells and looking for some way to trigger half of that steep mountain to collapse into the sea? By some calculations, the avalanche would propel a tsunami more than a hundred meters high, surging unstoppably to strike every shore of the Atlantic Basin, killing tens of millions already struggling with rising seas…
Or so the maniacs thought, as they plumbed a hole wide enough to convey a tactical nuclear device. Oh, they were imbeciles, falling for a sting operation. Anyway, sober calculations show it wouldn’t work. Probably.
Still, plenty of other dangers might be hastened by human effort or neglect. Take the rush to drill new, extremely deep geothermal power systems. A source of clean energy? Sure, except if just one of those delvings happen to release enormous amounts of buried methane. Or take new efforts to mine the sea floor for valuable minerals, or to stir sediment and fertilize oceanic food chains.
Both offer great potential… but might disturb vast tracts of methane hydrates if we’re not careful, melting those ancient ices, releasing gigatons of new greenhouse gas.
Sure, these events might happen anyway. Some in Earth’s past may explain large and medium-scale extinctions. Still, the odds change when we meddle. And meddling is what humans do best.
Another potential failure mode is deliberate or accidental misuse of science.
Take nanotech. Way back in the 1960s, Richard Feynman predicted great things might be accomplished by building small. Visionaries like Drexler, Peterson and Bear foretold molecular scale machines erecting perfect crystals, super-strong materials, or ultra-sophisticated circuits — anything desired — built atom by atom.
Today, the latest computers, plenats and designer drugs all depend upon such tools. So do modern sewage and recycling systems. Soon, smart nanobots may cruise your bloodstream, removing a lifetime’s accumulated dross, even pushing back the clock of years. Some envision nanos cleansing polluted aquifers, rebalancing sterile swathes of ocean, or sucking carbon from the air.
Ah, but what if micromachines escape their programming, reproducing outside factory brood-tanks? Might hordes evolve, adapting to utilize the natural world? Lurid sci-fi tales warn of replicators eating the biosphere, outcompeting their creators.
Or this tech may be perverted for man’s oldest pastime. Picture an arms race between suspicious nations or globalsynds, each fearing others are developing nano-weapons in secret. When danger comes packaged so small, can we ever know for sure?
DOING IT THE OLD FASHIONED WAY
What of destruction by devastating war? Shall we admit that our species passed one test, by not plunging into an orgy of atomic destruction?
Millions still live who recall the Soviet-American standoff – the Cold War – when tens of thousands of hydrogen bombs were kept poised in submarines, bombers and silos. Half a dozen men at any time, some of them certifiably unstable, held the hair-trigger to unleash nuclear mega-death. Any of a dozen crises might have ended civilization, or even mammalian life on Earth.
One sage who helped build the first atom bomb put it pungently. “When has man, bloody down to his soul, invented a new weapon and foresworn using it?” Cynics thought it hopeless, given a basic human reflex for rage and convulsive war.
But it didn’t happen. Not even Awfulday or the Pack-It-Ind affair set off the unthinkable. Were we scared back from that brink, sobered to our senses by the warning image of a mushroom cloud? Chastened and thus saved by an engine of death?
Might the cynics have been altogether wrong? There was never any proof that vicious conflict is woven into human DNA. Yes, it was pervasive during the long, dark era of tribes and kings, from Babylon and Egypt to Mongolia, Tahiti, and Peru. Between 1000 C.E. and 1945, the longest period of uninterrupted peace in Europe was a 51-year stretch between the battle of Waterloo and the Austro-Prussian war. That tranquil period came amid the industrial revolution, as millions moved from farm to city. Was it harder, for a while, to find soldiers? Or did people feel too busy to fight?
Oh, sure, industry then made war more terrible than ever. No longer a matter of macho glory, it became a death-orgy, desired only by monsters, and fought grimly, by decent men, in order to defeat those monsters.
Then, Europe’s serenity resumed. Descendants of Viking raiders, Centurions and Huns transmuted into pacifists. Except for a few brush fires, ethnic ructions and terror hits, that once-ferocious continent knew peace for a century, becoming the core of a peaceful and growing EU.
One theory holds that democracies seldom war against each other. Nations ruled by aristocracies were more impulsive, spendthrift and violent. But however you credit this change — to prosperity or education, to growing worldwide contacts or the American Pax — it shattered the notion that war burns, unquenchable and ineradicable in the human character.
The good news? Violent self-destruction isn’t programmed-in. Whether or not we tumble into planet-burning war isn’t fore-ordained. It is a wide-open matter of choice.
The bad news is exactly the same.
It’s a matter of choice.
Copies are available for pre-order now, and to see a simulation of the cover, go here.