I am currently reading a new fiction book that was just released called Aurora (by David Koepp). It is an apocalyptic novel in which civilization is threatened by a coronal mass ejection of gargantuan proportions. The massive tidal wave of solar plasma kills almost all of the electrical power infrastructure across most of the non-equatorial world. This, in turn, threatens to set off a cascading collapse of the food chain, available fresh water, fuel, and the established world order. The book is apparently to be made into a Netflix movie.
I am a glutton for these sorts of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic books, shows, and films. Not even the global coronavirus pandemic dampened my enthusiasm for stories of a catastrophe befalling the Earth and its inhabitants. Bring it on, I say (the stories — not the actual apocalyptic events!). Perhaps the reason I enjoy these tales so much is that such stories help put things into perspective. In other words, if I am having a shit day, and I settle into a book about a zombie apocalypse, it spurs an “it could always be worse” impulse in my brain, and thus makes the daily grind seem to be not so bad. Apocalypse tales also offer an escape for the mind, in which one can imagine shedding all the usual shackles of modern life — its annoyances, frustrations, and limitations — to just wander about slaying zombies, living off the land, and reveling in the simpler life of day-to-day survival.
All of this got me thinking recently, as I sipped a bourbon and listened to some records, of all the ways the world might end before its natural expiration date many millions of years from now when our sun will inevitably die. It’s morbid, I know, but such is how my brain operates. Now, I am not talking about the fictional apocalypse triggers, such as zombies, vampires, sentient apes, killer robots (although that one is becoming more realistic by the day), or invading aliens. No, I am thinking of the real things that could actually decimate humanity on Earth.
Whether natural or man-made, a global pandemic is obviously a real threat to humankind, if the pathogen is both deadly enough and contagious enough to run rampant across the globe. Nature clearly has the ability to evolve a pathogen of such power, and humanity has shown its unwillingness to take such a threat seriously. Additionally, a synthetic (man-made) human-targeted biological organism could also spread and wipe us out, if a nation were foolish enough to unleash one. None of us needs another lesson on the power of disease to wreak havoc on Earth.
Whether it struck the Earth or the moon, an asteroid of sufficient size has the power to wipe out most life on the planet. That is a sobering thought given the number of interplanetary bodies flying around in the solar system. Thankfully, we are pretty good at tracking those cosmic threats, although that is of small comfort if one is discovered headed right for us. I guess we would at least have some warning of our impending doom.
3) Nuclear war
Ever since humanity harnessed the power of the atom, we have lived on the precipice of our own self-destruction. When it comes down to it, we rely on the judgment and decision-making of mere human beings to prevent the near-total destruction of life on Earth. Firepower exists to bring about such an outcome if political leaders in a handful of countries decided to employ it. That is a frightening thought, indeed.
4) Ecological collapse
Our ecological system is designed — almost miraculously — to support human life on this small orb we call home. Whether you believe some cosmic twist of fate led to our existence, it was the divine plan of God, or a combination of the two, it is nevertheless incredible that the right conditions exist on Earth for our continued survival. Could those ecological conditions change? Could a catastrophic decline in the bee population, for example, lead to a global famine? A “Malthusian crisis,” in which the global population outpaces global food production, is a real threat to humanity. Perhaps as a result of some blight, man-made pestilence, or some other unforeseen factor, like extreme climate change, an ecological catastrophe could wipe us out.
5) Extraterrestrial contamination
As humanity moves off-Earth, the risk of bringing back some extraterrestrial contaminant becomes more real. Who is to say there is not some pathogen out there that when brought back to Earth, presents a mortal danger? No one can rule it out, because we know so little about the universe, and we have to simply rely on decontamination procedures for astronauts to prevent some such calamity from befalling us. That is a sobering thought.
The world’s most recent supervolcano eruption — measuring the highest value (8) on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) — occurred some 26,500 years ago in New Zealand. Such an eruption has the power to cause long-lasting and humanity-threatening climate change, and to lead to the extinction of multiple species. These super volcanos occur when magma trapped in the Earth’s crust produces such extreme pressures that the crust can no longer contain the magma, and the eruption occurs. There have been a number of these eruptions throughout Earth’s history, according to scientists, and there is no reason to think that there will not be more. Just something to think about on your next trip to Yellowstone.
The unknown factor
Finally, it is entirely possible that some unforeseen, unpredictable factor will lead to the demise of large portions of humanity. After all, if we possess any capacity at all as humans, it is the occasional inability to comprehend or believe in our inherent fragility as a species.