Pharyngula

The Seed Crystal Ball

Our Seed Overlords have submitted yet another question to their blogulous oracle, i.e., us: Will the “human” race be around in 100 years?

I don’t think it’s a particularly good question, I’m afraid. The answer is simply “yes”. If the question were about prairie chickens, cheetahs, or chimpanzees, it would be a more challenging question, but with a population of 6.5 billion of us, I don’t think there’s much doubt. We’ll be here. The only question is what state we and the world will be in. I’ll speculate a bit on possible outcomes.

  1. We keep going as we have been. The population is double what it is now or more, and resources are scarcer. We continue to tear at the planet, squabbling over what’s left, and we’re wallowing in poverty and war and desperation. That can’t last, of course: sometime beyond that century mark, or before, we hit scenario 2.
  2. There is a major resource crash. The oceans are exhausted, climate change wrecks agriculture, plagues rip through a bloated population, and there is a massive die-off of humanity. Populations drop precipitously, leaving only scattered enclaves. Civilization as we know it ends. Humanity continues, but in a barbarous state.
  3. The optimistic scenario: some cultures practice restraint, using technology to control population growth and develop sustainable food and energy resources. They work to bring about scientific and technological advances that improve their chances for survival and progress. Unfortunately, the whole world won’t do that: the gap between the haves and have nots widens. On one side, population reductions by choice and with little disruption; on the other, population reductions by starvation and suppression and war.

I don’t think there will be any significant biological changes in us. Four or five generations for a population as large as ours just isn’t enough time for major transformations. Changes populations of bacteria and viruses is another matter—humanity is one giant culture dish as far as they are concerned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some hugely traumatic disease does arise in our near future. I’d be surprised if it didn’t. Expect populations of other large and fragile organisms to continue to experience our existence as a disaster. The only real question of import is how much biodiversity will be lost before we come to our senses (unlikely) or are taken down by a few orders of magnitude by nature (much more likely).

Hey, nobody said these questions have to prompt happy stories.

Comments

  1. #1 PaulC
    May 15, 2006

    I think it’s interesting that you completely rule out nuclear weapons destroying most life on earth including humans. The scenario is less likely to happen than it was during the cold war, but the prospect could arise again over the next 100 years. I’d like to rule it out–I’d prefer most of the other scenarios where we’ve wrecked everything and are wallowing in our own waste (where there’s life there’s hope). But I don’t see any reason to believe that people have gotten a lot smarter about nukes or that the existing arsenals aren’t sufficient to wipe out most major cities, destroy arable land with fallout, and lead to global meterological consequences that aren’t fully understood.

    If you’re into the whole singularity thing, biological human intelligence and culture could also be rendered irrelevant by our superintelligent nanotech successors (or would seem so to them). However, just as it’s stupid to ask “why are there still apes” it would probably be stupid to expect the extinction of humans through technological obsolescence.

  2. #2 PaulC
    May 15, 2006

    I also find it odd that you rule out major biological changes through genetic engineering. I grant that straight evolutionary mechanisms won’t do it. I also grant that the technology to really engineer a specific outcome isn’t there and the politics that prevent applying it to humans may well last out the next 100 years. But conceivably there could be very minor modifications to the human genome that might increase intelligence or longevity significantly. These might not have been as important traits for survival compared to others during most of our history, but the results would be very different if we had the conscious choice to select them for our kids.

  3. #3 Jonathan Badger
    May 15, 2006

    Four or five generations for a population as large as ours just isn’t enough time for major transformations

    I suspect that SEED’s use of ‘”human” race’ in scare quotes was referring not to natural selection but human genetic engineering, cybernetics, uploading human minds into computers and in general all those “transhumanist” fantasies that some libertarians get all excited about. Not that those are particularly likely to come true in the next 100 years (if ever).

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    May 15, 2006

    Nukes can destroy civilization, but I don’t think they’d exterminate the human species. That consequence would fit into my scenario 2.

    Transhumanism, genetic engineering, etc. — piffle. It would be an option of an elite, so I could imagine it happening under scenario 3, but within a century, I really don’t think it will be significant enough to make a dent. 6.5 billion humans right now, remember: even if significant genetic alterations were possible right now (and they aren’t), what percentage would even be able to take advantage of it, and what percentage of that would elect to do it?

  5. #5 wintermute23
    May 15, 2006

    What about the chances of us exporting excess population to other planets / orbital habitats?

  6. #6 Caledonian
    May 15, 2006

    Space isn’t an option. Even if we make some assumptions about advanced technologies (space elevators, etc.), the costs involved with building and supplying habitats in space or on other bodies are absolutely prohibitive. We *might* be able to establish very small, stable, self-supporting populations, but that would only serve to spread humanity, not lessen the burden on this planet.

    ***

    Advanced tech only for the elite? Yeah, just like cellphones and personal computers. The whole point of technological development is that things that were once expensive and rare become cheap and ubiquituous.

  7. #7 ekzept
    May 15, 2006

    after having studied nuclear weapons and their effects for 30 years, i concur with PZ: at their worst at the heyday of the Soviet-U.S. Cold War, they could thoroughly trash civilization, forcing the remnant to living in horrificly lawless conditions and reinvent a good deal, but extermination of humanity is quite a different matter.

    yet, i agree with PaulC, by not explicitly mentioning nuclear weapons, PZ left them off the map, like most Americans if not most folks do, thinking with the Soviet-U.S. conflict taken care of they are no longer much of an issue.

    in fact, i have long maintained and written, because of the foolhardy abandonment of nuclear weapons reduction and elmination as well as a serious pursuit of non-proliferation, we have left ourselves open to the possibility of a horrifying future where every medium to big state has nukes available to it. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) only works when there are two major powers. it fails if there are dozens or more. that, indeed, was the motive behind the initial push to pursue non-proliferation in the 1960s. it wasn’t American exceptionalism, it was pragmatism.

    i think all American kids in secondary school should see The Day After as part of their studies of American history. people so readily forget.

  8. #8 BC
    May 15, 2006

    The population is double what it is now or more

    My guess is that the human population might stabilize around 9 or 10 billion – about 50% larger than the current population.

    What about the chances of us exporting excess population to other planets / orbital habitats?

    Keep in mind the scale of the problem. 2.7 billion people have been born since 1970 – approximately 75 million people per year. We’ll have to send that many people into space every year (the equivalent of the population of the US every four years) in order to stabilize earth’s population. That doesn’t seem very viable. Reducing population growth rates is definately a much more viable way to stabilize earth’s population.

    Advanced tech only for the elite? Yeah, just like cellphones and personal computers. The whole point of technological development is that things that were once expensive and rare become cheap and ubiquituous.

    I don’t know. It depends on the technology. Liposuction might be an interesting technology, but I’m not sure that it’s for anyone but the elite, and it’s unlikely to solve the US’ problems with being overweight. Cellphones and computers are external devices, and I would expect that genetic engineering would be much more similar to liposuction.

  9. #9 Nymphalidae
    May 15, 2006

    And religious assholes are doing everything in their power to make sure we crash and burn. How are we supposed to deal with that?

  10. #10 Jethro Gulner
    May 15, 2006

    “Advanced tech only for the elite? Yeah, just like cellphones and personal computers.”

    I think for the purpose of this discussion, if you own a cellphone and/or a computer you are part of the elite. There are (as of 2004, according to the CIA World Factbook) 1.8 billion cell phones in the world. Obviously this is a lot, but it’s still not quite 30%, assuming (probably incorrectly) that each phone had a unique user. The things that many readers of this website take for granted (such as, reading a website) are still out of reach for the majority of people on earth, and even as things get better and the rising tide raises all boats (at least before flooding the town) there will always be things that only a fraction of the planet can have.

  11. #11 ekzept
    May 15, 2006

    And religious assholes are doing everything in their power to make sure we crash and burn. How are we supposed to deal with that?

    well, someone might argue and speak on how extraordinarily un-American they are. i mean, contrast the future-looking, optimistic, confident-in-the-sciences view of Americans which Jules Verne took in From the Earth to the Moon:

    When the dispatch from Long’s Peak had once become known, there was but one universal feeling of surprise and alarm. Was it possible to go to the aid of these bold travelers? No! for they had placed themselves beyond the pale of humanity, by crossing the limits imposed by the Creator on his earthly creatures. They had air enough for two months; they had victuals enough for twelve;– but after that? There was only one man who would not admit that the situation was desperate — he alone had confidence; and that was their devoted friend J. T. Maston.

    Besides, he never let them get out of sight. His home was henceforth the post at Long’s Peak; his horizon, the mirror of that immense reflector. As soon as the moon rose above the horizon, he immediately caught her in the field of the telescope; he never let her go for an instant out of his sight, and followed her assiduously in her course through the stellar spaces. He watched with untiring patience the passage of the projectile across her silvery disc, and really the worthy man remained in perpetual communication with his three friends, whom he did not despair of seeing again some day.

    “Those three men,” said he, “have carried into space all the resources of art, science, and industry. With that, one can do anything; and you will see that, some day, they will come out all right.”

  12. #12 Ronald Brak
    May 15, 2006

    I’m much more optimistic than P.Z. This is because the environment is generally better protected in rich nations than poor ones and rapid economic growth in China and India makes me think that it may not take too long for the bulk of humanity to become rich enough to care about the environment. I know some people might think my optimism is foolish, but I’m confident that people in United States wouldn’t be feeling so grim if President Gore had been in the Whitehouse for the past five years.

  13. #13 Matt McIrvin
    May 15, 2006

    My prediction: bits of 1, 2 and 3 scattered inhomogeneously all over the world.

    The human population has probably doubled for the last time, barring really radical changes. The population curve’s already passed its inflection point, because of a combination of very bad things (e.g. AIDS) and very good things (birth control, education of women, rising living standards in some countries). I think it’ll level out before another hundred years have passed, and maybe fall after that–if we’re lucky, in a fairly benign manner (people dying peacefully of old age and not having so many kids: taking care of old people will be an increasing problem for the remaining population, but on the other hand, in advanced societies they may not be as infirm as before).

    On the other hand, those rising living standards mean more resource consumption and environmental damage; we’ll need all our ingenuity to keep that from killing us. I think we’ll take some big hits, but I’m also optimistic that some chunk of humanity will come through all right, just because more people also means more brains working on the problem.

  14. #14 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 16, 2006

    Last time this question was put here I believe it was in a political context. (What we should do with the environment.) That is already bad, since politics aren’t much factual. now, it is futurism, which is even worse.

    Well, extrapolating trends we should see a stabilised poulation (probably not the peak level), democracy, free trade, less poverty, most people living in cities, less wasting technology but less genetic and ecological diversity.

    OTOH we will destroy or deplete some easy access resources like oil, and we may do it too quickly which may impact living conditions. If we believe old trends we are back to the city or civilisation destruction of older civilisations. But speaking of the latest trends I see no fundamental reason why the replacements we continue to find wont suffice. I guess that places me besides Ronald.

  15. #15 Chris
    May 16, 2006

    Global climate change can’t really be scattered inhomogeneously all over the world, though. There’s only one ocean and one atmosphere.

    That being said, I don’t think it could be “exhausted” by actions taken on land within a century – perhaps not ever. The ocean is much bigger than all the continents combined, even including uninhabitable and very sparsely inhabited areas like Antarctica.

    I also think it’s likely that biotechnology will allow agriculture to keep ahead of global warming – which is, after all, measured in degrees per *century*. Like a sea level rise of a few feet per century, it gives you plenty of time to get out of the way.

    Some people seem to have an inflated opinion of humanity’s importance – as if the future of the whole planet depended on *our* actions. This is as silly as it is melodramatic – the Earth has seen worse, and probably will again.

    Also, I think your scenario 2 is too all-or-nothing. I think it’s possible to have some downward slide (or a population stasis enforced by some combination of war, famine and pestilence – which, after all, describes most of human history) without a total collapse of civilization.

  16. #16 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 16, 2006

    BTW, looking at these comments I do hope compass or Jason go by in their trolling, since they always claim that Pharyngula are used by sycophants or at least likeminded people. Maybe they finally learn something…

  17. #17 Evan Murdock
    May 16, 2006

    A more interesting question (that is, more interesting to me) is will the “human” race be around in 10,000 years, or 100,000. This is a time scale where an answer of “no” is very defensible, and where the answer has huge implications on, say, the search for intelligent life elsewhere. The 100 year scenario requires some sort of doomsday event that is frankly pure speculation and is thus less compelling. Perhaps it’ll be the rapture.

    On a related note, I find it interesting that (in my admittedly limited experience) most species population models show an oscillatory behavior, but the discussion of human population is always predicated on the assumtion that we will approach some stable equilibrium. Doesn’t this seem unlikely?

  18. #18 CJS
    May 16, 2006

    A pessimistic view to your optimism: I don’t see option #3 becoming viable until we’re up to our noses in #2. If we were capable of restraint before the point where the consequences of our actions significantly impaired daily life, something tells me we would have started using it a long time ago.

  19. #19 Christopher
    May 16, 2006

    This is kind of a weird question, because of the short time frame.

    Whether we assume that humans would be phased out through cataclysmic extinction, or through self-modification, 100 years seems like a really short period of time to get rid of everybody, barring an unforseen catastrophe like an asteroid impact.

    I mean, it took computers 100 years to become as prolific as they are now. The idea of an invasive technique designed to make you inhuman spreading faster then that strikes me as fairly unlikely.

    Bump it up to 500 or 1000 years and you could make the case.

  20. #20 Arun Gupta
    May 16, 2006

    The human race would have slowed down to a crawl….

  21. #21 Matt McIrvin
    May 16, 2006

    Global climate change can’t really be scattered inhomogeneously all over the world, though. There’s only one ocean and one atmosphere.

    That’s true, but the effects are going to be very inhomogeneous: catastrophic storms and floods in some places (such as the flooded-out area where I am now sitting), heat waves and droughts in others, maybe even a lengthened growing season in some places. The global nature of the problem does mean that the people who get hit the hardest aren’t necessarily going to be the ones who are causing the trouble, which makes the problem difficult to manage.

  22. #22 Fastlane
    May 16, 2006

    I think we’ll still be here.

    The big questionis what state will ‘civilization’ be in?

    For fairly obvious reasons, most of us look at this question from a western outlook.

    There are many western countries who have managed to reduce, and in same case, even drastically reverse the environmental impact of their lifestyle and still maintain a standard of living comparable to that of the US. Germany comes to mind as a good example. Germans have managed to halt both population increase and environmental impact, and have even reversed much of both. After the fall of the wall, the cleanup of Eastern Germany (which is still ongoing) significantly improved the environment of that part of the country. Other European countries are following suit, and hopefully, this half of the globe will learn from their experience.

    And then, there are the small, ‘native’ populations in various parts of the world that the passing of technological civilization will hardly impact, unless we really do a number on the climate. Tribes of indiginous peoples who live in remote parts of South America, Australia, Tibet and much of Eastern Asia may not even notice the passing of technology if it comes to that. Then again, we of the technological civilizations could probably learn a thing or three from those ‘primitive’ peoples. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have some romantic notion of an idyllic life that they live, but at least they seem to maintain a balance with the world around them.

    So I think it could be a combination of all the scenarios mentioned above, or some as yet unforeseen and completely unexpected result. Imagine what might change if we were finally contacted, or made contact with, a true technologically advanced alien civilization. (Via radio telescopes or some similar means, I don’t foresee actual physical contact for centuries, if ever.)

    Cheers.

  23. #23 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    Christopher:

    I mean, it took computers 100 years to become as prolific as they are now.

    I wonder what you’re defining as a computer. There were electromechanical census tabulators 100 years ago, but the notion of a universal programmable computer was unknown even in theory until the 1930s and remained vaporware until after WWII when electronic computers were built with vacuum tubes.

    Even that is stretching definitions. The fast, cheap, ubiquitous computer that we now know cannot be made without semiconductors and VLSI technology. Anything else would be too large and labor intensive to produce for consumers. So the computer as now defined has been around for at most 40 years. The speed of adoption has been pretty amazing compared to other technologies, especially when you consider that unlike a car or washing machine that fill obvious household needs, PCs do things that people didn’t realize they wanted to do.

  24. #24 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    BTW, I agree that it’s silly to envision humans migrating into space, but it’s also clear to me that off-world resources are going to be hugely important if we ever achieve a sustainable technological civilization.

    I’m not betting on 100 years, though as an optimist I’m not ruling it out. I will bet that if we don’t do something in 1000 years, we’ll be wallowing in our own waste and may have even missed the window for ever improving matters.

    I expect self-replicating machines to be a reality in the next few decades–in my lifetime I hope. Once this is possible, we can set up off-world automated industries (e.g. in the asteroid belt) starting with small payloads. These can potentially dwarf the theoretical productive capacity of earth. There are tons of roadblocks, clearly, both technological and ones completely beyond our control such as finding the right elements in the right places. One thing that is not scarce is solar energy. We don’t even need a very efficient way to collect it provided we have an automated way to produce the collectors with available materials. In short, there is no physical impossibility. Getting the goods to earth will also not be energy intensive provided the source is located at a higher potential energy from earth’s orbit (I’m not saying it’ll be easy).

    One thing that is true is that even if you imagine all these payloads of goodies parachuting into earth from our robotic benefactors, there could still be a waste problem to solve. I don’t have a great answer to that, although if I wanted to extend my optimism a little, I think it would not be an immediate problem and eventually we could do something about it (again, no physical impossibility given existing solar energy–just send the junk up on the space elevator; hook your barge on a solar sail and send it back to the recycling center in the asteroid belt, maybe with some human tourists).

    Next hundred years? Nah, I guess not. Eventually? I don’t see any substantially different possibility that doesn’t lead eventually to a Malthusian nightmare.

  25. #25 pdf23ds
    May 16, 2006

    PZ, you only mentioned one existential risk. There’s really a bunch more.

  26. #26 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “But I don’t see any reason to believe that people have gotten a lot smarter about nukes or that the existing arsenals aren’t sufficient to wipe out most major cities, destroy arable land with fallout, and lead to global meterological consequences that aren’t fully understood.”

    Standard disclaimer: saying that nuclear weapons are not necessarily End of Days devices is not the say as saying we should use them promisciously. Also, when I say “we”, I really mean “someone else” because Canada unaccountably gave up the Bomb in the 1980s.

    Bear in mind that fallout isn’t really a problem with airstrikes (because much less material is pulled up into the debris stem), although since you need groundstrikes to destroy hardened targets, this may not be that much of a comfort: many scenarios include ground strikes.

    Fallout decays very rapidly. You could build expensive condos for Yuppies [1] on ground zero of a groundstrike within about ten years of the detonation. That initial period of intense radiation is going to be hard on much of the plant and animal life, so I’d expect what we saw ten year later (assuming no human intervention) to be a mix of things that recolonized the region and species whose biology or lifestyles preadapted them to survive: yes to things that can grow back from deep roots or from seeds, animals that live in warrens or can travel great distances but no to things like conifers, which are not noted for their speed and which have a resistance to radition about the same as ours (If I remember my Cold War texts, deciduous trees are much more resistance to radition than conifers, but I don’t know why that would be).

    1: Judging by his comments on strontium-tainted milk, Kahn would suggest low rent public housing but I prefer to maximize my returns on Teller Estates.

  27. #27 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “What about the chances of us exporting excess population to other planets / orbital habitats?”

    Totally irrelevent to the question of how many people Earth can support.

    Also, the settler colonies for some reason have not grown to match the homelands’ population density: if Canada’s urban corridor was as densely populated as London’s Outer Boroughs, we’d have around three hundred million people, mostly Ontarians, but as it that region has but a measely 19 million people.

    Also also, usually when a colony gets so many people from a given region that the region of origin’s population actually declines, that doesn’t mean the colony is wonderful but that something horrible is happening back home. Ireland comes to mind: it took more than a century for the Irish to recover from the triumph of Victorian free market management.

  28. #28 David Harmon
    May 16, 2006

    I’d say the most drastic hazard facing humanity over the next century or few is climactic “tipover”, where for whatever reason (greenhouse effect, nuclear dust, deforestation, ocean biodisaster) the planetary climate makes a chaotic transition into some regime that’s flatly unsurvivable for humanity. Even if it only lasts decades, something like 120% cloud cover, or glaciation to the equator, would wipe us out, and likely most of the ecosphere to boot. (Of course, there’s also a huge biomass on ocean bottoms and even the lithosphere, that would be more or less unaffected.) The actual risk of this is almost unknowable, but we’re certainly “playing with fire” (heh) lately.

    Next most drastic would be global ecosystem collapse. This might be triggered by global warming, CO2 increase (aside from the warming), a “perfect storm” of exotic-species mixing, overharvesting of fish or forest, pollution, and probably other ways. This would be less of a sure killer, but even our agricultural systems have many hidden dependencies on the ecology-at-large. This probably would take more than 100 years to kill us, and we might well be able to patch together a simplified but stable ecology, at least for our own territories and support systems.

    A large-scale nuclear exchange, of the older MAD style, might well scatter enough radiation to make the earth unlivable for humans, with effects similar to one of the previous two scenarios. These days, that would need to be a U.S./Chinese exchange, since I doubt Russia could even manage a full launch of the former Soviet arsenal. Now, there doesn’t really seem to be a reason for such an exchange, but with the madmen we’ve got in power, who knows?

    Almost anything less sweeping than the above would certainly kill many humans, but not all of them. We might well regress to earlier technology levels, but if there was some warning, we might be able to maintain a smaller technology base, perhaps in “tech cities” studding a mostly low-tech world.

    As noted above, space provides resources, but not an outlet for excess population. (AFIK, no nation has *ever* managed to dump its surplus people to a colony.) Von Neumann Nanotech would work a lot better in vacuum and/or microgravity conditions, but even so, there will certainly be natural limits to what they can accomplish. Just another tool, not a miracle….

  29. #29 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “Well, extrapolating trends we should see a stabilised poulation (probably not the peak level), democracy, free trade, less poverty, most people living in cities, less wasting technology but less genetic and ecological diversity.”

    It sure would help if we could find some more efficient alternative to farming. Your basic human runs off about one hundred watts. The Earth gets an average of 350 watts per square meter, so on average if the process was one hundred percent efficient (which no process can be, of course) we should be able to produce the chemicals needed to power a human at the rate of three people per square meter. In theory, we should be able to feed the planet off the sunlight incident on about two thousand square kilometers or about 0.002% of the Earth’s land masses.

    In reality, about 40% of the Earth’s land masses are devoted to one form of agriculture or another (If I have not misunderstood the stats I am looking at and frankly, judging by my spelling today, I seem to be having a low-comprehension day).

    I’m not sure, even given a Fukuyaman utopia of high technology and high-feedback governments, that population _would_ be stable, by the way. Since minor variations from steady state can produce large absolute variations over a relatively short time, I’d expect the total human population to vary between extremes over fairly short time periods, on the order of a century.

  30. #30 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    JamesNicoll:

    Standard disclaimer: saying that nuclear weapons are not necessarily End of Days devices is not the say as saying we should use them promisciously.

    Just to clarify, are you saying we should use them sparingly? I would readily concede that they work wonders as game theoretic bargaining chips and that they might very well explain why we haven’t had another World War in the past 60 years. It’s a high risk equilibrium, though (though the longer the “War on Terror” lasts, the better the cold war starts to look). I’m not sure nukes are good for much of anything and should be used at all. I am sure we built way too many of them.

    As a youth, I took it as an article of faith that a US-Soviet war would spell doomsday. In retrospect, I admit I never even did a back of the envelope calculation taking the scale of the earth into, so I’m unsure. Here’s one:

    Earth’s land-area is about 150×10^6 km^2 (http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2001/DanielChen.shtml or take 30% of the area given a sphere of radius 6400 km)
    If you wanted to drop enough bombs to put every land location within 100 km of a bomb site, you’d need to cover that with disks of area pi*100^2 km^2 or about 31000 km^2. That’s only 5000 bombs. I realize we’re not targeting them like that and maybe the ones we have would not be big enough to make those areas inhabitable, but it’s too close for comfort as far as I’m concerned.

    It seems to me that it is technologically feasible to commit this kind of species suicide if we just set out minds to it. 🙂

    Species extinction might not be the most likely result of global nuclear war. Again, I would like to think it is not. However, I think it would be very difficult to prove that species survival would necessarily be the outcome.

    Any surviving population would face widespread starvation and disease. The climate would probably be altered significantly (I guess nuclear winter has fallen into disfavor, huh?, but that doesn’t mean we know things will stay as they are.) If we were talking about any other animal, we’d have to consider extinction as a very possible result of habitat destruction. I would not assume that once we’ve been knocked back into worse than stone age conditions that our big brains are going to set the population back on a growth curve. The extinction doesn’t even have to happen at once, but could be the result of generations of less than replacement level birth. Humans are well adapted to a resource rich earth just waiting to be used. We would be living on a very different planet after a nuclear war.

  31. #31 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    Correction: I do realize that nukes are more likely to likely to render an area uninhabitable than inhabitable, as I wrote in my previous post. Sorry about the typo.

  32. #32 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “If you wanted to drop enough bombs to put every land location within 100 km of a bomb site, you’d need to cover that with disks of area pi*100^2 km^2 or about 31000 km^2. That’s only 5000 bombs. I realize we’re not targeting them like that and maybe the ones we have would not be big enough to make those areas inhabitable, but it’s too close for comfort as far as I’m concerned.”

    There may or may not be another comment by me coming along: something odd happened as I was typing.

    Absent a ground strike, 100 km is far enough that for most of the warheads we use the main risk would be serious eye injury. The largest device the US deployed was between 10 and 15 megatons, which could ignite fires out to 30 km (if I am reading my slide-rule correctly) and knock domestic dwellings down at 15 km. Even windows would only break out to around 60 kilometers.

    15 MT is an exceptionally large bomb. Despite the push to develop the Supers in the 1950s, it turns out the combination of the geometry of nuclear weapons effects and the payload limits on rockets means that a lot of small warheads are far more useful than a few large ones. What I mean by geometry is that EMR effects like thermal damage are surface effects and scale as the inverse square of the distance while things like overpressure scale with the volume effected. As a result, if you’re trying to crush a target, halving the circular error probable is just as effective as building a bomb eight times as large.

  33. #33 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    This discussion about disaster reminds me of an old idea that I would like to see done. I think of it as the design of a bootstrap disk for a technological society.

    Right now, we have the ready means to produce amazingly intricate devices out of advanced materials. The problem is that we can only do it using other machines that are also quite intricate, requiring highly processed materials–e.g. alloys and polymers–that require other advanced machines to produce.

    The sad truth of the matter is that we got to this point and don’t really know how. We definitely would not know how to get back there if you just left us with a pile of bones and a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. You cannot build an electron microscope out of coconuts–not even on Gilligan’s Island.

    I would like to see a massive reverse engineering project that took one piece of high technology–the most obvious would be a microprocessor I guess–and came up with a feasible set of steps to build it starting with a bunch of naked East African Plains apes in a moderately resource-rich environment. The only reason to believe it is even possible is that it has been done, but a huge amount of working knowledge has been lost in the process. Even if the target was just one device, you’d still need to develop entire industries–agriculture, mining, transportation networks. You’d need to reinvent lost crafts–things people had to do for a little while before they used their skills to make tools that rendered the old methods obsolete.

    Oh, you’d have to make it legible to the initial human population as well, which might be one of the most difficult parts, though we can assume spoken language is innate. The beginning would need to be a language primer. As a first pass, we might omit that step.

    As for the medium, I would opt for highly durable human readable printing. Though it might be possible to explain in the large text how to rig up a simple lens to project later volumes in microprint if that could be made durable enough.

    I’d sleep easier if such a cookbook existed and could be copied sufficiently many times. It could make the difference between a dark age lasting tens of thousands of years, and one lasting just a century.

    Of course, it’s also likely that the whole thing would never be used for its intended purpose and just turn into some crazy religion.

  34. #34 MikeM
    May 16, 2006

    You know, just reading through these posts, it occurs to me that, wow, what a bunch of rays of sunshine we are. I have young kids, born in 1994 and 1997, and in 100 years, they may face scenarios 1 or 2? Great. Then why’d I have kids? So they could fall off the end of the earth? So they could watch part of our de-evolution back to cave-dwelling and hunter-gatherers before Conan gets ’em?

    Wonderful.

    When should I send them to Summer Survivalist Camp so they’ll have advantages over the rest of their peers? That’s a completely realistic question, isn’t it?

    I’m not saying scenarios 1 and 2 cannot happen. But let’s just turn the clock back to 1906. What was the population then? Had computers been postulated yet? Using silicon to make our lives easier? Penicillin? Turbochargers?

    I was listening to a piece on NPR’s Weekend America last week where there’s this tendency to screw around at the beginning of projects before getting down to the real work, and as deadlines approach, we roll up our sleeves and pull all-nighters and get the job done. The economist who talked about this said this is pretty normal for humans to do, and she even had a name for it (I can’t remember what she called it).

    I think it’s possible the same thing could happen here.

    It makes sense. While I’d love to see windmills and solar energy production, for example, it won’t happen until they’re cheaper and easier to do than oil. In spite of us knowing that oil will be unaffordable one day, we won’t do a thing about it until alternatives are cheaper; then oil will rise catastrophically in price, we’ll suffer, we’ll work hard, and viola, that long stretch of road between Barstow and Las Vegas will suddenly have thousands of facilities to generate electricity and split water into hydrogen and oxygen for our fuel-cells.

    But it won’t happen until oil gets catastrophically expensive.

    I just hope my kids don’t have to watch society dissolve. No Road Warrior endings for my kids, please.

  35. #35 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “Just to clarify, are you saying we should use them sparingly?”

    Yes.

    Note that “not at all” is sparingly.

    One can imagine scenarios where the use of nuclear devices is the least bad option available. The usual example is Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the daily death rate due to the Pacific War was such that as long as the war without the nuclear strikes would have lasted a month longer, say (I actually forget the value) than the war with the nuclear strikes, then the result is a net gain in survivors.

    Of course, one can misapply this logic. Take public health for example: Canadians live 80 years and Americans but 77. It logically follows that if there is some application of nuclear devices that could instill a Canadian style public health system in the US, as long as the fatalities in the US were less than eleven million people, the result would be a net gain.

  36. #36 NatureSelectedMe
    May 16, 2006

    PZ: …some cultures practice restraint, using technology to control population growth and develop sustainable food and energy resources. They work to bring about scientific and technological advances that improve their chances for survival and progress.

    Finally! PZ writes something good about the United States on his blog.

  37. #37 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    MikeM:

    I just hope my kids don’t have to watch society dissolve.

    Not to go all pollyanna on you, but maybe they can help hold it together. Humans are actors, not passive observers, and with any luck we can teach our kids to be smarter and kinder than we are.

  38. #38 PZ Myers
    May 16, 2006

    No, the United States does not do that. We are the world’s greediest, most short-sighted pigs in that regard.

    I’m saying we should do that. That’s our only hope.

  39. #39 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    Gotta disagree with PZ that Americans are highest in intrinsic greed and short-sightedness, though I believe we are currently in the position to do the most damage. Some industrialized societies (e.g. Western Europe) may actually be somewhat more sustainable than America, though in many cases they’re just making a virtue of necessity. Give them the means to gas their Hummers economically, or cover a 1/2 acre in sod, and they’d do it as fast as any American.

    The problem isn’t Americans. It’s human beings at this terrible adolescent stage of industrialization. As long as people associate high levels of material waste with prosperity, we are on course to rapid destruction. If we can instead begin to associate a high standard of living with access to culture, social networks, and preventive health care, then we could be on track to supporting current or even larger populations with relatively low environmental footprint. I don’t have much of a clue of how to get there, and I suspect unfortunately that we won’t even try until we’re directly experiencing the negative externalities of our current lifestyle.

    On the bright side, there are many instances of industrial pollution being less of a problem now in certain areas than it was in the past. I don’t know how much is due to increased efficiency or moving manufacturing offshore.

  40. #40 NatureSelectedMe
    May 16, 2006

    I think we’re pretty close. Don’t you?

    1. ..using technology to control population growth

    Since we’re wealthly from technology advances and wealthly people have fewer childern, We’re all over that.

    2. ..develop sustainable food and energy resources

    We grow so much that we can use our corn for energy. E85?

    3. ..They work to bring about scientific and technological advances that improve their chances for survival and progress..

    We do this too.

  41. #41 The Constructivist
    May 16, 2006

    What, no science fiction near-future scenarios to puncture or endorse? Think Kim Stanley Robinson (the Mars trilogy) and David Brin (Earth) if you like scientific literacy in your writers or William Gibson, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, or Neal Stephenson if you like cyberpunk dystopianism and its discontents…the list goes on and on and on.

  42. #42 John Faughnan
    May 16, 2006

    100 years is now a very LONG time. In terms of the accelerating rates of change in our de facto environment (which is technological and increasingly virtual) it’s probably equivalent to 30,000 years of pre-10K BCE living.

    I can’t imagine any ecosystem catastrophe that would wipe out humans. So the options are:

    1. Wild tech: Gray-Goo nano disaster, some weird vaccum energy thingie, etc. I’d put these all down as unlikely.

    2. Engineered plague: A pimply 15 yo in southern China is upset by social rejection and engineers a virus using his home biotech kit that wipes out humanity. I’d put this at 20% when you consider all the folks that might try this.

    3. AI: If we ever did produce a sentient AI, and if it turned out that “intelligence” scaled to an IQ of, say, 100,000, then all bets are off on everything. I’d put that down as a 40% probability over a course of 100 years.

    Since we have to survive both 2 and 3 to make the 100 year mark I’d say:

    .8 * .6 = .48 or less than a 50% survival probability.

    PS. The Fermi Paradox (aka the great silence) is not comforting here.

  43. #43 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “Getting the goods to earth will also not be energy intensive provided the source is located at a higher potential energy from earth’s orbit (I’m not saying it’ll be easy).”

    Rather annoyingly, this isn’t true because it takes the same delta vee to move from a higher orbit to a lower one as it does to go the other way. In fact, in a lot of cases, up is easier than down: it’s almost always cheaper, for example, to lob a payload into interstellar space from a given orbit around the sun than it is to drop it into the sun from the same orbit.

    This is why although a naive calculation would suggest it should only take four months for MESSENGER to reach and orbit Mercury, in reality it will take seven years, because it’s just too expensive in km/s to do it in one shot, so we need to steal momentum from Earth, Venus and Mercury to do.

    Just as a for example: Ceres is about 10.3 km/s from the Earth/Moon L4/5 regions. Earth is actually a bit closer, even though its mass is so much larger than Ceres, the important mass to consider in that transfer orbit is the Sun’s, which is bloody huge.

    There are asteroids whose delta vee to Earth is low, because their orbits are very similar to the Earth’s but these tend to have annoyingly large intervals between launch windows.

    There are also bodies conveniently located wrt planetary bodies so that “free” momentum transfers are possible. The catch here is that the transfer times tend to be on the order of years or decades and in the case of Jupiter, come bundled with a Van Allen belt that can kill an unshielded human in about the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.

  44. #44 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    John Faughnan:

    100 years is now a very LONG time. In terms of the accelerating rates of change in our de facto environment (which is technological and increasingly virtual) it’s probably equivalent to 30,000 years of pre-10K BCE living.

    The rate of change is not uniform, and it seems especially sluggish when it comes to infrastructure. Aside from computers, the internet, and mobile phones, many things seem similar to the way they were when I was growing up in the 70s. I live in a house that was built in 1954 and though you wouldn’t build anything quite like it today, it’s recognizable as a suburban single family house. The roads are still paved with asphalt. I’m surrounded by infrastructue such as electric transmission lines and the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct that was built many decades ago. I get out of the car and pump my own gas–too expensive to pay a human to do it, and nobody has bothered to invent and mass produce a robotic filling nozzle: i.e. a service once widely offered has now reverted back to household labor. There’s some great progress for you.

    I think that some kind of von Neumann replicator–nanotech or bigger–my be a genuine breakthrough since it would move the effect of technology away from manipulating pure information into productive capacity. However, I thought this 30 years ago too, and I am no longer holding my breath for it to happen.

  45. #45 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    JamesNicoll:

    Rather annoyingly, this isn’t true because it takes the same delta vee to move from a higher orbit to a lower one as it does to go the other way.

    I had a feeling I was oversimplifying, though this does make me wonder how anyone plans to arrange a return trip for a human mission to Mars. Send a big return rocket in pieces? How would you assemble it?

    As for sending goods back from automated space factories, you have access to a lot of energy if you need it. You’d also need a local source of propellant. The trip times are not a showstopper. You just have to get a pipeline going. It doesn’t matter too much if you can send a human along, because I’m assuming you won’t need to.

  46. #46 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “I had a feeling I was oversimplifying, though this does make me wonder how anyone plans to arrange a return trip for a human mission to Mars. Send a big return rocket in pieces? How would you assemble it?”

    Well, I simplified as well: It’s easier to get off Mars than off Earth, so Earth’s surface -> Mars surface will be easier than Mars’ surface -> Earth’s surface.

    One way to reduce the amount of supplies you need is to live off the land. Mars is obviously somewhat dismal in its supply of Wallmarts and Safeways but you can make rocket fuel from its atmosphere, at least in theory. That would be very convenient.

    Deimos and Phobos are low density, which could be that they have a lot of water-ice in them or alternatively that they are filled with cavities.

  47. #47 wintermute23
    May 16, 2006

    I’d sleep easier if such a cookbook existed and could be copied sufficiently many times. It could make the difference between a dark age lasting tens of thousands of years, and one lasting just a century.

    Of course, it’s also likely that the whole thing would never be used for its intended purpose and just turn into some crazy religion.

    Sounds like the Thuktun (sp?) from Footfall…

  48. #48 JamesNicoll
    May 16, 2006

    “Well, I simplified as well: It’s easier to get off Mars than off Earth, so Earth’s surface -> Mars surface will be easier than Mars’ surface -> Earth’s surface.”

    And by “easier”, I of course mean “harder”.

  49. #49 PaulC
    May 16, 2006

    I read Footfall when it first came out, and I hate to think that’s where I got the idea. All I really remember now is something about marauding space elephants. I missed (and only just looked up) the part about how they got into space to begin with.

    The closest conscious basis for the idea was James P. Hogan’s _Voyage from Yesteryear_ that postulated seeding another world with self-replicating machines that could produce humans from a bank of genetic material. This still doesn’t solve the bootstrap problem, since it assumes there are some high tech machines to get the ball rolling.

    Anyway, SF ideas are cheap and I would never expect to be the first to think of this one. Actually doing it would be another thing entirely and I think it would give us a deeper appreciation of technological history and human ingenuity.

  50. #50 ekzept
    May 16, 2006

    As a result, if you’re trying to crush a target, halving the circular error probable is just as effective as building a bomb eight times as large.

    i thought lethality went up as the fourth power of accuracy, not the cube? in contrast, as you say, lethality is only directly proportional to yield.

  51. #51 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 17, 2006

    “On a related note, I find it interesting that (in my admittedly limited experience) most species population models show an oscillatory behavior, but the discussion of human population is always predicated on the assumtion that we will approach some stable equilibrium. Doesn’t this seem unlikely?”

    Yes, on the face of it. OTOH, humans have a lot of different pressures and ways of controlling population than most species. That complexity of interacting mechanism should by itself lend some stability, even if no one tries to actively control it. Active control by economics (and immigration policies) aren’t unheard of.

    And I think some populations may already exist in stable equilibria. What about gut bacterias?

  52. #52 Ronald Brak
    May 17, 2006

    JamesNicoll, with regards to why deciduous trees survive radiation better than conifers, I imagine it’s because anything that is used to surviving desication is generally good at repairing damage to its DNA. Deciduous trees are presumably adapted to repairing damage they must suffer while dormant and frozen over winter.

  53. #53 JamesNicoll
    May 17, 2006

    >>As a result, if you’re trying to crush a target, halving the >>circular error probable is just as effective as building a >>bomb eight times as large.

    >i thought lethality went up as the fourth power of accuracy, >not the cube? in contrast, as you say, lethality is only >directly proportional to yield.

    [I really wish websites did proper trn-style threading]

    I don’t know about “lethality”, which sounds like it lumps a bunch of factors together, but overpressure definitely scales as [yield]^1/3rd. I have Glassstone’s THE EFFECTS OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS at hand and it’s mentioned in chapter three.

    BTW, Glasstone or someone else on his staff have an odd sense of humour: figure 3.06 includes the family dog being tossed to and fro by the blast wave.

  54. #54 Paul W.
    May 17, 2006
    I mean, it took computers 100 years to become as prolific as they are now.

    I wonder what you’re defining as a computer. There were electromechanical census tabulators 100 years ago, but the notion of a universal programmable computer was unknown even in theory until the 1930s and remained vaporware until after WWII when electronic computers were built with vacuum tubes.

    Charles Babbage’s analytical engine would have been a universal (Turing complete) computer, if he’d managed to get it built. It was first described in 1837.

    Leibniz envisioned programmable binary digital computers in 1679, using punched cards, with the presence or absence of marbles in various locations to represent the bits.

    There are no detailed designs—at least, none surviving—but I’m guessing that if Leibniz had had the resources and gone for it, he’d have eventually figured out how to build a Turing-complete computer, and done it. He was clearly thinking along the right lines at both low and high levels. (I.e., binary logic at the bottom, using combinatorial logic to implement a machine that could perform high-level logical inference in a universal formal logic language.)

    It’s really not hard to build a universal computer, by accident even, if you can build a programmable computer that can do simple arithmetic. In fact, it’s hard to build a reasonably general computer that isn’t universal.

    Once you get the idea that the program is just more data, and make it modifiable like other memory, you’re pretty much done. That’s an inevitable hack—people will do it for convenience, whether or not they realize that they’ve just converted a very limited computer into a completely general one. (It’s just so handy to be able to preprocess your program a little rather than having to re-punch all the cards or flip all the switches by hand…)

    That kind of evolution happens in software all the time—a very limited, special-purpose piece of software plus a convenient “cheesy hack” becomes a Turing-complete, programmable system, without people even noticing.

    In that regard, Turing mainly showed that any number of cobbled-together engineering hacks for programmable computing are in fact exactly equivalent, in terms of what they can compute, given enough memory.

    I think that has a some interesting implications for biology. There are likely a some surprisingly general computing engines embedded in our genetic regulatory networks, etc. Even if they’re only used for fairly specialized purposes in any given species, they could be highly exaptable. And because there are so many bizarre ways to make powerful or even universal computing devices, it’s easy to miss that something is one, even if you’re looking right at it.

  55. #55 PaulC
    May 17, 2006

    Paul W.

    It’s really not hard to build a universal computer, by accident even, if you can build a programmable computer that can do simple arithmetic. In fact, it’s hard to build a reasonably general computer that isn’t universal.

    That’s of course true, but I think that the computer as ubiquitous consumer product would have had to wait regardless. There’s a huge gap between an idea and a technology. Heron had an idea for a steam engine nearly 2000 years ago. I would place Leibniz’s ideas in the same category. For in idea to have economic utility, it has to have some advantage over existing alternatives.

    By the early 20th century, there were easier ways to build a universal computer than elaborate adding machines. There were relays and more complex electromechanical switches. Still nobody bothered to build a programmable machine even though they did build special-purpose tabulators and during WWII built special-purpose machines to crack the German enigma cipher. There were also many analog devices that could solve differential equations.

    I don’t think people were too dumb to make a universal machine (although the von Neumann architecture–instructions and data in the same store–is usually heralded as a major insight). There was simply an economic factor at work. With existing technology, a universal machine would have been more expensive than just bringing in a team of engineers to design a simpler machine to do what you wanted it to do each time you needed one.

    You could read my conclusion as either supporting or refuting the original claim. In support, it is true that you can have a long gap between an “invention” and its widespread application. But it really depends on what you want to define as an invention. I think that you have not really “invented” a widget as a consumer product until you have some plausible means of getting it mass-produced with relatively little labor and with cheap materials. The computer as consumer product was inconceivable until the invention of VLSI using cheap semiconductor materials and microscale photolithography. Leibniz and Babbage machines, if built, would have been remarkable curiosities along the lines of a functioning Heron steam engine but I doubt they would have changed the course of technology significantly. They would not have been able to beat a room full of low-paid clerks with sliderules.

  56. #56 JamesNicoll
    May 17, 2006

    “JamesNicoll, with regards to why deciduous trees survive radiation better than conifers, I imagine it’s because anything that is used to surviving desication is generally good at repairing damage to its DNA. Deciduous trees are presumably adapted to repairing damage they must suffer while dormant and frozen over winter.”

    Isn’t that similar to how deinococcus radiodurans comes by its remarkable resistance to radiation?

  57. #57 PaulC
    May 17, 2006

    JamesNicoll

    I don’t know about “lethality”, which sounds like it lumps a bunch of factors together, but overpressure definitely scales as [yield]^1/3rd.

    Since we’re back on this subject, I did want to add that “serious eye injury” (your statement about 100 km distance to blast) could probably dampen prospects for survival, particularly when the medical infrastructure has been wiped out. Of course the bombs would not be distributed evenly, and even then at least some people would be facing away from the blast.

    I’m not really sure what would happen after a global scale nuclear conflict, and I definitely don’t want to find out. But the more I consider it, I think that a downward spiral of human population over generations and eventual extinction is about as likely as anything.

    For some reason, we have this heroic 50s B-movie fantasy about a small tribe of survivors eventually regrouping as a social unit and perhaps rediscovering technology over time. But humans appeared at a particular point in time when they had an advantage over competitors in a resource-rich habitat. The first stunned generation of post-disaster humans, many carrying lasting injuries, with reduced resources and probably reduced fertility is not going to have a clear advantage over all other species. Their kids may fare better, but just surviving isn’t enough. They have to survive better than other things competing for the same resources.

    Having a big brain and language is obviously useful. One thing it lets humans do is make rapid, conscious adaptations to changing conditions. But if the conditions change too fast and humans lack the means to prepare, this might not be such a great advantage over simply being less prone to disease or having more offspring over shorter generations. I think an immediate die-off of humans may not be our doom, but I find it revealing that people are so quick to rule out a more gradual extinction through lower-than-replacement reproduction.

  58. #58 JamesNicoll
    May 17, 2006

    “Since we’re back on this subject, I did want to add that “serious eye injury” (your statement about 100 km distance to blast) could probably dampen prospects for survival, particularly when the medical infrastructure has been wiped out. Of course the bombs would not be distributed evenly, and even then at least some people would be facing away from the blast.”

    Or would have opaque objects between them and the explosion. Of course they’d then have to worry about the opaque object falling on them or catching fire (The larger the explosion, the more likely it is that the main hazard is fire, assuming an airburst).

    “The first stunned generation of post-disaster humans, many carrying lasting injuries, with reduced resources and probably reduced fertility is not going to have a clear advantage over all other species. Their kids may fare better, but just surviving isn’t enough. They have to survive better than other things competing for the same resources.”

    You seem to be assuming that every city everywhere would be hit in a nuclear war, which even at the height of the Cold War probably wouldn’t have happened. Sure, it would be very bad for Soviet and North Americans and apocalyptic for the Europeans (Including the UK) but who would have bothered to zap Recife?

  59. #59 PaulC
    May 17, 2006

    JamesNicoll:

    You seem to be assuming that every city everywhere would be hit in a nuclear war, which even at the height of the Cold War probably wouldn’t have happened.

    I’m not really assuming anything about what would happen. I’m just considering what could happen. Any statement about the next 100 years cannot exclude the possibility another large nuclear build-up. It’s sort of reasonable to assume that cities considered strategically unimportant will not be targets, but I was more getting at the question of whether it was within the realm of possibility for humans to be wiped out. I think it is.

    I think that if a large industrial nation were consciously trying to cause the extinction of the human species, it would be within our technological capability. There are good reasons to assume no one would pursue a consciously self-destructive goal, but I don’t think that we can say that the human population is just too big and robust for it to be feasible, which seemed to be PZ’s point.

  60. #60 Chris
    May 17, 2006

    Assuming that human population centers are targeted, large livestock (e.g. cows and sheep), which disproportionately live in low-human-population-density areas, will have a higher survival rate. Some of them will starve or become feral without their human caretakers, but the feral ones can be hunted – or recaptured and herded. Overall the ratio of food animals per human will go up significantly – and in a lot of places it’s not hard at all to find feed for them.

    Why do you say that “just surviving isn’t enough”? The post-nuclear-war world would, at least for a short time, have significantly less than expected amounts of any large animals. Substantial parts of it *already* have nearly zero of most large predators other than H.sapiens, leaving hardly anything else to prey on the herds of feral cattle and sheep. The main danger to the human survivors would be the other human survivors – and it’s very unlikely for them to *all* kill each other.

    Within the first few years you’ve probably reestablished herding, agriculture or both; fishing in coastal areas; have significant numbers of (re)domesticated dogs and some type of work/pack animal; and possibly even have some kind of technology that isn’t dependent on looting the ruins (or at most, only for raw materials). And most of the really hot radioactivity is dead – there’s an inverse proportionality between the intensity of radioactivity and its half-life. At that point it’s hard to see humans *not* reinventing technology, albeit probably with a lot less use of fossil fuels the second time.

    I think the post-nuclear-war world might well be *more* hospitable than the one our ancestors actually spread out in. (Much less hospitable than the one our ancestors *built*, of course; I’m not saying there wouldn’t be a sharp decline in human population.) Several dangerous species are already extinct or nearly so; food animals are relatively common; symbiotic species are already bred for domestication; and mining scrap heaps and landfills is probably no harder than mining mineral veins. Eventually the lack of energy-containing resources (fossil fuels, fissionables) would become a problem, but not until the survivors had rebuilt quite a bit of technology.

  61. #61 John Faughnan
    May 18, 2006

    For the record, I wanted to f/u on Paul C’s reply to my comment on 100 years being a long time. I think he has an excellent point — in fact Discover had an essay on the slow rate of change his month. Some things change very slowly. Others seem to leap ahead. It’s an odd and irregular pattern. Some historians claim we experience little change compared to 1900 or so — and I think in terms of infrastructure that’s undeniable. What changes fast now is often invisible to us, moving outside of our everyday ken.

    If the pace of change is indeed slowing, our chances of surviving the century may be much better than 50/50.

  62. #62 tus
    February 24, 2008

    suspect that SEED’s use of ‘”human” race’ in scare quotes was referring not to natural selection but human genetic engineering, cybernetics, uploading human minds into computers and in general all those “transhumanist” fantasies that some libertarians get all excited about. Not that those are particularly likely to come true in the next 100 years (if ever).

    why do so many people scoff at wild fantasys coming true in 100 years.

    how much has happened from 1900 to 2000?

    think about that for a minute.

    in 100 years we have seen the rise of the computer, the transistor (which has gone from about the size of a stapler to the size of a cell..or smaller), all of genetics, the vast majority of quantum physics, the particle accelerator, the big bang, reletivity, television, and just about everything you own.
    do you think anyone could have predicted today in 1908? hell just look at star trek from 1960’s looking at it now, aside from warp drive and the transporter, it looks primitive. but in 1960…that was advanced. it advanced so much they had to revise it majorly in 1980’s, and then the major advanced technology then now looks…commonplace.

    wild scifi fantasy has this way of being surpassed in a fraction of the time they set it in, i mean ST was set in 2300’s, they expected that long for technology that seem archaic now.

    so the idea of putting the human mind on a computer, or cybernetics (hell we are nearly there now, we got part of the eyes..straight brain connection) or genetic engineering, i dont see that as being centuries away. also artificial organisms (not just single cells, whole organisms) bio machines, etc doesnt seem far off.

    now of course, human knowlege seems to be progressing much faster than human wisdom…thats always a problem…

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.