Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Mega disasters occur quite frequently
Published on October 10, 2003 By Draginol In Philosophy

Most people don't really give how precarious human civilization really is. That's mainly because they have better things to do than to worry about that kind of thing. I, on the other hand, don't really have anything better to do sometimes than to think and read about this kind of thing.

For example, while many people know that an asteroid nailed the earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs along with most other large animals in the ocean and on land, most people aren't aware of how common smaller but civilization ending hits are.

First some perspective: Life is thought to have really gotten going around 400 million years ago or so.  Sure, there was life before the "pre-Cambrian explosion" but nothing very complex. 400 million years.

The last 65 million years saw mammals slowly rise and fill the niches left by the Dinosaurs.  Somewhere around 6 million years ago humans and chimps parted ways (though technically speaking, we're still so similar to chimps from a DNA point of view that we are really just another species of chimp but I digress).

Depending on who you talk to, only around 200,000 to 50,000 years ago to modern humans arise. The debate has to do with whether anatomically modern humans or intellectually modern humans are the same thing (why did cave painting start only 50,000 years ago?)

Regardless, from 50,000 years ago to around 5,000 years ago humans were basically running around in small tribes following herds of grazing animals across Africa and Asia other than a bunch of adventurous tribes that decided to go into North America around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago (not to mention the crazies who went down into Australia).

But real human civilization -- as in towns and cities, really only got going around 3000 years ago and that's being generous.  Rome only got going 2100 years ago.

And what I'll call hyper-specialization only got started 100 years ago or so. What's the point of this and what's hyper-specialization?

Well, hyper-specialization is basically specialization to the point where the majority of people are basically incapable of living without our modern system of logistics. If civilization came to an end, I'd be food for something pretty quickly.  Without contacts I'm pretty much blind. I can't farm. Can't hunt. Don't have any useful survival skills. In other words, I'm a typical surbanite.

And here's the bad news: Pretty bad things happen to Earth pretty regularly. Smaller asteroids strike the earth every 10,000 to 20,000 years. These hits don't wipe out the earth of course but it's certainly enough to shut down food production worldwide pretty seriously. There's 6 billion people these days on Earth. That number is only sustainable thanks to modern agricultural techniques. But take away say, sunlight, for a couple of years due to a small asteroid hit and most of us would be dead.

And there are plenty of other nasty things that happen on occasion. Super volcanoes, mega earth quakes, etc. that would be enough to completely disrupt the world economy in ways that would lead to billions of deaths. And it's not stuff that happens every 50 million years, it's stuff that our ancestors lived through already countless times but didn't know how to record these events. And it will happen again. The difference is that unlike say 20,000 years ago we have large segments of modern world that would not deal very well to the modern logistics miracles that came with the 20th century.


on Oct 11, 2003
A problem more threatening to a civilization other than natural disasters is a lack of human cooperation. The problem with vehement opposition in government and the people that support opposing ideologies of those in government is in the division. The earliest examples of civilization, the Mesopotamian and Egyptians had realized that developing a civilization was an extremely creative act; they understood that people had to formulate laws and rules. In order to construct, build and successfully maintain these early civilizations required the cooperation of large numbers of unified people striving to achieve one goal.
on Oct 12, 2003
if my life depended on it, i'm pretty sure i could figure out how to rub two sticks together to make fire. or find some spark producing flint rocks.

it depends on the nature of the disaster. if a big asteroid hit, we'd be pretty screwed, regardless of whether i had a bunker under my house with a boy scout manual. a world annihilating(i think) plague like in 28 days later (except no zombies) would leave lots of food for survivors for months (cans, mre's in survival stores, dried fruit, pigeons, rats, cats, dogs, etc). plus books on how to garden, farm, collect water from dew, rain water, condensation, etc.

also, our overspecialized people would also be the most likely to warn us or help us solve the problem. sure stephen hawking might not be able to survive in a nuclear winter caused by an interdimensional blackhole warping into our solar system, but he might be able to at least give warning or theorize a solution. this is a hyper-extreme example, of course. or simply overspecialized rocket scientists building a giant missile to kill any extinction level events heading our way.
on Oct 12, 2003
All I know is that if anything catastrophic happens to Earth, that I hope it happens after I'm dead. As for lack of cooperation in government, I don't think the diversity in government will ever destroy human civilization. At the most, it'd cause a nuclear winter.
on Oct 12, 2003
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and dispair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


on Oct 13, 2003
interesting article.

City based civilization is about 9000 years old though. You should try visiting the middle east, india and china to see impressive civilations greater than 3000 years old.

As for disasters, I'm surprised you missed the magnetic pole change. That's currently long overdue, occurs on a regular period (250,000 years), and could potentially cause enough damage to wipe out a sizeable fraction of population on the planet.
on Oct 13, 2003
After a trip to northern Michigan over the weekend, I had a discussion with my husband (who used to sail on Great Lakes freighters) about lake Michigan. I heard that the water line was down, but I had no idea how bad it was until I went out there. People's docks are completely out of the water. The shore is about 20 to 30 feet wider than it was 2 years ago. So, we started talking about how fragile the lakes are. He started telling me about the importance of Niagara falls. Basically, if they weren't shaped the way that they are, then the lakes will drain and flood other areas. They are also moving in a way (toward lake Erie) that this will eventually happen (not while we're alive, but possibly within the next 8,000 years). It's hard for us mere mortals to realize that the earth is ever changing and evolving, and we can't control it.
on Oct 13, 2003
I tend to be less generous than anthropoligists in what I call city based civilization. I'm aware of ancient mesopotania, egyptian civilization, etc. But they had very little in terms of specialization. They were, literally, not much more than collective farming centers.

Though maybe 4,000 years ago would be more reasonable. But 9,000 years ago (7000BC) would be too generous in my view.
on Oct 14, 2003
I believe the oldest walled city yet discovered is about 9000 years old. They would definitely be far less 'civilised' than romans though. Really depends on what you call civilised and what specialisations you want to see. Obviously they could make bricks.

The Eqyptians built the pyramids about 4500 years ago. To do this they had geometry, mathematics and construction specialisations.

Even further back would be things like passage tombs (6000 years ago). Many of these are aligned with solstices and equinox's, requirying years of painstaking study of the stars. The societies were agricultural though and didn't live in cities.

Writing and numeracy are also at least 7000 yearts old. Big advances were made by the babylonians and other middle east civiliations around 3000BC. Definitely hard to define a point at which civilisation really began. I suppose 4000 years ago is fairly ok as this would also coincide with the Minonan civilisation which was fairly advanced (plumbing).

on Oct 14, 2003
I dont have a big comment to make on the post, but something in KarmaGirl's post brought up to me one of the big ways of backward thinking alot of people have.

"Basically, if they (the great lakes) weren't shaped the way that they are, then the lakes will drain and flood other areas."

That comment is sort of fundamentally false. The correct statement would be:

"Niagra didn't flood the whole of central North America because the shpe of the land supported these large lakes."

It's sort of a subtle but important difference in the way you think about it.
on Oct 18, 2003
I think whether you want to draw the line at 4000 years ago or 6000 years ago is immaterial. The point is that specialization as we know it is a relatively new thing.