Home > Science, Society, What-ifs > What happens when the world ends?

What happens when the world ends?

The remnants of a bygone ageWe all know how that REM song goes: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

It’s an intriguing and exciting idea, the end of the world, one that has fascinated and obsessed many throughout history. Regardless of whether you’re a medieval soothsayer, a modern day conspiracy theorist or just a curious person asking questions, the question of how it all ends is a natural one.

How will it all end? When will this happen? What happens afterwards?

To start, I want to make clear that this post is not about some sort of biblical cataclysm, complete with angels, demons, plagues of locusts or rains of blood, where the very Earth is torn asunder and the sky is rolled up like a scroll. No, this post is not about a true end of days but rather the more prosaic mini-apocalypses that happen more-or-less every thousand or so years and leave the ruins of a once-glorious civilisation in their wake. When I talk about the end of the world in this post I mean the end of a culture, a civilisation, a way of life.

Now, these mini-apocalypses happen for various reasons, namely natural disasters (aka death), famine, war or disease (aka pestilence) – you know, the proverbial Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I’m sure we could think up a better name for them, but alas, the Usual Suspects, the Fab Four and ABBA are all taken.

When it comes to the various times civilisations have fallen over the years, like the sudden end of the Near East Bronze Age empires, the fall of Minoan civilisation, the fall of Nineveh, the sacking of Troy, the sacking of Carthage, the decline and fall of Rome, the sacking of Baghdad, the fall of the Mayan empire or the Conquest of the New World, the thing they all have in common is that after they were gone, the survivors were never able to remember, let alone restore, what they once had. People forgot the langauge, they forgot how to read, they forgot how to make different things and often forgot who they once were.

This led to some strange situations. After the fall of Rome, people in Europe forgot how to make concrete and had to go back to building by putting one stone or brick on top of the other. For about 1500 years, nobody could remember how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Two hundred years after the fall of Nineveh, a Greek mercenary named Xenophon trying to get home after a disastrous war came upon the ruins of the Assyrian capital and asked the locals who had lived there. The locals shrugged their shoulders and guessed it was a Medean city, apparently unaware that their own great great grandparents had probably lived there and had been the rulers of the known world. In fact, to this day, nobody has figured out how the ancients made damascus steel – a ridiculously hard yet tough alloy reinforced with carbon microfibres.

What makes all of this relevant is the reality that the same thing that happened to all of them might one day happen to us in the modern world. Yes, modern civilisation is worldwide and isn’t really in any danger of being wiped out by a single volcano, advances in science have made us more resistant to famine and pestilence and hordes of barbarian horse archers from the steppe just aren’t the big deal they once were. Our civilisation exists on a much bigger scale than any previous one, so whatever that thing that might get us has to be on an equally big scale. Think city-sized meteors, nuclear wars, drug-resistant supercancerherpesbirdfluAIDS or catastrophic climate change.

Yes, these mega-scale things happen with far lower frequency than earthquakes, barbarian hordes, black plague or droughts, but they do happen. Going by the geological record, something on a worldwide modern-world-busting scale happens about every 30 – 60 million years and in 3 billion years of life existing on this planet, REALLY big extinction events have happened about five times, so you can expect one about one every 600 million years, give or take a few hundred million.

That’s great, right? Surely we’re not due for another one for ages? Well… that’s where the statistics are a little free and easy with the truth. The trouble with one-in-a-million-year events is that they can happen at any time, but if you ran the clock forever, they’d average at one every million years. It’s like saying that your local bus runs once every half hour. Yes, that’s technically true in that in a 24 hour period you’ll see 48 buses go by, but your experience is more like sitting there waiting for an hour and a half and then having three come along all at once. A one-in-a-million-year event might happen tomorrow for all you know… or it might happen in ten million years.

The vertical is extinction rate as a % of all species.  Horizontal is millons of years ago.

The vertical is extinction rate as a % of all species. Horizontal is millons of years ago. Those spikes are great big extinction events. That most recent spike between 50 and 100? That's the spike that killed the dinosaurs.

What would happen, then, if a huge event like the ones we described transpired?

Well, let’s assume that the human race survived in some capacity. Since there’s 6 (nearly 7) billion of us, that’s a pretty safe bet. Even if 95% of us died tomorrow, that would still leave 300 million people living all over the world, worst case, which is about what world population was in 3000 BC. That’s a big ouch, but it isn’t impossible to bounce back from that. Alternately, if everyone living in cities or towns died today, there’d still be 3 billion people all alive in the countryside of every… well… country. In terms of surviving, we have a lot of eggs in a lot of baskets. Something even bigger than that could get us, extinguishing all life on Earth, but that would be getting into end-of-days territory, which we simply cannot prepare for.

In the event of a disaster, the Internet would still be up and running in some capacity. After all, it’s hydra-esque design was conjured up during a more paranoid time when the threat of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons was constantly hanging over everyone’s heads. Yes, the lolcats delivery technology known as the Internet was designed to survive a nuclear war. So, even if infrastructure in one or two key places, such as the continental US, was gone forever, there would still be ways to get around it, provided you’re accessing servers or their mirrors that weren’t physically placed in the dead zone. Yes, an Aussie teenage girl could feasibly still get her Facebook on in a post-apocalyptic future, but she shouldn’t expect to still be able to view, say, the Jersey Shore fan page.

Having Internet then begs the question of whether or not you’d still have power to run the servers and telecomms equipment, let alone the computer you’re using to access this page right now. Whether or not you’d still have power is a question of how badly your local infrastructure was damaged, what you’re using to generate your power and what semblance of a government or electrical authority is still in place after the disaster. If the proverbial comet hit Paris and you live in Lhasa, you should be OK as far as power goes since you’re far away, protected by very tall mountains and your local power grid is fed mostly by biomass and hydroelectric power. If, on the other hand, you live in Europe, and Central Asia and Russia get hit, you’re more-or-less screwed, as your sources of power rely on a lot more natural gas and oil – stuff that gets piped to you from elsewhere.

Which is to say nothing of petrol/gasoline or diesel supplies where you live. The availability of (relatively) cheap fuel is what has kept internal combustion technology going for more than 100 years now. If a huge disaster that disrupted international oil supplies happened tomorrow, you’d have to get used to paying ludicrous prices for the privilege of getting behind the wheel and driving anywhere. Not only that, but if you don’t happen to live in a place with plenty of oil compared to its population like Nigeria or Venezuela, that has a knock-on effect on the price of everything, so when fuel prices go up, so do the prices of food and consumer goods.

And all that occurs before you even start to talk about the really scary side of a huge extinction-level event like a city-sized comet or an all-out nuclear war. You know what I’m talking about. Acid rain, ash clouds that blot out the sun, a mini ice-age, poisoned water, poisoned air, poisoned food, severe weather, mass sickness, mass plant and animal die-offs, which is to say nothing of specific effects like tsunamis or radiation. All of this stuff is so horrible that even if you survived the disaster, you may wish you hadn’t. What life is like after that is hard to predict. What can be said is that life is hard in the few pockets of civilisation that are left and even harder outside them.

Over the course of a few years though, the effects of the collapse of the globalised economy will really make themselves known in the little things. You’ve become accustomed to getting yourself a new mobile phone every year, but that would become a thing of the past. When high tech gadgets break, you literally would not be able to buy new ones and often you wouldn’t be able to repair the ones you had for want of spare parts or the appropriate tools to do the job. Depending on how it went down, the prices of things like new clothes would skyrocket, forcing many people to buy second-hand or simply wear the ones they had until they frayed away.

The reason for this is ironically the same reason modern civilisation is so resistant to disasters that would have destroyed societies in ages past. That iPhone you have was designed in the US, put together in China from parts sourced mainly from other parts of China, but also other Asian nations as well as Europe and the US. Those parts were in turn made from minerals mined from all over Australia, Africa and Asia as well as oil-borne hydrocarbons pumped from wells within China, Africa and Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan. Basically, it takes a LOT of people all over the world working together and being able to move things around quickly and cheaply for just about anything more complicated than a lightbulb to be made. The second you lose all those links, the whole thing falls apart. Yes, tech companies will continue to make things, but watch those things become simpler over time. Sadly, there’s not a person alive who is knowledgeable on how every single component of an iPhone works, let alone able to build one from scratch.

High technology sits on top of a pyramid of other, less exciting, technologies that hold it up and let it flourish. Take those away and you can’t have high technology. Basically, it’s no good being able to fly if you aren’t able to feed or clothe yourself. So what would happen after a big disaster is that a lot of technologies would be lost, as would a lot of the knowledge of these technologies, especially if you can’t build or replace them and if new people don’t get training in how they work. Unfortunately, it’s no good getting your bachelor’s in IT if there are no computers around. Computers and other trappings of today’s high tech world will never go away, but in many ways, they’ll regress to about 1980s levels for a good long time, with some technologies being sadly lost.

The good news is that any Dark Age that may come after modern civilisation is gone is going to be surprisingly short, lasting fifty years to a century at most. Yes, there will be technologies, certain aspects of history and culture that will be lost forever. What’s worse is that a lot of people will be dead and the world that we will live in will be a bleak place beset by scarcity and fear. Especially in the shadow of a hypothetical worldwide disaster, war over precious resources like clean drinking water or energy would be the rule rather than the exception.

However, thanks to the hydra-esque Internet, shortwave radio, undersea telecomms cables and an extensive satellite network out in space keeping the survivors in touch with each other and the fact that some places will be able to more-or-less maintain modern urban infrastructure like power, water, roads, sewerage and even telecommunication systems, someone will always know the recipe for concrete somewhere and be able to spread that around to the rest of the world. Add to that the fact that even in developing countries, literacy rates are at an all-time high and you get a recipe for recovery the likes of which history has never seen. A few decades of recovery will see people reverse-engineering pre-apocalypse technologies and even reading old CDs, DVDs, magnetic tapes, hard drives and USB sticks just to mine out whatever knowledge or information they might once have contained and using that to build up their economy.

Preparing for such an event is actually the subject of a lot of preparation by various groups even today. For instance, there are seedbanks in places like Norway, Russia and the UK that store examples of as many variety of plant seeds as possible (including all major food crops) in case of an event that wipes out existing plant species. These are examples of knowledge arks that could theoretically store information on history, technologies and art in the event of a huge worldwide disaster. There is even a (proposed) plan that could put a knowledge ark on the moon, in case of a meteoric impact that destroys all life on Earth with no exceptions. Of course, the point of that one is that either future human space colonists will be able to find out who we were back on Earth, or a visiting alien civilisation could without ever meeting us… which is kind of depressing.

In the end, if we cannot do anything to prevent the demise of civilisation, if Bruce Willis simply fails to blow up the comet or if James Bond isn’t able to stop the nuclear launch, humankind and our modern way of life will live on in some form, somewhere. Maybe not the way we expect or even want, but it will live on. I think there’s some comfort to be taken in that.

Categories: Science, Society, What-ifs
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: