The end, whenever it occurs, could take several forms. Which one is most likely?
Some doomsayers predict an "Economic Hiroshima," or peak oil crisis, where fossil fuels dry up, triggering an economic meltdown followed by the collapse of the agricultural system and mass starvation. Please tell me French fries aren't an agricultural product.
In the old days, if you wanted to be a terrorist, you needed explosives. Today, all you need is an iPad. With the click of a mouse, baddies - whether religious zealots, political activists, or mischievous teenage hackers - can deploy nefarious computer worms that bring down power plants, hospital equipment, even nuclear facilities. The threat is such that the U.S. military is planning to quadruple its cyber-warrior force. And by cyber-warrior we mean 19-year-old Bill Gates in fatigues, armed with a USB stick, and a Doritos party pack.
According to John Leslie, author of The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction, not only are many deadly diseases developing immunity to our best drugs, but global warming could thaw out some virulent disease from the past, such as the 1918-1919 flu - which killed 50 million - and new viruses could even filter down from outer space.
Where will you be Dec. 12, 2012? That' s the last day on the Mayan long-count calendar and some think it will be the last day on anyone's calendar & that the sun will erupt in a super-storm and destroy all life on Earth. In the movie 2012, people face volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and melting glaciers. But maybe the Mayans just wanted to give us a reason to party.
As unstable states like Pakistan and North Korea expand their nuclear programs, the risk of nuclear war is as great as it's been since the disbanding of the Soviet Union. Whether humans could survive a nuclear winter - the severe cold and diminished sunlight that scientists predict would follow such a war - has been the subject of much scientific debate. Given that cockroaches would be among the few survivors, extinction in this case might be seen as a bonus.
Not everyone agrees with Greenpeace on how much humans are to blame for global warming, but in the last decade, climate-related disasters such as flooding and droughts have affected 2.4 billion people. It's thought that global warming could eventually turn Earth into a planet like Venus, where, according to author John Leslie, greenhouse-effect temperatures are sufficient to melt lead. Hot.
The world population is growing by about 74 million a year. The UN predicts it will reach nine billion people in the next 40 years, and those are just OctoMom' s grandkids. Overpopulation could eventually lead to crop failure and starvation.
Perhaps our fate is in the stars. It's commonly believed that dinosaurs became extinct after a massive asteroid hit the earth 65 million years ago; many think that if Shoemaker-Levy had hit Earth instead of Jupiter, we'd be goners. (Bruce Willis? We might need you again.) Other cosmic threats include black holes and the heat death of the universe.
If humans get overzealous with genetic modification, could we accidentally engineer an organism that rapidly reproduces and takes over the earth? Scientists have created, for example, "super mice" that can run at great speeds for a long time, and while they stress that applying such science to humans would be wrong, it's never stopped anyone before. This debate is escalating into a fight.
I wish I was just making stuff up at this point, but here goes & some have posited that nanotechnology could lead to grey goo -- out-of-control self-replicating robots that could consume all living matter on Earth. Nothing even close to grey goo exists today, but Eric Drexler's 1986 non-fiction book Engines of Creation outlined a worst-case scenario in which these bacteria-like nanomachines destroyed the biosphere. Can I stop now?
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