Earlier this month, the Global Challenges Foundation produced one of the first reports to provide quantifiable data on the greatest risks faced by human civilization in the future. It brings together a range of threats, including those which are currently apparent, as well as issues that are only emerging as potential challenges. Unfortunately for those of you who are fans of apocalypse movies and television series, a zombie takeover is not among them.
Some may think the report makes for depressing reading, but the researchers actually want to encourage action to be taken to avert the possibility that any of the scenarios could take place. It’s also worth bearing in mind that although some of the potential scenarios are grim, the probability of them happening is very low. Moreover, as the researchers point out, we have the capacity to take measures to prevent the various threats from coming to pass. By preparing the first scientific study on the risks that humanity faces, they hope to encourage debate and others to carry out work on the measures we can adopt.
Some of the dangers in the list have grown over recent years and arise from technological or lifestyle changes that have taken place. Others have been present for a longer period of time or are recurring problems throughout the history of planet Earth. The following list covers 10 of the most serious risks to human civilization identified by the researchers.
10 Ecological Collapse
Scientists have been warning for a long time that an increased number of animal and plant species are becoming extinct. Our way of life, and the lives of other animals, depend on a complex ecosystem and if the extinctions reached a point where critical parts of that ecosystem were removed, it could produce a catastrophic collapse. Even a partial collapse would have considerable consequences. For example, the resultant difficulties in maintaining life could provoke tensions and outright conflicts between different groups that could be extremely costly. Given the challenges in predicting this outcome, the authors of the study do not provide any guess as to the odds of this taking place.
9 Global System Collapse
This refers to the possibility of the entire political and economic system being undermined and undergoing a fatal downfall. Factors triggering this could be bad policy decisions that produce anger or hostility within sections of the population, or conflicts over resources and political power. One area in which conflicts may most obviously arise is over the unprecedented levels of inequality in society today around the world. Of course, the result of such conflicts or turmoil need not necessarily be utter collapse, but could lead to a new system being established that avoids such problems. The researchers warn of the danger of the creation of totalitarian states and say that they could also pose a major threat. Obviously, this is another area where predictions cannot really be made, so they do not offer a figure for the potential risk.
8 Super Volcano
Throughout history, large volcano eruptions have spread terror and produced destruction on a mass scale. The eruption of mount Vesuvius buried the Roman city of Pompeii and its residents, while the Minoan civilization was wiped out 3,000 years ago following a large volcanic eruption. A super volcano, the researchers suggest, would release so much dust and ash into the atmosphere, that it would result in the Earth’s climate cooling drastically, much like the aftermath of a nuclear war. This would impact our ability to survive because food supplies would be more difficult to obtain, and the environment would be severely affected. The chances of this happening are estimated at 0.0001 percent.
7 Global Pandemic
Over recent years, there have been a number of alarms raised about the potential emergence of a new global pandemic. Bird flu raised many concerns when it first emerged in humans in Asia and began spreading rapidly. There was also the SARS crisis in 2003. Because the world is so interconnected, these diseases can quickly spread and affect millions of people. If the disease proved to be something that we could not treat, or was highly infectious, it could reduce the population to such an extent that our current standard of living would not be possible. The potential for such an eventuality is put at 0.0001 percent in the report.
6 Major Asteroid Impact
The accepted theory to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago is that a massive asteroid struck Earth. Research suggests that an asteroid three miles wide will hit Earth at an average of one every 20 million years. Such an impact could destroy entire countries and would have a major influence on the globe’s climate, making it much harder to survive. This would have the effect of destabilizing social and political relations. In the next one hundred years, the odds on such a large scale impact are 0.00013 percent.
5 Nuclear War
There are several nuclear powers around the world, in spite of longstanding efforts to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons. The increased tensions between Russia and the United States in eastern Europe over the past year, driven above all by the crisis in Ukraine, reminds us of the potential for a nuclear conflict breaking out. If one did, the numbers of weapons around the globe could wipe out a large percentage of humanity. For those who survived, the impact of nuclear explosions on the Earth’s climate would likely make life impossible. The likelihood of this destroying civilization in the next century is 0.01 percent.
4 Extreme Climate Change
Climate change has emerged over recent decades as one of the biggest global challenges. There are regular high-level international conferences on the subject, where all of the world’s governments discuss their response, but so far, many of the modest targets they have set have not been achieved. There are many potential dangers if changes become more extreme, including famines and mass migrations caused by deteriorating climate. Increased sea levels could also make areas of the world uninhabitable. The consequences of climate change are likely to be all the more severe since poorer countries will suffer the most; i.e. those countries who are least able to take action against it. The researchers believe that the worst case scenario, where such developments trigger global instability and conflict and ultimately civilization breakdown, are 0.01 percent in the next 200 years.
3 Synthetic Biology
Since we now have the capabilities to produce pathogens that can be released into the environment, the risk exists that one could be developed that targets humans directly, or alternatively a particular aspect of the ecosystem that is critical for human life. The proliferation of terrorist groups has fueled the concern that this avenue could also be utilized in a bio-terrorist attack or as part of bio-warfare. The engineering of such a pathogen could also be extremely damaging since it would more than likely be beyond the capability of our immune system to cope with the new threat. The researchers estimate that the odds of this happening are 0.01 percent.
2 Unknown Consequences
If you think this possibility sounds vague, that’s because it is. Everyone knows that we don’t know everything, and the researchers consider the idea that there may be threats of which we remain totally unaware. One such concern is the suggestion that there may be other civilizations out there in space that we do not have contact with yet, or that there is something that destroys civilizations, as they try to explore more in the universe. On top of this, there’s always the chance that advances in science will produce discoveries that show us that something is extremely harmful that we previously thought was not. For examples of this, we only need to look back at history. The devastating impact of aerosols on the atmosphere was unknown to us for many years. However, the potential for something creeping up on us without us realizing it, seems rather remote, with the likelihood of such an incident being put at just 0.1 percent.
1 Artificial Intelligence
The development of increasingly complex robots and computers has enabled major steps forward in our society, but it also brings with it the risk that these machines could become too intelligent and begin to take matters into their own hands. Already there are military robots capable of surviving by consuming biomass that they find in their environment. The concern the researchers identify is that as these machines become more self-organizing, they could be in a position to hoard resources for themselves, thus preventing humans from accessing the necessities of life-like food or energy supplies. The odds of this happening, according to the study, are between 0 and 10 percent.