Okay. Take out a sheet of paper. Number the lines from 1 to 12. Yes, it’s time for a pop quiz to judge how well you have been paying attention to the critical events going on around you. Hint: this is not the same thing as testing your knowledge of the evening news on the television (no questions about cute kittens or obese mall shoppers are included).
Now, in order of precedence, name the twelve critical problems that are likely to destroy life as we know it on this planet. To put it another way, what are the twelve greatest threats to the continuing existence of homo sapiens on planet Earth? You have ten minutes …
Okay. Pencils down. Pass your quiz sheet to the scholar on your right and let’s see how well you did on this quiz.
First, we will use the list of threats to human life as developed by the researchers at the Global Challenges Foundation as the official answer sheet. These were taken from an article in the Washington Post and any further questions on the individual threats are best answered by reading the original article.
1. Artificial intelligence
Why it’s bad: Machines with an extreme amount of technology could be difficult to control. They may hoard resources to boost their own intelligence, leaving little or nothing for humankind. That would be very bad for us.
2. Unknown consequences
What to be afraid of: That’s unclear. Lots of things could go wrong that we aren’t even considering. Remember the Fermi paradox — alien life likely exists but we’ve had no known contact. Perhaps intelligent life always destroys itself — or something else does — before it can explore the galaxy. This leaves us to guess at the causes that may have destroyed any other intelligent life.
3. Synthetic biology
The issue: A pathogen could be engineered to target humans or a critical part of the ecosystem. If synthetic biology products became a part of our economy, that adds a vulnerability, as they could become an entry point for biowarfare or bioterrorism.
4. Extreme climate change
Nightmare scenario: Famines, mass deaths, social collapse and mass migration ignite global conflict. Civilization crumbles.
How this goes badly: Self-replicating nanomachines could be engineered to consume our environment, destroying humanity. Another concern is whether nanotechnology can be used to build nuclear bombs.
6. Nuclear war
What to worry about: An all-out nuclear war could trigger a nuclear winter, in which temperatures plunge and the ozone layer may be destroyed. The world’s food supply would be at risk, likely triggering mass starvation.
7. Major asteroid impact
Uh-oh: A large asteroid collision — something about 3 miles in size – would destroy an area the size of Holland. The impact would trigger massive dust clouds, which would affect the climate and our food supply, causing political instability. The good news is an asteroid this size hits about once every 20 million years.
8. Global pandemic
The concern: Infectious diseases can spread easily given our advanced global transportation systems and the dense nature of human populations. A new pandemic combining the incurability of Ebola, the infectious nature of the common cold and the long incubation period of HIV would have an extreme death toll.
Why this would be very bad: Aerosols and dust would be shot into the upper atmosphere, cooling global temperatures. The effects would be similar to a nuclear winter.
10. Ecological collapse
The bad news: Species are going extinct at a faster than historic rate. If the ecosystem collapses some human lifestyles may be impossible.
11. Global system collapse
The concern: The world’s economic and political systems face systematic risks because of their intricate and interconnected natures. The researchers say more work needs done to clarify what parts of the system could collapse and destroy civilization. But they felt enough research is out there to include it on the list.
12. Bad global governance
The concern: Leaders don’t eliminate poverty, or they build a totalitarian state. Current technology can make it easier to create a totalitarian state.
Okay. How did everybody do? I must admit that when I took this quiz myself, I considered threat #12 to be the biggest threat to the continuing existence of mankind. My reasoning suggested to me that most of the other disasters would probably be caused by the impending Idiocracy or if they were natural disasters, the Idiocracy would bungle the attempts to override mother nature and we would be toast. I also considered #2 for my #1 threat and now that I think about it, isn’t even bad governance simply an unintended consequence of the political and social directions we chose?
Imagine, there is actually some talk going around about yet-another-Bush being put in charge. What are the odds that he would be even worse than his big brother? Of course this is not overtly scarey: the SNL suggestion that the Republicans might nominate Sarah Palin for President with Donald Trump as her running mate … that is really scarey.
Yes, I change my vote to #2: Unintended Consequences has the best chance of wiping out mankind, if not all life on the planet. Remember the Chain Reaction … I think they flipped a coin on that one and luckily it came up in our favor.