Putting the life back in science fiction

Apocalyptic fun: 34 future apocalypses

I’ve gotten rather tired of the Mayan apocalypse, and being a contrarian, I’ve been thinking more about the deep future instead of the end of the world.

At some point, I made a sarcastic remark about wanting to write about a world “after the 34th apocalypse, except that I’m too lazy to come up with 33 separate apocalypses.” Now, as 12/21/12 comes closer, I’d thought it might be fun to crowd-source the other 33 apocalypses.

The idea of this is to provide future worlds for SF people to play with. Right now, I feel like SF is suffering from “aging white myopia” in that it’s mostly about the fears and fantasies of aging white people (often men), and myopia because most of the serious SF predictions are in the near future, not the deep future. I’d rather start thinking about 21st century problems, which are more about “how do we deal with this crazy world the Baby Boomers left us” than worrying about the death of the dreams we had as teens.

Want to play? Since I’m hoping to crowd source the apocalypses, I’m perfectly happy if people swipe ideas from here. This is about thinking creatively about global crises, and what comes after them.

Anyway, let’s get to the apocalypses

Here are the end points
1. The First Apocalypse is happening now, with a 5000 gigatonne release of carbon into the atmosphere over the next 200 years (this is the IPCC extreme scenario discussed here. This is the path we’re currently on. Temperatures (and extreme weather) peak between 2500 and 3500 AD, with global mean temperatures peaking 9 to 16 degrees F (6 to 9 deg. C) above today. Sea level rises about 230 feet (80 meters) above today, but it reaches that maximum in 3500 AD (almost all rise happens by 3000 AD). Conditions take 500,000 years to get back to what we have today, and we can assume the fall back towards normal in an approximately linear fashion. Thermal gradients between the arctic and the tropics largely disappear at first, but gradually reappear.
2. The 34th Apocalypse happens 525,000 years from now, when the next ice age starts. This is by fiat, from eyeballing the insolation graphs on Wikipedia. At this point, the last remnants of arctic and high mountain civilization are plowed under by the growing glaciers (antarctic civilization finally disappeared in 400,000 AD under the resurgent southern ice cap). This cycle looks a lot like the last Wisconsin glaciation. Due to the profligacy of the 1st Apocalypse, there is no fossil fuel left to rewarm the earth to avoid the ice.

Those are the end point apocalypses. Here are some ground rules:
–What’s an apocalypse? It’s a global event that causes massive change, global migration, and the end of civilization as we know it, although not necessarily a return to the stone age. It does NOT cause human extinction. It can be natural (an ice age, megavolcano, asteroid), or manmade (our current Gigafart).
–Apocalypses have dates attached, but they aren’t necessarily instantaneous. The Gigafart will take 1500 years to reach its full ripeness.
–Apocalypses have stories attached. Where does Apophis land, and what happens during the impact and afterwards?
–There’s time between apocalypses, time enough for human cultures to recover. In 525,000 AD, there will be enough history, myth, archeology, and paleontology, for the people of that time to know that 33 apocalypses have happened before them, and that they are facing the 34th. This means that the people living between apocalypses have to leave a traces. What do they leave behind that survives?
–The Rule of Narrative Conservation: people will be recognizably human 525,000 years from now. Yes, that’s a long time in human evolutionary terms, but this is for our personal fun. “Recognizably human” means that future people will be close enough to us that it’s no stretch for writers to write about them and readers to emphasize with them. They’re born, live, love, and die, and have recognizable conflicts. There is no end of history, and there is no point at which people stop being people. It does not mean that people will be the same as they are today, and it especially does not mean that they will have the same races as we do today. Races change over the course of a millennium or two, and 525,000 years is an enormous time for racial change.
–I’m tired of reading about zombies, werewolves, and vampires. If you want a monster pandemic apocalypse, be more original.
–Science rules. Don’t bother with Cthulhu, Godzilla, alien invasions (cf the Fermi Paradox), or fairies coming back. Similarly, don’t bother with nanotech or synthbio disassembler plagues, unless you can explain in detail how the damn things work from a biochemical and energetics point of view. Otherwise, they’re magic fairy dust, and that ain’t science.

Those are the basic rules.

One Prebuttal: The simplest way to come up with 32 apocalypses is to assume that global technological civilization is a destructive bubble that pops. All we have to assume is that it takes about 500 years (on average) for global civilization to grow and collapse, and it takes an average of 15,000 years for the Earth to recover enough to support another global civilization, during which people are stuck living as hunter-gatherers, dirt-scratching farmers, and similar Arcadian folk. This idea has been done by Larry Niven et al (The Mote in God’s Eye) and Charles Stross (Palimpsest). I don’t mind the idea of civilization as a cyclical irruption in history, but you know, I’m really hoping for something more original. Future history as a drunkard’s walk, rather than a wheel of time. What about two or more cycles of history, spiked with various and epic natural disasters? Or are there 32 totally predictable global catastrophes lurking out there? Or some mix of both?

Come play Edward Gorey with the future. If we get 34 separate apocalypses, I’ll put it all together and send it out to everyone who contributed.


18 Comments so far
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First, a few well known scenarios that I don’t think rise to the level of eliminating industrial civilization:

-Carrington event. Widespread damage to electrical distribution networks, but shorter grid segments are less affected and most electrically powered devices won’t be killed off.

-Likewise, high-altitude EMP burst from nuclear weapons. Many devices are temporarily disabled, satellites permanently damaged, but most terrestrial electrical devices are ok (perhaps after a power-cycling).

-Peak oil. Non-fossil fuel energy technology is already too good for oil exhaustion to end industrialization (unless there are higher-order effects such as touching off a world war…)

-Global warming (again, provided it doesn’t spark world war)

I’m not trying to soft-pedal these scenarios, but keep in mind that the Soviet Union had nearly 14% of its population killed during WW II, and no external help recovering, but remained industrialized and politically intact. This suggests that grand gigadeath catastrophes still might not approach ending industrial civilization on a global scale.

I think that a gamma ray burst that hit Earth would go too far rather than not far enough, eliminating humanity along with civilization.

Scenarios that might eliminate industrial civilization without driving humanity extinct:

-Nuclear war

-Terrestrial impact from comet or asteroid

-Global pandemic with lethality comparable to the Black Death

Cartoonish, evil-for-evil’s-sake villainy that might end civilization:

-I have heard from someone I consider reasonably well informed that the “Classical Super” design for a thermonuclear weapon burning deuterium in a very simple configuration would work if the volume to surface area ratio were great enough. In any militarily useful device it is impossible to initiate self-sustaining fusion in liquid deuterium with a simple fission bomb. But with a very large container of liquid deuterium containing a central trigger bomb it should be possible. Liquid deuterium may be had as cheaply as $1500 per kilogram, produced from commercially available heavy water.

That kilogram yields 34 kilotons via efficient fusion. For $100 million you could get enough deuterium to produce a 2290 megaton explosion, several times the power of every manmade explosion in history. Build the outer containment structure out of cheap natural or depleted uranium and the yield could easily double from fast-neutron fission. Just build a bigger uranium tank and fill it with more deuterium for a bigger bang. If you want to kill humanity and most other vertebrates, a mere $45 billion will buy you 30000 tonnes of deuterium and an explosion comparable to the Chicxulub impact.

-More subtly, sulfur hexafluoride has an enormous global warming potential 22900 times that of CO2. Dumping 100 million tonnes in the air would add a “gigafart” equal to nearly 2.3 trillion tonnes CO2. And unlike CO2, SF6 is not removed from the atmosphere by oceanic absorption, photosynthesis, or silicate weathering. If 5000 GT carbon isn’t enough to sterilize large swaths of Earth by heat, a relatively modest SF6-generation program can surely push conditions over the edge.

Comment by Matt

Follow-up: This is a surprisingly difficult challenge, from my POV. There aren’t nearly 34 different kinds of natural phenomena that might be expected to devastate civilization on a truly global scale (especially without killing all humans). It’s also hard coming up with human-induced global civilization killers that don’t rely on omnicidal billionaire maniacs with huge secret laboratories and factories.

Comment by Matt

Hi Matt,

Since I threw Peak Oil up there as Apocalypse #1, I should point out that I don’t think of an apocalypse as something that kills most of the people in a short amount of time. The thing about the 5000 GT scenario is that it wipes out all of the coastal infrastructure that we have now, including all of the major coastal cities, Florida, Bangladesh, Holland, and almost all the small islands. It also acidifies the ocean to the extent that they’d better get used to eating jellyfish and building artificial clam reefs, because corals will suffer enormously, and there probably won’t be enough oxygen left in the ocean to support the largest predatory fish in numbers sufficient to maintain the biggest species.

All of this plays out over about 1000 years, which, in its way, is even more insidious, because it’s not just one huge crash and done, it’s continual creeping sea level rise, which means that sea ports have a working life of perhaps a century before they get swamped. There’s also up to ten times the weather weirdness that we’re experiencing now (storms and droughts would be my guess), which means that, during this time of change, we would do best if we had the infrastructure to store and distribute huge amounts of water. Of course, if we don’t have a good alternative to fossil fuels, we’ll have to build and rebuild that infrastructure with less fuel available.

That’s why I call this an apocalypse. It’s the end of the world as we know it, more than a huge human dieoff.

I hope this opens up more possibilities for you.

One question I do have is frequency and probability. I don’t know how often Carrington Events are likely to occur. If they happen every few hundred years, that’s different than if they happen every thousand years, for example. Similarly, is there any data on small asteroid impact probabilities? In 500,000 years, a lot of rocks are going to fall. The question is when the biggest ones hit, or whether a small one hits something absolutely critical, whatever that might be.

Comment by Heteromeles

If you’re going to presuppose that industrial civilizations can re-develop (independently of previous such, after interregna of hunter/gatherer – subsistence farming), one could induce an apocalypse by widespread use of some other form of organohaline molecule than organochlorides for domestic refrigeration. I think that the bromine-based compounds hang around for a lot longer than the chlorine-based compounds that we wound up using – if the industry had gone with the bromine-based compounds back in the 30s, the ozone hole would have effectively been permanent and would have probably spread to the equator. If one of your successor industrial civilizations went down this path, it would significantly affect the habitability of the Earth’s surface for a long time to come, as well as causing its own crash.
The possibility of a Canfield ocean scenario arising from global warming is another game-buster – Peter Ward presents evidence that these can become self-sustaining over million-year periods.

Comment by Lars

Very good points, Lars, and I’m glad you made them. I’d note that if future civilizations went back to CFCs for refrigeration (even without the bromines), polar civilizations would suffer horribly from the resulting ozone holes. If one believes that the poles might be the bastions of high tech temperate zone-style civilizations in a hothouse world, that could be very bad indeed.

While I like Peter Ward’s ideas, I’m not entirely sure of his accuracy. Paleontologists have hammered on his book Out of Thin Air on the TetZoo4 blog (I’ll try to dig up the link–it’s in the comments to an article), and he may have got the sky color wrong in Under a Green Sky. Nonetheless, I think he’s worth reading. The first apocalypse incorporates an acidic ocean with huge anoxic zones, and that much, I think, is a safe prediction for the future. I’m not sure whether the Canfield Ocean is quite as safe a prediction.

Comment by Heteromeles

Yes, Ward gets a bit of static from some – however, when you look at what Douglas Erwin and others have had to say about the post-Permian, you have to wonder if it’s really justified. I think some of it is in an effort to discredit the whole idea of anthropogenic ecological apocalypses.
Another possible long-term game-changer might be the extirpation of all large terrestrial vertebrates (and most small ones) as a result of an Anthill Earth scenario, with all of the Earth’s surface turned over to either human habitation or other human uses, and any non-human species getting in the way of this either directly extirpated or deprived of all of its habitat and going extinct anyway. No megafauna are going to evolve naturally from what’s left in any humanly-meaningful amount of time, and any human population that develops from scratch after the Anthill Earth civilization crashes would have a radically depleted biodiversity bank to recruit domesticates from. This would make a huge difference in how many calories they could harvest and store – look at what happened to northern European populations after the introduction of the potato – and also, lacking the muscle power made available by large domesticated draft animals would limit communications, and force the use of human labour for any large civil engineering projects. Civilizations like this might never get past the Inka/Aztec stage even if there are metals around to be mined.

Comment by Lars

The comments I was thinking of were about fundamental inaccuracies with the model Ward based Out of Thin Air on, especially for the Mesozoic, not the end-Permian. It had nothing to do with Erwin AFAIK. I’m not knocking Ward for creating non-falsifiable hypotheses, but it appears that some of his ideas simply don’t match the data. It’s too bad, really, because Out of Thin Air was neat. As I said, he’s worth reading, but one should be cautious.

I’m rather more skeptical about the “Anthill Earth” scenario, For two reasons. The first is that I suspect we’re getting close to that already, and I’m not sure whether we’ll be even able to support nine billion. Once we’ve burned all our fossil fuels, I suspect that human populations will never reach nine billion again, absent some really cool new power source, like fusion. In a weird way, this is good news, because it suggests that the biodiversity crisis for large animals is right now, not some time in the far future.

Comment by Heteromeles

I think that within my lifetime humanity will blow way past the “safe” atmospheric CO2 level. At the same time I believe that automated manufacturing and AI systems will advance considerably, and that in my old age solar electricity will become cheaper than today’s coal electricity over large swaths in the Earth. I believe that these combined conditions may prompt large-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere, based on a relatively simple but vast program of crushing basalt in order to increase its surface area for faster weathering of silicates into carbonates.

One possible apocalypse is based on algal blooms or other complications from nutrient releases. It takes about 3 billion tonnes of basalt to capture a billion tonnes of CO2 via weathering, and it is unclear how much of the 4.5 million tonnes of phosphorus in that rock would be dissolved and released. It also means releasing large quantities of iron oxides as fine particles, though I do not know if this is a form that permits uptake into aquatic life. In short, if humanity tried to draw down (e.g.) 200 ppm of CO2 via this mechanism over the course of a century, there are potentially very large and prolonged nutrient releases that could stimulate certain kinds of biological productivity… perhaps to the point of destruction (algal blooms, anoxic zones, all enhanced by warmer surface waters in a warmer world).

Another potential apocalypse is overshoot on CO2 sequestration. Laboratory scale trials and field evidence from natural historical weathering don’t provide perfect guidance as to the speed and completeness of weathering artificially crushed basalt by the gigatonne. There’s probably about a century lag between crushing basalt and completion of its weathering. If planners anticipate compensating for feedback loops and long delays with larger scale efforts, and it turns out a few decades in that weathering goes faster or more completely than anticipated, there could already be vast quantities of crushed rock that can’t be un-crushed and will draw down CO2 more than desired as they continue to weather.

Comment by Matt

Those are good points, Matt. In thinking about how to get nutrients into the ocean to cause algae blooms, things like sea-level rise and glaciers do come to mind. Sea level rise will drown cities, and I suspect all those skyscrapers will rust. It will also mobilize whatever nutrients are in coastal fields, lawns, and so forth. Glaciers grind cities to rubble under the ice, and since there’s water under the ice as well, that will mobilize the nutrients from the cities.

A third possibility is a simple succession of mega-storms and mega-droughts. Droughts mobilize dust, which is already a huge nutrient source (Saharan dust fertilizes the Amazon, Gobi dust fertilizes Hawaii). Storms mobilize stuff by water erosion. Wild weather could speed up weathering, leading to downstream algal blooms. A succession of these in a Mega-Nino event would move a lot of nutrients into the ocean…

More to think about.

Comment by Heteromeles

Another “lite” kind of apocalypse: extreme drug resistant bacterial infections. Right now it’s a matter of concern but rarely front page news. Imagine another century of antibiotic misuse, more and more extreme kinds of dangerous resistant infections, and the corresponding de-globalizing quarantine restrictions on movement of people, livestock, and goods.

Comment by Matt

Another good point: pandemics and disease.

I wanted to gently brush by how this could affect human evolution, without hopefully tripping over the landmine of racism or prejudice. Some data suggest that stature and immunity are linked. This comes from work that suggests that pygmies seem to occur in high-disease areas, where the main cause of death before 30 is disease. Pygmies mature faster, and are (of course) smaller, and also die younger, and this appears to have two advantages. One is that they reproduce at a younger age, and the other is that their bodies seem to be somewhat better at dealing with disease.

Future “hot zones,” if they last long enough, may produce societies of pygmies, with all the social consequences that implies (think of a society of teenage moms and few elders).

The converse is the Grandmother Hypothesis, that old people are useful to groups because they have survived the rarer and more extreme events, and therefore know what to do when such things happen again. Venerating the elders is common in low-tech societies, because they’ve survived more than you have, and it’s better to listen than learn by trial and error.

In any case, if wild weather becomes the norm, with extreme droughts, floods, and so forth, we might see cultures that venerate the old, and which may even live longer in consequence (the children of skilled grandmothers produce more offspring who survive to adulthood, thereby favoring whatever genes and culture promote longevity ).

So there are two different polarities for human evolution: shortening human life in response to endemic disease, lengthening human life in response to environmental uncertainty. There’s no reason both can’t happen at the same time, in different parts of the globe, and there’s no reason to think that future people will look like we do now.

Comment by Heteromeles

I spent a few minutes reading up on asteroid impacts. Here’s the deal: according to Donald Prothero, a noted paleontologist, there’s little, if any, mass extinction potential from any strike that generates a crater less than 100 km across (note that Chixculub crater is ca. 180 km across, and that marks the end of the Cretaceous). The reason for this assertion is that there are a number of craters in the 100 km range that are not associated with a mass extinction event.

Note that if you assume that Chixculub-size impacts happen every 50-100 million years, then there’s a 1-2 percent chance of something that big happening in the next 525,000 years. While I agree that somewhat smaller asteroids could probably kill a high civilization, I’m one of those who doubts that even Chixculub could cause humans to go extinct.

In any case, it looks like an asteroid could cause maybe one apocalypse, two if we’re really unlucky.

On the good side, according to Wikipedia, Carrington level solar storms occur every 500-1000 years (based on ice core data), and it’s possible that an even bigger solar storm could happen under more improbable conditions.

Comment by Heteromeles

Precondition to apocalypse: homogenization? A lot of potential-apocalypses fail because they don’t have realistic global scope. But if social/material conditions become more similar all over, common failure modes offer a shot at apocalypse.

A really soft and unlikely apocalypse: global human fertility drops below replacement level and stays there until technological civilization breaks from critical skills shortages, like a soap bubble thinning until it pops. The causes are nothing unusual: high costs (economic and otherwise) for child rearing, capital replacing labor, humans quite rationally seeing that their children will inherit an ever-shrinking share of Earth’s bounty while populations increase.

Comment by Matt

Those are good points. It certainly seems, from my perspective, that global systems are brittle. The Carrington Event was a surprise for telegraphers, and a pretty light show for everyone else. For us, it would be a disaster, and if we get self-driving cars navigating by GPS, it could be a civilization-ender.

At the same time, there’s a lot of evolution of cities. Right now, I’m listening to the TED radio hour, on the Future of Cities. It’s worth listening to, in this context, because it talks about the benefits of cities over, say, subsistence villages.

While I don’t agree with everything they’re saying, I think that there’s a different urban development pattern. Birth rates certainly do drop in cities, but cities may grow through slums and gentrification, rather than reaching some sort of homeostasis the way we see now. It may be that great cities have a life almost like a forest, starting with weedy slums, growing to industrial centers, where the number of children drop, but the investment in each child goes way up. This happens to many species in rain forests (technically, it’s called r vs. k reproductive strategies). Finally, the city outlives its major industries and falls into a backwater or slum, if nothing comes along to cause a major disruption. If there’s a huge disruption, then there’s a new community of squatters, a slum, and the potential to build again.

Just a thought.

Comment by Heteromeles

Did no one mention the Singularity? Does that count as an apocalypse? I think we’re headed down the Singularity already; perhaps we’ve already passed the digital Schwarzschild radius, becoming the mitochondria of our own machines.

Have a good new year!

Comment by Joan S.

Sounds great, but no. The Singularity, when you pull off the bells and whistles, looks suspiciously like the Rapture, with a bit of freshman math thrown in to make it sound sexy. In this case, Joan, even your language shows this: Schwarzschild radius, with its implication that time stops, history’s over.

In contrast, I’m checking to see how many people are interested in dealing with the more likely reality, a really, really deep future. The problem with the Singularity, in this context, is that it paralyzes most SF writers. It’s the boundary beyond which everything changes, and it’s not worth writing stories beyond that point any more (the Orion’s Arm crew is a conspicuous exception). A couple of decades ago, writing thousands or millions of years in the future wasn’t an issue. Right now, SF futures aren’t very far in the future, and many of them look suspiciously like old stories rewarmed. I was hoping to help science fiction writers reclaim the deep future, even if it’s not the one we wanted back in the 1960s or 1980s.

Comment by Heteromeles

[…] had a little bit of fun with the idea of future apocalypses to celebrate the non-apocalypse of 12/21/2012. Now that apocalypses are passe, I’d like to […]

Pingback by Well, maybe 37 apocalypses… | Putting the life back in science fiction

A plague, not on humans, but on grasses. Some go extinct, some drop to 10% or 1% of current prevalence before developing resistance and rebounding.

Stop depending on corn, wheat, rice, grasslands to raise cattle on, bamboo for construction….

Comment by Robert van der Heide

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