Howsoever we may fool ourselves, human beings, in the grand infiniteness of the universe, are not as important as we think we are. The earth has witnessed several mass extinction events in prehistory and — if nothing else — the law of averages makes one believe that the world is due another soon. ‘Soon’, on the cosmological timescale, can mean anything — from a decade to tens of thousands of years. Here are some ways in which it might happen, when it happens:
Let’s get to the most obvious villain, first up. Twice in modern history has an infectious disease swept around the globe leaving a trail of death. A century ago, the Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people. Outbreaks of SARS and Ebola have also sent doomsday mongers scurrying to their bunkers. Resistance to antibiotics, greater mobility of pathogens have both ensured that populations are forever on the precipice of a new outbreak. So what will it be, finally — the coronavirus?
Over 70,000 died in a day on August 6, 1945 when the US bombed Hiroshima. Alas, the world’s capabilities of nuclear destruction have only grown exponentially since. The Cuban Missile Crisis may be a thing of the now-forgotten Cold War past, but the fact that, in the current age, nuclear might is available with many more countries than earlier is indeed a disturbing thought. Here’s hoping Kim Jong-un’s pinky doesn’t get too itchy for that red button!
The gaping hole in the ozone layer, melting ice caps, rising sea levels....
If one is to believe a panel of scientists we do not have much time to arrest or even hope to reverse the ravages of global warming. Even the most optimistic of global weather models says that much worse is in store for the world. And what does this imply? Severe and more frequent cyclones, massive flooding and large-scare droughts, loss of agricultural land and freshwater sources and — hold your breath — New York and Mumbai under the sea. Gasp!
Close on the heels of deadly global warming, a total collapse of our ecosystem. Ecosystems are large groupings of living organisms and their nonliving environment that interact with each other. Ecosystems can withstand some human impact, but there is a tipping point beyond which they cannot recover. Prime example, Lake Chad in West Africa, which lost 90% of its water over sixty years due to overuse, drought, and climate change. With their great capacity of destroying the environment and contributing generously to the concentration of greenhouse gases, humans, themselves, are leaving no stone unturned in hastening their end.
Cheap, relatively easy to manufacture and spread, potentially lethal with no cure — biological warfare has several advantages over other older methods of causing harm. Ask Syria and you will know how little it takes to harness chemicals and disease-causing germs and use them against localised populations. In the aftermath of 9/11, authorities were scanning almost every postal letter for traces of biological pathogens. Almost 20 years later, there are rumours that the coronavirus too was engineered in a lab and unleashed upon the world. How strange that human achievement and human folly often go hand-in-hand!
Geological evidence suggests that a massive volcanic explosion some 75,000 years ago expelled so much debris into the skies that the sun was blotted out for months and the Earth cooled down by several degrees. This may have been the trigger for another large-scale wipeout of plants and animals on earth. But will it happen again? The last one was was over 25,000 years ago in New Zealand. Warning: we may be long overdue.
A couple of space rocks are always whizzing past earth every now and then, but is there a chance that one big enough can smash into the planet and send us all packing to the netherworld? NASA says an asteroid large enough to cause substantial damage hits Earth every 120,000 years. Those that don’t die from impact are believed to die from the darkness and famine that are likely to result. Scientists also think an asteroid strike was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. We’re much, much smaller!
A future in which machines have taken over and computers rule over humanity may not sound as far-fetched now as it may have 25 years ago. The truth is that the all-pervasiveness of computers and the Internet in our lives is taking a shape and form nobody could have imagined. While James Cameron’s skin-clad killing machine and the Wachowski brothers’ dystopian human-batteries future may be too bleak to conceive just yet, who knows what days await us!
Concepts and technologies, which seem to be mundane now, would have appeared magical to those living half-a-century ago. Likewise, there is no telling now what new fantastic and destructive creations human beings will design in the future. There are also several other uncontrollable, unknowns that can determine the fate of earth: a deadly gamma ray burst from a distant star than annihilates the planet, a conquest by a superior alien race, a solar explosion...
(Sources: Getty Images and GlobalChallenges)