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The End of the World

What will be the cause?

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Nostradamus really liked to predict the end of the world. In fact, it doesn't seem like he did much else. So when analyzing the myriad threats to Earth and/or humanity--earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, Justin Bieber riots, etc ...--Ol' Nosy seems like the most appropriate barometer. Boise Weekly took a list of potential apocalypses and ranked them from 0-10 Nostradamus units, for how likely they are to be "the one."

Aliens

Two Nostradamus Units

Quantifying the risk of an alien invasion is a double-edged sword. On one hand, physicists estimate that with current technology, the fuel it would take to reach the closest star would require more matter than exists in the universe, making an invasion unlikely. But on the other hand, that means any aliens that would be able to make it to Earth would have vastly superior technology, and, in general, meetings of civilizations with differing levels of technology result in the destruction of the one that's less advanced. As Stephen Hawking warned in the Discovery Channel series Universe: "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."

Hawking also theorized that the motivations of visiting aliens would likely be to plunder natural resources or to colonize our planet. So while it's extremely unlikely that aliens will invade, if they do, we don't stand a chance.


Natural Disaster

Seven Nostradamus Units

The threat of natural disasters is tricky to rank. On their own, they carry the potential to wipe a region off the map, but when paired with technology and a globalized society, things become much more complicated. A devastating tsunami in Japan became a far bigger disaster because it hit a nuclear power plant. The right disaster in the right place can knock out supply lines or trigger a chain reaction of corresponding disasters and refugee overloads.

For example: Lake Sarez in Tajikistan is a time bomb. Formed after a rockslide created a natural dam high in the mountains, the already massive lake grows larger every year from glacial melt and will someday inevitably burst, unleashing an inland tsunami 800 feet high that will kill everything in its path and likely destroy most of the farmland in Central Asia.

Then there's Yellowstone National Park. A potential eruption of the supervolcano under the park is estimated to be 1,000 times more powerful than the Mt. Saint Helens eruption in 1980 and would likely render two-thirds of the United States too toxic to inhabit. Which two-thirds? The breadbasket, of course. A world already strapped for resources couldn't absorb a disaster like that without massive casualties from starvation.


Comet/Asteroid

Five Nostradamus Units

Research published in May identified approximately 47,000 "potentially hazardous asteroids" in our solar system. That means 47,000 space rocks with diameters larger than 330 feet that could rain hell from the sky with force far exceeding the total combined power of the world's nuclear arsenal, leveling cities, darkening skies and delivering humanity the same fate as the dinosaurs. But that isn't the scary part.

Unlike any other species in Earth's history, humans have the technological capacity to do something about it, yet are choosing not to. NASA--the world's most advanced space program and research facility--has had its budget consistently cut to the point where former astronaut Edward Tsang Lu has taken to raising several hundred million dollars independently for a satellite space telescope dedicated to spotting dangerous space rocks.

Earth is hit by an average of 1,500 space rocks per year. All it would take to finish us off is for one of them to be a little bigger.


Pandemic

Nine Nostradamus Units

Data recently released showed the swine flu outbreak of 2009-2010 may have been 15-times worse than originally thought. But that apparently isn't bad enough. Last year, scientists--having apparently never seen a science fiction movie--created a mutated version of bird flu that could easily clear Earth of humanity in a geological heartbeat, and then published the data so any religious zealot feeling the urge to cleanse Earth can easily look up how. And since viruses mutate faster than our immunities, and faster than cures are developed, we should all be walking around caked in Purell.


Zombies

Zero Nostradamus Units

After a series of bizarre incidents involving cannibalism hit the news, the Internet lit afire with chatter about a zombie apocalypse. However, while pop culture depicts zombieism as a plague that is spread through saliva, Harvard researcher Wade Davis' The Serpent and the Rainbow, the leading nonfiction book on the subject, tells a very different story.

Davis was sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to research the legends surrounding zombieism and to investigate if they involved anything that could be used as an anesthetic. Davis found that zombieism was something akin to a prison sentence handed down by a religious court to settle civil disputes, and that zombieism was not a plague, but a condition brought on by combinations of blowfish toxin and a psychedelic cucumber that induces a trancelike state. The zombies were only dead in a sociological sense, in that they were treated as outcasts.

The takeaway from this is that zombieism is not a plague, cannot be spread and involves zero of the flesh- or brain-eating activities that make it a perceived threat. Therefore, there is absolutely zero threat of a zombie apocalypse.


Religious

Zero Nostradamus Units

For there to be a religious apocalypse, there first has to be a religion that is true. And there is no shortage of religions claiming to be the one true way and offering mutually exclusive takes on how the end will come.

The problem is that while the philosophy of a particular religion may have truth, religious claims about the apocalypse are not philosophical statements on moral values, they are objective assertions of fact. Will the world end? Yes or no. How will it end? Through process X. And no religion on Earth has yet provided substantive hard data to back up its claims. For God to destroy the Earth, God must first exist. Not as a matter of faith, but as a matter of fact.

And to religion's collective ire, the vast abundance of physical scientific data we do have runs contrary to its collective factual claims. Especially when it comes to apocalypses. Religious figures have been predicting the end of the world for all of recorded history and they have yet to be correct. (See the Apocalypse Timeline beginning on Page 13.) As such, without any verifiable credible threat, and without any credible consensus on which God or set of gods would even be responsible, and with a long history of failed predictions, we rank the threat of a religious apocalypse at zero Nostradamus units.


Robots

Four Nostradamus Units

It is not a question of if, but when artificial intelligence will be created. And when it does, there are serious philosophical questions to be asked. A panel of experts in Europe has already unveiled the Robot Ethics Charter, which calls for a robot bill of rights, something which is easy to ridicule. But if robots are to live and work beside us as a parallel species--and one that may be superior to us in many ways--history tells us that keeping certain classes oppressed inevitably leads to revolt.

The chances of humanity winning a war against a more durable species is unlikely. Science fiction like The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica and A.I. are futurist scenarios as much as they are entertainment. When artificial intelligence is developed, humanity will be forced to decide whether to keep it imprisoned and shackled by design--a leaky bucket destined to rupture--or to let it be free and grant it equal legal and political standing, something that, because of technology's ability to evolve faster than we do, could quickly lead to us no longer being the fittest in a Darwinian sense. If we struggle to peacefully co-exist with other humans, it is no small question to ask how we could possibly hope to do so with another dominant species.


Nuclear War

Three Nostradamus Units

In the conclusion to his 2008 docudrama Religulous, comedian Bill Maher said that what concerns him is that humanity developed the technology to destroy the world before it outgrew the mentality that its destruction would be a good thing. He was talking about nuclear weapons and religion. And he wasn't just spouting off. Former President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have little in common, with the exception that they both are members of religions with strong end-time ideologies, and they had access to nuclear programs. The same can be said of Pakistan, India, Israel and all nuclear-armed states. And the end-times ideologies that the leaders of those states practice pale compared to those of the non-state actors attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.

President Barack Obama said in 2010 that the threat of nuclear war has passed, but he was quite adamant that the threat of proliferation endures. And as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a risk of not one, but all of them going off, as their existence is based on a principle of deterrent for fear of mutually assured destruction.

There are more than 5,000 nuclear warheads in the world, and no shortage of people actively seeking more. Iranian nuclear scientists may be getting assassinated left and right on the street, but the knowledge genie is out of the bottle, and that means it is only a matter of time until one is developed independent of the United Nations Security Council. And while only the suicidal would detonate one, all it takes is one. And there is no shortage of power-hungry suicidal people in the world.


Biosphere Collapse

Three Nostradamus Units

The Earth is like a machine, with everything on it serving the role of a cog or piece of some sort. What makes humanity unique from other species on Earth is that we are the only ones that randomly pluck pieces out of the engine or throw other pieces of flotsam back in. We create compounds that exist outside of the ecological loop at a frightening pace, setting the stage for a vicious domino effect.


Economic Collapse

Eight Nostradamus Units

Um, don't know if you noticed or not, but this is happening around you right now. Beyond just the financial collapse, the digital age we are in the midst of is an economic and societal change larger and faster-moving than the industrial revolution.

One of the major effects is that technology is actively undermining the demand for labor, which is, in turn, undermining the consumer base, which then further contracts the labor market and so on.

Technology does not have to replace every worker to send us into an economic death spiral, just hobbling the economy severely enough will make it implode. And as we depend primarily on the market for our physiological needs (food, water, housing), economic collapse brings with it the threat of mass starvation. So you may have a mattress stuffed with $100 bills, but a fat lot of good that will do you when the only currency is good-looking daughters and kidneys.

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