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Thread: More on Doomsday

  1. #1
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    I've just been watching the BBC TV series "Survivors" again, about a virus that wipes out 95% of the world's population. Given that such a scenario is not very likely (I hope!), I got to wondering about the possible effects of comet/asteroid/meteorite* impact upon the Earth, a far more possible event. My question is, what percentage of the total world population would need to be killed in such an event or it's immediate aftermath for civilisation to collapse?
    This is sort of working backwards from the event, saying "Oh, 250 million people would become casualties from the impact of an object of X thousand/million tonnes", so I'm not really asking how big the impactor is.
    Does this make sense? I imagine that other, rather sharper, minds have asked the same question in a better way when calculating the possibilities of such events, but I'm curious. [img]/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_confused.gif[/img]

  2. #2
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    Sorry, but I asterisked "meteorite" because I know that this is the correct term for such an object. How do I know? WHy, I looked it up in a handy dandy book close to had called "Bad Astronomy"! [img]/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_biggrin.gif[/img]

  3. #3
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    There have been some experiments involving mice, et cetera, to determine what the minimum population of unrelated people is needed to create a viable civilization. The answers are highly variable, depending on which assumptions are made. When people are available for mating, to whom, rate of pregnancy, mortality rate of children and mothers, diet and other factors affect the outcome greatly.

    From what I understand, the values are that a population of 50-100 could start a viable civilization in a controlled environment, such as a zoo, or a multigenerational spacecraft sent to colonize other worlds. In non ideal environments, as would exist after a civilization-shattering calamity, an initial population from several hundred up to several thousand would be needed.

    Mind you that according to the geological record, the human race was brought to its knees a few times, in one case approaching a population as few as 10,000 people. We weren't exactly at the knife's edge of extinction, but we were close.

  4. #4
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    And then there are those that think a comet impact could bring a virus that would kill us.

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    Wouldn't that also depend on the place where the impact took place: developed country vs. third world country, capital city vs. less important city, etc...?
    And I think we shouldn't confuse survival with civilization. One conceivable scenario would be that the human species would survive, but suffer some sort of economical crisis that set the level of civilization back some decades...



    <font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: informant on 2002-04-06 07:41 ]</font>

  6. #6
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    Good point, informant. There may be enough breed stock (to put it callously) to avoid extinction but damage to the infrastructure might set us back to horse-and-oxen power for a while. Severely damaged seaports and ships, no distribution of oil, no truck or diesel train transport, no coal delivery to coal-fired electric plants, etc.

    On the other hand, humans are rather stunningly innovative, so smart chaps may find ways to stop the domino effect short of total collapse. Never, ever bet against the race that brought Apollo 13 back from the far side of the Moon, that's my take on it.

    --Don Stahl

  7. #7
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    (slightly off-topic)
    On 2002-04-06 16:30, DStahl wrote:
    Good point, informant. There may be enough breed stock (to put it callously) to avoid extinction but damage to the infrastructure might set us back to horse-and-oxen power for a while. Severely damaged seaports and ships, no distribution of oil, no truck or diesel train transport, no coal delivery to coal-fired electric plants, etc.
    I think 3rd world countries might survice an impact far better than any of the "western civillized" countries. In a third world countrie there simply isn't as much infrastructure to destroy as in, say, the USA, and most people there are used to use everything they can get to survive.
    But if the USA (or Germany, where I live) would suffer a loss of most of it's infrastructure, the consequences would be worse.
    Many people (including me [img]/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_wink.gif[/img]) dont know how to live without electricity and a constant supply of fresh water, or how to get food without a supermarket.

    Or is there a error in my thoughts?

  8. #8
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    On 2002-04-07 10:10, Timm wrote:
    (
    I think 3rd world countries might survice an impact far better than any of the "western civillized" countries. In a third world countrie there simply isn't as much infrastructure to destroy as in, say, the USA, and most people there are used to use everything they can get to survive.
    But if the USA (or Germany, where I live) would suffer a loss of most of it's infrastructure, the consequences would be worse.
    Many people (including me [img]/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_wink.gif[/img]) dont know how to live without electricity and a constant supply of fresh water, or how to get food without a supermarket.

    Or is there a error in my thoughts?
    I would agree with you: one of the downsides of complex technology is that, if it fails, you tend to be a lot worse off than when simpler technology fails. For example, it's a lot easier to fix a 60's-era car with a problem than a 90's-era car, because the former is much more comprehensible.
    Everything I need to know I learned through Googling.

  9. #9
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    Timm,

    I agree... and disagree.

    I think it would all depend on just how disruptive the catastrophe turned out to be. A relatively minor strike might cause primarily local damage, and regions outside the impact area would be relatively unaffected. Undeveloped areas would probably do very well in such a case.

    However, a Chicxulub-size impact would have devastating climatic effects, perhaps darkening the skies long enough to wipe out one or even several growing seasons. The whole food chain could collapse... and since we humans are sitting at the top of it, we'd have a long, long fall.

    In that case, the only human survivors (if any) would probably come from the developed world, where we could apply technology (nuclear energy, underground complexes, and so on) to our survival. A lot of the third world is already on the razor's edge of making it. That kind of global disruption would be essentially unsurvivable for a subsistence farmer or hunter-gatherer.

  10. #10
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    On 2002-04-07 11:01, Donnie B. wrote:
    In that case, the only human survivors (if any) would probably come from the developed world, where we could apply technology (nuclear energy, underground complexes, and so on) to our survival. A lot of the third world is already on the razor's edge of making it. That kind of global disruption would be essentially unsurvivable for a subsistence farmer or hunter-gatherer.
    I don't know. An opposite argument could be made also. It could be that the developed world is now so dependent on it's technology that anything disrupting it could be devastating. Mostly, we are dependent upon oil for most of our power generation, and a (im)properly placed impact such as in the mid-east could disrupt everything.

    In contrast, those in the 3rd world are already used to living on the edge. Surely they will suffer heavy casualties, but it could be argued that they would be better equipped to handle loss.

    Who knows really. I think it'd most probably be close to what Niven/Pournelle wrote up in Lucifer's Hammer, initial chaos, but organization would eventually come back, at least in the more stable areas.


    addition:
    Whups. Failed to notice that this was addressed just above. Oh, well. My last point stands at least.
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    <font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: David Hall on 2002-04-07 12:31 ]</font>

  11. #11
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    (...)However, a Chicxulub-size impact would have devastating climatic effects, perhaps darkening the skies long enough to wipe out one or even several growing seasons. The whole food chain could collapse... and since we humans are sitting at the top of it, we'd have a long, long fall.

    In that case, the only human survivors (if any) would probably come from the developed world, where we could apply technology (nuclear energy, underground complexes, and so on) to our survival. A lot of the third world is already on the razor's edge of making it. That kind of global disruption would be essentially unsurvivable for a subsistence farmer or hunter-gatherer.
    Good point...
    I didn't think of that. The vision of our complete everyday-life technology rendered useless because of the impact drowned that thought [img]/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_wink.gif[/img].
    But I think that's only possible with a lot of preperation, after the impact it's too late. Nothing in the size of a huge bunker can be build (built? argh.) in that Chaos.
    Maybe it's time to start an Organisation for that?

  12. #12
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    Actually, one of the points made in "Survivors" is that we Western metropolitan types have no idea of how the infrastructure around us is composed - a nice scene occurs when a character picks up a stainless steel knife and points out that it took hundreds of people to collectively mine the iron ore, smelt and refine it, cast it, transport and distribute it. Those who survive a catastrophe such as an asteroid impact would have the immediate resources of planet Earth to draw upon, but after that generation, what then? (a theme also addressed in another apocalypse SF novel, The Day of the Triffids).
    That exactly where the impactor hits is important, I have no doubt. After all, if that event over Tunguska had taken place a little earlier or later, world history would definitely be different!
    Memo to self: how about lobbying the government about supporting Spaceguard?

  13. #13
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    I read a science fiction story about an alien who becomes stranded on Earth and is trying to fix the spaceship. But before he can fix it he has to build the tools to fix it, and before he can build the tools he has to build the tools to build the tools, and so on....

    Basically, he's stuck.

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  14. #14
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    ToSeek,
    I've read that story! It's a good one, though rather sad for the poor stranded alien. Can't remember who wrote it, though. Asimov, maybe? Definitely one of the "classic" SF authors.

    Timm,
    Actually, we already have some survival facilities in place, which were designed to protect key government agencies and individuals in the event of nuclear attack. These were shut down for awhile after the end of the Cold War but have recently been reactivated in the wake of 9/11.

    They would not hold more than a relative handful of the population, though; if a really big strike occurred with little or no warning, things would be tough all over.

    One thing that would work in the favor of any survivors (compared to a nuclear holocaust): no radiation to contend with. You could leave your shelter to forage within days or weeks of the impact.

  15. #15
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    On 2002-04-07 10:10, Timm wrote:

    I think 3rd world countries might survice an impact far better than any of the "western civillized" countries. In a third world countrie there simply isn't as much infrastructure to destroy
    I think you would be surprised to see the amount of infrastructure in an average third world country. "Third World" is a very simplified concept. Only in a small region of this planet (Sub-Saharian Africa) you are going to find a "pure" third world country. Mexico, Brazil, India are third world countries, right? Then go to Mexico city, São Paulo, etc. You will find that there are features in such regions which are undistinguishable from any "civilized" region. A German would feel at home in the southern Brazil. I bet that a dweller in such regions will suffer as much as a Berliner the failure of the civilization.

    By the way. I don't think we need an impactor from outer space to destroy the civilization. The decadent uses, the depletion of the environment, the racism, the terrorism, the mass media, etc, in the ultra-civilized countries, are sypmtoms of the beginning of disruption of the civilized order.


    <font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Argos on 2002-04-08 08:47 ]</font>

  16. #16
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    History is already replete with examples of catastrophes that decimated huge numbers of a given population. 140 years ago, civil war wiped out 500,000 in the United States (at the time, that was a significant percentage of the fledgling democracy). The dark ages saw plagues that wiped out around a third (I've read elsewhere up to half) of the population. And WWII wiped out tens of millions in Europe and Asia. And in each case, the old social order (often feudal caste systems) was thrown down and replaced often with something better. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS continues to kill millions, and no social change seems anywhere in sight.
    I would say it really depends on where and how big of a catastrophe we are talking about. I would say a democratic nation could survive the loss of upwards of 90% of its population and still retain some glint of its former glory because the survivors grew up under a mostly trustworthy system and would want another one to replace it. (Remember that Australia is about the same size as the United States but with 7% of the population.) Whereas people who lived under a far more corrupt system would use a much smaller disturbance in the social order (even a small fluctuation in the currency value) as an excuse to overthrow the entire regime.


  17. #17
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    On 2002-04-09 10:07, Bob S. wrote:
    History is already replete with examples of catastrophes that decimated huge numbers of a given population.... But in Sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS continues to kill millions, and no social change seems anywhere in sight.
    One other possible distinction, Bob: AIDS, in general, is a lingering death that allows for an on-going dialogue lasting years or even decades. It's much harder to pull a society down when its members have plenty of time--even while dying--to pass on a legacy. So I don't believe that this is truly comparable to your other examples: most of the medieval plagues, such as the Black Death, killed in a matter of days; and death-by-war tends to be a rather quick death, as well. People are wiped out by these factors quickly, often in the prime of life, with little or no time to pass anything on; when the deaths are widespread enough, a social change is almost inevitable.

    Just my take on it, and not intended to totally oppose your point.

    The (personally, I'd prefer a quick death) Curtmudgeon

  18. #18
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    you all forget the immediate effects the collision will have with the environment. how about radiation? people will surely be "wiped out" in a sense of entire genetic change... humans will be replaced by a whole different species.. as well as the environment. who says people will not start giving birth to multiplets and be able to sustain life on a minimal amount of food?
    oh, and we are not at the head of the food chain. we do not eat everyone else, though i guess we are capable of it.
    A word about the third world coutries... some of the peoples wouldn't even know about the catastrophe!!! living in a blissfull oblivion.
    cheers,
    Leo


    <font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: leopold on 2002-04-17 11:04 ]</font>

  19. #19
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    As others have said, there is a difference between survival of the species and survival of civilization as we know it.

    I think that it would take pretty close to a planet sterilizing impact to destroy the human race. We are an unspecialized, highly adaptable species.

    Civilization is much more fragile. It would not take much to knock us clear back to the stone age within a couple of generations. How long it would take to climb back up would depend a lot on how much of our accumulated knowledge survived and how many retained the ability to access it. The current trend toward electronic data media does not bode well for such a future. Anybody who can read can access the data in a book. Data on a CD-ROM is inaccessible without hightech equipment.

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    <font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Kaptain K on 2002-04-16 16:17 ]</font>

  20. #20
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    On 2002-04-16 16:14, Kaptain K wrote:
    As others have said, there is a difference between survival of the species and survival of civilization as we know it.

    I think that it would take pretty close to a planet sterilizing impact to destroy the human race. We are an unspecialized, highly adaptable species.

    Civilization is much more fragile. It would not take much to knock us clear back to the stone age within a couple of generations. How long it would take to climb back up would depend a lot on how much of our accumulated knowledge survived and how many retained the ability to access it. The current trend toward electronic data media does not bode well for such a future. Anybody who can read can access the data in a book. Data on a CD-ROM is inaccessible without hightech equipment.

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    <font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Kaptain K on 2002-04-16 16:17 ]</font>
    Whoah! That's a scary thought, that all our expensive computer technology is actually making us more vulnerable to such an event.
    On the other hand ... wouldn't agencies in charge of planning for nuclear war have taken effects like EMP into account? At a guess, they would have stockpiled hard copies of relevant information (aka "books")for the survivors to access. And printed the books on plastic, maybe, to ensure they survived damp, handling, bugs, etc.
    Hmm. There's probably a niche market there for a printer who can contact the DoD the MoD!

  21. #21
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    On 2002-04-16 16:14, Kaptain K wrote:

    The current trend toward electronic data media does not bode well for such a future. Anybody who can read can access the data in a book. Data on a CD-ROM is inaccessible without hightech equipment.
    One of the subtexts in Frederik Pohl's great Gateway series of science fiction novels is the discovery of alien technology (bases with long-distance transportation mechanisms) out in space, complete with little crystalline, "fan-like" objects. Everyone realizes that the objects have got to be some sort of data storage medium because of where they are found, but it's driving everyone nuts because they know the data on them is bound to be priceless but have no idea how to access it.


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  22. #22
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    You need to reread the series. The "fan like objects" are called "prayer fans" because nobody knows what they are. It isn't until late in the series that their purpose is discovered.

  23. #23
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    On 2002-04-16 15:18, Leopold wrote:
    you all forget the immediate effects the collision will have with the environment. how about radiation?
    Well, if we're talking about nuclear (Nu -CLE-ur, it's pronounced nu-CLE-ur. [img]/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_wink.gif[/img] ) destruction, then we have a radiation problem, but if it's just a comet or something, the genes are safe. Until we all die horrible starving deaths. Well, I guess that's comforting.

    Ben I don't even camp Benoy


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