Persistent players in my inner fantasy world seem to make an appearance in popular culture at regular intervals. In this case, not so much fantasy but nightmare. Imagine the end of the world. Really. Not kidding. It could happen. Most people don’t believe that. I believe there is a mechanism hidden from conscious view that regulates how we process death and this also connects with our children, all children, ergo species extinction. For any self-aware being the ultimate horror is oblivion and approaching death in our minds automatically generates absolute terror. Yet…most of us would lay down our lives for our loved ones, especially our children, without much hesitation. We cannot understand exactly why we must deny death because…we are designed that way. We will risk our lives engaging in risky behavior like riding motorcycles (I did for years) and drinking and other bad habits and delude ourselves that somehow the reality of what we are doing is not important. So it follows it is a fact we simply cannot wrap our heads around why we are driven by invisible agents to do so many illogical things. The ancients knew this and blamed it on “the gods.” I am high in openness according to my Big Five profile and thus prey to endlessly questioning what is going on inside my head. One of those things always in the back of my mind is Extinction Level Events (ELEs).
So there is what I call, having nothing to do with the Big Five, the “Big Three” possible ELEs, which are 1) an engineered pathogen, 2) a comet or asteroid impact, and 3) a super-volcano epic. I watched the trailer for the movie Greenland and did not feel good about it. An impact could throw enough material into the atmosphere to block out the sun for years to come and this is also the danger with a super-volcano. A big enough impact or a long enough volcanic epic and all mega-fauna on Earth could disappear- as it almost did in the Permian extinction. In regards to pathogens it is similar in concept to think of a particularly nasty bug killing off a third of the population but, as with most impacts or volcanic events, the majority of life survives. While there is nothing we know of that says a big impact or volcanic epic, or even a volcanic epic triggered by an impact- cannot wipe out life on earth, diseases do leave survivors because a 100 percent lethal pathogen would render itself extinct.
This is where our playing with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) would make it fairly easy to extinguish ourselves with a engineered 100 percent lethal pathogen. So in my view the engineered pathogen is the biggest danger to our species. It is terrible to think of a large impact or super-volcano killing off 99 percent of the human race but that would leave 78 million alive. Even if only one out of every 100,000 human beings were to survive that would leave a completely viable population of 78,000 left to repopulate the planet. It is only when numbers drop below about 2500 is a population in danger of not being genetically viable. If only one in a million human beings (7800) survived a catastrophe that would be well over twice as many needed for a viable gene pool. Unfortunately seven thousand people would not be left if an engineered pathogen were to be released. Nobody would be left.
On the bright side even the 2500 minimum gene pool number is not really the lower limit as sperm banks can cut that in half again if all the survivors are females. Careful genetic screening would allow the human race to start all over again with as few as 1000 females. The trick it where to start over if we can no longer live on Earth. It is easy to assume if a pathogen can be engineered then so can a vaccine but this may not be the case. Earth may become uninhabitable for centuries or millennia and since humans require Earth gravity to thrive no other natural bodies in the solar system are available as a second home. We would have to create new worlds. Thank you Gerard K. O’Neill.
We do not maintain a population of one thousand young females in outer space in case the world comes to an end. It is well within our ability to construct miles-in-diameter-hollow-artificial-moons that can sustain ecosystems large enough to support populations in the thousands. It will take at least a half a century and a massive investment of resources to set up the industrial infrastructure on the Moon to manufacture space habitats. In the meantime there is a way to keep a Moon work force healthy and that is rotating them up to Low Lunar Frozen Orbit (LLFO) space stations to be periodically rehabilitated with artificial gravity. To maintain the health of a thousand women in shielded stations with tether generated artificial gravity would require an undetermined number of “Fat Workshops” in LLFO. If ten percent would have to be in orbit at a time and a station could accommodate ten people then ten stations would be required. That is a completely arbitrary guess as I have no idea what percentage of the work force would have to be in rehab.
As I have written several times, any extraterrestrials observing us would consider us too stupid to survive. If we at least had a self-supporting off-world “Survival Colony” of those one thousand young females then they might shake whatever we would consider their heads and say we were not too smart (but maybe smart enough). It would puzzle observers from other stars that we have plenty of nuclear weapons, which are perfect devices for deflecting impact threats and also lifting large masses off the surface of the Moon for use in space habitat construction, but we only use them to threaten each other with destruction. Crazy.