The 10 biggest threats to human existence

The 10 biggest threats to human existence

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By Larry Schwartz

Several hundred million years ago, a very casual conjunction of circumstances - the existence of water, air, and mild average temperatures - allowed life to emerge on Earth. Since then, a necessarily slow evolution allowed the appearance of zoological and botanical species such as those we know today. This was possible thanks to a very fragile, and always threatened balance of the conditions necessary for the continuation of life cycles.

That balance is about to be broken, if it hasn't already been broken. Three days ago, some media reported that an indigenous people living in Panama, in an archipelago of some 35 islands, has considered evacuating them little by little because their islands are being swallowed up by the sea. In other words, climate change - the main global threat - is not something that might happen in the future but something that is happening right now.

Of course, nothing has contributed as much to the possibility of breaking that balance as capitalism –predator, destroyer of ecosystems, squandering and exhausting of resources, and interested only in immediate benefit–, whose ambition is “infinite progress”. Infinite progress in a finite resource environment does not appear to be a smart and sustainable equation.

A few days ago also, the day of Pachamama was celebrated, which is not so much a religion of the ancestors of the central Andes of South America as a conception of the world, of being in and with it, that is, a notion of the “Good living”, whose main values ​​are care and respect. The care and respect for the earth and everything that lives on it. At the end of the day, care and respect are the main ingredients of any love relationship.

The series The Living Dead of the American TV channel AMC is at the top of what is called "the spirit of the time", that is, the intellectual and cultural climate of the time: it is one of the most popular series. In the series, a virus has wreaked havoc on Earth and killed most of humanity; one day, the corpses are resurrected to terrorize the few people who are still alive. Although it is a huge entertainment, it shows us the most likely scenario of the end of the human race. Despite the presence of Dick Cheney, zombies are not credible. However, the end of humanity can be a very real thing. While it is very difficult to imagine a world without "us", there are several scenarios that are contemplating us, right here, right now - it is not necessary to look for them very far - that can destroy all, or almost all, human beings, leaving behind a barren land to be claimed by Mother Nature. Here are some of the possible ways in which the reign of man - and woman - can end, without the need for zombies. Many environmentalists think that we have already passed the point where there is no return. Once we have passed a certain limit, the Earth will continue to warm even if we manage to cut our CO2 emissions.

1. Global climate change

Climate change is the protagonist in all the scenarios in which the human presence on Earth ends. Despite what those who deny it may believe, climate change is very real. It is caused by humans with the little help of cattle herds that - with their wind speeds - release methane, in addition to the gigantic methane deposit that is under the Arctic ice. As we burn coal and increase our consumption of beef, more and more greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. It is very easy to see the end of the game in this scenario. Take a telescope and look at Venus, a planet with a thick atmosphere that traps heat from the Sun; on the surface of Venus, the temperature is so high that it can melt lead. A few decades ago, climate scientist James Hanson studied Venus and saw certain parallels with what is happening on Earth. What he saw alarmed him; In 1988, he spoke on this issue before the United States Congress to warn our government that unless we changed our habits around burning coal, we were heading straight for disaster. Hanson was only heard by one senator: Al Gore.

Meanwhile, coal continued to burn and CO2 continued to rise; The result is a slow increase in the planet's average temperature, despite occasional winter frosts. On average, the Earth's temperature has been rising steadily since the Industrial Revolution led to a frenzy in coal burning. The hottest years in history have been the last decade.

Writer and environmental activist Hill McKibben describes the situation: “The ice on the Arctic ice cap is melting (and releasing more greenhouse gas), the huge glacier covering Greenland is thinning; both circumstances occur at a rate that we did not expect and it puzzles us. The acidity of the oceans has increased and its level is rising… The power of storms, hurricanes and cyclones on the planet has increased… Heavy acid rains in the Amazon are drying out marginal areas… The extensive boreal forests of North America are they are dying in recent years… [The] new planet looks more or less the way we knew it, but clearly it is no longer the same ”.

Many environmentalists think that we have already passed the point where there is no return. Once we have passed a certain limit, the Earth will continue to warm even if we manage to cut our CO2 emissions. What we do know is that if we don't start reducing the amount of CO2 we put into the air, and at least minimize the damage, the planetary-sized disaster is assured.

2. The loss of biodiversity

If we don't contribute to our own extinction, another path to the end of time is a by-product of climate change: the loss of biodiversity. Human activity is responsible for the extinction of countless species that live on planet Earth. The Environmental News Service reported as early as 1999 that “the current extinction rate is approaching 1,000 times the environmental rate [which would be considered the normal rate of extinction] and could rise to 10,000 times the environmental rate during the next 100 years, if the current trend continues [resulting in] a loss that could equal that of past extinctions. "

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a major environmental report published in 2005, reported that between 10 and 30 percent of the planet's mammals, birds and reptiles are in danger of extinction due to human activity, activity that includes the deforestation (with the consequent destruction of habitats), CO2 emissions (acid rains), overexploitation (for example, overfishing in the seas) and the introduction of exotic species (such as the boa constrictor in Everglades, Florida). "These rapid extinctions are very likely to precipitate the collapse of ecosystems on a global scale," said Jann Suurkula, Director of Physicists and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology. “This is expected to produce large-scale agricultural problems, threatening the availability of food for hundreds of millions of people. This ecological prediction does not take into account the effects of global warming, which will only aggravate the situation ”.

Reptiles, such as toads and salamanders, are considered the “indicator species”, that is, they provide important signals about the health of an ecosystem. Right now, the population of toads, like other reptiles, is rapidly declining. In any ecosystem, the disappearance of one species affects the others, which depended on the extinct species for food and perhaps other vital needs. When there is a sudden and massive extinction of several species, a chain reaction of catastrophic consequences occurs. So far there have been five huge extinctions in Earth's history; many scientists say we are in the middle of the sixth planetary extinction. "We are entering uncharted territory of marine ecosystem change and exposing many creatures to intolerable evolutionary pressure," states the State of the Oceans (IPSO) Report, which is published every two years. The next mass extinction may have already begun. What can happen? Well, in the worst of them, 250 million years ago, 96 percent of marine life disappeared and 70 percent of terrestrial life died. What can we expect from the sixth mass extinction? Surely, we would rather not have to find out.

3. The disappearance of the bees

The bees are dying; lots of them, due to "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD). “One third of what we, the inhabitants of the Earth, eat depends on pollinating agents –among them, bees–; profitable harvests require bees, ”says Elizabeth Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health. To produce food, plants depend on the dispersal of pollen from their flowers. The bees take care of that, to pollinate. If there are no bees, there is no food (or at least all the necessary). In the last 10 years, as much as 50 percent of hives in the United States and Europe have died. The death of bees is suspected to be due to a chemical called neonicotinoid, a component of pesticides used on a large scale in commercial agriculture. The chemical agent is believed to affect the bees' sense of direction, preventing them from returning to their hive.

If there is less pollen in the hives, fewer queens are produced and eventually the colony dies. After the European Food Safety Agency concluded that these pesticides pose a “high risk” to the honey bee, the European Commission has banned them. However, the United States has declined to join Europe in banning neonicotinoids and has hinted at other possible causes for CCD, including parasites. Meanwhile, Nero continues to play the violin and Rome burns; and the bees are disappearing fast. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which severe food shortages lead to great famines, wars and the extinction of humans.

4. The disappearance of bats

Bees are not the only pollinators dying. The bats are also dropping like flies. As a result of deforestation, habitat destruction and hunting, all combined with the spread of a mycosis called "white snout syndrome", bats are disappearing at an alarming rate. In addition to its contribution to the pollination crisis, the declining bat population anticipates another scenario of possible extinction of human life. As their habitats are destroyed, more and more bats and humans cross their paths in search of food and shelter. And with the bats come the bat viruses. "It's very easy to see how pathogens can jump from animals to humans," says Jon Epstein at the EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving biodiversity. On average, five new infectious diseases emerge each year, and about 75 percent of them come from animals. Deadly ills, such as Ebola, are already suspected to have originated among bats. Could some new pathogen - mortal to humans - mutate from bats and decimate humanity?

5. Pandemics

The previous point brings us to an extinction scenario that is related: a global pandemic. New diseases appear every day; some of them have the potential to devastate the population. In 1918, a strain of flu spread throughout the world, killing between 20 and 50 million people, more than those who had died in World War I. In 2002-2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) came close to becoming a global pandemic; It is not inconceivable that in times when so many air travels are made and the world is so interconnected, other infectious germs could present themselves with a virulence and transmission capacity as to decimate, if not annihilate, the human population. "No virus is interested in the death of all its hosts, therefore it is unlikely that a virus will destroy the human race," says María Zambón, a virologist at the Laboratory of the Agency for Protection Against Flu, "but it can cause misfortune that lasts a few years. We can never be fully prepared to face the vicissitudes of nature: nature is the worst bioterrorist.

6. Biological or nuclear terrorism

In the meantime, there are many terrorists - some more uninhibited, others more common - whose ultimate aspiration is to seize a weapon of mass destruction, such as a nuclear device or a blister of influenza virus. "Today's society is more vulnerable to terrorism because it is easy for a group with malicious intentions to obtain the materials, technology and expertise necessary to make a weapon of mass destruction," says Paul Wilkinson, director of the advisory council of the Center of Studies on Terrorism and Political Violence from the University of St. Andrew. “Most likely, right now, a large-scale terrorist attack capable of causing mass death will use a chemical or biological weapon. The large-scale release of something like anthrax, the flu virus, or the plague would have a formidable effect, and modern communications would soon make it a problem that would not respect any borders. There is a high possibility that, at the end of our lives, a major attack will occur somewhere in the world. "

When it comes to a nuclear attack, with the increase in the number of unstable countries such as Pakistan or North Korea that possess nuclear weapons, the possibility that one of them falls into the hands of a terrorist group is only a matter of time.

7. The supervolcanoes

There are volcanoes, and there are also supervolcanoes. “On Earth, a supervolcano erupts roughly every 50,000 years. More than a thousand square kilometers of land can be washed away by rivers of pyroclastic lava, much more surface around it can be covered with ash and tons and tons of sulfurous gases are released into the atmosphere that create a veil of sulfuric acid around the entire planet; this veil would reject the sun's rays for years. In the daylight hours there would be no more light than there is on a full moon night. "

This charming setting is brought to us by Hill McGuire, director of the Benfield Center for Risk Research at University College London. About 74,000 years ago the most violent eruption of a supervolcano occurred in Indonesia, in the Toba region, near the Equator; this caused the gases to soon spread through both hemispheres. Sunlight didn't reach Earth, and temperatures dropped around the world for the next five or six years, even below freezing in tropical regions. Statistically, the probability of a supervolcano eruption exceeds 12 times that of an asteroid impact. Known supervolcanoes are in Yellowstone National Park, USA, and in the Toba region, Sumatra, Indonesia. There are also those we do not know ...

8. Asteroid impact

Recent movies, like Deep Impact or Armageddon, have made a spectacle of this scenario of human extinction: an asteroid hitting Earth. Holywood is Holywood, but in 2013, without warning, a real asteroid hit Chalyabinsk, Russia. At about 20 meters, it penetrated the Earth's atmosphere at more than 40,000 miles per hour. Thanks to its relatively small size and the angle at which it arrived, the damage was minor. But what if an asteroid - nothing out of the ordinary - a mile in diameter had touched Earth at that speed? It is possible that it would have wiped out the human race. The terrible explosion would have produced a cloud of dust so thick that sunlight would have been blocked, plant life and crops would have died and the incandescent pieces of boulder would have caused firestorms across the planet.

This has already happened at least once. The most likely reason that we no longer see dinosaurs among us is that they were swept away by a phenomenon of this nature. NASA's Donald Yeomans says: "We believe that, on average, an event like that can occur every million years."

9. The presence of the machine

To present our next scenario we return to Holywood. The films of the Terminator series entertain us with their own killer androids of a future in which war has been left in the hands of super-intelligent machines. Very well, that has not arrived yet, but as we have programs that increase the "intelligence" of our computers, increasing their capacity exponentially each year, the possibility that they will become smarter than us is only a matter of time. . Today we entrust computers with the management of merchandise stocks, the landing of airplanes, the correction of our writings, the search for the topics that interest us and the calculation of the tip that we leave in the restaurant. In their development, robots have the same appearance as us, they speak like us and, like us, they are able to recognize facial features. To the extent that we incorporate the thoughts and memories that we carry on our hard drive, that is, our "uniqueness", how long until they supplant us? How long before these machines have their own consciousness?

Ray Kurzwell, a writer interested in futurology, believes that by 2029 computers will be as smart as we are and that by 2045 they will be vastly smarter than human beings. Then what? Could you decide that you don't need us anymore? It can also happen that we are the ones who decide. It seems like a lot of anticipation, but there are very intelligent people who move in this scenario; people like the great physicist Stephen Hawkin, who says, "The danger that [supercomputers] can develop intelligence is real."

10. The zombie apocalypse

I know. I said zombies don't exist. But there is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This little bug infects rats, but is only able to reproduce in the intestines of cats, so it has developed a clever trick and taken control of the rat's brain to force it to move near a cat. Naturally, the cat eats the rat and is happy. The parasite is also happy because it manages to reproduce in the cat's intestine. And the rat? The rat is not so happy, as you might suppose. Why would we have to worry about the happiness of the rats? Because actually, rats and humans are very similar, and this is why we use rats for medical experiments. And humans become infected with Toxoplasma gondii. In fact, half of the Earth's population is infected with this parasite. But it happens that Toxoplasma gondii does not affect humans as it does the rat. But what if it affected you ?; viruses mutate. Viruses are manipulated in biological weapons laboratories. Suddenly half the population would not be immune to them. Half of the population infected and unable to think rationally. Suddenly, something very similar to the zombies. "No; it is impossible to happen ”, we say to ourselves. But what if it happened?

Translated from English by Carlos Riba García


Video: The Biggest Threats to Humanity (July 2022).


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