There are over 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and the galaxy is over 10 billion years old. If at any time in the last 1 billion years one single civilization arose in this galaxy and it took 10,000 years to spread to a mere 2 other star systems, and repeated the cycle, it would cover every star in the galaxy within 400,000 years. This could have happened more than a million times all ready. So where are they? This is the Fermi Paradox, and the startling observation that no intelligent life seems to have spread throughout the galaxy in all this time could be a disturbing omen. Is life so rare that it never arises and spreads? Or is it perhaps that life once it becomes intelligent almost always destroys itself? We don’t know, but just as any rational person mitigates risk and takes out insurance policies, so should all humans adopt an insurance policy for humanity, and attempt to mitigate the ultimate existential threats posted by natural or man made catastrophes - many of which are well outside the realm of public consciousness. The Lifeboat Foundation seeks to raise awareness on these threats and develop strategies to mitigate, and ultimately eliminate, the threats they pose to humanity. Below are some of the commonly recognized possibly existential threats that Humanity, civilization, and life on Earth face.
Anthropogenic Global Warming
Man made carbon dioxide and other green house gases are argued to be causing a run away greenhouse effect, ultimately disrupting the global climate and ecological balance to such a degree that massive extinctions and general disruption make human life impossible. Could accelerating climate change in the 21st century become so severe that it leads to the end of human civilization?
Grey Goo or Ecophage
Scientists are just beginning to look seriously at a potential future risk caused by self-replicating nanotechnological devices, also known as nanites. The machines, like mechanical cells, are built atom and by atom, and copy themselves like small factories by taking material and energy from the environment. Is it feasible that within the next 100 years, biomass or sunlight-fueled autonomous nanites will be created, and their deliberate or accidental release could directly or indirectly result in destruction of the Earth’s biosphere and the end of civilization, and possibly life on Earth. It is also possible that ‘wet wear’ is the only feasible manner to physically make a self replicating machine, thus limited the strength and potential of nanotechnological self replicating devices to ones similar of natural cells, and vulnerable to toxins and radiation.
Global pandemic, either bio engineered or natural
The 1918 Spanish flu killed 2.5 – 5% of the human population in under a year, recently the US Government published the Genome for the Spanish Flu virus a mere year after the first complete artificial life form was assembled in a laboratory from component molecules. The two could be combined to that a resourceful intelligent group could create from harmless chemicals their own supply of custom made deadly pathogens. Mosquitoes have been estimated to be responsible for the deaths of approximately half of all humans who have ever lived as these self replicating flying used needles are the primary vector of 10 of the 12 worst diseases humans can contract. Advances in biotechnology and materials science will soon allow scientists to create synthetic life forms based on chemistry foreign to traditional life. In the modern age of globalization and transcontinental flights, could a pandemenic, natural or artificial, so severe arise that it kills the majority of the human population?
Comet or Asteroid Impact
Asteroids with a diameter of 1km or larger hit the Earth a few times every million years, and mass extinctions appear to be routinely caused by asteroid impacts. There is a serious chance that a major asteroid could hit the Earth directly or indirectly and resulting in the death of all life on earth. Current estimates of the number and frequency of asteroid impacts are probably lower than reality because asteroids impacting the oceanic basin leave no evidence of their destruction, and the massive tsunamis that result are often more damaging than the impact itself, and in the modern age could easily destroy half the worlds major population centers, which
are almost always on coast lines, thrusting the rest of civilization into a new dark age through massive political and economic disruption.
Caldera Volcanic Eruption
About 70,000 years ago, a supervolcano in Sumatra, Indonesia erupted, releasing 2,800 cubic kilometers of magma and pyroclastic material. Some scientists have argued that the entire human population was reduced to a mere 1,000 adults because of the resulting global climate changes and ash cover. The supervolcanoes are not like typical volcanoes, where a small chimney of magma breaks through the Earths crust and builds a mountainous cone, but instead are actually bulges of huge sections of the Earths mantle into the crust. An eruption results when the mantle itself breaks through the crust, creating a devastating explosion Tens of thousands of times more powerful than convention volcanoes. Yellowstone national park in the western United States is one of these supervolcanos as well, and has erupted, on average, every 600,000 years for the last 15 million years, leaving a pock marked path of scars across the north western United States as the continental crust drifts slowly over the volcanic spot in the mantle. It is now 60,000 years over due, and no one is sure if it is settling down or warming up. The last time it erupted Yellowstone covered almost the whole North American Continent under a meter of ash. Such an eruption today would destroy America’s agriculture heart, which creates by many estimates half of the world’s food supply and most of the world’s grain supply. Another such eruption could cause through global climate change and civilization collapses a new dark age. When these volcanoes erupt in the oceanic basins, they leave no long lasting geological evidence, so again we are unsure of how common these kinds of volcanoes are and how often they erupt.
Other Cosmic threat (runaway star, black hole, gamma ray burst, massive solar flare)
Recent Astronomical evidence is suggesting that we face some existential threats from our Galactic neighborhood. A rogue or runaway star could disrupt our planets orbit or even remove it from the orbit of our star. A rogue black hole could tear apart the solar system, or a massive solar flare could wipe out a huge portion of the Earths population through radiation exposure. These events could kill billions and lead to the extinction of the human population.
Runaway Ice Age
Life on earth exists in a precipitous razor’s edge balance between the frigid desert of airless Mars and the runaway greenhouse oven of Venus. Numerous Ice Ages have been experienced in the past, with on particular era referred to as the "Snow Ball Earth" where it is suspected that the whole of the Earths surface was covered with ice, and the only refuge of life was near thermal volcanic vents. While it is known that periodic cycles in the Earths orbit are the primary cause of ice ages, changes in cloud cover, general climate, or orbital disturbances could initiate another ice age with devastating consequences.
Launched by malevolent individuals or groups, any event having global economic or environmental consequences, for example a major coordinated attack or one utilizing nuclear, nano, or bio technology. Such an attack could be a major threat to humanity through destroying most of the industrial infrastructure of modern civilization or causing an economic collapse leading to a new dark age which me may never recover from.
One of the only existential threats common in the popular mindset is that posed by a nuclear war, which scientists of the 70’s and 80’s argued would launch enough dust into the atmosphere to reflect enough sunlight to cause a winter spanning decades. This also led many people to suspect that the growth of technology and the subsequent tendency for civilizations to destroy themselves as a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox. Could the use of part of the huge stockpile of existing nuclear weapons ultimately lead to the end of civilization?
High Energy Particle Physics mishap
During the Manhattan project, physicist Edward Teller was charged with calculating whether the first nuclear blast would be strong enough to cause major damage to the planet. At this time, it was unclear how much of an explosion would occur, once the fissionable fuel reached it’s critical mass, an immensely rapid exchange of neutrons instigating further fissioning ensued, but as this exchange and atomic splitting progressed, heat was added to the material physically expanding it, and reducing the exchange of protons. Would the fissioning exceed the rate of expansion, cause an explosion a thousand or ten thousand times more powerful, or would the expansion from the heat cause the explosive wave to quickly fizzle? The calculation was difficult, but ultimately Teller was confident of the rate which the explosive wave would diminish and predictions were reasonable accurate. Today, particle physicist seek to make microscopic black holes in particle accelerators. Physicists abate fears by pointing out that cosmic ray collisions in the upper atmosphere routinely occur with higher energies than our accelerators use. Physicists, like Teller at the Manhattan project, calculated that these microscopic black holes also will instantly evaporate. While we have every reason to be confident in rational scientific assessments like these, we must be careful to not let hubris cloud our judgment. In all likelihood, calculations like this will be ever more common in high energy physics, so one can not help but ask if one time we might be wrong. Particle accelerator mishaps including long lived microscopic black holes or the formation of a stable stranglet, may trigger cataclysmic chains of events which could destroy all life on Earth and even the planet itself.
In science fiction, a takeover by artificially intelligent robots or computers is a common theme. In The Matrix, humans were used as batteries by computers that did not understand the 2nd law of thermodynamics. In the Terminator series, a super intelligent computer waged war with human kind. But could it happen in the real world? In the real world our computers become ever more complex and intelligent, robots ever more agile, and mankind ever more reliant on automated computer controlled systems – which might be a recipe for disaster. Will a super intelligent and malicious Artificial Intelligence overpower humanity and wipe out humanity and civilization? Advocates of extropianism and tranushumanists counter that human modification and enhancements will rival the capacities of computers, neither outpacing other to too much of an extent. Technological progressions suggest that within a few decades single individual computers will surpass the intelligence of individual people. A short time there after, they will surpass the intelligence of all humans. Conversely, it may be that biological wet ware is the only way to achieve the complexity necessary for sentient life.
Nihilism / Mental Disorders
A significant threat that I think humanity faces which is barely on the register of people worried about significant threats, is the growth of a nihilistic attitude toward existence. For 90,000 years humans lived short, difficult, busy lives, and never really had the time to fret about existence or ponder existential dilemmas while their families were perpetually on the verge of starvation. Even through the growth of civilization, it was only the wealthiest that ever had free time enough to ponder these things. But in our modern age, this scenario has changed significantly, people, especially those in industrialized nations, have more free time than ever before and their lives longer and easier to live than ever before. Coupled with the rise of secularism and later determinism, many people find themselves at a very subtle level wondering about the purpose of life, or through avenues like Buddhism or materialism removing any value in life whatsoever. Today, mental illness such as depression are the leading cause of debilitation in people over 65 in the industrialized nations, while health professionals try to gain attention to this startling phenomena and try to treat it with medication, the overwhelming cause of this is probably the lack of a decent humanistic philosophical attitude. Following these trends out, it can be expected that modern ‘western’ ideas of religious tolerance and even secularism will probably permeate educated people to the same degree it has in western nations, this will only seem to get worse. Should future technological advances significantly extend the human life span, the problem might only be exasperated. Today, without even facing these difficulties, a small minority of individuals think that all sentient life and human life is a blemish on the earth, as manifested through things like the Voluntary Human Extinction project and in more extreme forms through radical environmental terrorism or people like Ted Kaczysnki. These groups see all humans, even themselves, as vile creatures. As a corollary, a large portion of the modern western world also find little value in life and feels guilty for their own existence. As this attitude grows in popularity because of the mentioned cultural / philosophical influences, it will pose a serious threat to humanity, as any civilization which no longer desires to exist has little future.
Humanity and civilization face a serious set of existential threats, including both man made technological threats and natural threats. In man made threats, most people are familiar only with the possibility of anthropogenic global warming modifying the climate to such an extent that the planet is uninhabitable, other, probably more likely threats, are an out of control self replication machine which consumes all of the material surface of the planet, a terrorist attack causing a global economic collapse and new dark age, a nuclear war or winter rendering the world uninhabitable or causing another dark age, a high energy physics mishap, or a malicious artificial intelligence destroying humanity. From nature we face the ominous perils of an asteroid or comet impact with resultant fires and floods, the eruption of a caldera supervolcano covering whole continents with ash and destroying world food supplies and economies, random cosmic events like rogue planets or massive solar flares. We may face another ice age from unexpected climate change or a global pathogen which wipes out huge swaths of the population. Lastly, humanity is facing an ever more obvious threat in it’s growing unwillingness to want to survive.
Because of all of these threats, Humanity needs an insurance policy. The simple fact is that for intelligent sentient life to ultimately survive, humanity must spread out among the stars. This is something recognized by many prominent members of the scientific community, including most recently Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, and Martin Rees. To answer this need is the Lifeboat Foundation, which is an organization I am a strong supporter of and actively involved with. In the long term the Lifeboat Foundation would like to actually see self-sustaining space stations created and built, with humanity spreading among our solar system and eventually to neighboring solar systems. In the near term a strong focus on mitigation strategies such as bunkers, information archives and the necessary technological checks and balances on innovation related threats are being pursued. Ultimately the fate of humanity and indeed all life on earth depends on this.