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Technology and Survival—Are They Compatible?

Disaster movie scenarios

Civilization depends on science and technology, in every moment and aspect of our lives from energy to food, transport, communication, and knowledge. We need technology to survive, but are increasingly so reliant on it that without it, our civilization would collapse. There are many weak points where we are incredibly vulnerable, or where technologies are actually generating seeds of disaster. I will highlight a number of these, but to set the flavour of the problems that exist, I will first consider the chaos and deaths that would happen if large sections of the world suddenly lost electrical power for a sustained period, and therefore all the systems dependent on it.

Our first reaction is probably to only worry that this means a sudden loss of facilities based on our advanced electronics and computing power. Certainly this would be serious, but in fact it would only be a small part of a global catastrophe. Clearly, I have the essence of a plot for a disaster movie. The only difference is that in the movie version, the world would be saved at the last moment by some brilliant, handsome or beautiful, multi-skilled scientist.

Reality is different. Some scientists may well be handsome or beautiful, but finding a multi-skilled scientist at exactly the right location would be difficult, and in my scenario there will be no easy escape. I am going to pick a very realistic, feasible, and highly probable cause for my movie plots. My concern, and the very reason I have picked this lurking danger, is not that it is a highly unlikely, but, on the contrary, it is one that is certain to happen. Only the magnitude is unpredictable, so I can have two movie plots: one for a modest and one for a severe event. Most successful disaster movies have a sequel, but in my scenarios either or both could occur.

If I consider only a realistic natural-disaster script, I can ignore the really big events, such as large meteorite impacts, which killed off the dinosaurs and most other species. They are fantastically devastating; they have happened, and may well occur again, but our chances of survival are so remote that there is no way we can plan how to cope. After the impact, we will be powerless, and dead. The good news is that they are extremely rare.

The far more interesting considerations, and the ones we should prepare for, are of major catastrophes, or dangers from existing conditions and events, which are certain to happen within the foreseeable future. Humans are quite arrogant and self-centred, so we tend to assume that because we have a highly developed society, and have survived for a few tens of thousands of years, we will always overcome natural disasters. Optimism is great, but my pragmatic view is very different as I realize that, precisely because of our dependence on advanced technologies, our civilization is far more likely to be destroyed by catastrophes that would have been only minor features for earlier generations. These are not science fiction-type scenarios (e.g. aliens or monsters) as there are a sufficient number of probable phenomena where we have built ourselves a technological Achilles’ heel.

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