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Disaster expert says what will happen to humanity in the event of a nuclear war

Such global catastrophes as, for example, a nuclear war, a global pandemic or artificial intelligence that has left obedience, can have more serious consequences for the future of civilization than we think, writes for Air force catastrophic risk expert Seth Baum.

Фото: Depositphotos

My father's family moved to the USA in the 1930s. Jews, they fled from the Nazis. My life went well, and I think I should be grateful that it all happened so.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but think about how our world would look if the Second World War and the Holocaust did not exist.

All those people who died then - would they have descendants who would still be alive today? And their life would have turned out as well as mine? Perhaps I would even be friends with one of them or be their neighbor? Would I have been born in that supposed version of a world without war?

When people think about disasters that have caused many victims, they almost always think about the direct damage: more than 50 million people died in World War II, about 15 million in World War I, and in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti - about 160 thousand.

But these figures do not say anything about long-term damage - about people who could continue to live, and do not live, about how our world would be without global tragedies.

Such consequences are more difficult to document. However, this does not make them less important.

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Indeed, if we step back and look at long-term circumstances, we will see that some of the catastrophes - the largest of them - can be ranked with the most important events in human history.

66 million years ago, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction (Cretaceous-Tertiary, Cretaceous-Cenozoic, KT extinction, one of the five so-called “great mass extinctions”, at the border of the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods. - Approx. Translator) erased all dinosaurs from the face of the Earth and made room on our planet for mammals - including for us humans.

Long before that, about 2,5 billion years ago, the so-called Oxygen Catastrophe (a global change in the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, which occurred at the very beginning of the Proterozoic, during the sideria period. - Translator's note) destroyed almost all anaerobic organisms and created conditions for us breathing oxygen.

If these two catastrophes did not happen, then people and many other species that now exist on Earth, most likely, simply would not exist.

That is why I and other researchers studying global catastrophic risks believe that one of the main priorities in the XNUMXst century should be to prevent such a development of events.

Human activities have turned our era into one of the most dangerous in the history of the planet. And if we look at what impact we will have for millennia to come, we will understand that it is not only about saving people's lives today, it is about protecting our future, our potential and billions of our descendants, whose lives can change forever.

In a sense, today's human impact on the planet is like the rapid growth of organisms that once led to the Oxygen Disaster.

That catastrophe was caused by oxygen photosynthesis of the proliferating cyanobacteria. Oxygen is released into the atmosphere during photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria did this on such a scale that there was too much oxygen in the atmosphere - anaerobic organisms simply could not cope with it and died.

People became the first creatures on Earth to develop science, technology, agriculture and industry. And we are doing this on such a scale that we have already destroyed many other species. And if we are not careful, then we will destroy ourselves.

The list of human-dependent catastrophic risks is familiar to everyone: nuclear weapons, global warming along with other environmental shocks, pandemics created in biotechnology laboratories, artificial intelligence that has gone out of control of a person, and some others, the consequences of which are known only to us from science fiction films.

In fact, this is not just a list - it is a network of interrelated risks. For example, global warming can destabilize our civilization, weakening it in the face of other possible catastrophes (more on that below).

And all of this is in addition to the constant risk of natural disasters such as an Earth-to-asteroid collision, a volcanic eruption, or both (a combination that may have killed the dinosaurs).

In most catastrophic scenarios, it is difficult to predict what they will turn out for humanity.

We are now 7,6 billion, we are scattered all over the planet, we have learned to adapt to a variety of circumstances and conditions, so it is likely that at least some of us will survive.

But what the life of these survivors will be like is a big mystery. My colleagues and I have worked on its solution and recently published the results of a study called “Long-term trajectories of human civilization”.

The essence of the study was to try to understand how our civilization (and the life of our direct descendants) will look like in millions, billions and even trillions of years.

And although it is impossible to accurately predict what form human civilization will take in such a huge (and not so huge too) number of years, we can nevertheless come to some general conclusions.

If humanity manages to avoid catastrophes (or we can quickly recover from them), then we have a shining future ahead of us. A future enriched by transformative technologies and going beyond the Earth.

But if we cannot avoid a real catastrophe, the harm from it can be irreversible.

The catastrophe that will lead to the extermination of humanity will naturally mean the end of our civilization. But even if some people survive, humanity as a whole is unlikely to reach the same level of development as it is now.

On the subject: Nuclear tests in the Pacific: why dozens of years later, the threat from radiation has not subsided

Agriculture and industry are especially important for recovery. To better understand how a catastrophe could change the future, let's look at one example: a world nuclear war involving all nuclear powers - China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Only a very large-scale war is capable of drawing all these states into hostilities. A more likely scenario is the participation of only Russia and the United States, which together own more than 90% of the world's nuclear arsenal.

But consider the worst case scenario. Even with him, most of the planet will still avoid destruction.

In particular, in Africa and Latin America there are many countries that are not allies or enemies of any of the current nuclear powers.

The citizens of these states are likely to remain intact - just like those who live in countries that have exchanged nuclear strikes, but in places far from military installations or large cities.

The world in which the survivors end up will change very quickly. In addition to social and political confusion, many key elements of the economy will be lost.

Global trade networks feel confident in the worked out scheme of actions under normal conditions, but they are lost at the slightest system failures. And the disruptions from a nuclear war cannot be called "the slightest".

In the very first weeks (and maybe even days) after nuclear strikes, the Earth’s population will feel a shortage of consumer goods, spare parts and many other elements of normal life, without which the industrial infrastructure will be paralyzed.

Soon enough, the consequences for the global ecology will begin to appear. Nuclear explosions are so powerful that dust and ash from burning cities rise into the stratosphere (the second layer of the atmosphere is 7 km above the Earth’s surface at the poles and 20 km at the equator).

The stratosphere lies above the clouds, so that everything that rises there can no longer be washed away by rain. Within a few months, pollution will spread throughout the planet and remain for years.

It will block out sunlight, cooling the Earth's surface, reducing rainfall - all very bad for agriculture.

Hunger caused by nuclear war will kill many around the world - perhaps even more than the nuclear attacks themselves. But someone will survive here too.

Mankind has food supplies that will help some stay alive and wait for the time when the heavens above the planet clear.

This, of course, provided that the reserves remain intact during the strikes.

On the subject: A simulation from American scientists: what a nuclear war between the US and Russia will look like. VIDEO

The combination of world hunger and post-war destruction is a serious test for civilization. However, it is quite possible that survivors will be able to maintain a lifestyle close to the one we are used to now.

But, taking into account all the circumstances in which people find themselves, it will be entirely understandable if our civilization falls into decay and disappears, as has already happened with previous civilizations, from Egypt to Easter Island.

As you can see, disasters are often interconnected. The consequences can last for many years.

A nuclear war is not just a nuclear war. This is devastation in the economy and agriculture.

The degree of civilization's resistance to destructive factors also depends on how much it has already been weakened - for example, by global warming and other environmental degradation.

A nuclear war can provoke further disasters - for example, a pandemic (due to the destruction of the healthcare system) or a geoengineering disaster (which will lead to an acceleration of climate change). My colleagues and I called this scenario a “double catastrophe”.

Therefore, it is important to study disasters not separately, but in their combination with each other.

I am often asked what risk of disaster is highest, but this is the wrong approach. We are facing a system of interrelated catastrophic risks, and not a set of individual risks.

To assess the system and to develop the most effective ways to resist it, my colleagues and I developed the concept of a comprehensive assessment of catastrophic risks.

Regardless of what this or that disaster entails, the question arises: what will happen next? If humanity becomes extinct, then answering, of course, is easy: our civilization is over.

But if someone still survives, the answer is not so simple.

If civilization ceases to function, the survivors will be left on their own - they will have to take care of their health and everything else.

Today, most people live in cities, it will be difficult for them to learn, say, grow bread. (Ask yourself: do you know how to survive in a world where there are no familiar shops, electricity, heating, etc.?)

Фото: Depositphotos

The irony of the situation is that the most successful peasants in the post-disastrous world will be subsistence farmers, now belonging to the poorest people on Earth.

One of the main tasks of the surviving part of humanity will be reproduction. The remaining population should be large enough and united enough to ensure the emergence of new generations of earthlings. Otherwise, people will die out sooner or later.

Scientists estimate that 150 to 40 people are needed to maintain a genetically viable population. The more favorable the conditions, the less people are required.

Life in the post-catastrophic world will be complicated by the fact that most of the natural resources and other resources have already been selected and used by mankind. And industrial pollutants will remain in the atmosphere and soil for a long time (in addition to the consequences of a nuclear war).

Megacities, meanwhile, can be viewed as a warehouse of useful materials - for example, steel.

On the other hand, some energy resources are not going anywhere - for example, wind and hydropower.

Planning for future disasters may look like an abstract activity, far from the problems that we have to solve today.

But it is important to recognize: the actions that we take today can influence in the long run on the path of our civilization.

In fact, today we choose who will have a chance to survive, and what this life will be like.

To make it easier to understand the importance of this, imagine that there has never been a Holocaust or World War II in the world.

In such a world, people who died in the crash of the middle of the XNUMXth century would be alive and, perhaps, would have lived a long, happy life. In our world, these people are not.

Of course, we cannot go back in time and change events. But we can change what we are doing right now - to avoid future disasters. Especially those that can affect the future of the entire human civilization.

For our descendants, it is important that we succeed.

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