Friday, July 06, 2012

Worst-Case Scenarios

I was walking through the local Barnes and Noble the other evening and a book title caught my eye.

X-Events: The Collapse of Everything by John L. Casti

This, of course, was right after watching the news when people in the DC-area were complaining about their electric company not being able to get the electricity back on after the super derecho storm swept across hundreds of miles a week ago. Which of course was followed by the latest disaster of record-setting heat over more than half the nation which was followed by the devastation in the west where wildfires turn into record-setting firestorms. Locally this comes after rain in Duluth and Cannon Falls tore streets to shreds and spread water everywhere.

Oh, and did I mention the headline that if you want to see what global warming will look like, just take a look at the United States this summer.

So the title grabbed me.

Casti is no fly-by-night disaster maven. He is a complexity scientist and systems theorist. He worked for many years at the Santa Fe Institute and the RAND Corporation, and has also served on the faculties of Princeton University, the University of Arizona, and New York University.

Barnes and Noble says that Casti concludes that

[t]he intricate, over-complex systems on which we depend are increasingly vulnerable to sudden, complete collapse, catapulting us back into pre-industrial chaos. After a catastrophic "X-Event," he notes, almost everything is at stake: communication, transportation, food, water, medicine, electricity, and finance. A wake-up call to an overnight apocalypse that could hit us all too soon.
What might some of these be? Well in addition to running out of oil or a nuclear war there are these:
  • Long-term widespread failure of the Internet
  • Breakdown of the global food-supply system
  • A continent-wide electromagnetic pulse destroys all electronics
  • A global pandemic
  • Failure of the electric power grid and clean water supply
  • World financial collapse
Fun reading, huh?

But as a veteran reader of what is often called science fiction, or futurist fiction of what they refer to as "dystopian" visions, none of this really comes as a surprise to me. For as long as there has been science fiction, there has been this tendency to extrapolate into a dark and dismal future when all our technology disappears.

Interestingly Casti doesn't appear to be a hopeless doomsayer. He seems to say that it is possible to be prepared so the worst doesn't turn into an even darker worst. No we can't predict which problem will finally attempt to do us in, but we can keep from sticking our heads into the sand and ignore the possibilities.

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