Thought Leadership

A portent of doom?

By Colin Walls

Despite the title above, I am mostly an optimistic, glass-half-full kind of person. I am profoundly saddened by many things happening in the world, but, at the same time, deeply grateful for all the good things [and people] in my life. However, I do feel that blind optimism – a.k.a. putting your head in the sand – is really unhelpful. It is not pessimistic to consider what might go wrong, in order to mitigate it; pessimism is assuming that things will go wrong.

I recently read a book that made me start thinking about something that might go terribly wrong …

What is the worst thing that could happen? Each of us, in our own little worlds could imagine worst-case scenarios; they might be our own death or injury or that of loved ones, for example. On a wider scale, the worst thing would be the collapse or elimination of our civilization. [That would be the worst thing for us, maybe not so bad for the planet!] There have been various civilizations over the millennia that mankind has existed. Each one has established itself, increased in size and importance and eventually collapsed. We generally believe that ours is the most powerful and widespread civilization ever, but that does not mean that we are immune from collapse.

In the book that I just read [which I will not identify here, as I do not want to be accused of posting spoilers – if you want to know, email me], a character identified six distinct mechanisms whereby we might meet our end. It is interesting to consider each and whether we can prevent or mitigate it:

  1. Climate change. There is not really any denying that our climate is changing; the question is: how much is a result of mankind’s activity? What seems clear to me is, whatever the answer to that question may be, the more we reduce our impact, the better.
  2. Nuclear exchange. For as long as there are nations holding nuclear weapons, there is a danger that someone will “press the button”. If that occurs, it is probably “game over”. We can solve this one very simply.
  3. Super-volcano eruption. This will occur somewhere at some time. We just do not know exactly where and when. What we do know is the one in Yellowstone is overdue. We cannot prevent an eruption, but we could take precautions by monitoring all the relevant sites in detail and making preparations for a major, sudden climate change.
  4. Asteroid strike. Much the same as an eruption.
  5. Computer technology failure. Our society is now very, very dependent on the integrity of computer networks and electronic systems. If they were to suddenly stop working, the world economy would collapse and widespread chaos ensue. This might happen as a result of cyber-attack or a really virulent virus. With more effort, systems could be designed to be more resilient to these threats. On the other hand, a strike by a large solar flare could fry just about all the electronics on the planet. This sounds unlikely, but there have been strikes in the past, but not since the dawn of electronics. Up to a point, some shielding may help.
  6. An antibiotic-resistant pandemic. The over-use of antibiotics makes this scenario more likely every day. In the past, epidemics spread quite easily, but that was before people traveled anything like as much as they do today. We really need to reconsider our drug usage and invest in research for alternatives.

This all paints a somewhat dismal picture, particularly because governments around the world do not understand or are in denial of many of these possibilities and that results in inaction.

Just to make things worse, I would like to suggest a seventh possibility …

It has long been known, from geological evidence that, every few hundred million years, the Earth’s magnet field swaps around – North becomes South and vice versa. I do not believe that the process is well understood, but what is know is that we are overdue for another “flip”. It should happen sometime in the next few hundred thousand years. The magnetic poles moves around, rarely corresponding with the geographical poles of the Earth. It is carefully tracked so that compensation can be made to enable accurate navigation. Over the last couple of years, it has been moving faster and further than has been observed before. This makes me wonder if it is preparing to flip.

Does this matter? Well, the result of a flip – North and South being swapped – could be accommodated fairly readily. The problem is that it is believed that the flip does not happen overnight, but in a much more sluggish fashion over years or decades. During that time, the Earth would have no magnetic field to speak of. This would result large amounts of sub-atomic particles from the Sun reaching the Earth, which would be lethal for all life quite rapidly. The only possible protection might be shelters deep underground and for those to be constructed and made sustainable for decades would need some long term planning …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at