Recently, I’ve been thinking about the end of the world—or at least, the world as we know it.
This isn’t anything new, of course. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War had to contend with the ever-present threat of imminent nuclear destruction. It haunted our dreams, and seemed so inevitable, there was hardly a science fiction story of the time that didn’t somehow assume a full-scale nuclear war before the year 2000. Even Star Trek, that great utopian beacon of hope and possibility, assumed the Federation would arise (with a little help from the Vulcans) from the ashes of World War Three.
Then in the 1990s, as the danger of atomic obliteration began to fade, science fiction writers became obsessed with a new danger: The Singularity. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Singularity is a point in time beyond which the world will have changed beyond our ability to predict, and it is generally assumed that it will be brought about by some form of artificial intelligence. If we develop a computer smarter than us, and that computer designs a computer smarter than it, we enter a runaway explosion of super-intelligence that will leave us at the mercy of beings we can’t even begin to comprehend.
Either that, or self-replicating nanotech assemblers will get loose and turn the entire world into copies of themselves. As science and technology advances, science fiction follows along behind, gleefully pointing out the worst case scenarios. However, there’s nothing gleeful about the latest existential crisis facing the human race.
Several things caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. The first was the release of the IPCC’s Climate Report, which paints a very gloomy picture of climate change and our ability to slow it in the near term, and the second was an article in The Guardian reporting that scientists have spotted warning signs that the Gulf Stream may be on the verge of collapse.
I was mulling over the potential effects of those reports when I stumbled across a study from Anglia-Ruskin University in the journal Sustainability. This study had the catchy title, An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity’ and explains how environmental destruction, climate change, resource shortages, and population growth might trigger a “reduction in the overall complexity of civilisation”
This “de-complexification” could occur rapidly, in less than a year, as supply chains, international agreements, and global financial structures collapse, causing knock-on effects and feedback loops that eventually lead to a “widespread reversal of the trends of recent civilisation.”
Wherever we look, there will be a need for innovative engineers to help us adapt to a more hostile world
As you can imagine, I was feeling fairly gloomy by this point. And that’s when someone pointed me in the direction of a study published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology that predicts the terminal decline of economic growth within the coming decade, leading to societal collapse by 2040.
The Anglia-Ruskin University study identifies New Zealand, Iceland, the UK, Tasmania and Ireland as the nations most likely to be resilient to a global decline and fall—but even these will be profoundly affected by faltering supply chains and have to take drastic steps to become more self-sufficient (the UK in particular faces challenges, as it has a high population density and a relatively low availability of agricultural land).
But what has any of this got to do with engineering (or science fiction)?
There will be some hard choices ahead, and whether we can trust our politicians to make the right ones remains to be seen. But if we’re going to soften a potential collapse, we need to find ways to create a more robust infrastructure and ensure hardy supply chains to keep the lights on and food on the shelves; to deliver medicine and clean water wherever they’re needed; and to slow the rate of climate change. We’re going to need zero carbon manufacturing, transport and energy production, and new methods for dealing with droughts, wildfires and flooding. Whole populations will move away from the worst affected areas, and they will need accommodation and a supporting infrastructure.
Wherever we look, there will be a need for innovative engineers to help us adapt to a more hostile world. As SF writers, we can imagine solutions to those problems; as engineers, you’re going to have to design and build them.
The actions we take over the next ten years will probably decide humanity’s long-term fate. The necessary changes will be difficult and pose huge political, technological and cultural challenges, but to quote Gaya Herrington, the author of the study I mentioned from the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology, “Human activity can be regenerative and our productive capacities can be transformed. In fact, we are seeing examples of that happening right now. Expanding those efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable.”
Gareth L. Powell is an award-winning SF writer from the UK. You can find him as @garethlpowell on Twitter