Thursday, March 24, 2005

Dieback Insurance

What if the human race were to experience a massive dieback due to ecological collapse? The scenarios are endless: nuclear war, the explosion of a supervolcano, the impact of a comet or an asteroid, plague.... the list goes on. The majority of modern humans would have their fitness dramatically reduced without the support structure of civilization, and it is, indeed, entirely possible that under these circumstances the human species could go extinct. Stephen Baxter explores this rather grim scenario in Evolution, a compelling novel that portrays humanity as a fleeting epiphenomenon, ultimately driven to extinction by its own actions.

The risk of a global civilizational collapse and massive dieback is, in my estimation, rather low. I think it far more likely that humanity (or our posthuman descendants) will end up colonizing the stars. However, the consequences of such a collapse are so great that the risk, however small, should not be ignored. Not all existential risks can be mitigated (for instance, the vacuum energy could spontaneously tunnel into a new ground state, wiping out the entire universe at the speed of light.) Many, however, are amenable to an insurance policy: namely, the preservation of neolithic technologies and social structures.

Stone age societies are remarkably resilient, absent competition by civilized humans. Small, voluntary 'tribes' of enthusiasts could be maintained in the larger national parks, where they would live as hunter gatherers, making their own tools from what they find and honing the skills needed to survive without technology. Contact with the outside world would be largely prohibited and, when it did occur, strictly controlled so as to guard against the threat of contagion if it's plague that finally does the species in. An enthusaist tiring of the neolithic lifestyle would, of course, be permitted to leave, to be replaced by new entrants selected from a pool of trained applicants.

Note that neolithic doesn't mean that they'd be limited to making and using tools existing thousands (or even hundreds) of years ago. Remarkably sophisticated tools can be made, using raw materials naturally available in the environment. Nor would the tribes be limited to neolithic knowledge; there's no reason not to give them access, through clearly marked but protected archives, to the full spectrum of modern science and engineering.

If the next-to-worst case scenario happens (ie, global dieback and total collapse of civilization, accompanied by mass extinctions in the biosphere) these tribes would be there to pick up the pieces. Even if only a single tribe survives to see the other side of the crisis, they'll be enough to rebuild civilization, this time with a clear guide on how to get from the neolithic to the information age in a fraction of the time it originally took and, hopefully, without making the mistakes that led to the dieback in the first place. If, on the other hand, civilization never collapses, then society has invested only the time of a few thousand individuals around the world. The total economic cost is negligible, as any good insurance policy should be.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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3:17 AM  

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