Thursday, July 14, 2011

Apocalypse and the Cockroach Factor

Back in the 1970s and 1980s where there was a real possibility of nuclear war between the USSR and the USA, Hollywood periodically made end-of-the-world type movies.  There were always a few people left over, but not many.  And you figured the Nuclear Winter would finish them in a few years if they didn't kill each other first.

The prospect of an apocalypse fascinates people, although the actual definition of apocalypse (according to Webster's Dictionary) is the Jewish and Christian prophetic writings concerning the triumph of good and the destruction of evil.  Somewhere along the way, our culture changed its definition to an end-of-the-world scenario.

The idea of nuclear war always frightened me, but there are other threats.  Chemical weapons, biological weapons, pandemics, asteroids.  Heck, you can throw in zombies, aliens and vicious artificially intelligent robots if you really want to freak yourself out.  But I remember that even during the scary nuclear times, scientists always said that cockroaches would survive.  They are hardy, numerous, and difficult to eradicate.

I think humans are the same.  Okay, I'm not saying we're like roaches in terms of value, but we are like roaches in that we are hardy, numerous and difficult to eradicate.  In fact, I think we've reached a safety point where there are too many of us spread across the planet to get rid of.

While some countries are racing to develop nuclear weapons, the countries with the most are actually reducing their stockpiles.  If a nuclear war began, millions of people would die, but I'm not sure if a nuclear winter would occur, and if it would wipe out the survivors.  An asteroid could hit, but asteroids have hit the Earth before, and while the dinosaurs may not have fared well, the mammals apparently dealt with it.

Chemical weapons are super lethal in confined spaces, but a lot less controllable in wide open areas with winds and rain.  A biological weapon could be very deadly, but again, their performance probably drops as they are exposed to weather and vast distances.

A pandemic may have the most potential to end us, but just reaching everyone in the world would be difficult, and there are bound to be some who resist the disease.  The Earth has about 7 billion people, and they are spread to every corner.  For instance, Antarctica's population varies between 1,000 in the winter and up to 4,000 in the summer months. 

As of 2010, there were 50,054 ships in the world, including cargo ships, bulk carriers, tankers, container ships and passenger ships.  If even a quarter of these are at sea on any given day, that means there are hundreds of thousands of humans away from cities where a pandemic or asteroid or weapon would do the most damage.  Add in all the people who live in remote areas like deserts, mountains and jungles, and you have a lot of potential survivors. 

Unlike the movies where a few dozen people live, I think that even in the worst disaster we'd have millions (and possibly billions) of survivors.  And while I may not be one of them, it's comforting to think humanity will continue to slog forward long after the zombies have eaten my brain.

(The pic is of a research vessel anchored at Palmer Station, Antarctica.  I found it on the Woods Hole site.)


  1. I was recently reading a book on Thomas Jefferson by Daniel Boorstin. Boorstin delved deep into the Jeffersonian psyche on all sorts of philosophical and scientific subjects; very little in the way of politics. At any rate, Jefferson believed in a Supreme Being that designated humans as the caretakers of the world. Part of his rationale was that humans can adapt to live anywhere on earth from the Aleutians on Amchitka to the middle of the Sahara to the middle of the densest jungles at the equator. So yes, one of the brightest minds in human history perhaps shares your insight that humans are as adaptable as the cockroach; though he probably never considered the cockroach.

  2. Thanks for the comment. That book on Jefferson sounds interesting. It's amazing how the Founding Fathers of the USA truly were Renaissance men who were fascinated with many topics, not just politics. These guys studied all sorts of things, from architecture to farming to geography, the natural sciences and more.

  3. Now, if we can just get the WOW people and DIY people together, there will be no end to the ways we could creatively exterminate the entire population. Alternately you could just watch cartoons for ideas. Apparently there is a company called Acme where you can order just about any destructive device (not sure if you pay sales tax).

  4. Hello Judd, thanks for commenting. Yeah, I guess the whole DIY movement could take a wrong turn, but those ACME products are expensive!