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Illuminations from the throne

Mice in a barn.

A mouse.
Photo Credit: Ricky Kharawala

When reports of a virus emerging in China, which I’d started to hear in December 2019, persisted into the new year, I began to wonder how serious it might become.

At that point, no one I spoke with about the topic thought it was a big deal, just something happening far away that would blow over in a few weeks. But the possibility of a biological outbreak has always scared me slightly. Maybe I read too many apocalypse themed, science fiction novels but if you consider all the ways in which humanity could be wiped out, a deadly pathogen doesn’t seem too inconceivable.

Planet Earth did not react well to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some countries were too slow to take action. Some were too strict or too liberal. Societies used to living in freedom for generations couldn’t handle the lockdown restrictions. Perhaps the media went a bit overboard and caused undue panic. Vaccine rollouts were discriminatory. But it was the public’s general attitude that bothered me the most.

Very few people seemed to realise that to get back to normal as soon as possible, the world needed to work together as one global community to solve the problem effectively. We were stuck in our own bubbles where mission priority was acquiring the next roll of toilet paper.

While lockdown protests were taking place across Europe, I couldn’t help wondering what the reaction would be if the virus had a higher fatality rate. If it was more than 50%, I doubt the masses would have been marching in the streets. I doubt anyone would confidently dismiss it as fake news or a conspiracy theory. Everyone would be cowering in their houses, the mere suggestion they should go out for any reason would be met with the same horror and outrage exhibited by some twits when they were told not to.

I hope the lessons have been learnt, not only by scientists and world leaders but by each and every regular person who lives on this floating rock because this will almost certainly happen again and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be a lot worse next time. The COVID pandemic could turn out to be a useful training exercise.

If you count Mad Max, Terminator, The Road and other such post-apocalyptic movies among your favourites then, like me, you’ve probably contemplated possible homo sapien extinction scenarios. Other than a deadly plague, there are three prime candidates.

  1. Nuclear annihilation
  2. Asteroid impact*
  3. Climate change destruction

Organising a poll to give this article some degree of sound statistical backing felt like a bit too much effort so, instead, I’ll just guess at what the results might’ve been if I’d done that.

Screening question: Do you think the human race will one day become extinct?
Yes - proceed to next question
No - thanks for your time

Main question: How do you think the human race will become extinct?
Nuclear annihilation - 4.9%
Asteroid impact - 0.1%
Climate change destruction - 95%

In other words, I'm presuming most people would rate the chances of 1 and 2 happening as pretty remote.

Having said that, the nuclear threat does seem more ominous at the moment than it ever has before, in my lifetime anyway. The whole point of having weapons of mass destruction is so they’ll never have to be used. That’s what our politicians tell us and I’d always believed there can’t possibly be a person living on this planet stupid enough to launch one. I’m less sure of that now.

I picture the participants in my fake poll laughing off the prospect of a catastrophic asteroid impact, despite substantial evidence that 75% of species, including anything bigger than a rat, experienced just such a fate. That’s because we’re talking about geological timescales which can’t easily be processed by human brains. The dinosaurs met their doom an unfathomably long time ago and it’ll be an unfathomably long time before it happens again. Nothing to worry about.

Except that right now there is an asteroid with a score of 1 on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, the tool used by the International Astronomical Union to categorise the probability and consequences of being struck by a near Earth object. We're scheduled to have a spacetime rendezvous with 2023 DW on Valentines Day, 2046.

I might be trying to sensationalise. For more context, you can check out what the ratings on this scale mean in terms of actual risk but...you know...every other object currently being monitored, and there are thousands of them, has a score of 0 and now there’s one with 1. So, along with nuclear annihilation, asteroid impact seems to be more likely today than it was at the beginning of last year. Just saying.

The slow destruction of climate change is a much bigger concern than something that may happen in the far off future because it’s already happening right now. It’s looking like the global disaster that will most likely get us. Perhaps later rather than sooner now that it’s begun to be taken seriously but it’s my belief that every single one of the world's governments, be they democratic, stratocratic, communist, dictatorships, monarchies or whatever, needs to be categorically on the same page to prevent our planet reaching the tipping point. Unfortunately, humanity is too fragmented by war, nationalism, religion, poverty... all the stuff that’s divided us for the entirety of our existence, to give the issue the attention it really needs.

If the time ever comes when we can put all that aside, instead devoting the energy and resources consumed by discord to sorting out our environmental disarray, then we’ll know for certain that it’s too late.

Regardless of whether or not we solve the climate change problem, viruses will always be there. Viruses will always be everywhere and when you think about some of the deadliest we have to contend with, it seems to me that in spite of all of our modern technology and scientific advances, it’s sheer luck we haven’t succumbed yet.

I’m no virologist, biologist or (...)ist of any kind. I haven’t studied reams of medical journals to research this post. I’m merely performing a thought experiment entitled: What seems plausible to me?

So, I see three requirements necessary for a virus to call time on humanity's stint on earth.

  1. It can spread easily i.e. it’s airborne
  2. It isn’t contained
  3. It is deadly enough to kill the majority of people it infects

AIDS is perhaps the most lethal pandemic of the modern era but HIV can only be transmitted via bodily fluid contact. Imagine how devastating HIV would be if it was an airborne virus.

Ebola is deadly. According to WHO, the average fatality rate is around 50% but luckily the outbreaks have always been contained. Imagine how devastating EVD would be if it ever gets out of control.

COVID is airborne and it wasn’t contained. The mortality rate is 1-5%, depending on the country. Imagine how devastating COVID would be if 50% of people died after contracting it.

Is it so far-fetched to imagine a virus coming along some day that ticks all three boxes?

If mice are allowed to breed in an enclosed environment, say a barn, the population will rise dramatically but, before it gets out of control, disease will all but wipe them out. Is it so far-fetched to imagine this could happen to humans?

After all, we’re just big mice in a big barn.

* plus any other astronomical catastrophe e.g. severe solar radiation burst, alien invasion...

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