How realistic is The Peripheral?
July 27, 2015 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Specifically, how likely is something like the "jackpot" in Gibson's new book to happen? Spoilers below the fold.

I would like to know how realistic the 20 year slowpocalypse is, that kills 80 % of the global population through various means (natural catastrophes, starvation, antibiotics not working anymore etc.)
Also, the take off of nano-science despite all the dying going on?

I'm looking for informed opinions backed by facts. Are we already in the middle of it? Is the whimper more realistic than the bang?
posted by Omnomnom to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Considering how the Dinosaurs are no longer considered to have been killed off by "one big thing", Gibson may be interpolating disaster, as well as waving hands as a MacGuffin of creating his magical haunting world(s). Those three items are certainly all possibilities, and have elements in our reality.
posted by nickggully at 3:03 PM on July 27, 2015

I think something like it is pretty likely but mine is not an informed opinion.

You get things like rising sea levels displacing tons of people. Climate change and fights over water making other places nowhere near as inhabitable as they are now. What happens if rising sea temperatures alter the gulf stream? Have something like the magnetic poles reversing or some massive solar flare destroying a good chunk of satellites and a good chunk of digital world could get messed up. Throw in some new diseases or a really bad influenza epidemic in the wrong parts of the world you could easily see mass die-offs. In all of this enough of the klept will be around to take advantage of the situation and expand their share of power.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:54 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's totally unrealistic, barring a massive catastrophe against which there is no possible mitigation. You'd need Yellowstone to explode or meteors to hit or pull-out-all-the-stops nuclear war to make a dent in things.

The world population has experienced continuous growth since the end of the Great Famine (1315–17) and the Black Death (1350). Every prediction of widespread scarcity has been proven wrong. And this is all completely sustainable -- as countries move higher on scales of development, birth rates fall, often to sub-replacement levels.

Doomsayers lose their bets.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:17 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

"It's totally unrealistic, barring a massive catastrophe against which there is no possible mitigation."

Or the 1918 Spanish flu in the age of international jet travel.
posted by MrJM at 4:36 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Impossible to say, really. Something like the Jackpot would certainly be unprecedented in human history, but then a lot of things about modern times are unprecedented in human history. We're several orders of magnitude more powerful than we've ever been before, and so far we've demonstrated a pretty shaky track record in terms of handling that power. It is certainly possible that we might wreck ourselves through careless mismanagement, but nobody really knows how likely it is as it's never happened before and we've never really been in this position before.

I think it's clear that climate change alone is going to put a bit of a squeeze on things, and it's telling that nobody seems to be able to fully imagine let alone effectively predict how all the ramifications and knock-on effects of that particular catastrophe-in-progress are going to play out. The power and complexity of our civilization have grown beyond our understanding or control. Whether we're likely to actually undergo a global collapse or not is very hard to say.

I will say this, though. Every major human civilization throughout history has undergone a collapse at some point—all empires fall eventually. We are currently living in the first truly global empire, and things are definitely looking shaky. Unlike every time before, our population has nowhere to flee to if things should fall apart. However, even if things do eventually collapse it could as easily happen centuries from now as decades. Empires often undergo a slow decline into decadence before they truly crumble. And our current "global empire" is very different from the regional empires of yore; it's far less centralized, for one thing. So again, it's hard to say.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:44 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Usually, businesses are fighting each other to steal each others' markets and profits. Progress is slow, because the businesses are usually doing alright and are OK with the status quo of 4% annual growth.

Sometimes, there's an existential threat, when an entire civilization thinks it might actually die. When this happens, businesses start fighting the threat instead of each other, and people go a little crazy to find a way to win ASAP, no matter the cost. This condition results in breakthroughs like the Manhattan Project (to not die in WWII) and the Moon Landings (to not die in the Cold War).

So, we're probably OK for "slowpocalypse" disasters but not "global insta-kill" disasters like a sufficiently large asteroid strike.

The theory of Quantum Immortality might help you feel better about your survival chances.
posted by sninctown at 5:26 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Or the 1918 Spanish flu in the age of international jet travel.

And also note that we enjoy nearly 100 years of medical knowledge since that point. We have international agencies purpose-built to be on the watch for pandemics. In 1918, the CDC was still 24 years and a world war away from even being created as an agency.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:01 PM on July 27, 2015

Yeeeees, but we don't have much in the way of defense against influenza - a mediocre vaccine (on a good day), a couple of less than inspiring antivirals, hand washing and doctors mostly-kinda-sorta believe in germ theory (in theory they do, but check their hand washing rates). And we've got much better supportive care, but.... Dr Crislip has told the story of the recent H1N1 flu several times on his podcasts - just as the last ventilator in his hospital had been taken, the epidemic broke and receded. So H1N1 took at least one substantial urban hospital right to the limit, and it really wasn't that bad.

Spanish Flu in the jet age isn't an extinction level event, but don't bet a lot of money against a very bad influenza that has very bad consequences.
posted by wotsac at 10:55 PM on July 27, 2015

20 years is a lot of time to do something about a lot of things... if the humankind REALLY put our mind to it. US got to the moon in much less.

Antibiotics never "stops working", it's just that germs have evolved past the current batch, and research for the next batch hasn't worked as well as expected, despite all the genome sequencing and all that.

As for starvation, there is PLENTY of food to feed the world. The problem has always been distribution. Somalia and much of Africa starved because the Warlords control the transportation and they stole all the food to feed their own people (and their fighters) as way to maintain power over the rest. Furthermore, GMO crop can further increase yield, need less water, resistant to pests and blight... But Greenpeace and other fear-based orgs are fighting against such life saving measures to be adopted world-wide. Golden Rice, which has tons more beta carotene than normal rice and would have saved millions from malnutrition, was fought left and right by various groups with anti-GMO rhetoric as well as anti-globalization rhetoric.

As for natural disasters, unless something triggers a whole series of events 20 years can't do that much to the world population.

For the slowpocalypse to happen the disasters would have to occur non-stop (one a month, all around the world) a typhoon here, and earthquake and tsunami there, a volcano elsewhere... PLUS new diseases coming out of China AND Africa (simultaneous) that somehow defined containment, PLUS all the transportation networks get affected, for his scenario to come true. Remember, the 2004 Earthquake / Tsunami only caused about 280K deaths, all in the least prepared areas like Indonesia, and Indonesia at the time has population of 232 mil. So that global scale disaster only took out 1% of population of ONE country. How big and how many of a disaster would it take to wipe out 1% of human population, much less 80%?

It's basically the worst of the worst of the worst case scenarios: rolling snake eyes 20 times in a row or such.

There was a novel by Ralph Peters that came out like 10-20 years ago called "The War in 2020" that was also of a nightmarish scenario: US "intervention" in Africa was destroyed when Japan secretly shipped laser gunships and advanced AI battle controller, plus automated tanks for mercenaries there and most of US forces were destroyed and the rest were evacuated. Just at that time, a new disease spread out of Africa and became a pandemic that turned all US cities into martial law zones full of death, and many into anarchy zones controlled by gangs, and national guard had to retake the cities street by street. Mexico and some southern neighbors tried to invade but was repelled. Mideastern forces, armed with Japanese arms, overran Israel and was in the process of destroying the Soviet Union, while China signed a treaty with Japan and India to protect their bloc. And that's just the setup for the US to mount an expedition and with the newly rebuilt 101 Airborne with railgun gunships... to assist the Russians, but the Japanese forces have a secret weapon that is so terrible... it had never been deployed... until now...

Apocalyptic novels are nothing new. It had to rely on a series of events that are worst of the worst of the worst cases. I personally don't find such a thing happening at all. :)
posted by kschang at 11:43 PM on July 27, 2015

"as countries move higher on scales of development, birth rates fall, often to sub-replacement levels."

I see this all over the place, and I am not sure if it is based off better research that I haven't seen, or if it is crappy research failing to establish that correlation does not equal causation, but I thought that birth rates fall in proportion to access to contraceptives?
Not economic development, but just access to contraceptives! Women in really poor countries will also drop to only having a few children that they can feed and educate, if given the choice. Which means countries withdrawing support for widespread contraceptive access is still a problem.

It just worries me that people equate economic progress with cultural progress, rather than a specific technology that needs to be accessible.
(Or more worryingly, that they still don't understand the birds and the bees...)
posted by Elysum at 4:24 AM on July 28, 2015

Given how interdependent modern civilization is, I think we'vegot two basic scenarios for dealing with a disaster. First, something kills a low percentage of the population, say 10%, then we recover and go on as normal. Or, we get a disaster that completely disrupts the economy and trade...and in that case, everything collapses, maybe 95% of the population starves to death, and we permanently lose the ability to sustain a technological civilization.

The choices are pretty binary, and the thing is, I really don't know what the threshold for s collapse is. I don't think we can know, outside of testing to destruction.
posted by happyroach at 9:51 AM on July 28, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you all for sharing your thoughts! It was illuminating. I had thought there would be more consensus, but apparently it really is hard to model the future.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:04 AM on July 28, 2015

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