Apocalypse how?

We weren't all incinerated in a firestorm of Mayan smugness on Dec 21, but Exberliner investigated nine other apocalyptic scenarios, just in case.

Image for Apocalypse how?
Illustration by Milorad Krstić
It’s December 2012, and according to one interpretation of a Mayan prophecy, the end of the world is just around the corner. At the beginning of this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of their Doomsday Clock to 11:55. When will it strike midnight? Have we already sealed our own doom, or is there hope for humanity? We explore 10 scenarios in which humans might be wiped off the planet – suddenly or slowly. Rise of the zombies The scenario: The dead crawl out of their graves and feast on the brains of the living. Or maybe a mind control virus spreads throughout the population, causing aggression and chaos. Either way, the zombocalypse is upon us. The expert: Frank Swain, author of the upcoming How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control. “There are two different attributes of zombies: mind control and raising the dead. In terms of bringing people back from the dead, we’re getting good at that. The current stage of research involves ‘controlled death states’. They’re doing it with dogs – they can reduce the brain’s oxygen, drain the blood out, cool the body down very quickly. Three hours later you can pump the blood back into them, warm them up, give them a shock to the heart, and they’ll be alive again. But if there was a zombie apocalypse, it would most likely be because of an infective mind control agent. It’s actually already happening, if you look at things like Toxoplasma gondii. It’s been known to change behaviour, and it’s prevalent in 40 to 90 percent of humans, depending on the country. Most people get it from meat – it’s a big problem in livestock – but cats are the primary host. So it’s got to get back into a cat to continue its life cycle. To do that, it can take control of rats and encourage the kind of risky behaviour that will get them eaten by a cat. In humans, it’s been indicted in people with schizophrenia. But ‘toxo’ would be a pretty crappy organism if you were trying to make your own zombie bug. Rabies is the one you want to go for. To pass it on you need to bite someone, and to make that happen it fuels these periods of aggressive rage. The problem is the latency period – I guess you could engineer a version where it’s hours instead of months. And it doesn’t transfer from human to human that often. Maybe we’re just very good at strapping people down. The best way to survive a zombie apocalypse? Don’t get bitten, and avoid other people. Pretty good advice in general.” RG A crash course The scenario: A deadly object hurtles out of space and collides with Earth. If it’s small, it kills thousands of people on impact. If it’s large, it obliterates the world entirely. It could be an asteroid, a comet or even a planet: recently, in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, we saw Earth get swallowed up by a rogue gas giant. Metaphor for upper-class ennui or real-life possibility? The expert: Melancholia’s scientific adviser, astrophysicist Uffe Gråe Jørgensen. “The scenario in Melancholia is possible within the laws of physics, but it’s very, very unlikely. On the other hand, there are several hundred thousand asteroids and comets that pass earth’s orbit every year, and a collision with any of them would be the end of humanity. For sure, that will happen in the next 100,000 years. If a 1km-sized piece of stone hit land, it would penetrate into the crust of the earth, where it would explode. Then the material would evaporate up into the stratosphere and spread all over the globe. Sunlight would decrease for several years, and the temperature would drop. All plants would die, and the food chain would collapse. A smaller collision is still a very big catastrophe. These happen every few hundred years or so. The last one was in 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia. It was just a 50- or 100-metre clump of ice, probably a piece of a comet, and 2000 square kilometres of forest were destroyed. Imagine this in Berlin! If we know about the object two or three years in advance, there’s a simple solution: send a few space probes out there and mount ropes and a sail on it. The solar wind will be enough to move it so that it doesn’t hit earth. But asteroids move in chaotic orbits, so in principle we might only know a few months before, or even half an hour. And then there would be nothing we could do. But I’m optimistic. In our galaxy, there are around 10 billion planets that more or less resemble Earth. Once we’re living on just two or three of them, it’ll be very difficult to wipe out humanity as such. Whatever ending you think about – astronomical collision, nuclear war – it’s limited to only one planet. At a time.” RG Berlin goes boom The scenario: Germany may not have nuclear weapons, and it may be a nuclear power plant-free country by 2022, but that doesn’t mean the country’s safe from the 185 reactors within the EU or the 40,000 cubic metres of waste they produce every year. Not to mention the planet’s combined stockpile of nuclear weapons: an estimated 20,000 warheads, some of which are pre-aimed and ready to detonate at a moment’s notice… perhaps even accidentally. Will we ever see a mushroom cloud over Berlin? The expert: Nuclear disarmament campaigner Xanthe Hall. “Just like in Dr. Strangelove, in the event of an imminent nuclear attack, the country under threat must make a decision whether or not to push the button and reciprocate with a fleet of atomic retribution. This method of defence, called ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, is actually designed to ensure that both the attacking and the defending countries are completely eliminated, in order to prevent a full-scale atomic world war. It’s come close to happening on a number of occasions, due to human error or faulty computer systems sending out accidental signals, and retaliation has been narrowly avoided. So how does this affect a city like Berlin? If an atomic bomb were to hit, the blast, debris and ensuing firestorms alone would kill hundreds of thousands of citizens instantaneously. For those ‘lucky’ enough to survive the initial impact, the radiation levels surrounding the city would still cause acute radiation sickness, claiming the lives of thousands more citizens in a matter of three days to three weeks. Then of course, there’s nuclear energy. There are nine fully operational nuclear power stations in Germany alone (including a smaller research reactor in Berlin-Wannsee). If any one of these were to explode or melt down, a nationwide catastrophe would be unavoidable, not only for citizens within direct proximity to blast zones, but potentially, the whole of Europe. The primary risk to citizens would be the deadly consequences of radiation exposure. Thankfully, as part of a wealthy, environmentally conscious country that is becoming increasingly distrustful of nuclear presence, the chances of such eventualities occurring in Berlin are comparatively low for the time being. But of course, never say never.” HS The day of reckoning The scenario: For true believers, there’s only one apocalypse that matters. The messiah will return to lay his judgement upon us. The righteous will be salvaged and the unfaithful will be condemned. From the actual to the metaphysical, what’s the meaning of religious armageddon? The expert: Johannes Hoff, born in Trier, professor of theology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. “Strictly speaking, you only have an apocalypse in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. The main difference is that Christians believe Christ will return as the judge. It is the consummation of a judgement that has already started. Everyone who is faithful to the reconciliation in Christ will be saved and everyone who is not faithful will be judged. It’s not only a future event; it’s a present event. With modern secular philosophers like Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx, you have apocalyptic features where the unjust society of the present time is criticised in the light of a messianic event that will recover justice. The most characteristic feature of the apocalypse is that you can’t say what it is. An example of the paradox of the apocalypse is The Life of Brian when they are all running behind Jesus and imitating him. Jesus says, “You are all individuals,” and they repeat, “We are all individuals,” and one person exclaims, “I’m not.” The only person who is an individual is the person who claims he is not. This is the problem of the meaning of salvation in the apocalypse. The most characteristic sentence in apocalyptic literature is that the Lord will come like a thief and you have to be vigilant. Every door, every place, every event can indicate that the messiah, the salvation or the judgement is arriving. You don’t know it in advance. It provokes an attitude of expectation that focuses on the present.” SOD Death keeps no calendar The scenario: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives – and the last grain will drop on December 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar finishes and time comes to an end. Or is it a new beginning? The expert: Andreas Fuls, a professor at the Technical University of Berlin who specialises in Mayan astronomy and chronology. “To explain the Mayan calendar I’d have to explain a very complicated counting system. You also have to look at the moon phases, eclipses, Venus and the sun. The Mayans believed the calendar began when the gods fought the underworld and died and were reborn. This calendar begins around 3000 BC. There is only one place the 21.12.2012 end date is mentioned. That’s on El Tortuguero monument number six in Tabasco, Mexico. But it’s impossible to see what they actually prophesised because most of the inscriptions have eroded. So there are no exact names or places. According to my studies, the calendar actually doesn’t end until 2220, 208 years from now. The 2012 date is based on calculations from the colonial period, but most people still believe this to be exact, though my calculations are being increasingly acknowledged. But whether 2012 or 2220, it is not the end of the world. The Mayan predictions go forward more than 10,000 and back more than 900,000 years. There is no proof that the Mayan calendar ends: it’s just a cycle inside of a bigger cycle inside of a bigger cycle. And when it ends it’s just a new beginning, a transformation. Anything else is speculation.” AFK The Athenian night The scenario: The debt crisis in countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland drags down the entire Eurozone. Unemployment and poverty reach record heights, while racist political parties grow in strength. The euro falls apart, the economic union breaks up and pulls the world into recession and Europe descends into new wars. Is this just a nightmare dreamt up by the yellow press, or a clear and present danger? The expert: Nikos Tzanakis-Papadakis, founding member of the Berlin branch of Greece’s main opposition party, SYRIZA. “In Greece, the signs of social collapse are there. On the streets of Athens, you see lots of homeless people who had homes six months ago. More and more people don’t have access to health care, and diseases that shouldn’t be mortal under civilised conditions are killing people. Even malaria is making a comeback! Where I’m from, in Crete, everyone knows a person who has killed him- or herself as a result of the crisis. In the Athenian night, you can see groups of 50-60 muscle-bound men patrolling the streets and attacking immigrants and leftists with clubs and knives. They wear black armbands with the logo of the Nazi party “Golden Dawn”, which looks a lot like a swastika. They got into parliament, but they also take over neighbourhoods and act like a racist paramilitary group. This is what it looks like when a society collapses. Germany, the EU’s ruling power, needs the European south to keep exporting. If Greece were to leave the currency and cancel all its debts, then it would be much more expensive for countries like Spain or Italy to borrow money. They would get into their own debt crises and the countries of the whole EU would topple like dominoes. Then again, leaving the euro is not the only nightmare scenario. Right now, the working people of Greece are bleeding in order to save the euro. This will lead to an increase of nationalism both in the north and the south. We’re talking about social cannibalism. But whether that happens depends on the people of Europe themselves. We’re fighting for a leftist government in Greece that stops the austerity programmes. If we all fight together, we have a chance to avert this catastrophe.” JR Apocalypse by mouse click The scenario: Today’s battles are being fought by hackers, not soldiers. Recent skirmishes between the US and Iran prove that cyber-war, once a sci-fi concept, is now a terrifyingly real danger. With a few keystrokes, just one person can shut down an entire city, a country, the world. Traffic lights, electricity, cell phones, the internet and even nuclear power plants are all easy targets. The expert: Ijon, Berlin-based hacker. “The SCADA system (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) is used to control everything important, like the relays, water pumps, rail lines, and even the cooling systems in nuclear power plants. If a hacker tries hard enough, he will get entrance to virtually every single SCADA system with very little money and time. It’s close to wide open. I’ve seen so many breaches and holes in the infrastructures that you could kill people by the thousands by pressing a button. I could do it right here from my desk at home. All I’d need is about 50,000 dollars and a big-ass calculating system like amazon cloud to calculate the keys and passwords. It’s dirt cheap compared to any other terrorist attack and would cause more harm than a nuke. I’m starting to believe humanity is just too good 
– that’s the only explanation why it hasn’t happened yet. I would start with the traffic lights – switch them all to green. Every cross would be jammed by broken cars and the roads would be blocked. Next thing would be the trains, so that no one can leave the city. Then I would blow up the power plants. And maybe release all prisoners from the prisons, which would keep the police busy. After 48 hours there would be no cell phone reception; in three to five days no internet and water; in 10 days no gasoline; in two weeks no functioning hospitals. This will cause massive panic and more casualties than you would expect. If that’s not enough, you could blow up the nuclear power plants. So now you have nuclear radiation and nuclear rain. There – you have your apocalypse. There’s no way to avoid it. To change the SCADA system would take about 10 years and a replacement hasn’t even been developed yet. So to protect yourself, pack a bag and head for the countryside.” AFK Lights out The scenario: The lights flicker and die as the U-Bahn comes to an abrupt halt. Kilometres away, the influx of energy consumption has blown out multiple power grids. Pandemonium breaks out across the city as dead traffic lights create deadly accidents. What if the blackout paranoia fuelled by renewable energy naysayers and hyped by the local tabloid press was justified? What if Germany’s plan to switch off nuclear power destroyed the delicate balance of energy, leaving Berlin in the dark? The experts: Co-founders of the ongoing project TankNotStrom, social psychologists Brigitta Sticher and Claudius Ohder. “With the advent of changes toward renewable energy, the possibility of a blackout is more relevant than ever. Being prepared is key. During a blackout the largest problem is how to communicate. The population is individually stranded and vulnerable elements, such as the elderly or sick, need attention. Of course institutions such as hospitals and mobile stations are required to have a certain amount of fuel in storage for their backup generators, but the truth of the matter is that many places in Berlin don’t have these. Furthermore, once the allotted energy in the backup generators is spent, that’s that. A main issue is how to transport fuel to critical places, recognise the vulnerable elements and alleviate the stress and isolation of the population as a whole. To this effect, we first came up with a solution of having emergency fuel depots. Secondly, we established two databases from research collected in two distinct districts, Zehlendorf and Lichtenberg, which could be used to determine where help is needed most. Finally, we have recently started a project dubbed ‘lighthouses’, which are basically public buildings that could be transformed into communication centres in the event of a blackout. In the end, these will be crucial. If our research has revealed anything, it’s that the willingness of the public to help one another will be of more importance than the help the state can provide. In terms of doomsday scenarios, barring a global blowout of power grids, a blackout in Berlin would be very costly and damaging, but civilisation would survive.” FV Emission impossible The scenario: We’ve pumped too much methane and carbon into the atmosphere and made our planet a little too hot under the collar a little too quickly. Natural disasters are increasing, violent conflicts rage over the right to dwindling resources and climate refugees are met with hostility as societal infrastructure is stressed to the breaking point. The expert: Harald Welzer, author of Klimakriege (climate Wars). “The global average temperature has been growing rapidly since the beginning of last century, increasing by 0.8 degrees in an extremely short period of time. An additional rise of 1.2 degrees or even more by the middle of the century is inevitable. The earth’s climate system is becoming unstable, and human societies are dependent on stable conditions for their survival. Climate change has a very problematic time structure. What we do now won’t cause effects until 2050 or so. Psychologically, it is a problem. This might explain why we are going in the wrong direction with an ever-increasing rate of material extraction and emissions. It simply cannot go on much longer. The change will increase the frequency of extreme weather events. In some parts of the world, hurricane seasons will intensify. In other parts of the world, there will be more problems with droughts and lack of water. Then there are the related social problems such as enforced migrations and border conflicts. We will also see conflicts over resources. As the ice caps melt, new resources will become accessible and it’s likely to be unclear who has the right to exploit them. I think we’re also going to see an increase in ‘land grabbing’. All of these things increase the risk of violent conflicts. The upcoming period is likely to be defined by intervals of heightened stress reactions, and then a rapid change in the political and social conditions of industrialised societies across the world. Powerful societies will insulate themselves against the effects of climate change. Others will be bullied and denied access to vital resources. How many killings will take place? Dennis meadows, author of Limits to Growth, predicts that there will be some sort of violent process that will deplete the earth’s population to around 1 billion people by the middle of the 21st century. Violence is always an option.” SB Let them eat cake The scenario: The climate is rapidly changing and the population is ballooning. Changes in meteorological patterns, increased water scarcity and land degradation are seriously damaging our capacity to produce enough food for an ever increasing and ever intensifying global demand. The wealthy world insulates itself while billions elsewhere face starvation. The expert: Professor Samuel Myers, author of the 2009 World Watch report Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health. “There are a whole variety of ways that climate change is likely to impact our capacity to produce food: rises in temperature and rises in the variability of precipitation patterns, changes in the relationship between crops and pests and pathogens that affect those crops, changes in the amount of solar energy available for photosynthesis, changes in the nutritional value of crops – all of these things are likely to change. We are fundamentally altering the entire environmental system that our food production depends upon. At the same time we need to double food production to keep up with demand over the next 40 years and resources are already becoming scarce in certain parts of the world. The point is that we’re loading the dice against ourselves. We’re altering all the biophysical conditions around the entirety of the planet that we’ve been adapted to for hundreds of thousands of years as a species. What’s more, we’re altering those conditions extremely rapidly, and we don’t fully understand the consequences. We’re playing with a lot of parameters simultaneously – rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, sea level rise, ocean acidification, changes in the distribution of infectious disease – without a full or even partial understanding of what all the implications of those changes might be. I think the issues for Europe are more likely to revolve around immigration, civil strife and the role of policing areas that are under enormous stress. Food production in Africa is encountering ever-increasing headwinds from the combination of climate change, land degradation and water scarcity and the likelihood is that large populations will be forced to move – many to Europe. What worries me most is a scenario in which those of us in the wealthy world are able insulate ourselves from a lot of the costs of the disruption of global environmental systems. If food production drops by 30 percent and demand can’t be met, we’ll be the ones with the resources to buy the food that’s available. I worry about the 3-4 billion people who will not be able to access increasingly scarce resources. They will be the ones who are in harm’s way – without enough to eat, no access to clean water, increased exposure to infectious diseases. They don’t have access to the sort of infrastructure that we in the wealthy world can use to protect ourselves. In short, billions of people are going to become extremely vulnerable.” SB