Recently, University of Oxford researchers released a study saying that the chances of the human species going extinct in a given year was as high as 1 in 14,000 from just natural causes. That might not sound like it is particularly high, but it is important to remember that statistics are not guarantees of a specific something happening in a specific manner. As such, it is perfectly possible for a 1 in 14,000 occurrence to come either before, during, or after a 14,000-year period has passed. For that matter, it should be mentioned that while 14,000 years is close to three times the length of recorded human history, it is nothing in the grand scheme of things. In fact, even our species can claim about 200,000 to 300,000 years of existence while our planet can claim about 4.54 billion years of existence.
Why Are the Chances of Human Extinction So High?
Some people might be curious why the chances of human extinction are so high. If so, there are a couple of things to consider. One, an instigating incident doesn’t have to kill the entire human species for it to make the entire human species extinct. In part, this is because an event that devastates the infrastructure that keeps modern societies running would have knock-on effects. For instance, imagine how the millions and millions of people packed into the biggest cities would feed themselves when the transportation systems that bring in food and other necessities on a constant basis have broken down. Never mind when the systems that produce that food and other necessities have broken down as well. However, it should also be mentioned that a small number of survivors separated from one another will result in extreme inbreeding in their descendants, thus increasing the chances of dangerous and otherwise detrimental recessive traits coming to the fore. It is interesting to note that our species has experienced population bottlenecks in the past, but the causes of those population bottlenecks remain much debated in the present time. Two, the simple fact of the matter is that there are a number of events that could cause humans to either die off right away or become incapable of surviving our doom in the long run:
An asteroid of sufficient size smashing into the Earth is one of the most often-envisioned scenarios. This makes sense because most people will be aware that an asteroid is believed to have been responsible for the end of non-avian dinosaurs as well as a wide range of other species. Essentially, an asteroid of sufficient size smashing into the Earth would kick up an enormous amount of ash, dust, and other material, which could block out the sun for years and years. This would have a catastrophic effect on Earthbound species, not least because photosynthesis would no longer be possible under such circumstances.
There are a number of still active supervolcanoes in the world. Should one of these supervolcanoes have an eruption of sufficient power, that could send up enough material to block out the sun as well. Supervolcanic eruptions aren’t as well-known as asteroid impacts, but there is much debate over the extent to which they and similar events have been responsible for the Earth’s various mass extinctions.
Gamma Ray Burst
Certain stellar events can cause gamma ray bursts. Should such an incident happen close enough to the Earth, the result would be catastrophic. Under normal circumstances, we are protected from the UV radiation of our sun by our ozone layer. However, a gamma ray burst wouldn’t just devastate the part of the Earth exposed to the initial incident but also strip our ozone layer, thus rendering the survivors vulnerable to the UV radiation. The worst part is that we would have no warning of a gamma ray burst whatsoever because gamma rays are just the most energetic form of light, meaning that the first indication of a gamma ray burst would be the incident itself.
A number of these events are dangerous because of their potential to cause climate change. Currently, global temperatures are on track for a 3 to 5 degrees Celsius rise in this century, which should be very concerning because we don’t actually understand our planet well enough to predict the knock-on effects of that rise with perfect precision. On top of this, even if we assume that there are no knock-on effects, that kind of rise would create a lot of disruption in local systems, thus making the human species as a whole much less capable of overcoming the challenges that come before it.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Perhaps unsurprisingly, weapons of mass destruction are often brought up when it comes to discussions of human extinction. After all, the widespread use of such weapons would devastate modern societies, thus making the human species as a whole much less capable of surviving various challenges.
What Can We Do About This?
To be perfectly honest, interested individuals shouldn’t get too worked up about human extinction on a day to day basis. However, humans are by no means helpless when it comes to all of these potential causes of human extinction. For example, there are things that even individuals can do to minimize the effects of climate change as well as minimize the chances of the widespread use of weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, while interested individuals might not be able to do much about asteroids and the like, entire societies of interested individuals can at least theoretically be much more effective in this regard.
Having said that, human extinction seems more or less certain in the really long run. After all, our current understanding of the universe suggests that it is going to undergo the Big Freeze far, far into the future, which is the kind of scenario that makes it very difficult to imagine anything surviving. Furthermore, even if our descendants manage to make it all the way to the Big Freeze, they would be so changed so that it would be very difficult to still call them human. Regardless, these considerations are not at all relevant for our day-to-day lives because they won’t happen until an incomprehensible amount of time into the future, meaning that there is little point to thinking about them save to sate scientific interest.