“Die off, soft landing or full-blown collapse”: Maths model reveals three possible fates facing humanity, and none are pretty

As we’ve written before, when writing about climate change and its devastating impact on Earth, there’s not really such a thing as ‘good news’. A case in point is a study from the University of Rochester in New York which has mathematically modelled the outcome of an intelligent species mining a planet’s resources and growing their populations accordingly. There were three outcomes, and they’re varying flavours of bad.

Before we get to our sorry outcomes, though, this is how the researchers did it. Using a model of population growth on Earth, the researchers plotted out possible histories of alien “exo-civilizations”, adding in generic physics and chemistry for other planets to figure out the resource balance.

They then examined how these alien worlds would cope, and the overwhelming answer was “not well.” The results, Professor Adam Frank writes in The Atlantic, reveal “a radical truth about the challenge we face as we push the Earth into its human-dominated era.”

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So, scenario one.

The Die Off

The name says it all, and unfortunately, this was by far the most common outcome – if you wanted to bet on humanity’s fate, this would have pretty short odds.

In this scenario, the population explodes and burns through the planet’s resources pushing the world away from comfortable conditions. The population exceeds the planet’s limit, and the life rapidly dies off to a sustainable level. The worst part? The models show that could be as high as 70% of the population dying before things level out. If you’re content in the belief that your ancestors will be in the 30% that survive the cull, it’s worth remembering Professor Frank’s words here: “In reality, it’s not clear that a complex technological civilization like ours could survive such a catastrophe.”there_are_three_ways_human_life_on_earth_is_heading_and_none_of_them_are_good_-_2

The Soft Landing

Scenario two is the best option, but that’s not saying a great deal. Dubbed “The Soft Landing”, this version of events saw the same population growth, leading to the planet irreversibly changing, but somehow civilisation transitions to a “new, balanced equilibrium.” The planet transforms, but those to blame for its transformation get to live another day.

Full-blown collapse

You do not want what’s in box number three, or as the researchers call it, “full-blown collapse.” Like the previous two scenarios, the population explodes, but in this version of events the planet just can’t cope. Planets facing this model had conditions that “deteriorated so fast the civilisation’s population nose-dived all the way to extinction.”

If you think you’ve reached the lowest point in this article and are ready for your uplifting ending, then you’re about to be grimly disappointed. The researchers tested a model where the planets would at some point switch from high-impact resources to low-impact – like if the whole of Earth abandoned fossil fuels and installed solar panels. In some of the scenarios, this made surprisingly little difference – and some planetary models still collapsed. For these poor planets, going green only delayed the inevitable: “The population would start to fall, then happily stabilise,” writes Frank. “But then, finally and suddenly, it rushed downward to extinction.”

That’s, to put it mildly, not encouraging, but as Frank himself points out, this is just a basic first go. “That means it’s too early to answer the question, ‘Does anyone make it?’,” he writes.

You would hope that this kind of research would be a wake-up call to humanity, but given our collective ability to sleep through previous screeching alarms, it’s probably best not to hold your breath. That’s doubly true in our current political climate which, unlike our actual climate, shows lamentably low prospects of changing.

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