Three badly-underestimated risks to humanity What's happening in the financial markets is a mess; there's no doubt about that. But it's a mess that has the public's attention. Here are three huge risks to the modern world that aren't getting their fair share of attention:
We don't have enough food to survive a natural calamity. A volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 left behind a cloud of ash that blocked much sunlight for months and led to food shortages all over the globe. A similar eruption could happen at any time today. The population of the world was around one billion then; now, it's approaching 7 billion. We've dramatically improved food production, but we haven't improved food storage at a similar pace. World food reserves amount to only a few weeks' worth of normal consumption. If another volcanic eruption of similar magnitude were to occur today -- and it could -- then we could see a global hunger emergency on a scale never before seen nor comprehended.
Our computers are susceptible to catastrophic electrical attack. Virtually everything important in the world today depends upon computers. Yet, aside from the work of one member of Congress, almost no one seems to take seriously the threat of attacks on the computing infrastructure by electromagnetic pulse. In short, hostile governments and groups either already have access to or will soon possess the tools they would need to cripple most of the electronics over most of the continental United States in a single stroke. We have the capacity to create resistance to such an attack, but for the most part, nothing significant has been done. Lest the threat sound fictitious, it should be noted that NATO used special weapons in the campaign in Yugoslavia to disable the electrical system there during the late 1990s, in order to suppress the fighting power of the Milosevic regime.
We still don't have a real plan for containing a contagious pandemic. While avian influenza hasn't really made the leap to human-to-human transmission yet (as far as we know), the threat still exists, and people are still dying of the infection. At some time, whether it's H5N1 bird flu or something else, a disease outbreak will reach pandemic status, just like the Spanish flu of 1918. And when it happens, it will shut down many of the human systems upon which we depend, unless alternatives are put into place.
Frightening? Certainly. After all, each of the disasters in question has happened before. But these risks are surmountable, if we're willing to apply our minds, technologies, and resources to the solutions. Let's find better ways to store food -- perhaps by improving our capacity to freeze-dry food on a massive scale. Let's figure out how to protect our electronics from attack -- perhaps by making use of Faraday cages where appropriate. And let's take some of the lessons from Y2K preparations and apply them to the risk of a pandemic. These things can be done, and if we had more foresight as a species than the common goldfish, then we'd actually put our knowledge to good use.