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An Eschatological Taxonomy
Jamais Cascio   Jan 1, 2007   Open the Future  

Eschatology: (noun) The study of the end of the world.
Taxonomy: (noun) A classification in a hierarchical system.

What do we mean when we talk about the “end of the world?”


It’s a term that get thrown around a bit too often among a variety of futurist-types, whether talking about global warming, nanofabrication, or non-friendly artificial intelligence. “Existential risks” is the lingo-du jour, referring to the broad panoply of processes, technologies and events that put our existence at risk. But, still, what does that mean? The destruction of the Earth? The end of humankind? A “Mad Max” world of leather-clad warriors, feral kids, and armed fashion models? All are frightening and horrific, but some are moreso than others. How do we tell them apart?

Here, then, is a first pass at a classification system for the varying types of “end of the world” scenarios.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Class Effect
0Regional Catastrophe (examples: moderate-case global warming, minor asteroid impact, local thermonuclear war)
Global civilization not eliminated, but regional civilizations effectively destroyed; millions to hundreds of millions dead, but large parts of humankind retain current social and technological conditions. Chance of humankind recovery: excellent. Species local to the catastrophe likely die off, and post-catastrophe effects (refugees, fallout, etc.) may kill more. Chance of ecosystem recovery: excellent.
1 Human Die-Back (example: extreme-case global warming, moderate asteroid impact, global thermonuclear war)
Global civilization set back to pre- or low-industrial conditions; several billion or more dead, but human species as a whole survives, in pockets of varying technological and social conditions. Chance of humankind recovery: moderate. Most non-human species on brink of extinction die off, but most other plant and animal species remain and, eventually, flourish. Chance of ecosystem recovery: excellent.
2 Civilization Extinction (examples: worst-case global warming, significant asteroid impact,  early-era molecular nanotech warfare)
Global civilization destroyed; millions (at most) remain alive, in isolated locations, with ongoing death rate likely exceeding birth rate. Chance of humankind recovery: slim. Many non-human species die off, but some remain and, over time, begin to expand and diverge. Chance of ecosystem recovery: good.
3a Human Extinction-Engineered (examples: targeted nano-plague, engineered sterility absent radical life extension)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Conditions triggering this are human-specific, so other species are, for the most part, unaffected. Chance of humankind recovery: nil. Chance of ecosystem recovery: excellent.
3b Human Extinction-Natural (examples: major asteroid impact, methane clathrates melt)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Conditions triggering this are general and global, so other species are greatly affected, as well. Chance of humankind recovery: nil. Chance of ecosystem recovery: moderate.
4 Ecosystem Extinction (examples: massive asteroid impact, “iceball Earth” reemergence, late-era molecular nanotech warfare)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Ecosystem massively disrupted, with the wholesale elimination of many niches. Chance of humankind recovery: nil. Chance of ecosystem recovery: slim. Chance of eventual re-emergence of organic life: good.
5 Planetary Extinction (examples: dwarf-planet-scale asteroid impact, nearby gamma-ray burst)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Ecosystem effectively destroyed; all species extinct. Geophysical disruption sufficient to prevent or greatly hinder re-emergence of organic life.
X Planetary Elimination (example: post-Singularity beings disassemble planet to make computronium)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Ecosystem destroyed; all species extinct. Planet itself destroyed.

Suggestions, additions, changes all welcome.

 

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.



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