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Notes on Engineering Health, March 2020

Apocalypse Now

In these troubled days, it certainly can feel like we are approaching the end of civilization as we have known it. The Doomsday Clock has never been closer to midnight (currently just 100 seconds away) and the obvious level of unpreparedness of societies facing the ongoing coronavirus crisis has not done anything to reverse the somber ticker.

Some people are preparing (prepping?) for a world after the collapse of society to ensure their own survival. Others are acting for the good of all via such efforts as securing continuity in biodiversity with the Global Seed Vault (located in a cave in Svalbard). Other efforts seek to preserve a large amount of open source code (in another cave in Svalbard) and to create the ability to bootstrap post-collapse technology (Collapse OS, no cave required).

The Doomsday Clock existed before the current pandemic and expresses a long-cycle angst. Some researchers believe that a more useful approach would be to trace arcs in the development and fragility of societies in order to better predict and prepare for disasters of various kinds. Some historians, such as David Runciman in How Democracy Ends, have convincingly described differences (e.g., age of the population, standard of living, etc.) between periods when democracies were under strain or even collapsed and explain why the next crisis will likely follow a different path. Less orthodox methods have also emerged to look at the past and predict the future; ecologist Peter Turchin has published in Nature about using history as a giant data set to calculate the patterns and cycles of the past to avoid a looming crisis. This physical approach to history has received a mixed reception amongst classical historians, with some likening it to the fictional science of “psychohistory” in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe which he first wrote about in the early 1940’s.

Whether or not you believe that we can develop accurate methods of computing on the immense complexity of the past, some observers have been ringing the alarms for a number of years about the coming of a crisis identical to the one in which are now mired. 

One beneficial outcome of the current crisis should be an effort to foster a stronger interdisciplinary effort to marry sciences, humanities, and policy-making so that these early warnings are better understood and heeded.

Jonathan Friedlander, PhD & Geoffrey W. Smith