The Three Great Threats to Modern Civilization

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jessica Lavery

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Throughout the history of mankind, civilizations have risen and fallen due to a variety of factors. For the most part, the collapse of a civilization wasn’t sudden, but a gradual decline brought on by multiple causes like changing culture, climate or even the introduction of a new culture (such as when Europeans came to the “new world”).

The interconnectivity and globalization of our modern society make it less likely for a civilization to collapse due to traditional factors. But the same factors that make a traditional decline less likely also mean a collapse is apt to look quite different. To start, it would be more sudden and less localized – going across multiple regions and perhaps the entire globe. What could cause such a collapse? There are three main threats to our modern civilization that could cause humanity to go the way of the ancient Mayans.

Climate Change

Human life requires a very specific set of environmental circumstances to survive. And while we can withstand some level of extreme temperatures, climate change has the potential to change, or perhaps even damage, civilizations as we know it.

Whether you believe climate change is man-made or a natural part of the earth’s cycle, it is obvious our planet’s climate is changing rapidly. We have already seen an increase in the number and severity of storms across the planet – some with devastating effects. Climate change may also be responsible for a rash of wildfires. As climate change shifts the physical landscape of our planet, the societal impacts will ripple across the globe. Some areas will become inhabitable as rising seas cause them to sink under the waves, or areas will become too hot or cold to live. The increase in temperatures may also increase insect populations and, as a result, insect-borne diseases will skyrocket. This could force people to migrate from their current locations to new locations, increasing the population in the remaining inhabitable locations, and creating a ripe environment for disease. The shifting weather patterns will also put our crops at risk, creating the potential for famine and starvation.

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben told Business Insider earlier this year that without intervention, the world would be: "If not hell, then a place with a similar temperature."

Nuclear War

Ever since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has feared the possibility of nuclear war. The concept of mutual mass destruction caused anxiety and terrifying standoffs throughout the Cold War, but it also helped prevent the use of nuclear weapons (testing notwithstanding). Though the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear war still looms, as more countries now have the ability to create these powerful weapons. The Doomsday clock – which signifies the potential of a man-made global catastrophe such as nuclear war – has not stood this close to midnight since 1953

Nuclear war would obviously have a devastating impact on humanity, and this is one of the major factors preventing such a war. All nations know that to use a nuclear weapon means they will become the next target of a nuclear attack. Yet the potential and the possibility for such a war still exist, in part because of unstable governments possessing such weapons.

Cyberwar

In the past, attacks in the cyberworld only impacted our digital lives. Consequently, the threat of a cyberattack seems minimal compared to something as major as nuclear war or global climate change. However, our growing dependence on software means the consequences of a digital war could spill over into the physical world. 

There is a long history of cyberwar dating back to the early 1980s, the main difference between the cyberwar of the past and the one of today, or the future, is the world we live in. Back in the 1980s, when cyberwar became a growing concern for our government, we did not have the World Wide Web or mobile devices with the power of a super computer. Nor were our businesses, economy and even health devices tied to applications. It would only take another nation, or even a terrorist organization, to target a vulnerability in the software running the power grid, and civilization could be thrown into chaos. We are seeing this on a small scale in Puerto Rico, where power has been out for more than a month. If this were to happen on a world-wide scale, there would be mass rioting, hording of food, and commerce would cease to exist.

There is evidence that cybercriminals are testing the fences for weaknesses already. And we know from research that our software is woefully insecure. Our civilization is dependent on software that is insecure, and all it would take is a coordinated attack to change the way we live. And although we would eventually get the electric grid or other infrastructure back up and running, it could take weeks or months – what would happen to society during this time?

The thought of climate change, nuclear war and cyberwar are all terrifying, and it is tempting to not think about it in an effort to sleep better at night. But we cannot keep our heads in the sand and hope nothing will happen. By ignoring the potential threat of any of these three catastrophes, we are forgoing the opportunity to prevent them – and prevent them we can. We can change the direction of climate change with smart environmental policies and behaviors. We can tone down the rhetoric and adhere to nuclear non-proliferation agreements to lessen the potential for nuclear war. And we can create secure development standards to ensure the software running our world doesn’t have exploitable vulnerabilities. All it takes to accomplish all these things is the desire and the will.

We have the power to ensure our civilization grows, flourishes and is even better than how we found it. The advantage we have over past civilizations is the knowledge to prevent collapse. But first we must recognize the threat so that we can neutralize the risk.

About the atuhor: Jessica Lavery is Director of Corporate Communication and Content Marketing at CA Veracode. In this role Jessica is responsible for overseeing all activities associated with Public Relations, Analyst Relations, Internal Communications, Executive Communications, Content Marketing, Social Media, Visual Identity and Brand. Jessica has nearly 10 years of security experience.

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