4 Apocalyptic Crises (Basically Nobody Realizes Are Coming)
We tend to think of an apocalypse as a single big event, where one day everything is normal, but 24 hours later we're all scrounging an irradiated wasteland for food scraps. But in reality, things tend to quietly break down in the background for so long that by the time you're having a sword fight for the last known box of Corn Flakes, your new life feels natural. So before we reach that point, we should all pay a little more attention to how ...
Important Software Code Is Getting Way Too Complicated
Brace your monocles and top hats for a shock here, but computer code is pretty important these days. And because programming is such a huge and vital industry, we like to think that the job is done by masterful logicians who value clarity and purpose. But, much like how the Cracked article writing process ends when the whiskey bottle is empty, code prioritizes expediency above all else. No one has the time or energy to care about tomorrow's problem, as long as today's problem is solved.
The result of this is dubbed spaghetti code, an endless mishmash of complicated and hard-to-understand programs produced by tough deadlines, shifting priorities, a lack of standardization, and sometimes simple ineptitude. These programs mostly work just fine, but when they inevitably break, it can be next to impossible to locate the problem in the tangle. The code's own creator (or huge team of creators, each with their own style) often isn't even still around to make the fix, and they don't bother leaving instructions behind. Imagine having a co-worker whose filing system was "throw all my shit on the floor," and then, a decade after they've moved to a new job, you're tasked with saving the company by finding one piece of paper in a pile of hundreds of thousands.
This isn't a huge issue if needlessly obtuse code is bringing down your epic Ruth Bader Ginsburg fanfic, On The Basis Of Sex (In The Fuckin' Sense). But spaghetti code has been blamed for things like a lethal car crash caused by a car's flawed acceleration system, a six-hour 911 outage in the entire state of Washington, United Airlines having to ground its whole fleet for a day, and New York Stock Exchange trading going down like it had been targeted by a Batman villain.
Every program breaks sometimes, but modern code has become so large and sprawling that it's impossible to test, or even understand, every possible situation and variable. How do you anticipate every outcome in a system designed for millions of people? And when code breaks, it's not like when we broke our arm trying to do that backflip -- the problem cannot be visually diagnosed. You're stuck staring at tens of millions of badly organized and documented lines of code, trying to figure out what went wrong.
Programming's not exactly a new skill anymore, but the codes -- and the systems they power -- are getting bigger. National services, entire cars. And new innovations provide new ways to fail. No, we're not saying that society is going to collapse in a Skynet-style catastrophe, but the fact that your car might crash because some programmer didn't follow their style guide is even weirder.
Insects Are Vanishing, And It Took Us Too Long To Even Notice
Everyone has heard, worried, and then forgotten about the declining bee population. The news started talking about Trump serving fast food, so we probably solved it or whatever, right? Well ... not exactly. The population of the rusty-patched bumblebee (one of the cute, fuzzy kinds) has declined in the United States by 87 percent. But bees aren't the only vanishing bug. The monarch butterfly population is down 90 percent. In Germany, caterpillars are down 75 percent. Even entomology, as both a profession and a passion, is on the decline.
Some insects, having long gone understudied (only an estimated 10 percent of insect species have even been named, and not in the "I'm going to call this ant Greg" sense), are seeing their numbers drop in ways we've so far only measured with a vague notion of "Hey, our windshields don't get as splattered as they used to when we drive." That's not a joke. Cleaner windshields were a major factor prompting investigation into this matter, because it takes weird developments like that for us to notice changes in the insect world. Bugs still seem endless, so why would we need to count the apparent infinite? But the millions of species of bugs that we never understood are now going away.
This means that bird and fish populations are dropping because their source of food is disappearing. We don't know how far the problem will keep spiraling out, because we've never had the data. Maybe species will go extinct, or maybe they'll suffer the less glamorous but equally serious problem of diminishing, or functional extinction. That's where a species stubbornly clings to life, but at a population too small to be more than a blip on the environment. They become a curiosity, not an active factor.
Functional extinction is a sneaky problem, because it's hard to recognize until we see its cascading effects. We worry about certain species of bears being endangered, but we should really worry about the insects that pollinate the plants that feed the prey that those endangered bears eat. Insects, trillions and trillions of them, quietly make the environment thrive below a level that we normally consider. If they go away, the changes will be subtle but disturbing, a possible slow-motion catastrophe.
The good news is that bugs are resilient, capable of repopulating in swarms if given the opportunity. And growing efforts, like strict pesticide regulations and urban design that integrates insect habitats, are trying to provide those opportunities. Whether it will be enough, no one can say yet. And until we find out, maybe watch where you step on the sidewalk.
Billions Of People Could Lose Easy Access To Clean Water
Around 2 billion of the planet's 7.6 billion people lack easy access to clean water. The United Nations wants to get that number down to zero by 2030, but worries that it could instead blow up to half of the world's population. Yes, "water balloon fight" might one day be an activity for the highest elite.
Like with most problems of this scale, there are a variety of causes at play. Climate change, and the droughts that come with it, is the obvious one. Water quality has deteriorated too, thanks to agrochemical runoff, industrial discharge, and municipal waste. And sheer demand is growing due to the increased living standards in developing countries. Since "Thanks for making a bunch of shit for us in pollution-riddled sweatshops, now please continue to live in abject poverty so that we can continue to enjoy long hot showers" isn't a reasonable request for the Western world to make, that growing demand will have to be met.
While this is a good excuse to glare at that guy at the gym who goes through three bottles of water with every workout, the vast majority of the world's fresh water goes to irrigating crops, raising livestock, and farming fish. Thanks to more efficient technology and farming methods, we're slowing the rate at which we withdraw water from the ground, lakes, the tear ducts of whiny nerds, etc. But the current rate still outpaces population growth. And, ironically, one of the most important methods for fighting climate change -- renewable energy, like biofuels -- will require more water than if we just continued to belch coal into the atmosphere until the planet shrivels up and dies.
This could mean difficult resource allocation decisions, like forcing a population to choose between electricity or a fish supply. It could also, in a worse scenario, mean water shortages. Remember when Cape Town's 4 million people had to ration water in 2018, and still almost ran out of it? It reached the point where people were dredging up an old mad science scheme to haul Antarctic icebergs to the city, and that could be Los Angeles in 2040. Skyrocketing urban growth could create an insatiable demand for water that will make Cape Town's crisis look quaint. And water scarcity, as many a Mad Max movie have taught us, leads to civil unrest, migration, and general dystopian conflict.
But don't panic and start hoarding water -- this isn't set in stone. Better land management, changes in agricultural practices, soil reclamation, and other sustainability projects could all help reverse this trend. A change in attitude will be important too. People need to be taught the value of water, whether that's having YouTube stars lecture the masses or increasing water bills for the upper and middle classes until they get the message that they don't need to keep the tap running for five minutes while they brush their teeth.
And general efforts to battle climate change, like the Paris Agreement, will also help significantly. So now we simply have to convince everyone that climate change is a serious problem that requires immediate action and a tough examination of our modern lifestyle. That shouldn't be too hard, right? Maybe we can start with the fact that if we fuck this up, there will be beer shortages.
There's A Soil Shortage, Which Isn't As Dumb As It Sounds
Not all dirt is created equal, and we're losing about 24 billion tons of fertile soil a year (that's roughly enough to blanket Switzerland three times over). As usual, climate change is to blame here, but so are our agricultural practices, especially the excessive use of agrochemicals and a love of beef that has long trumped any desire to think beyond the source of the next delicious steak. We live in a world that is incredible at providing food to people in the short term, but terrible at planning on how to keep providing food into the indefinite future.
Since the turn of the millennium, the amount of irrigated land in the world has doubled, and agricultural output has tripled, but that output has come at the loss of productivity of about 20 percent of the world's cropland. We are, in essence, working the Earth too hard. And like many of the worst problems in life, it all feeds back into itself. Soil stores carbon and water, and as we lose good soil, the world gets hotter and drier, and thus we lose even more soil. For context, a mere 1 percent of the carbon stored in the United Kingdom's soil is roughly equal to the UK's annual fossil fuel carbon output. But hey, at least now you have a good excuse for when your latest half-assed attempt at a herb garden fails.
Poor soil quality, like poor water access, can lead to mass unrest. Restoration work can be done -- Ethiopia has reclaimed 17 million acres of barren soil, and created good jobs doing so. Technological improvements in farming methods should also help. But the political will needs to be there, and unless we reexamine some of our eating habits, we'll be caught in a cycle of perpetual destruction and frantic reclamation.
As with so many other environmental issues, one of the chief problems is communicating the urgency of the matter. How do you explain to an American who's used to enjoying their constitutional right to eat four hamburgers a week that if they don't change their consumption habits, life will start sucking for a bunch of foreigners in countries they'll never step foot in, and then maybe it will start sucking on a personal level by around 2030? Even the word "soil" is boring. But international targets for soil reclamation are generally not being met, despite the United Nations considering it to be one of the most important problems facing the planet today. Maybe we simply need to rebrand the issue as the War on Dirt.
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