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Our Modern-Day Horsemen:  The Top 4 Threats to Global Civilization

Now that I got your attention, I'd like to say that I realize titling my new article entry as I have may sound rather alarmist, and could challenge my reputation as an optimist, but know that I write the following passage not from the perspective of one who has given up all hope, but as one who holds the deepest-seated belief that the highlighted points of concern can be addressed in time, even if just.  I especially believe that this is the case given the changing political reality emanating from the far Western Hemisphere, one which could address such measures all the quicker and with more comprehensive research and debate.  Regardless, these are things that I, when I have a spare moment, consider and ponder solutions for however futile it may seem to others for me to do so.  Perhaps such is the curse of one who often is commended-and-yet-criticized by those seemingly close to me for being too much of a macrocosmic thinker.  Anyways, these are my thoughts, in order from the worst threat to the least. 

#1  The Pale Green Horse:  An Environmental Apocalypse

Global warming, and/or any accompanying mass extinction, is no laughing matter, even if my title for this section may be.  Al Gore and countless environmental science majors have it right when they say that the issue of climate change is getting almost too hot to handle.  Melting ice caps, the slowing and stilling of ecologically-vital ocean currents, and gradual acidification of the Earth's oceans threatens more than just a few fish, it threatens the very basis of the food chain which in turn threatens the whole cycle on which perhaps 95% or more of life on this planet ultimately depends.

Think about it...if our oceans die, the countless insects that live in and species of fish which migrate from rivers and streams to the oceans and back again die, the birds and mammals that feed on those fish die, and so on.  Similarly, if climate zones further inland get drastically drier or wetter than normal, creatures and plants that have evolved to depend on relatively stable conditions there become hard-pressed to survive, and they start to die too. 

You may say "well, but we would survive, so we could always fix that later."  Well, maybe, but if we take too long to step up with our solutions now, even we may be hard pressed to survive, and it wouldn't be a fun world to live in as we would have to work damn hard to put food on our table and have some variety in our diets.  If the weather is always drastically shifting, from flooding to drought to some other fluctuating extremes, or just tending towards drought and coastal flooding as many climatologists project will happen, crop yield drops and you have long bread lines and starvation.  This would happen even in the world's breadbaskets, the places which feed the rest of the world.  Do the long division and you've got a bleak picture.  If unchecked, global warming isn't a possible doom for most life up to and perhaps even including humankind, it is eventual.  Fortunately this is a bit down the road, though not so far that we can afford to be the Grasshopper when instead we should be the Ant.  But then there's...

#2 The Red HorseAtomic Warfare

Maybe it's not the 1950's anymore, and recent arms reduction agreements and weak attempts at diplomacy may have kept the clock from striking midnight, but it's still five-to.  Even if it were a quarter-to, that's far too close to Einstein's second Stone Age as things now stand given the sheer number of nuclear weapons in the world.  Nuclear War is still the second largest danger facing our world.
Again, as I've said, the nuclear-armed militiaries of the world don't have their nuclear forces sitting hunched eagerly over their launch consoles as maybe they were during the Cold War, but all it would take is some catalyst like a weather satellite being put in orbit without proper notice being given to the most jittery government plus a less-cool headed leader (unlike the real world example with Yeltsin in the 90's), and we'd have some problems.
We also do have some tensions between some of the smaller members of the club, like India and Pakistan, which could lead to regional disasters that might possibly drag in other parties.  While reduced, the threat posed by loose nukes is still an ongoing hazard.  The last thing we need in a world burdened with the environmental problem and other issues is a domino effect of this kind, or even perpetual and debilitating war of any kind.  However, I think this is a much easier fix overall than global warming, but what about...

#3 The White Horse:  A Giant Falling Rock

Alright, I named this one the White Rider/Horse because falling rocks shine all different colors in our atmosphere depending on their composition and, regardless of composition, a large enough rock is a big threat.  No, I am not being Chicken Little or whatever.  Giant rocks can fall from the sky.  If you don't believe me, go to Arizona and take a look at that one famous crater.  It was made by a falling rock.  Or read about what happened in Tunguska.  Again, a falling rock, maybe even two chips off the same old block. A falling rock killed the dinosaurs, and our limited statistics say we are overdue for a major, civilization-threatening impact.  Our solar system is filled with them...most just pass harmlessly by, or turn to ash in our atmosphere (most are very small).  However, others pose an eventual threat.  As scary as this one is, we're already well on our way to dealing with this threat, which I'll get to later.  But, more needs to be done.  Well, finally there's...

#4 The Black Horse:  Bird Flu, Plague, and Widespread Famine

Ok, maybe you recognize this one, and maybe it is classic form, but I think this one carries through as relevent in its original symbolism.  #4  is an ever-persistent threat that rides in on the coattails of the bigger problems, though is no lesser for it.  Modern medicine still hasn't put a lid on all the major pandemics of history, nor has the world community perfected a system for stopping a major new pandemic from breaking out. 
The most serious thing that we could face would be something new that we have not yet seen, like Avian Flu.  Such would be dangerous due to the lack of definite countermeasures geared specifically for it, though by no means would be completely nonsurpressable.  Next to something like that would be a combination of known disease hazards that would, given environments where starvation and lack of government infrastructure abound, gain a toe hold somewhere and spread.  We see something like this happening in Zimbabwe with cholera. 
Again, this problem comes last, not because it isn't important, but because as a threat to global civilization it is most dangerous only when other things are happening to aggravate our ability to respond effectively to such, or which would present a more fertile environment for disease or famine (or maybe famine then disease, as famine enables disease) to thrive (hence why it follows global warming, war, and other disasters...such primary threats realized would reduce our ability to respond to secondary threats).  But enough of this...I'm starting to get depressed writing about all of these things.  Onto solutions...

Cheer up, there is a brighter side to this!

Well, now that I've succeeded in outlining what appears to be some of the biggest problems facing us, here's what can be done:

#1  The most ready way to deal with this "Pale Green Horse" is to do what has been discussed:  cut our dependence on fossil fuels, move on to alternative energy, and encourage smart conservation and other projects for removing the excess CO2 in our atmosphere (perhaps even some kind of atmospheric filtering).  I think we have to move faster on this, as this threat, however creeping it may be, will weigh down our economy directly as some of the effects start to become severe (hurricanes, flooding, and so forth will soon be more damaging to our GDP than abandoning oil would be). With an economy overburdened by something as momentum-driven as climactic shift on top of the perils of the boom-and-bust cycle, we would eventually be looking at an endless downturn we couldn't get out of, and the worldwide stresses presented by this would ensure that we are always playing catch-up and that our hands would be tied further when attempting to address some of the other problems on this list.  By moving to a Green Economy really fast (hmm...am I echoing someone :P  )  we would be beating the curve.  Top economic incentives/technologies of the moment:  an emissions-trading regime enacted on a global scale to ensure that everyone is playing (Kyoto^2), hydrogen fuel cells or extremely efficient hybrids in 5 years or less not 15 years down the road, and the triumvirate of solar, wind, and nuclear power (nuclear to be replaced swiftly by fusion...no, I am not delusional).  The latter point...if more money and careful planning is pumped into ITER so that it rivals the Tennessee Valley Authority (and perhaps these other things with ITER) in importance, it would change a lot...imagine, having a viable, safe test fusion reactor in 3-5 years with working models following quickly on its heels.  The falling cost of energy (and it's drastic rise in both safety and cleanliness) would help to stimulate our economy and would help offset in the long run the perceived costs to industry that some green taxation might pose. 

#2  Again, there are solutions in the works.  For example, the Obama administration is talking about a drastic disarmament push in conjunction to some serious bridge-building in the State Department.  Slashing global nuclear stockpiles would push the Doomsday Clock back by hours, maybe even almost one whole day if we went far enough.  Otherwise, the clearly-defined goal of reaching 'only' 1,000 weapons in the respective arsenals of Russia and the U.S. would at least ensure global survivability should something completely mind numbingly foolish happen, and it would make it easier to convince other countries that we are willing to take the first step before expecting them to step out of the Club altogether.  I think a key element to doing this may be giving up our much-vaunted-but-nearly-ineffective European Missile Defense Shield.  As it stands right now, that "Shield" only encourages further developments in the armaments and capabilities of those nuclear powers most suspicious of our intentions, and if it came down to it, it probably wouldn't do a lot of good even for rogue countries, who would just as soon rely on difficult-to-target delivery systems that do not rely on a ballistic missile as they would a missle (or would work to develop their own decoys and countermeasures to match).  A softer deterrent, economic incentives you know, diplomacy, would work wonders where something as static as the "Shield" would only continue to poke the bear with a stick.  By the way, I would like to say that, despite the increased accuracy of those interception methods, putting faith in that shield is like putting your extremely attractive girlfriend/wife (or, depending, boyfriend/husband) in nothing but fishnet stockings, sending them outside to mow the lawn, and not expecting your lusty neighbor to hit on them.  That, or putting them in only fishnets and saying they are ready for dancing in the snow.  Now, if you are that one guy who can withstand extreme cold and climb Mt. Everest naked, then maybe it would be ok, but for most people it's not going to work, but anyways my point again is that missile defense done like this won't work.  Ahh, a  footnote:  getting viable fusion, safe fusion (some people worry a poorly made reactor could spawn some exotic matter or something, but if done right it would be cleaner and far safer than fission and would produce no biproducts that could be used for weapons), so ITER is a twofer.  Again, though, only if it is safe...it would be ridiculous if we, in an attempt to save our planet from two big problems would unwittingly create an instant third...from what I have read so far though, the risks of a working fusion model are negligible.

#3  Alright, now here some of the technology related to Missile Defense could make some kind of difference and could be easily re-adapted to a truly productive purpose.  Big rocks that could fall out of the sky move at similar speeds to missiles, but are a lot bigger (at least the ones that truly pose a threat), so are easier targets to hit provided you can see them well enough in advance.  We are fortunate that, despite a slashed budget in the U.S. and limited budgets elsewhere for the sciences and space programmes, we have been able to map and identify about 90% of the sky and perhaps 90% of the likely threats of this form (at least the really, really serious ones).  A swath of sky in the Southern Hemisphere needs a little mapping, but increase the budget for that by a little and improve the sky-mapping technology (along with drawing up blueprints for a safe, economical system for keeping giant rocks in different orbits) and its a solved problem.

#4  Continue providing food aid and medical aid to the 3rd world.  Provide incentives and launch diplomatic initiatives to encourage more countries there to step away from war and human rights abuses and towards stability and sustainable economic growth (which, nowadays, also means green growth).  Boost the WHO.  Create a program for stockpiling emergency supplies (like approximated flu vaccines, antiviral drugs, effective supplements).  For HIV, increase research efforts into a vaccine, do what hasn't been done much recently and support safe sex measures like condoms, dental dams, everywhere, sex ed (ear-burning words to some people) which might even include information about elective surgery like male (never female) circumcision and the associated reduced risks.

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