Friday, September 8, 2017


     If you’re a preparationist – “prepper” for short – or are inclined in that direction out of prudence, this piece might hold a particular interest for you. No, it won’t provide advice on how best to prepare; I’m hardly an authority about such things. It’s pointed in a completely different direction.

     Some time ago, a Website I’ve misplaced surveyed all the ways the writer could imagine in which a world-ending disaster could occur. (Interpret “world-ending” to mean “the end of life as we know it” rather than the obliteration of planet Earth.) He came up with quite a number of them – at least ten, though I can’t remember the exact number – and assigned a probability to each. On the former count, I was impressed: I hadn’t thought of several that had occurred to him. On the latter, I was amused: it’s a bit presumptuous to put a probability to an event that has never happened – indeed, that could, by its nature, happen only once.

     All the same, it’s an exercise with some import, especially if one pays attention to the aggregate probability that none of the possible disasters will occur. If there are N possible disasters to fear, each with its own probability of occurrence (within a stated time interval, of course) Pi, then the probability that it won’t occur is 1- Pi. Accordingly, the probability that none of them will occur is:


     ...where Π indicates “the product of” and i ranges from 1 to N.

     Now, just how many possible disasters are there? Here’s the “off the top of my head” list:

  • Nuclear war;
  • Nearby supernova;
  • Coronal mass ejection;
  • Comet or asteroid strike;
  • Nanotechnology runaway;
  • Medically resistant pandemic;
  • Emergence of a super-predator;
  • Extinction of an ecologically vital organism.

     In reviewing the above, I must note they are categories rather than discrete possibilities. That is: there are many subvarieties of each disaster whose tag appears above. Indeed, the total number of discrete possibilities is very large – perhaps not estimable. But what’s on my mind this morning is the variety among them: the preparations required to survive each differ somewhat from the preparations required to survive the others.

     If the total number of possible disasters were large – say, 30, just as an example – and the average probability of any one of them were quite small – say, around 1% -- the probability that none of them would occur would be about 74%. Therefore, the probability that one of them would occur would be 26% -- but which of them is left to chance.

     What’s the probability that your preparations would be well suited to a disaster randomly “selected” out of a group of 30 that has one chance in four of striking?

     The fun part of this exercise comes when one realizes that while 1% is too large a probability estimate for any one possible disaster, 30 is far too small an estimate of the total number of such possibilities. The average probability of a world-ending disaster is more likely to be about 0.01%, but the total number of possible disasters is more likely to be in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. So for our second calculation, let the average probability be 0.01% and the number of possibilities be 3000. What do we get then?

Π(1-Pi) == 74%

     How about that, folks? We still have about one chance in four of a world-ending disaster, but with so many possible ways the world could end, which should we prepare for? Do they have sufficient commonality that merely stockpiling food, water, clothing, fuel, and weapons would be sufficient? It’s very hard to say.

     I’ve been thinking about this because of the recent proliferation of “post-apocalypse” novels. Each of them has as its entering motif a “world-ending” catastrophe. The subsequent action and drama presumes the existence of survivors. The subgenre displays a remarkable consistency about what those survivors needed to do to survive: i.e., the stockpiling of the survival basics listed immediately above. But that’s not necessarily the case.

     I’ve recently finished reading a pair of post-apocalypse novels: N. C. Reed’s Fire From The Sky books. Reed’s catastrophe is a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) that strikes the Earth and fries the electrical and electronic supports to contemporary technological civilization. The effects are devastating to the United States. The most impressive thing about the books is the degree of thought Reed has invested in preparing for that development, assuming that one knows it’s coming. Reed’s protagonist family, the Sanders family of Tennessee, assumes that a CME is on the way, and has months of forewarning. Among other things, the Sanders clan puts Faraday cages around its homes, vehicles, and other vital electrical and electronic items, such that some will survive after the great majority of such are rendered useless.

     It’s left me wondering whether any group, however determined could adequately brace itself for a cataclysm that severe in ignorance of its nature. If the Sanders kin had prepared for a nuclear war rather than a CME, would it have fared as well? How would its lot differ from what Reed describes in his novels? Given the many possibilities, is there any point in trying to foresee what specific disaster is most likely?

     Fiction provides us with room in which to extend our imaginations. Many of the scenarios depicted in post-apocalypse fiction are somewhat fanciful. Yet they’ve been an important stimulus to the preparationist movement. Whether the preparations that have resulted have been wise or foolish is a matter of opinion, and well beyond the scope of a brief Friday tirade. However, the associated question “How broad is the spectrum of possible world-ending calamities?” should be of interest to everyone. It’s a spur to thought about how complex contemporary civilization has become...and how interdependent are its parts.


Backwoods Engineer said...

Sorry, as a 30-year-career EE who designed EMP-proof satellite components and performed RF susceptibility testing on industrial electronics, I'm an agnostic when it comes to the popular pulp-fiction belief that an EMP or CME is going to destroy anything with a circuit board. The power grid? Sure. Transformers and generators are going to blow, just as they have before in prior CME events (see: 1989 NE Blackout). But devices that are not connected to the grid and not connected to miles-long lengths of copper are going to do just fine. Most vehicles are, too, especially older diesels.

As a prepper, I try to think in terms of the requirements of life, and that builds a lot of commonality in my preps for a lot of potential disasters. The basics: security, water, food, shelter, energy/climate-control, and sanitation/medical. Buy it cheap and stack it deep.

Also, I think a person should have the ability to load their family and some minimal supplies up and bug out, if necessary, because some disasters can simply be "waited out" if you have another place to go and supplies to sustain you while you're gone.

Also, I believe in having tools and knowing how to use them, from the smallest screwdriver up to farm-level earthmoving equipment. If you have tools and some raw materials (wood, pipe, metal, plastic) you can rig up just about anything if you have the knowledge.

loren said...

The probability of a natural near extinction event is close to 100% as several have occurred in the past few hundred million years but the probability of one occurring in the next few hundred is close to zero.
That being said, a human caused event is more than likely in that time period for obvious reasons. We have the ability to do it.
One particular event, a nuclear war of some magnitude is particularly likely. It should be noted that most any nuclear war will include multiple EMP bursts as a precursor. A total lose of the grid may kill more people than any other nuclear effect.
A self sustaining bio attack, whether against people or agriculture is also highly likely. I'm surprised it hasn't come already. I can think of several agents that already exist in nature that if spread would cause havoc to world agriculture and subsequent starvation.
A go bag and a plan are good for local emergencies like floods or chem. leaks. Other things like earthquakes or tornadoes you probably won't be going anywhere. National or world wide problems, then you'll need a functioning off grid and defended retreat. That might give you a chance.

shane said...

The greatest tragedy, if nukes got unleashed here, is that 90% of the expected casualties will have been readily avoidable if only those affected populations had known beforehand what to do and not do. Read the 'Physicians for Civil Defense' expose of it all, and the easy to grasp how to's, to avoid unnecessarily becoming a casualty here

Bill said...

I guess solar panels aren't just good for cheap power anymore.