After the rock falls

I got into a fairly interesting discussion the other day, and thought I’d share it with my fellow Dopers and keep it going for a while.

Imagine, if you will…at some time in the next 10 years, Earth is hit by a meteor. It’s fairly substantial, but not like the Dinosaur Killer. More like the one that created the crater near Winslow, Arizona. However, this rock carries a virus that propagates throughout humanity, causing massive flu-like symptoms that are fatal to X% of humanity. Think Stephen King’s Captain Trips on steroids. Those who do not die get massively sick, but recover within 3 days or so.

  1. What is the highest value of X that would not cause extinction of the human species?

  2. Is enough of our infrastructure running on autopilot that we would continue to have electricity, etc.? If so, for how long until the systems fail? Could the survivors learn to fix things quickly enough to keep it going for a while longer? How long until “civilization” collapses?

Your thoughts?

I think that X would have to be 100% to cause the extinction of Humanity. After all, there are many areas of the world with hunter-gather tribes, and they wouldn’t be negatively affected by the collapse of technological societies.

As far as how large X would have to be to cause Western society to collapse, I suspect it’s smaller than most people think - less than 25%. Just think about how leveraged we are with respect to factory farming. If 25% of the farms collapsed, that would rapidly lead to starvation, panic and riots. Also, I doubt if we could keep the electricity on if 25% of the key people were to suddenly die.

75,000 y.a. the Toba supervolcano near Sumatra reduced the Earth’s human population to a mere 1000 or so breeding pairs, maybe 10,000 individuals overall. Most of the evolutionary diversity that had been created up to that point was suddenly obliterated and this small group of survivors that somehow managed to cling to life in a tiny, localized area are the ancestors of us all. We’ve gone to 99.9% X before. I guess we’re up for the task again.

I think it’d have to be a lot higher than 25% to do what beowulff suggests, because there are plenty of people who are capable of farming that are not currently running large farms.

Even at 1/3, there are plenty of people who could step up to the plate and fill the important positions that were left unfilled.

I’d say that Civilization wouldn’t be seriously challenged until we got past the 40-50% death rate, and even above that, we could make adjustments and regroup by largely abandoning certain areas to ensure that we could keep things running.

By about 80%, the survivors would need to cluster in selected cities and make careful decisions about what needed to be dealt with to ensure the continuation of civilization. Even at that rate, I wouldn’t fear for the long-term success of the Human race. It’d be merely a generational recession in technological advancement.

Frankly, I think the world could manage quite well and indeed, flourish nicely if a virus were to kill off 30-35% of the world population. It’d be like the Black Death all over again, which ended up making some pretty positive long-term changes in the sociological landscape of Europe. Especially if it follows a progression of killing more people in backwards, unsanitary places and fewer in places with better medical treatment.

Imagine if it killed 20% (60 million) in America, leaving us with roughly 240 million Americans. A hard blow, something remembered for millenia, but hardly enough to destroy our nation. But it kills 50% (650 million) in China, leaving them with the same 650 million. As horrific as that prospect would be, China would be a great deal better off with that population! It would instantly solve a great many issues that China has with it’s current development, allocation of resources and quality of life.

Actually, I see no difference between China and the US in your scenario. It’s not as if the US is short of problems caused by too many people wanting land, water, oil, food, etc. in large quantities.

History Channel had a show on a few months ago relating to this, but it looked at how long mankind’s effects would be felt if all people vanished.

According to the show, the longest-lasting power grid would be that of Las Vegas – the Hoover Dam can keep the power going for about a year with zero human influence. Most other power sources would be out of commission within hours to days.

Well, a lot depends on how fast X is achieved. If all the people who are going to die do it within a week or so, and it kills one out of four people, I think society is going to fall apart. Think about it - it’s not only the people working on the farms, but the truckers bringing in the food, and the highly skilled people working in the energy and health care fields. I think out technological society is more precarious than one would like to admit.

With my luck? I am not going to worry about it. I’ll be in the dead group. :frowning:

interesting replies, folks. Thank you very much.

Unsurprisingly, this topic has been discussed umpteen times. I gotta run, so you’ll have to do your own search.

I’m not convinced by people worrying about the food. Sure, we’d only have 3/4 the food, and 3/4 the truckers, but we only need 3/4 as much food.

I’d be more worried about the randomness. If 1/4 of the people die, but it happens to hit all the critical people in a critical site, say, a power plant, that plant would go down. It’d take a while to bring in or train new capable people to run the plant. Even then, though, while that would affect a large area, other areas will be OK, and I think we’d recover, even if it were more like 50 percent dead.

Good point about how fast everyone dies. If everyone gets sick for the same 3 day period, that alone could bring a collapse, even if everyone eventually recovers.