Most preppers are familiar with the concept: TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it). This term refers to an event so catastrophic in its effects that society is thoroughly changed for a long time. It’s not the end of all human life on earth, but the collapse or near-collapse of civilization. This post looks at 7 TEOTWAWKI scenarios and how likely or unlikely they may be.
1. Giant Asteroid Strike (like the one that killed the dinosaurs)
There are lots of small objects, rocky or icy debris from space, which hit the atmosphere daily. Most burn up in the atmosphere. The larger ones produce a “shooting star” effect as they burn up. Some medium sized rocky meteors make it through the atmosphere and hit the earth. But the larger the meteor, the less likely the event. Scientists estimate that the largest impact events occur very rarely, on the order of one event every tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years (Wikipedia article).
However, a minority of scientists theorize that impacts of large asteroids have been substantially less rare. We simply have not found the craters because most impacted the oceans, and some land impacts have disappeared due to changes to the surface of the land. If they are right, then a large impact is not out of the question for our lifetime. But they do not dispute the general view that the larger the impact, the less likely it is.
There are two effects of an impact event that would devastate civilization. The first is the immediate effects: shock wave, a shuddering of the earth that might set off severe earthquakes in many places, and the ejection of vast amounts of material into the atmosphere, which then falls as a fiery rain over a wide area.
The second is the longer term effects. The material cast into the atmosphere and the many fires caused by the impact’s ejecta would obscure the atmosphere, cooling the weather considerably. The effect is not so different from a nuclear winter. And that is the main reason that the comet impact at the Yucatan Peninsula is thought to have killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago: sudden cold weather year-round. For society today, this would cause a worldwide collapse of agriculture and subsequent mass starvation. Not a good way to go.
2. An All-out Nuclear War
This TEOTWAWKI would be absolutely devastating. The initial explosions would will hundreds of millions, and the subsequent radioactive fallout would kill even more persons. And if there were enough explosions, nuclear winter would cause worldwide starvation.
Right now, the only nations with enough nukes to cause this type of disaster are the U.S., Russia, and China. The other nuclear nations have too few weapons, as far as we know, for an all-out nuclear war with worldwide devastation. The three superpowers are very unlikely to engage in such a war, because they realize that the end result would be a loss of power for their nations. And the long-term consequences of the war would devastate their populations as much as an enemy nation’s population.
But that situation could change. If enough nations run by extremists (like Iran or North Korea) were to obtain enough nukes along with long-range missiles, an all-out nuclear war might become much more likely.
3. Severe Disease Epidemic (a pandemic)
This scenario has played out in movies many times. A disease spreads throughout the world, and it is resistant to medications and vaccines. The population does not have any natural resistence, and few people survive. It’s theoretically possible, but very unlikely.
The world population is large and diverse. So natural resistence to any disease is more likely than with a smaller world population. And it is easier than ever before to reduce your exposure risk by remaining in your home, due to easy modern means of communication, front door delivery of all kinds of goods, including food, and the availability of information online. And that information allows society to know about a disease outbreak and take precautions more quickly than in past generations.
Bacterial diseases, like the black plague, are less likely to cause the same devastation today. We have easy access to antibiotics and a multibillion dollar industry dedicated to finding new medications. Vaccines can now be produced very rapidly, and then be distributed to millions of persons, making viral diseases somewhat less of a threat. Right now, the biggest threats on the horizon are Ebola, which has no vaccine, cure, or effective treatment, and MERS, which has a very high death rate (higher than the Spanish flu). But neither is likely to become so widespread as to cause “the end of world as we know it”.
4. Complete Economic Collapse
Economic ups and downs are inevitable. But how likely is a total economic collapse? My previous post argued that a partial collapse is much more likely. The economy is in a difficult state and any number of problems could cause a sharp downturn. But a total collapse would seem unlikely. Money is closely integrated to most aspects of our society, for better or worse. The infrastructure of the economy, as a result, resists collapse. Everyone uses money every day, so it is very unlikely to become worthless.
Only some other TEOTWAWKI scenario could so thoroughly affect the monetary system as to bring about total collapse. If you had an all-out nuclear war, or a major asteroid or comet strike or a very severe plague, it might break down the infrastructure so severely as to collapse the economy as well. But a total collapse by itself, caused simply by mismanagement or excessive government spending seems very unlikely to me. Money is too useful in modern times, and too few people are self-sufficient or nearly so.
5. Food Shortages and Famine
This disaster is a matter of degree. Food prices could rise; that would be unwelcome. A run on supermarkets could make food less available; a temporary food shortage would result. The effects of the longstanding U.S. drought are another possible cause of a food shortage. But the most severe form of this disaster, which deserves the epitaph TEOTWAWKI, would take the form of a widespread famine.
What could cause a severe and long-term famine? This is a type of disaster that is most likely to be caused by another disaster: war, economic collapse, or a severe natural disaster. Lesser disasters could result in food shortages or higher prices, but it would take a major catastrophe to collapse the food economy.
6. Severe Civil Disorder
This type of scenario also seems to require a prior severe disaster in order to catalyze its particular type of collapse: the total breakdown of law and order. Fear is the most likely cause, in my opinion. If there is a food shortage or a severe pandemic or nuclear war, people will fear for their lives. Ordinarily law-abiding and reasonable persons might become rather unreasonable, out of desperation. The result could be a sharp increase in crime that would overwhelm law enforcement resources. You would be on your own to defend your home and family from desperate persons.
If this disorder were severe, it would adversely affect the food supply and distribution system, and the economy as a whole. The final result could be multiple overlapping TEOTWAWKI disasters. In the practical case, a TEOTWAWKI scenario probably never occurs in isolation. It necessarily also brings in its wake economic collapse, civil disorder, disruptions to the food supply, and greater likelihood of an epidemic. When people lack food and other resources, they tend to be more susceptible to disease.
Some of the other disaster scenarios are dependent on “bad luck”: a supervolcano or an asteroid strike. But others are dependent on the foibles of human nature. People tend to be selfish, especially when they are at their worst. Civil disorder is an example of that principle of human nature.
Hopefully, this very severe type of natural disaster is also the least likely. A supervolcano, like the one beneath Yellowstone National Park, if it erupted, would kill most persons on earth. It’s not a matter of dispute as to how severe the event would be. It’s only a matter of when. Supervolcano eruptions are very rare, but they do occur. And we are not sure how many supervolcanoes are on the earth.
If the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted, it would devastate North American with a thick layer of ash. The ash would make breathing very difficult, killing domesticated and wild animals and likely causing the death of most of the human population. It would shut down airports, trains, and make most roadways dangerous or impassable. Soon there would be no power on the electrical grid, no economy, and no help from government. And that’s just the short term effects.
In the long term, a major supervolcano eruption would put so much ash into the upper atmosphere that the weather worldwide would cool rapidly, putting all nations in a state of perpetual winter. Extensive crop failure would result in an extreme worldwide famine. Governments and economies would collapse, and there would be no power to heat homes. Law and order would break down entirely. The vast majority of the human race would not survive.
The one bright point is that a supervolcano eruption is very unlikely, at least, in our lifetime.