Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, July 27, 2020

Fighting Overpopulation: Ten methods to exterminate most of humankind

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not advocating the extermination of anyone! This post is just an attempt of mine to place myself in the boots of the bad guys who could think of doing such a thing and examine how they could do it. Could these scenarios occur for real? I don't know but, as I say at the beginning of this blog, "always plan for the worst case hypothesis"

You know that there are people whom we call the "powers that be" (PTB) who can do things that we commoners can't even dream of doing. Obviously, they can't miss the fact that for decades the world's best scientists have been speaking about a coming collapse of the global ecosystem, mainly because of climate change. So, would they act on this knowledge? And, if so, how?

Like everybody else, the PTBs think in terms of their personal survival and some of them reacted to the threat by buying desert bunkers and stockpiling food and weapons in there. But what if some of them decided to take a more proactive stance? When the PTB decide that something is to be done, they usually succeed by a combination of propaganda, money, and sheer force. And you don't have to think that they are especially smart. They may well reason in simplified terms: what is the cause of the coming collapse? Those pesky humans, of course. Then, an obvious solution is to get rid of most of them.

The bad guys who plan the extermination of humankind are a classic element of science fiction, but large scale exterminations are a constant of real history. So, what shape could a large scale extermination plan take, nowadays? In the following, I tried to provide an answer. I don't know if I am evil enough for the task and, fortunately, I am not in the position to implement any of these plans. Also, I am sure I am teaching nothing to people who are much more evil than me. But here is what I came up with. The list doesn't include ways to reduce natality, only straight extermination. No "Armageddon Machines" either, I am considering methods that would leave at least someone alive. The methods are classed from the least efficient to the most efficient.

1. Biological warfare. A much-touted weapon that never delivered the promises it made. It is very difficult to attack a healthy population with a pathogen sufficiently lethal to generate a true extermination. The recent Covid-19 epidemic shows the problem: it was highly contagious but not very deadly. Indeed, if it had been much more lethal, it couldn't have diffused so fast. In the end, it caused little damage. At the end of the current cycle, the number of victims will probably be around 2 million, maybe more, but that's hardly a way to exterminate humankind if you consider that every year in the world some 60 million people die and about 140 million are born. Then, there is a worse problem: even if a pathogen with the appropriate lethality and infectivity could be developed, how can the exterminators avoid being exterminated? They may have a secret vaccine, but vaccines are never perfectly efficient and pathogens rapidly mutate, making vaccines useless. Overall evaluation: It just doesn't work.
    2. Warfare. Wars can kill a large number of people but they normally stop short of exterminating whole populations. A state or coalition of states may wipe out the military forces of a less powerful coalition, but then the war is over and there is little incentive to keep killing civilians who are more useful as slaves than as cadavers. That's why in history wars are associated at most with a short term drop in population for the losing side. Besides, war is hugely expensive. You may use bullets, bombs, poison gases, or even just machetes, but you still have to manage armies, people, supplies, weapons, etc. All that just exterminate defenseless civilians? It makes little sense. Overall evaluation: too expensive.

    3. Mass Poisoning. Food or water poisoning is a time-tested killing method that can be applied at various scales. In the simplest case, you can drop some rat poison in your aunt's coffee to cash in on her inheritance. On a larger scale, you could try to poison the food supply or the water supply of an entire country. The problem is how to do that without the targets reacting to the threat. That may not be difficult with an old aunt, but not so easy with a whole country. One trick could be to use a slow poison that doesn't kill before at least a few years. Indeed, much of what people eat nowadays can be considered as poison: excess sugar, heavy metals, plastic microparticles, carcinogenic chemicals, and more. But most of these systemic poisons are too slow to be useful as mass-extermination weapons since they tend to kill people only after they had a chance to reproduce. Psychoactive drugs may do better, but they also tend to be too slow. For instance, in the case of heroin, perhaps the most powerful drug available today, the number of lost years of life expectancy for average users is around 18. So, if the life expectancy in the US is 79, it means that heroin addicts die at 60 on the average -- not fast enough for meaningful mass extermination. We would need something like the fictional "Vibr" psychoactive drug invented by Antonio Turiel that kills users in five years. Such a drug doesn't exist so far, but it may be possible to create it. If it were cheap enough, it would indeed be a weapon of mass extermination. Overall evaluation: promising but not yet practical.

    4. Climate Weapons. Altering the climate can surely kill a lot of people and that's exactly what the current global warming caused by human emission is geared to do in the coming decades. But this change will be long-lasting: we may not return to the pre-warming conditions before several tens of thousands of years have passed, and perhaps it will never happen. That's not what the PTB want: their objective is to get rid of most of the current population while leaving the planet mostly intact. Can we think of some climate weapon that would leave a habitable planet to the survivors? An interesting possibility is of engineering a "volcanic winter" by spreading large amounts of dust in the atmosphere, blocking the sun and starving people because of the damage to agriculture. In principle, the dust would settle after a few years and the planetary climate would return to what it was before. This scenario could be created by lobbing nukes into active volcanoes. The dust generated in this way should remain in the atmosphere long enough to starve to death most of the human population, while the rich would survive in their well-stocked bunkers. The main problem is how to calibrate the dust injection. If you exaggerate, you may damage the ecosystem so badly that it will need millions of years to recover, and you probably can't survive for so long in a bunker. Conversely, if the eruptions kill "just" a few billion people, the survivors won't be kind to you when they see you emerging unscathed out of your bunker. Overall evaluation: tempting, but too risky. 

    5. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It is a very popular concept, but not easy to define. Apart from being used as a propaganda tool to demonize 2nd-rate dictators, what do we mean exactly with "weapons of mass destruction"? The answer seems to be weapons involving a large kills/cost ratio and that can be used on a large scale, the typical example is nuclear weapons. There is little else that could qualify as "WMD," maybe radioactive poisoning substances and powerful electromagnetic pulses could do the job, but both need to be triggered by nuclear explosions so one could as well use the real thing. There is no doubt that a large scale nuclear war would exterminate a lot of people. The problem is that, although these weapons in themselves are not very expensive, the damage they do to infrastructures is gigantic, among other things making large areas uninhabitable for decades or even centuries -- to say nothing about possible disastrous climatic effects. That's not what a rational exterminator would want. Overall evaluation: may work, but it is too destructive.
      6. Ethnic/political/ideological cleansing. It seems to be easy to convince people that their neighbors are evil because they speak a different language, their skin color is slightly different, or they tend to eat disgusting stuff. Sometimes, it happens even without the need of a propaganda operation. The result is often the extermination of a minority singled out as "bad," with the majority happily collaborating with the government in the task, or doing the extermination themselves. There have been many historical cases, the most recent one being the extermination of the Tutsi in Rwanda. Remarkably, that extermination was carried out by willing executioners who did the work for free and used weapons that weren't more sophisticated than machetes. So, it is a very cheap method of getting rid of a large number of people. The problem is that, for obvious reasons, a minority cannot normally exterminate a majority. So, in history, the method didn't normally result in an overall reduction of the population of the area where it was applied. Even the Rwandan disaster caused just a small bump in a population curve that later on restarted growing. Overall evaluation: risky and not very effective.

      7. Eugenics. Eugenic policies are not normally thought of as ways to exterminate large numbers of people, but that may well be their side effect. Typical methods used involve forced sterilization, but may arrive at the physical elimination of people judged to be a burden to society. In modern times, eugenics in the form of "involuntary euthanasia" was used in practice only in Germany, during the Nazi rule. The number of German citizens eliminated in this way can be estimated as of the order of 100,000, not enough to have an effect on the German population. But, given enough time, the idea of getting rid of the useless people who are just a burden for society could be expanded and used for true mass extermination. Imagine laws that sentence everyone to death after reaching a certain age. So far they have been only described in fiction, such as in the 1978 movie "Logan's run," but fiction has a certain way to trickle into reality. Overall evaluation: a promising method, but not proven. 

      8. Slaughterbots. Drones are the most fashionable weapon of our times and the concept of "slaughterbots" has been recently proposed: the idea is to build small and cheap drones that locate human beings and explode near their heads -- or do something equally nasty that kills people. Such small bots could cost no more than a smartphone and we know that more than 10 billion such phones were built since 2007. So, it would be reasonably possible to build billions of slaughterbots in a decade or so and spread them around the world. The poor would be the easiest to target, while the rich would be able to escape by having passwords to stop the bots, or simply hiding in suitable bunkers. Is it farfetched? Not at all: killer drones are being built right now. So far, they are very expensive and the reported number of people killed is in the range of a few thousands, at least officially. But the cost per kill ratio could be greatly reduced, just as it happened for cell phones. And, then, all the options are on the rotors. Overall evaluation: very promising and already in progress. 

      9. Famines. Famines are well-known mass killers. Perhaps the most interesting case is the Irish famine of the mid 19th century. The Irish population depended on a monoculture, the potato crop, and when it failed for a few years in a row, half of the population of Ireland was wiped out. Today, the world's crops are much more resilient and agriculture seems to be still able to produce large amounts of food. But the problem, as I described in a previous post, is not food production, it is food supply. The world's food supply is vulnerable to a single factor: the globalized marine transportation system that carries food from producers to consumers and fertilizers and pesticides from the manufacturers to the users. If this system can be disrupted, the likely result will be that several billions of people would die by starvation. Wrecking the transportation system could be obtained by a war or, even more simply, by a downturn in the globalized financial system. In several respects, famine is the perfect extermination weapon. It costs little in comparison to its effects, it kills the poor while sparing the rich, it has long-lasting effects. It may not even need a specific intervention by the PTB, since it may develop by itself. Overall evaluation: Among the most effective methods available. 

      10. Propaganda. "Consensus Building" (also known as "propaganda" or "psyops") is a set of technologies that define the structure and the functioning of the Western society. Propaganda seems to be able to convince people of just about anything, so could it be used for depopulating a country? Of course, it is hard to convince people to kill themselves, but it was attempted at least once in history. During the last phases of WW2, the British diffused postcards in Germany, supposedly issued by the German government, with detailed instructions on how to hang oneself (coded H1321 and H.1380). Nobody can say if the several thousand German civilians who committed suicide before the arrival of the allied troops did that as an effect of the British pro-suicide propaganda, surely it was an interesting attempt. But propaganda can be used in different and more creative ways. Typically, people can be convinced to do something that's contrary to their own interest if they are sufficiently scared that not doing that would lead to worse consequences. So, propaganda could convince most people in the US that a universal health care system is bad for them because it would be "communism". Then, propaganda can be used to convince people to eat unhealthy food, use health-damaging medicaments, refuse life-saving cures, and more. All that is being done right now, but the scare tactics can be stepped up with more rapid results. For instance, some people were so scared of the coronavirus epidemic that they thought it was a good idea to drink bleach to fight it. This effect was probably not expected, but ways to obtain it on a much larger scale could surely be developed. Overall evaluation: Still to be studied, but shows great promise. 

      And here we stand. After this exercise, I thought I would feel shocked just because of having thought of these ideas. But, really, I wasn't. What you discover by thinking the unthinkable is that nothing is too evil that it wasn't thought at some time in history, and sometimes put into practice. Also, I am not really worried that I could inspire someone into being more evil than they already are. So, I leave this text here as an exercise. Hopefully, none of these methods will ever be used, but the future always surprises you.

      A comment from Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

      And I see, Mr. Bardi, that as usual, you are stupid enough to reveal the plans of your friends and acolytes. The people who are engaged in these extermination plans are not those you call the "PTB" but the greenies who have been engaged in that task since the idea was proposed for the first time by the evil group of which you are part, the Club of Rome. Fortunately, their predictions turned out to be all wrong and they were discovered and prevented from carrying out their plans. Now we know that there are no limits to growth and your evil ideas will keep being thwarted and it is good that it will be so. 



      1. Maybe you missed a potential means of human extermination -- confusing ourselves to death. What I see in the US is a tendency to use climate change, loss of biodiversity, Covid-19, etc. as a cover for whatever action somebody wanted to take anyway. Texas expressions to describe this are, 1. As confused as a colony of termites in a yo-yo, and 2. Baffled by your own bullshit.

      2. Very interesting exploration! Well done.

      3. Professor Bardi
        There has been no mystery about what caused/will cause human extinction since about 1992. In that year Roger Waters received a strange time warped message obviously intended for another recipient. Apparently it was our various screens wot done it. Here is the message as transcribed by Mr Waters

        "And somewhere out there in the stars
        A keen-eyed look-out
        Spied a flickering light
        Our last hurrah
        And when they found our shadows
        Groups 'round the TV sets
        They ran down every lead
        They repeated every test
        They checked out all the data in their lists
        And then the alien anthropologists
        Admitted they were still perplexed
        But on eliminating every other reason
        For our sad demise
        They logged the only explanation left
        This species has amused itself to death"

        Hope this helps your enquiries
        Mick N

      4. Wars that cause enough damage to transportation systems to severely cripple or stop them, is something the rich could easily know about, as studies funded by the US government on the effect of a EMP attack on the US, have come up with 70-90% of the population dead in a year. This and the general danger of transportation systems failing was being talked about on the energy lists in the early 2000s. And as you say, this could happen by itself, with nations increasingly stressed by economic problems as they are forced to contract with shortages of energy and other things, and they start blaming each other for the problems.
        The rich are probably not in the best of situations to deal with this, though. The rich in the past could move out to country estates that produced food and fiber, had people who knew what they were doing with this as well as people who could build and fix as needed. They could basically own a functional community without a lot of need for outside inputs. But having people and animals do the work of producing food and fiber and making needed things doesn't exist very much these days. The rich have become dependent on machines doing the bulk of the work for them, same as commoners have. Machines that need energy and parts from far away. Certainly they could store a lot of food and fuel and spare parts, but when that runs out, what then? They need a sustainable community, same as everyone else does. They are also likely to find it difficult to find land that will grow crops without a lot of inputs. Again, stockpiles of fertilizer can be done, but at some point things have to work without it. Climate problems can make crops fail in spite of having fertilizer. And stockpiles of food, fuel,parts, and fertilizer make an attractive target for people who have refined their talents in using weapons. They can try to hire such people to defend stockpiles, but such people might decide with the general collapse of society and law and order with it, that they would rather be in charge themselves... But if they do, they have the same problem of stored things running out,including ammunition for weapons, and of being a target for people like themselves in the meantime. "Where the carcass is, the eagles gather." And in this case, die out.

        I'd say it would be better to accept a lifestyle that requires everyone to share hardships to a much greater degree, but with a track record of surviving conditions where crops don't grow. Though crops have often been grown opportunistically by people living like this. And hunting and gathering is done when possible. One issue is it looks like a lot of people would rather die than try to be a nomadic herder. But that actually works out, because this way of living won't support a lot of people.

      5. Latest on this topic from the Doomstead Diner:


      6. Heroin isn't directly poisonous unless you overdose. If you were given a non-lethal oral dose each day you would at worst get some dental issues and constipation. Some people might also lose interest in most activities since they're perfectly content just lying on the couch. After a while you would build up a tolerance and the dose wouldn't really affect you much at all. Of course, you could start upping your dose to keep getting effects, but it wouldn't be dangerous or particularly unhealthy unless you increase it too fast. If you suddenly stop using you would go into withdrawal which would be extremely unpleasant and somewhat unhealthy for a couple of weeks, but it would be very unlikely to kill you or have any significant effect on life expectancy.

        What makes it "poisonous" is that if you buy it on the street then you have no idea about the potency. It might be 10% diacetylmorphine and 90% filler, making it 10% the strength of pure heroin. Or it might be pure fentanyl making it 10000% the strength of pure heroin. or it might be 100% rat-poison for that matter. And injecting is also obviously not healthy, especially with dirty needles.

        The most poisonous psychoactive substance that people willingly consume chronically is probably cigarettes which reduces life expectancy of heavy users by 13 years on average. Still not enough to prevent most people from procreating though. But maybe we could get there by making nicotine illegal. Then we would have street-cigarettes with the added "benefits" of very variable potency and the occasional rat-poison which might kill users before they can procreate.

      7. I still believe that killer germs will be most successfull at the job. Historically these have extinguished populations most successfully.

        See i.e. Jared Diamonds "Guns, Germs and Steel" that kinda answers the question without asking it. Or rather it answers the question "how did europeans manage to kill so many people in other places".

        A new bubonic plague would create more havoc in the overcrowded cities and growing refugee camps than it has in the middle ages when it has reduced the populationin europe by 60%!
        Also we are doing such a great job creating the next ultraresistant bubonic plague.


      9. A black out during a hard winter Will exterminate a millions of people within 3 months.

      10. Hello Mr. Bardi,
        Regarding your last item, propaganda, it is a definite way to try to engineer a population collapse while holding the structure of industrial civilization together. Hannah Arendt wrote expansively on how one requirement for the establishment of a totalitarian society was the destruction of the understanding of truth/reality, to be replaced with a malleable, fictional version of reality. Over two hundred years ago Voltaire wrote that those whom can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
        Trying to use propaganda/fake news/manufacture of consent(or, "will" if you prefer)" is the only method I can see that could be attempted by an Uber-Evil PTB.

        All that said, Gaia will always adjust populations, of whomever, when they overshoot their means of physical support. Anyone reading your blog probably is acutely aware that Man has long ago blown past any population level that can be remotely sustained without artificial supports.(you touch on it with the transportation, fertilizer limits,etc). Anything that disrupts any portion of these artificial supports will bring a concurrent drop in population. If the disruption is permanent, then the decrease in population will be as well.
        If the disruptions are severe enough to cause a rapid collapse of our current Industrial Civilization, I fear the level, and rapidity, of the carnage would be stupefying. Quite literally beyond what many of us can even grasp.
        I don't think it will be engineered. It will just be Natures way of correcting overshoot. Well beyond the ability of any mere mortals to manage or control.
        I also don't think it will be any "one cause". My thoughts are that it would come as societies/countries react to deteriorating conditions. Perhaps Nuclear war, followed by nuclear winter. Or maybe breakdowns of national institutions followed by collapse of agriculture, food distribution, energy distribution, etc. How it could play out is almost infinite.
        I also fear that "we" may cause a destruction of some part of the ecosystem, that we are ignorant of, in such a way that we effectively eliminate Gaia's ability to sustain larger life forms (such as Homo Sapiens). Ozone destruction should have been a wake up call. Unfortunately, due to a sustained propaganda/ideological campaign, it wasn't.
        The truly sad part is that none of my fears need come to past. We could mitigate the suffering of humanity (and other life) by collectively lowering our consumption, birthrates, carbon burning etc
        But I just don't see it happening. We will not en masse embrace working physically harder with a concurrent drop in convieniences/standard of living for an improved life 200 years in the future. So I expect us to eventually reap the irony of the destruction caused by our success (in the physical, exploitation of the environmental sense)
        Higher intelligence will likely prove to be an evolutionary failure.
        Time for a drink.

      11. Wornsmooth- It doesn't require evil intelligence to put out false news. It just requires people to believe false logic about what can be expected to happen. People of all classes have rejected the projections of "Limits to Growth", as something to take seriously, with the idea that since we found ways around limits in the past, we will do it again. But that is not cause and effect logic. What we need to get around limits to growth is imaginary. People have talked about breakthroughs, about innovation, as if we can find whatever we want when we want it. That is basically saying we can find imaginary things at will. Really? Looking causes finding of imaginary things? That can be easily tested. Imagine something which has never been found before, actually exists somewhere. A unicorn living in the mountains, for example. Or some other mythical creature. Go out and look. Did you find it? Look further if you want. Would being highly educated in the scientific method increase your chances of finding it? I don't think so. Looking does not cause finding of imaginary things. Now, one can't be absolutely positive that imaginary things won't be found, either. But to destroy or damage things that have sustained your society with the expectation of finding imaginary replacements, looks like insanity. Finding things first, and testing them very carefully before you bet so much on them, would be intelligent. I always have to smile at the idea that intelligence has failed in getting to this point. We have acted like idiot savants in doing this.
        People have readily believed nonsense about being able to find what we want when we wanted it, because they really wanted to believe it. It has been an emotional decision. It hasn't been intelligent at all. We aren't facing a problem of intelligence being a failure, we are facing a problem of people acting no different from animals that self destruct going into overshoot. And this continues.

        And I think that challenging this and related matters openly, would cause a lot of cognitive dissonance which would bring the whole thing down in confused chaos. I'd expect most people would put fanatical faith into all sorts of conflicting beliefs rather than changing behavior to respect limits and get away from the expected collapse.
        It isn't false news from evil manipulators who could bring the whole thing to a screeching halt, but science based logic about the whole thing. And to have anyone survive at all, I think will require following scientific, evidence based logic about the situation. The people who will do that have a chance of getting through this, I'd say. The rest will have extremely poor odds.

      12. Arthur,,if I may use first name.
        I agree with your view. Those of us raised and indoctrinated with an Abrahamic outlook of Man separate from nature ( which supports him) tend to bristle at any suggestion that we will not continue to be just fine indefinitely.
        Cognitive dissonance indeed! Most would of course scoff at unicorns, insist they don’t believe a perpetual motion machine is possible, but that yet we can continue our path of “more” forever.
        Everything will be just fine, until it’s not.

      13. Arthur,
        I would like to add one more comment regarding intelligence.
        I don’t consider our predicament as stemming from a lack of intelligence. A lot of “scary smart” people have led to where we are. ( nuclear weapons, nuclear power/waste anyone?)
        Science/technology is ethically neutral.
        What we have shown as lacking, at least in the dominant power cultures, is a lack of wisdom.

      14. Sulla materia ci ho scritto tanto :)



      Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)