During his speech at SXSW, Elon Musk once again issued a warning of the need for a colony on Mars, The Guardian reported. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO said that humanity could one day enter a new dark age.
“There’s likely to be another dark ages … particularly if there’s a third world war,” Musk declared, according to The Verge.
Fear of this hypothetical dark age is one of the key factors behind Musk’s drive to colonize Mars. The moon is an option, but he believes that Mars is far enough away to be unaffected by any war that ravages Earth.
“It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars because it’s far enough away from Earth that [in the event of a war] it’s more likely to survive than a moon base,” Musk warned. “If there’s a third world war we want to make sure there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the dark ages,” he said in response to a question from West World showrunner Jonah Nolan.
SpaceX is currently working on a ship to take humans to Mars, but Musk suggested that not many people would want to go. When asked whether or not he felt a Mars mission was simply a vehicle for the rich to escape, he suggested that it would be akin to exploring Antarctica; namely very dangerous, but exciting for those who did survive. The ship, code named BFR, is expected to go on a test flight in 2019, though Musk admitted that this timeline might be a bit optimistic.
In addition to the looming threat of nuclear war, Musk once again spoke out against the dangers of artificial intelligence. In his speech, he called for stricter oversight of A.I. and warned that it was more dangerous than nuclear weapons. This is certainly not the first time Musk has made such comments. The Tesla CEO appears to be very wary of the risks posed by the rise of advanced A.I.
“Mark my words,” Musk warned. “A.I. is far more dangerous than nukes. So why do we have no regulatory oversight?”
The Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The obvious way to answer this question is by looking at how the various Dark Ages began and asking whether similar conditions apply today. Strikingly, in every case where we have enough evidence, we see the same five causal factors, which I like to call the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The first, which is always prominent, is mass migration, on a scale that the societies of the time cannot control. Just how many immigrants it took to destabilize borderlands and spread violence across entire empires must have varied, although DNA seems to suggest that in the wrong circumstances even a group less than one-tenth the size of the host population could bring the roof crashing in.
The second factor, often coming on the back of the first, is disease. Long-distance mass movements sometimes merged what had previously been separate disease pools, producing new infections to which hardly anyone was immune. Steppe nomads migrating across thousands of kilometers were probably the main vector for the Black Death, which killed perhaps a quarter of the world’s population between 1350 and 1400.
The third force, regularly linked to the first two, is state failure. Collapsing borders and shrinking populations often bring down governments too, and as chaos spreads, even states that have not been directly hit by invasion and plague can be sucked into the whirlpool.
Fourth, and strongly linked to the first three forces, is the collapse of trade. When failing states can no longer protect merchants, long-distance exchange networks break down, bringing starvation and yet more rounds of migration, disease and violence. Many historians think that the tipping point in the fall of the Roman Empire came when the Vandals invaded North Africa and cut off grain shipments to Italy from what is now Tunisia in 439. The city of Rome lost three-quarters of its population across the next two decades, and in 476 the Western Empire was officially declared defunct.
The fifth factor, always present but never in a straightforward way, is climate change. Some great collapses, such as that in the Eastern Mediterranean after 1200 B.C., coincide with rising temperatures; others, such as the Roman and Han Chinese breakdowns in the early first millennium, coincide with global cooling. The direction of climate change seems to matter less than the fact that any big change puts stress on farming, which — when everything else is already going wrong — might be enough to push people over the edge.
Stratfor readers will not need me to tell them that strategists in our own age are deeply worried about most of these five factors. Immigration was a central concern in the Brexit debates and in the American presidential primaries. In 2009, the “New H1N1” influenza spread from southern China to four continents before it was recognized, and fears are mounting about the Zika virus; climate change is also bursting on the world with a fury not seen since the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. State failure and trade breakdown, however, currently seem less pressing, the former restricted to an “arc of instability” in Africa and Asia and the forces of anti-globalization still a specter rather than a reality. This is not fifth-century Europe.
Comparing the Brexit with genuine civilization-killing events provides some sensible perspective. Leaving the European Union was a really bad idea, but despite the signs that some of the Five Horsemen are saddling up, it is not the end of the world. In fact, we might take the comparative argument further still. So far I have been looking for factors that were present in all cases of collapse and then asking whether these conditions are also present today. But there is another way to think about the question, by asking whether the presence of these conditions guarantees the coming of a dark age. If we can identify episodes where most or all of the Five Horsemen rode but civilization did not collapse, we can perhaps pinpoint how we can keep the darkness at bay.
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