Special Report

The Case for Survival Colonies: Soliciting Colonists

by Lifeboat Foundation Scientific Advisory Board member Willard Wells.


Many people have grown increasingly uneasy about humanity’s survival prospects. This is reflected in a recent rash of books. Fred Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American magazine, wrote The Fate of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2012). John Casti, a complexity scientist known for simulations, wrote X-Events (Wm Morrow, 2012). Martin Rees wrote Our Final Century (Arrow Books, 2004), and philosopher John Leslie wrote The End of the World (Routledge, 1996). The major concern is the accelerating pace at which powerful man-made hazards are appearing and thriving, faster than mere mortals can adequately analyze the risks and adapt to them with the safety of former times. Examples are engineered viruses, global warming, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and more.
Martin Rees estimates a 50% probability that civilization will suffer a major setback during the next 100 years, an event in which billions would expire. Lord Rees is past president of the Royal Society, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, former master of Trinity College, and incidentally Baron of Ludlow. The four scholars mentioned above approach the topic bottom up; they simply studied the major hazards until they developed an intuition for the risks and then made educated guesstimates of survival probabilities.
By contrast, my Apocalypse When? (Springer, 2009) took an entirely different top-down statistical approach that is not based on a list of hazards. Instead it is based on projections of the growth of technology, industry, population, and so forth. Results put the current risk rate for civilization’s collapse to be about 9% per decade and the half-life of civilization to be about 9 billion people centuries. (Human life expressed in population-time is analogous to labor to do a job expressed in man-hours.) If the average world population over that period is 9 billion people, then the half life of civilization is 1 century in agreement with Rees. When independent bottom up and top down analyses agree, people should pay attention!
Compared to civilization’s collapse, extinction of the human race is less likely by a factor of about 3. Leslie thinks the probability is about 30% after 5 centuries, and I say that the probability is 25% in the long run (perhaps a couple of centuries, after which assumptions in my formulation may no longer apply). As with Rees this close agreement is purely coincidental. The numbers are probably off by a factor of 2 or 3 because Rees and Leslie’s estimates are subjective, and my formulation contains simplifying assumptions that do not exactly match physical reality. (To verify probabilities, you’d need survival statistics for expired humanoid species throughout our galaxy!)
A conference on Global Catastrophic Risk at Oxford University in 2008 asked participants to estimate the chance of extinction during the next 100 years. Their median answer was 19%. This agrees with me if the average world population over that period is 10 billion, a plausible number. Again the degree of accord among these experts is eerie.
Risks of this magnitude are clearly unacceptable. So what can we do?

How The Human Race Can Rescue Itself

Ultimately humans must escape from Earth before our bad habits hopelessly degrade it, or before somebody makes Earth uninhabitable either by accident or by intent. If we bio-humans are too maladapted to live in a space colony, then perhaps we can send some artificial life that is sufficiently humanoid for us to accept as our “mind children” in the words of Hans Moravec. However, we are focusing here on an immediate problem with a maximum time scale of decades. Space colonies won’t be ready in that time frame, and so any salvation will necessarily be earthbound.
So consider the source of the risk, runaway man-made hazards. In principle government can make laws that apply the brakes and slow “progress” to a safe pace. But this cannot happen in a democratic world; it conflicts with our zeitgeist. Too many people regard rapid progress as an article of faith, and any suggestion of Luddism pushes their hot buttons. So how else can we forestall catastrophe?
Government is unlikely to act until after much damage is done. (Some argue that this has happened already: hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans, Sandy in New York, dreadful droughts in Texas and Australia, plus a rash of unusual floods and storms around the world.) Then government will likely follow the usual uninspired approach and create an agency to identify and analyze hazards and build safeguards for each one. This agency may succeed for a time and actually forestall a series of cataclysms. But then complacency sets in. Meanwhile, our world grows more and more complex and interconnected with ever more modes of failure. Eventually a crossover occurs where hazards have the advantage over defenses, which leads to doomsday. Perhaps Casti said it best: “The addition of safety checks … often contributes to the complexity and thus can actually work against the reliability of the system instead of enhancing it.”
Defense against risk has an extreme disadvantage: it must be prepared at all times for all possible hazards. By contrast, the bad guy (careless scientist, rogue engineer, whoever) strikes at a time of his choosing with a weapon the defense least expects. Defenders cannot think of all possible hazards. For example, here is one they will almost surely overlook: A discharge of industrial chemicals into the ocean causes phytoplankton to mutate. The mutant variety prospers and spreads worldwide. Trouble is, it emits toxic vapors that poison the atmosphere. We cannot treat the world’s oceans with herbicide, and so humankind will perish. Aspects of this threat are already in place. Pollution is known to cause mutations; some plankton is toxic, especially dinoflagellates that comprise red tides; and plants can alter the atmosphere, which is how air acquired oxygen.

Finally, one of the surest ways to prevent human extinction is to let the collapse of civilization happen! This would wipe out all the man-made hazards, and then civilization would rebuild, wiser for the experience. So how can we rescue civilization without endangering our species? If you have a plan, tell us about it because prospects are poor for the defense plans discussed above.

So Let’s Ride It Out

For lack of better protection, we must create survival colonies that can ride out various catastrophes in appropriate habitats, bunkers, or redoubts. These colonies will differ from the usual ones that survivalists (aka preppers) build for their families or small groups. Preppers build redoubts and store food, water, medicine, valuables for barter, and usually firearms to protect their larder. However, they typically presume that the threat will pass, and they will find other survivors to join forces and rebuild.
Threats to the survival of humankind require more preparation. In case a colony cannot find other survivors, they need at least 100 members to comprise a viable breeding stock, i.e. sufficient genetic diversity. They need vital skills: a medic, a midwife, and an engineer, especially one who can rig up a generator and a radio transmitter to search for other survivors. Each colony needs young people to produce the next generation, youths who are healthy, fecund, and not closely related. Racial diversity would offer hybrid vigor.
Eventually a government agency or a philanthropy may sponsor such survival colonies. They might succeed, but many of the people involved will not be true believers in prepping, and so their incentives may be weak. Moreover, from your viewpoint this colony does nothing for you and your family unless you/they happen to be among the chosen few.

Founding Your Own Survival Colony

Possibly the best chance for human survival is for you and others like you to form your own survival colonies. Your friends and neighbors are unlikely to be interested, and so you will have to recruit strangers, especially those with essential skills. For example, you might include a helicopter pilot to round up your outlying colonists on short notice.
A few guidelines: You cannot defend against all possible hazards, so gamble on those that best match your group’s resources. Try to recruit wealthy people; they will pay for expensive equipment when their survival is at risk. Perhaps you find it distasteful to make wealth a criterion for admission to your colony, but survival is too important to forego expensive equipment that might make the vital difference. The two examples below each involve something expensive.
Perhaps the best place for your redoubt is in the far south. In the event of global warming Antarctic waters provide an enormous heat sink to keep you cool for a very long time. (Water has high specific heat capacity.) This is also a good location in the event of nuclear war, which will be confined to the Northern Hemisphere because that’s where the nukes are. The far south is shielded from fallout by two Hadley cells of air circulation. Transportation is a big expense. Commercial air travel may be shut down, land travel dangerous, and you may not have time to travel by ship. In this scenario you may need a very big private jet to carry maybe 30 colonists to your destination. Your colony would have to include locals to get the minimum total, about a hundred. This may be a good thing to ensure their friendship and cooperation. For a rehearsal trip from the US, a leased aircraft may exceed $100,000.
Chances are your assets will not support a colony in the far south. Perhaps your asset is an empty urban building suitable for your redoubt. Then your choice of hazard may be contaminated air, either toxins or microbes. You seal the building airtight and install a ventilation system that filters the air. The choice of filter depends on the hazard. You may need an expensive laboratory to prepare any of the various filters and to test the air to determine when it is safe again. You will need an air lock and hazmat suits for excursions outdoors in contaminated air to forage for food and essential supplies.
Learn how the Lifeboat Foundation can help organize your survival colony!