An Hour of Apocalypse Theory with Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War

With post-apocalyptic fiction and movies being so popular in recent years, the panel “The Cause of The Apocalypse” (Apocalypse Rising, Friday, 10 PM, Westin Chastain 1-2) looked at interesting avenues this subgenre could take. Science fiction author and survivalist blogger Michael Z. Williamson moderated the panel, which included Cathy the Insectress, a graduate student in insect molecular genetics, Tedd Roberts, a neuroscientist, and Doc Father, a former military medic now studying epidemiology. The four panelists, comparing their specialties to those of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, designated themselves Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War, respectively.

After the introductions, Roberts suggested that a good cause for an apocalypse would be flesh-eating bacteria that not only made the victims’ flesh dissolve and drip in zombie fashion but created a feeling of euphoria. Williamson commented that if there were going to be an apocalypse, people might as well enjoy it.

Doc Father noted that Dragon Con is the ideal environment for spreading a disease, pointing out the stack of cups, water dispensers, door handles, hand rails, and chairs touched by thousands of attendees over the course of the weekend. Bringing together 60,000 people from all over the country and the world would be, he said, like military basic training, which leads to the trainees brought together from across the country getting sick from each other’s germs.

The Insectress said that starvation would be as effective a cause of an apocalypse as disease. She mentioned ergot of rye, which produces a byproduct called LSA that is the organic form of LSD. Rusts and bacteria are, she said, dangerous for American grain crops because modifying the crops to breed resistance takes a very long time.

Picking up on her comment, Roberts suggested making grain metabolically inert, so that people would starve even if they gorged on it. “Like tribbles,” someone on the panel suggested. Roberts added that crop failure would be an effective tool to trigger mass starvation and that loss of pollinating insects could also trigger such a problem.

The Insectress indicated that the nation’s emergency food reserves would last for only 2-3 days. She pointed out that, while bees are the primary pollinators, beetles originally played that role, and that many grains, as well as soy, are pollinated by the wind. The current honeybee colony collapse is not as widespread as one resulting from a European mite infestation in the 1980s, which cost two to three times as many hives as are being lost now. After that event, however, the bees didn’t regain their former numbers, which makes current losses significant.

She then added that if she wanted to end the world, she would turn on the dominant genes in birds, from velociraptor to archaeopteryx to chickens. Roberts joked that a velociraptor qualified as “fast food.” The Insectress replied that the species was actually about the size of a peacock but was magnified in the movie Jurassic Park so as to seem more menacing, but while the movie was filming, a raptor of similar size to the ones in the film was discovered in Utah.

Williamson said he thought a physical cause, like a meteor impact in Yellowstone’s caldera would be a good trigger for an apocalypse.

The panel briefly discussed the prospect of an EMP event causing an apocalypse, something owners of modern, computer-dependent cars, would find problematic. Doc Father said that military equipment like Humvees, unlike civilian vehicles, were “too stupid to be affected.”

Roberts suggested that a cascading disaster scenario would result if the North Pacific subduction zone were to go active, generating not only earthquakes but subsequent tsunamis from Alaska to California. Because of the shape of the coastline, he added, the tsunamis would amplify around the Port of Los Angeles, which would then be shut down.

Williamson commented that he lived in the Midwest and so wasn’t overly concerned about the Port of Los Angeles. Roberts replied that one-third to one-half of all U.S. imports, including things like anesthesia, come in through that port, so everyone would soon care.

Following the earthquake theme, the Insectress pointed out that the New Madrid fault line under the Mississippi River caused the river to run backward, flooding many towns and causing some to sink into the ground and vanish, in the mid 1800s. Williamson added that there are four large, important power grids across the river that would break in a quake along that fault line. Furthermore, he said, the New Madrid fault, unlike the one in California, is not on bedrock but rests on a softer substructure that would produce waves in the event of a major earthquake.

The panel then shifted to considerations of food in the event of an apocalypse. Roberts pointed out that people need to eat three times as much in grains, vegetables, and fruit as they do of meat for nutritional purposes. Even if they do so, however, they wouldn’t get as much as four ounces of calves’ liver would supply and still would not have the ideal levels of proteins and amino acids.

The Insectress added that combinations of legumes and grains, such as rice and beans, oats and peas, and white bread and peanut butter, all produce amino acids the human body can’t generate on its own. Referring to the comment about calves’ liver, she advised against eating the livers of carnivores.

Discussing the prospects of alien invasion, the panel agreed that if another species is advanced enough to get here, we don’t have much of a chance unless they’re not very technologically advanced and are at the end of a long supply chain. The greater likelihood is that they would wipe us out.

From aliens, the panel moved to AIs (Artificial Intelligences), such as Skynet in the Terminator movies. Doc Father commented that the military has a “real issue” with drone fighters. The Insectress added that any genetic modifications would require very powerful computers and that AIs mimics the human brain’s ability to recognize patterns.

Going back to the EMP possibility, the panel noted the prevalence of smartphones and tablets. The Insectress suggested that people are so wedded to technology that they will eventually integrate it physically. Doc Father added that cell phones would not survive an EM pulse, and Roberts pointed out that integrated implants would also shut down in such an event.

The panelists noted that the U.S. birthrate dropped after the advent of television and again after the introduction of smartphones, with corresponding drops in average IQ levels.

A questioner in the audience asked about fungi as causes of the apocalypse. The Insectress responded that the human immune system is not great against fungi.

The panel concluded with a discussion of population levels. The panelists noted that the U.S., China, and possibly Mexico have birth rates below the replacement level but that population levels in many in the Third World continue to rise and will do so until they reach a famine level.

With aliens, AI, crop failures or modifications, fungi, famine, and natural disasters on the list of possible apocalypse triggers, the panel provided any writers in the room with many ideas and any non-writers with quite a few new things to worry about.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.

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