Collapse · Extinction

The Myth of the Human Cockroach

A comic featuring a cockroach on a couch talking to Sigmund Freud, saying "I dreamed I was Kafka."
Franz Kafka’s classic work “The Metamorphosis” tells the story of a man who wakes up as a giant cockroach. Given the way that Kafka portrayed life among the humans, he probably considered this an improvement. And after reading this, you might feel the same way.

One of the dumber ideas that inevitably gets tossed around when discussing collapse and the future of humanity is the claim that humans could never go extinct in the near term (for example, in the next 100 years) because we are as tough, adaptable and resilient as cockroaches.

Proponents of this cliche usually acknowledge that collapse of industrial civilization is inevitable, but they still believe humans will be able to survive in the toxic wasteland that is left in its wake. Unfortunately, this idea is almost certainly dead-wrong and seems to be based on sheer arrogance and dumbassery. Here’s why:

In order to survive long-term, humans need breathable air, clean water, nutritious food, shelter from the elements, social support networks, occasional medical care and some sense of meaning and purpose. (If you don’t believe that meaning and purpose are essential to survival, look into the skyrocketing rates of suicide and mental illness caused by social alienation and lack of meaningful work and community. If people don’t feel that their lives have any purpose, they will off themselves even in the presence of abundant physical resources.)

A common rule of thumb among preppers and survivalists is the so-called Rule of Threes: Speaking very generally, a person can survive for about three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Let’s examine these factors in that order and discuss the conditions people will face post-collapse to get a sense of how humans actually compare to cockroaches in terms of survival potential, and what it would take to avoid extinction.

Air

A collage of images showing deadly air pollution all over the world.
Do you like your air so thick you can cut it with a knife? Come visit Earth, where humans have added so much pollution to the atmosphere you won’t even have to buy cigarettes to get your daily fix of tar and ash. Hope you also like to breathe methane, cause there’s about to be a shitload of that in the air, too!

For most of human history, clean, breathable air has been abundant and ubiquitous. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Human activities have polluted the atmosphere so extensively that simply breathing while living in cities like London and Beijing is equivalent to smoking more than a pack of cigarettes every day. Even in much smaller cities and rural areas, poor air quality is increasingly common, and exposure to air pollution has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, autism, asthma and many other adverse conditions. Worldwide, air pollution already kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria, diabetes or tuberculosis, and contributes significantly to mental illness. This will only get worse as air quality continues to decline.

On top of all the other pollutants and toxins being released into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide itself has a significant negative impact on human health and cognition, with performance across a wide range of mental and physical tasks degrading rapidly as CO2 levels rise. This means that as CO2 continues to accumulate in the atmosphere (currently above 410 ppm and rising fast), people will get dumber, clumsier and less able to deal with the other problems we face.

Compounding these issues is the fact that we are also disrupting the natural processes that produce most of our oxygen. Roughly 60 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere is generated by phytoplankton in the oceans, with most of the rest coming from the once-vast forests we’ve been busily cutting down for the past several centuries.

As the oceans heat up and become more acidic from absorbing tremendous quantities of CO2, they are approaching the point where the phytoplankton can no longer survive. As phytoplankton die, they are replaced by other microorganisms that can survive in these hotter and more acidic conditions. Unfortunately for us, many of these bacteria happen to produce a toxic gas called hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This gas is dangerous to humans and other mammals in concentrations as low as 50 parts per million, and deadly above 600 ppm.

So, in summary, we are effectively cutting out the lungs of our planet and replacing them with a source of poison gas. Depending on how far and how fast this process is allowed to continue (keeping in mind that there is currently no political will or economic pressure to address it) it is entirely possible that Earth’s atmosphere will eventually become unbreathable for humans. That outcome means extinction would be virtually guaranteed, since continued survival would only be possible in sealed bunkers with advanced air filtration, which is energy intensive, small-scale and vulnerable to equipment failure.

Cockroaches, on the other hand, require vastly less oxygen than humans, and can survive for up to 40 minutes without “breathing” at all (they actually respire through spiracles rather than lungs, hence the quotes around breathing). There is also some anecdotal evidence that they can live for up to a week after losing their heads, which is a feat I would love to see our political and corporate elites attempt to match.

Survival Score: Cockroaches 1, Humans 0

Shelter

Collage showing destroyed homes and neighborhoods in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Modern homes and office buildings feel solid and secure right up until a hurricane, wildfire, tornado or flood comes tearing through and demolishes your neighborhood in the blink of an eye. Good luck building your houses out of bricks, little pigs, because the big bad wolf called climate change is going to huff and puff and blow that shit down faster than you can blink.

In mild climates it is often possible to forget about the crucial role of shelter, but a few hours in extreme heat or cold serves as a quick reminder of how fragile human beings are without access to air conditioning and central heat. Unlike cockroaches, humans are highly vulnerable to temperature extremes, requiring multiple layers of clothing and a fire source in order to survive temperatures below freezing for more than a few hours.

On the other end of the spectrum, temperatures above 90°F (32°C) rapidly become uncomfortable for people without air conditioning, and manual labor can lead to heat stroke and dehydration well before temps reach 100 °F (37.7°C). In the presence of high heat and humidity, “wet-bulb” temperatures of just 95°F (35°C) can become deadly for humans in less than a day, literally cooking people from the inside out as their bodies are unable to dissipate heat.

As the climate heats up and grows more humid (remember, warmer air holds more water vapor), many regions of the world will become increasingly uninhabitable for humans without access to air conditioning. And, as a special bonus feature of this process, extreme temperatures increase the demand for electricity, which leads to burning more fossil fuels to generate power, which accelerates climate change, which causes more extreme temperatures, which increases demand for electricity, and so on ad extinctio.

Climate change also complicates the problems of finding shelter by destroying homes with frequent and intense floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, rising sea levels, etc. Eventually, entire cities will have to be abandoned (I’m looking at you, Miami) because it will become economically impossible to keep rebuilding billions of dollars worth of infrastructure every few years.

In contrast, cockroaches are incredibly hardy when it comes to temperature extremes, with some species able to survive temperatures as low as -188 °F (yes, you read that correctly) and as high as 105 °F for prolonged periods without any form of shelter. And when things finally get too intense on the surface for their comfort, they can simply burrow beneath the smoldering ruins of our ransacked cities. Talk about convenience!

Survival Score: Cockroaches 2, Humans 0

Next up in Part 2 – Water and Food, will the humans stage a comeback to defeat the lowly cockroach? Will science and technology somehow save the day? (Spoiler alert: No. No they won’t.)

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