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Book It, We’re Toast: The Fate of the Species

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If you grew up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, you probably remember the faint air of existential angst that lingered constantly in the background. With the creation of atomic weapons, and the booming stockpiles of missile-mounted bombs in the arsenals of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., it seemed perfectly plausible that an all-out nuclear war could wipe out a significant fraction of the world’s population — the first time in history that humanity was capable of such destruction.

But as Fred Guterl says in a sobering, important and highly readable new book, those were really the good old days. The nuclear threat has receded, he acknowledges in The Fate of the Species: Why the human race may cause its own extinction and how we can stop it (Bloomsbury: $25), but warns that “the success of Homo sapiens has created new and terrifying risks that didn’t exist a few decades ago.”

Those risks are coming at us from all directions, says Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American magazine. In the natural world, for example, we’ve inadvertently sped up the evolution of viruses. Potentially deadly SARS, bird flu and swine flu have all emerged from the genetic reshuffling of viral strains between humans, waterfowl and pigs on huge farms in China and other developing countries. Air travel can then spread those strains around the world at high speed, where they might once have flared through a small area and burned themselves out.

Humans are also pushing into wilderness areas to exploit natural resources and to find new places to live — and running into diseases we’ve never had to deal with before. AIDS, which jumped from chimps to humans in Africa, probably in the 1950’s, is a prime example. In the developed world, meanwhile, the use of antibiotics in cattle feed is creating new, drug-resistant bacterial strains that have public health officials mildly terrified.

The list goes on: Guterl regales the reader with one nightmare scenario after another, from mass extinctions that could unravel the world’s ecosystems to synthetic biology that could create killer organisms beyond anything nature could come up with to computer viruses engineered to take down a rival nation’s power grid.

And of course, no litany of doom would be complete without a meaty chapter on climate change. His focus here is not on vague pronouncements about the world as a whole, but on specific regional tipping points that could flip the climate into a new, stable configuration that could be very bad for humans. In India, he writes, “a sudden stopping of monsoon rain” — a possibility some scientists have raised — “which accounts for 80 percent of rainfall . . . could throw a billion people into danger of starvation.”

Another tipping point, the complete loss of sea ice in the Arctic, which at least one of his sources considers plausible, “would be like heating Greenland on a skillet.” That, in turn, could send sea level up by a catastrophic 20 feet in a couple of centuries. In all, Guterl cites no fewer than seven separate climate tipping points, each of which could be a disaster, and many of which would interact with each other to make the others more likely to happen.

That sort of interaction could easily happen across categories, too: drastic changes in climate will certainly hasten the collapse of species, and may well trigger the spread of deadly diseases. And attempts to deal with climate change in the form of geoengineering could cause a whole new set of planet-wide disasters nobody can even imagine yet.

By the time you get the book’s final chapter, you may find yourself cowering under a table, and with good reason. But the title does include the phrase “and how we can stop it.” That’s what the last chapter, titled “Ingenuity,” is about.

Unfortunately, pretty much all of the solutions Guterl talks about are blue-sky dreaming about magic technologies — geoengineering to save the climate, bioengineering to create biofuel-spewing microbes and meat that grows in test tubes — and other solutions that sound great but have so far gone nowhere. “We need to cut carbon emissions,” he writes, focusing on climate change, “and we need disruptive technologies that somehow change the energy equation.”

The operative word is “somehow.” Nobody really has a good answer to any of the existential threats Guterl so accurately and chillingly describes. But that’s what makes The Fate of the Species so important. If we can’t fully appreciate the danger humans face on so many fronts, it’s going to be awfully hard to come up with solutions. 

Comments

By Paul Budline (Princeton NJ)
on May 21st, 2012

How can any “journalist” review such an “important” book and not mention all the failed doomsday prophecies of the past?  Paul Ehrlich and Thomas Malthus leap to mind, but there are so many others.  Beyond that, why are so many supposedly smart people so inexorably attracted to predictions of doom?

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By Kim Blossom (Sutherlin)
on May 21st, 2012

I agree with Lemonick when he admits we need to “fully appreciate the danger humans face on so many fronts,” but for the sake of our survival, I’d rather he didn’t tiptoe around the fact that humans are responsible for these problems or be dismissive of our ability to create solutions.  “Blue-sky dreaming about magic technologies” is a valid place to start, and start we must!  We must encourage the general public to take responsibility, support the efforts of our creative thinkers, and invest in the ingenuity that is the hope for our species.

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By Dave Johnson (Manchester, NH)
on May 22nd, 2012

It happens that I have spent a lot of time over the years dealing with problems that were both complex and dangerous, and my experience is that most people handle such things very badly. 

Our nervous systems evolved to deal with very immediate, short-term threats, so we tend to deal with that sort of thing fairly well, because our emotions tend to lead us in the right direction.  However, anything that is not immediate or not emotionally gripping, we mostly deal with by denying that the problem even exists, and again that makes sense in evolutionary terms.  After all, if we were inclined to worry about every potential threat we could imagine we would turn into nervous wrecks, which would impede are ability to survive on a moment-to-moment basis.

Unfortunately, our cute little monkey brains, filled with boundless curiosity, lead us to try all sorts of stupid stuff that wiser creatures would never go near.  So, because we do not have the right emotional equipment to properly come to grips with the less obvious, longer-term risks, which are often quite easily foreseen, we routinely outsmart ourselves.

Moreover, even when we do recognize a problem, we are highly inclined to waste time blaming others, instead of taking action ourselves.

In short, I think that it is quite likely that we will completely fail to take concerted action on climate change and other major environmental problems, and I would not be surprised to see the population of the planet cut by fifty or seventy-five percent over the coming century or two.

Very few people want to consider that possibility seriously, which is precisely why it will probably happen.

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By Michael Smith (Oakville, Ontario, L6L 5L5)
on May 22nd, 2012

I don’t think we can count on “magic technologies” anytime soon. We have one practical answer i.e. reduce carbon emissions to zero over the next 15 to 20 years. Once we have the emissions down to zero, we have to keep them down for the next 200 years to let the planet adjust and start cooling down. I know the “Fate of the Species” deals with a variety of outcomes from humans jiggling the planet, the one that will be most likely, I believe, will be food shortages due to disruptions in our rainfall patterns. And God knows, we could end up with nuclear war after all fighting over water and food.

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By Robert Bolman (Eugene, OR 97402)
on May 23rd, 2012

Deception occurs throughout nature.  For example, there’s the insect that evolved to look like a twig to avoid predators or the orchid that evolved to look like a particular bumblebee so as to get pollinated.  Not surprisingly, when our earliest ancestors developed spoken language, we started telling lies.  You can just imagine some caveman named Og saying, “Og no find yummy berries down by river.  Og find yummy berries up on hill.”  But actually, that lying sack of shit Og DID find the yummy berries growing down by the river but he wants to keep them all to himself.  I hate that ass hole!  Fast forward to the year 2003; there was another caveman named Cheney saying, “If Cheney no find weapons of mass destruction down by Tigris River, Cheney find weapons of mass destruction up near Baqubah.”

But as we began telling lies, the problem arose that lying is tricky because your body language can give you away.  Therefore, the most effective liars are the ones who, on some level, actually believe the lie themselves.  Therein lies humankind’s biggest problem: Human beings in general but politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives in particular have the most amazing capacity for talking themselves into believing utter nonsense when doing so happens to be convenient - convenient for a career, convenient for a profit margin or convenient for an egocentric, inbred, perverse little model of reality.

We all do this to some extent, but it’s a bigger problem in those who wield a lot of power. Also, while rising up their various ladders of success, they are systematically groomed and conditioned to embrace beliefs that are at odds with objective reality.  Or another way of looking at it is that all the honest, ethical people are systematically weeded out.

People regularly say, “Those politicians are sleazy and those corporate executives are greedy!”

Other people simply say, “Those guys are ******* crazy!”

And while both those statements are true, I feel that the second one is the most important.  But we mustn’t throw the idea away by simply saying, “Those guys are ******* crazy!”

It would be more accurate and becoming of the importance of this point to say, The people with their hands on the levers of power in the world are clinically, diagnosibly delusional and have no business being in the positions of power that they occupy.

We must call into question the psychological state of those in power, but as this is a broadly human condition and as the only mind we can truly change is our own, we all must be ever-vigilant, always trying to improve our human faculty of discernment so that someday, we may learn to believe what is true instead of believing what happens to be convenient.

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By Dick Smith (Madison, WI)
on June 5th, 2012

Comment #1 RE: Ehrlich

First, Ehrlich’s predictions of resource scarcity and famine were wrong, but his underlying premises were correct. 1. Whatever your problem it’s easier to solve with fewer people; 2. A birth-rate solution is a better solution to overpopulation than a death-rate solution. 3. If we find a technological fix (which we did short-term with the green revolution in agriculture that Ehrlich missed completely) the cure will likely have severe unintended consequences.

Second, this time is different.  Why?  Science progresses when new data from new studies either proves or disproves predictions.  New science quickly proved Ehrlich’s predictions were wrong.  Today, only 5 years after the IPCC outlined a dozen scenarios for possible global warming, every new study in every aspect of the problem is showing things are worse than the WORST-case scenarios imagined only 5 years ago.  Even Ehrlich bashers who assume that what’s happening on global warming is just a re-run of the 1970’s should pause to think about that.

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By Mr Keith Thurman (lakewood washington 98499)
on June 5th, 2012

You know they say the simple answer is usually the correct one. That said, let us look at some simple answers..to questions not asked. All nations need jobs; alot of jobs, for day to year existence and any retirement continuance. Nearly every job creates pollution..many jobs a vast amount. Co2 and other pollutants go nowhere once produced. So jobs will not stop and pollution will not stop! The result? Climate changes of excessively abnormal, increasingly unpredictable, and damaging to the point of species extinction..including our own [human species]. What could do all that? Let’s begin with rising ocean levels..2,4,6 20 feet? You will not know just how expensive and disruptive this will be until it is both to late to stop it and to wide spread to stop it. Being so wide spread a huge number of nations will simply have to become refugees of sea rise. Heat. We already know, march gave us a minor sampling. Pollution?  How many more ocean wide nuclear accidents, mammoth oil spills and ocean acidification dead zones [just a small sampling of problems] will it take to [soon] cause [most? 70% 98%] of the oceans to become one giant fetid polluted swamp?  We need to remember,the oceans are to big to filter like a fish tank and there are no fences between the oceans. THE POLLUTED AREAS WILL SOON CONNECT TOGETHER AND EVENLY DISPERSE THE POLLUTION IN ALL THE OCEANS AND SEAS, UNTIL THE NEXT OCCURANCE..WHICH WILL NOT BE LONG IN COMING. The air. Once most [or enough for a catastrophic tipping point] of the vegetation has been burned with these big constant heat waves the land will be desert-like and compound the heating, heat caused phenomena will multiply[read tornados hurricanes,ect.] Water,that ones easy; how can ground water remain clean under these circumstances? How will rain fall [starting in poisoned oceans] remain benificial? Is pumping co2 into the ground a smart idea? Do the thousands of jet airliners[daily] crop dust the upper atmosphere with poisonous jet exhaust? Will alot more wars [read violent pollution of all kinds and destruction] be embarked upon because of need for other nations natural resources and plentiful land? And will most nations and their people [90 to100%] back off from life styles we all love that is the direct cause of these problems; and would they back off for the 100 to 200 years needed for the earth to right and cleanse itself? Answer. Of course not…Solution. Simply do what little YOU can in the way of a concerned earth inhabitant and enjoy what is still here before it is gone!

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By Halina S
on May 17th, 2013

Can anyone say POPULATION CONTROL?  Instead of subsidizing births nations should reward people who refrain from reproducing.  There are plenty of workers to go around for economic growth and social safety net support if only nations got past their nationalism.

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