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

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.