Annalee Newitz looks at how humanity might go about surviving inevitable problems in this surprisingly upbeat book about the end of the world. Her basic premise is that there will be some kind of extinction event. It will happen. But there are things we can do and places we can go that will allow humanity (in some way) to come out on the other side. For a book about the end of the world as we know it, it’s actually a very uplifting and positive work.
To begin with, according to Newitz, something is going to happen. Will it be wild climate change (hot-cold-hot), megavolcanoes, meteor strikes, radiation clouds, plagues, artificial intelligence? Maybe a little of each. The question isn’t if humanity will face massive and devastating, game changing events in our future, it’s how we will deal with them. She looks first to the past, the Earth’s many previous extinction events. From an invasive life form that created an environmental disaster so profound the planet’s atmosphere has never been the same and almost all life alive at the time did not survive, through the Great Dying where complex food webs collapsed, to the death of the dinosaurs, to a few points in Human history where we almost didn’t make it, she lets us see that extinction events are not new. They’re not pretty, but they’re not inescapable. Humans are in a unique position in the entire history of the Earth. We have the abilities listed in the book’s title. We have a long history of scattering, finding new places to live. We are great adapters, living in places where nobody else can, shaping the world around us to fit our needs in ways nothing else can, and even shaping ourselves to fit new niches. And we have the ability to communicate through speech, art, the written word (a heartening shout-out for science fiction in this book, too), etc. As cultures and a species, we can remember what has happened, even figure out how things went down before we ever existed. We have vast storehouses of knowledge and wisdom that will aid us during whatever problems we’ll face. Blue-green algae didn’t have that. The dinosaurs didn’t have that. We’ve got it.
Within the first few pages, I was happy to see that Newitz does not fall into the all too common group of self-hating environmentally conscious people, the ‘Earth would be better without us’ people. Good sweet crap, that’s an attitude I don’t have any patience for. She doesn’t stew in guilt about what our ancestors did or didn’t do, nor for what goes on to this day. Getting past all that tomfoolery, she states things as they are, to the best of her knowledge (which is well researched, with testimony from a great deal of them-thar smart peoples). The weather is shifting. Is it because of human activity or a natural process? In many ways the point is moot. It’s happening, and that’s what we have to deal with. Obviously, if Humanity is causing it (which, of course, it is), we should know and change our behavior accordingly, but the climate is shifting and it’s shifting faster than we can fix simply by stopping the most damaging of behaviors we practice. And it’s happening even if our pollution has nothing to do with it. The point isn’t to assign blame, point fingers, wring hands, rend clothing, and cry out ‘the End is nigh.’ The point is to figure out what is happening and how we can a) counteract it or b) live through it. And when she talks about living through it, she isn’t just talking about us. She’s talking about taking as much of the ecosystem through the crucible as possible, and out the other side.
Obvious topics like alternative sources of energy get some mention. At this point, I think all but the most obtuse and backward facing folk understand that whatever happens and wherever things go, oil, coal, and natural gas are not permanent fixes for our energy needs. Even if you can somehow manage to block your eyes to all the environmental damage they do, there is a finite amount. They will run out. I don’t even advocate the complete abandonment of them. But when you rely on only a couple sources of energy, you make yourself vulnerable. Wind, geothermal, solar, hydro, etc. Spread it out, make it work where it makes sense. That all leads into something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, which is building smarter, to live better and use less energy. This is where things get nuts. Self-healing cities that generate much of their own food and power? Oh yeah. And Newitz makes a very valid point, that not every city of the future would work the same way. Solutions in one region might not work somewhere else. Societal considerations might dictate major differences. Maybe a city, grown and cultivated like a forest might work in one place, while a primarily underground city of hydroponic farms and subways will work somewhere else.
From there she looks outward, away from the Earth. I have heard so many people say things like ‘we need to solve our problems here on Earth,’ or ‘this money could be spent better,’ or what have you. Gah! We haven’t ‘solved our problems’ in a hundred thousand years, but we haven’t let that stop us from creating great music or art, from discovering the building blocks of the universe, or from crossing the oceans. And where is that money going to be better spent? On a bomb that could blow up the world a 31st time? Another bail out for corporate fat-cats? Another study on why prisoners feel a desire to escape? Or should we spend money on creating new industries, discovering the universe, and getting a few of our eggs out of the one basket they’ve been in since the dawn of time? I vote for the latter. Developing a means to get people into space for a relatively low cost is the next step. From there, the sky is no longer the limit. I don’t plan to die. But if that plan doesn’t work out, I can die with some satisfaction if humans are living on another world. Newitz’s book contains some tantalizing hints at some of the things being explored and developed right now.
So yeah, raging death is lurking in the shadows of tomorrow. But, in spite of that, the future is indeed so bright I feel the need to wear sunglasses. Annalee Newitz provides a kind of inoculation against the relentless negativity constantly dished out by past-loving futurephobes. It’s not about Left or Right; Liberal or Conservative. It’s about learning from the past, adapting to the ever changing present, and having the collective cultural gumption to strike out into that next horizon. A very readable book, and a must read for those looking to keep this Human Train a’rolling.