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Endgame?

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Calving of an ice shelf in West Antarctica

Calving front of an ice shelf in West Antarctica photographed during NASA’s Operation IceBridge in 2012

A Climate of Crisis
America in the Age of Environmentalism.
By Patrick Allitt.
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Scatter, Adapt, and Remember
How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.
By Annalee Newitz.
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The Sixth Extinction
An Unnatural History.
By Elizabeth Kolbert.
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Oil and Honey
The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
By Bill McKibben.
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Apocalyptic Planet
A Field Guide to the Future of the Earth.
By Craig Childs.
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In the standard environmentalist worldview, humans—and especially American consumers—are destroying the earth, which is equal parts deity and victim. This view is always going to antagonize a lot of people, who see it as preachy, misanthropic and joyless. Annalee Newitz, a science writer and proud member of Homo sapiens, takes a different approach. Her book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember is a primer for long-term human survival, spinning a sci-fi vision of the future. It downplays human culpability and the earth’s indispensability, espousing instead a can-do optimism oriented toward pragmatic problem-solving.

Newitz begins with an overview of our planet’s turbulent history, putting current realities and forecasts in context. Though our climate is changing and we are probably in the midst of a mass extinction—with scores of species vanishing daily—Newitz portrays these events as far from novel. She delivers a time-lapse narrative of planetary metamorphosis: continental plates smashing into each other, forming mountains and spilling carbon dioxide into the sea; blue-green algae emerging and beginning to release oxygen into the atmosphere; the climate lurching between “greenhouse” and “icehouse”; species dying out in massive numbers and then, slowly, new life repopulating the earth.

Newitz explains that a frequent culprit in mass extinction is climate change, and that minor shifts can trigger a cascade of effects that can quickly tumble into catastrophe. This pattern is at once alarming—it confirms the warnings of contemporary climate scientists about our own possible future—and somehow reassuring. It casts today’s strange weather as unexceptional in a natural, cyclical process. Newitz fully acknowledges the human role in the current warming and stresses the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But her larger point is that if human societies hadn’t fouled the environment and altered the climate, some other force would—will—eventually threaten our survival anyway.

This fatalism is not bleak. On the contrary, there’s something liberating about the idea of ineluctable global catastrophe—to know that the asteroid will strike, the sun will explode, the supervolcano will erupt. Only when we think we can avert it—by driving less, installing solar panels, buying local, growing basil on the roof, attending protest marches, chaining ourselves to coal plants, getting arrested, inundating our elected representatives with phone calls—do stress and guilt set in.

“We have ample evidence that Earth is headed for disaster, and for the first time in history we have the ability to prevent that disaster from wiping us out,” Newitz writes. “Whether the disaster is caused by humans or by nature, it is inevitable. But our doom is not.” She explains that major asteroid strikes are expected to occur roughly every 100,000 years, which means “we are long overdue for another one.” She gives the impression not that we are destroying ourselves, but rather that we have gotten away with something. To Newitz, humans are exceptional not for the destruction we’ve caused—after all, climate change and mass extinction have numerous precedents—but for our unique ability to ultimately outfox the forces of global calamity.

Newitz proposes ideas to both mitigate human damage to the environment and prepare for the eventuality of catastrophe. Her suggestions range from the familiar green-agenda items (urban agriculture) to promising but unrealized techno-fixes (algae as an energy source and carbon suck) to more controversial proposals such as geo-engineering. She also advances some goals that are, depending on your perspective, either visionary or outlandish: building underground cities and colonizing other planets.

Newitz’s approach—her eschewal of dogma, her sunny confidence—might engage those who are put off by guilt trips and sermons. Indeed, a recent social science study found that raising the possibility of geo-engineering with conservatives seemed to “offset cultural polarization” and made the study’s subjects more concerned about climate change. (The advisability of geo-engineering is another question.) Not everyone, though, will share her enthusiasm for a future of riding space elevators and uploading our brains into computer software. “Don’t worry,” she concludes on her book’s final page. “As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive.”

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