05.18.13

It’s the End of the World but We’ll Be Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it, but the futurists feel fine. A new book explores the history of mass extinctions and how the human species can survive the next one. But will we survive?

It might seem improbable that ancient stories could teach us about modern problems like global warming. But contemporary schemes to arrest global warming by geoengineering the earth’s atmosphere often contain echoes of classical myth. First there’s Phaëton, who drives the sun’s chariot across the sky for one day, loses control of the horses, scorches vast tracts of land, and is killed by Zeus’s thunderbolt before he could burn down the world. Next there’s Icarus, who flies too near the sun on wings of wax and plummets earthward after they melt. The classical consensus seems clear: hubristic humans who intrude on the sun’s domain die hot, horrible deaths.

Trepidation about tampering with the cosmos can’t be dismissed as just a vestige of a simpler time. Even today, proponents of plans for solar management acknowledge the grave risks of such projects. Scattering particles in the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, for instance, might cause uneven cooling, with some areas of the planet growing colder as others become even warmer. Atmospheric scientists have run simulations that suggest altering the sun’s rays could cause the rapid acidification of the oceans. And there could be entirely unexpected effects that turn out to be more dire than the outcomes we can anticipate.

Even scientists optimistic about the prospects of geoengineering are reluctant to voice their hopes too publicly. “It’s as if a scientist had some good results while testing a cancer cure in mice, and we started telling kids, ‘Hey, it’s OK to smoke, we’re about to cure cancer,’” says Tim Kruger, who heads the Oxford Martin School’s geoengineering efforts.

Kruger is one of dozens of scientists, futurists, and philosophers quoted in Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember:  How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.  Newitz, a journalist and the founding editor of the science website io9.com, has written a book that speedily surveys mass extinctions in Earth’s history and samples some of the schemes and strategies by which humans might escape wholesale obliteration.

The futurists she meets are full of bold predictions and technocratic optimism. One wears a medallion around his neck with instructions on how to freeze his head cryogenically in the event of his death. They are members of grandly named organizations, like the Future of Humanity Institute, but they envision futures familiar to any fan of the Terminator movie franchise or Avatar. In one scenario, humans invent computers with superhuman intelligence that either save us from disease and climate change or decide to annihilate us. In another, we upload our brains, convert them into software, and experience sublime adventures in virtual worlds. After our bodies die, our minds could be downloaded into new bodies; even if the earth were destroyed, humans would persist as digitized avatars.

Newitz’s futurists don’t entertain one important speculation about the future: that fantastical projects may grow increasingly extravagant the more we damage the climate and ecosystems that sustain us. A more earthy breed of futurists thinks biological engineering will transform cities and save us from extinction. They imagine biological façades for houses and buildings, some designed to capture water, others adept at processing human waste. Glowing bacteria might live in our ceilings and light our homes, while algae bioreactors could supply food and fuel. In their vision, urban chicken coops and rooftop gardens are just the first glimmers of the transformation of cities into biological organisms.

If these ideas sound more like science fiction than science, that’s not necessarily a reason to discount them. As Newitz points out, the design for a space elevator that NASA considers most viable to enable human migration into space was partly inspired by a description in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Fountains of Paradise. An international team of scientists and inventors is now working to develop a space elevator.

Scientists define a mass extinction as a period of less than two million years in which at least 75 percent of species go extinct.

What unites these projects and speculations is the conviction that humanity must radically evolve or relocate entirely to survive beyond the next few hundred thousand years. Scientists define a mass extinction as a period of less than two million years in which at least 75 percent of species go extinct. Newitz’s survey of the five mass extinctions in Earth’s history supplies a host of reasons to worry: gamma-ray bursts, asteroids, and mega-volcanoes have all contributed to mass extinctions in the past. What tends to be even more disruptive than these initial events is the climate damage they cause. Consider the Great Dying, a mass extinction 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian period in which almost 95 percent of species died. The initial cause was probably a Siberian mega-volcano that spewed highly reflective sulfur particles into the atmosphere. These particles scattered light and caused rapid climate cooling. Glaciation then exposed huge deposits of frozen methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The rapid vacillations of climatic conditions were deadly to most forms of life.

There’s also a precedent for one form of life rendering the climate unlivable for countless other species. When cyanobacteria evolved photosynthesis about 2.5 billion years ago, they released so much oxygen into the atmosphere that many of the life forms adapted to a carbon-rich environment gradually went extinct.

Newitz interviews a vast and eclectic swarm of scientists, but the results are often superficial. She seems to quote a new expert on a new subject every few pages, but she rarely delves very deeply into any single topic. She does make a persuasive case that, between natural disasters and human-caused climate change, the earth could easily become uninhabitable for our current bodies at some point in the near future. What is less convincing is her buoyant optimism about our odds of survival. “When I think about my post-Homo sapiens offspring, frolicking with their robot bodies in the lakes of Titan,” Newitz writes, “I hope they remember us as brave creatures who never stopped exploring.” Maybe this is just how our robotic offspring will remember us. Then again, maybe she is simply spinning a comforting myth of infinite human progress in an age when older myths about our finite nature might be worth remembering.