We live in a time obsessed with the end, even if we don’t yet live in the end times. The stillborn Mayan apocalypse, The Walking Dead, the Scavs and drones of Oblivion, Guillermo del Toro’s much-hyped Pacific Rim – and above these bleak fantasies looms climate change, an actual existential threat to the world as we know it. A recent report in Science found that current temperatures are warmer than during 75 per cent of the past 10,000 years, while another study found that 97 per cent of the academic papers that take a stance on climate change agree that humans are its cause. The scientific consensus on global warming is staggering and irrefutable. And yet it receives only slightly more attention than Dead ‘s Rick Grimes, gruff and square-jawed, ordering his people to “stick together” for the umpteenth time.
Into this disheartening maelstrom comes Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, a relentlessly optimistic tour through the myriad ways we might face annihilation and – more to the author’s point – how we might survive. Right now, she says, Earth is probably facing a “sixth extinction,” on the heels of earlier doomsdays that, over the past 2.5-billion-odd years, wiped out everything from tiny anaerobic organisms to multi-ton dinosaurs. Today, bee, bat, and amphibian populations are plummeting, and an estimated 27,000 species go extinct each year. Must Homo sapiens suffer a similar fate?
Newitz thinks not. Although she believes that some sort of mass extinction is inevitable, she also believes that “for the first time in history we have the ability to prevent that disaster from wiping us out.” She traces our species’ irritating penchant for keepin’ on, from how our ancestors intermarried the Neanderthals into obsolescence to how the Jews have survived millennia of persecution. “My hope for humanity is therefore not a warm feeling I have about how awesome we are,” she writes, sternly but cheerily. “It is based on hard evidence gleaned from the history of survival on Earth.”
According to Newitz, we face an array of dangers: we could get swept by a devastating pandemic or suffer a massive famine or be swathed in cosmic radiation. In Newitz’s eyes, some sort of serious menace to our ongoing existence is a given, even if our actual downfall isn’t. She believes that, no matter what that danger is, human ingenuity will win the day. Fundamentally, however, this leads to the book’s greatest failing: At times, it seems more sci-fi than solutions-oriented. (Indeed, Newitz draws explicit inspiration from one of the genre’s great practitioners, Octavia Butler.) A devastating nuclear war? No problem – we’ll just burrow into underground cities. An asteroid wiping out almost all of humanity? It’s cool – we’ll cram as much practical knowledge as we can into a DVD survival kit. Artificial superintelligence surpassing our own? We can always turn our own brains into software.
Overwhelming scientific evidence points to climate change as the number one threat to our species, and Newitz, a San Francisco-based science journalist, makes clear that she considers it a serious concern. “Our first priority in the near future must be to control our carbon output,” she writes at one point. “I cannot emphasize this enough.” Elsewhere, though, she hedges, perhaps to mollify the disturbing number of Americans – about half of them, by some measures – who don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming. “But even if you’re not worried about climate change, Earth is still a dangerous place,” she writes. “At any time, we could be hit by an asteroid or a gamma-ray burst from space. That’s why we need a long-term plan to get humanity off Earth.”
Wait, what? Yes, Newitz is an advocate of colonizing other planets. She also cautiously supports geoengineering – that is, intervening in the natural world to slow global warming’s effects. These ideas are ultimate expressions of human hubris, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether Newitz is truly being pragmatic or indulging in flights of fancy. Bailing to the moon when the tide gets a little high is not a coherent global strategy. Considering that NASA stands to lose millions of dollars in the current Washington sequestration battle, Cold War-era fantasies of space colonization look more unrealistic than ever. More importantly, it’s a fundamental evasion of our environmental and political responsibilities. As one dissenting source tells Newitz, “I think it’s unethical to colonize space because we’ll make a mess there as well.”
Geoengineering, for its part, is a hugely divisive matter within the climate community, and, to her credit, Newitz evinces a healthy skepticism. But she also assumes that, in some form, it – like space colonization – is inevitable. Proposed geoengineering solutions include “seeding” the atmosphere with light-deflecting particles (in order to prevent the sun from further warming the planet) or triggering huge algae blooms in the oceans (in order to suck more carbon from the air). Critics of geoengineering, some of whom Newitz quotes, worry that, since we can’t possibly know its full effects, this sort of intervention could create more problems than it solves.
Indeed, Newitz refers to the “moral hazard” that wide-scale geoengineering could create. “If policy-makers believe that there’s a ‘cure’ for climate change just around the corner,” she writes, “they may not try to cut emissions and invest in sustainable energy.” This is more apt than Newitz realizes; at times, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember is a moral hazard itself. “My point is that regardless of whether humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, it’s going to happen,” she writes. “Assigning blame is less important than figuring out how to prepare for the inevitable and survive it.” This sort of indefatigable faith in humanity’s adaptability has the effect of making the book curiously apolitical. Why is it easier to envision cities on Mars than it is to engineer practical solutions to current problems, or to collar the offenders – the companies, politicians and think tanks – that deliberately turn a blind eye to destructive environmental practices? Why adapt when we still have time – precious little time, but time nonetheless – to prevent?
In Scatter, Adapt, and Remember’s best chapters, Newitz comes back to the real world. She visits scientists who are working on turning cyanobacteria into a renewable energy source, and she imagines cities that are actual “biological organisms,” agriculturally integrated with their surrounding regions and verdant with plants, bacteria, and (yes) mold. We see Newitz at her most radical, her most utopian, but also her most grounded: here at last we are focused on the most pressing danger that humanity faces. But these chapters are over too soon, and before we know it we’re once again swept along in Newitz’s can-do current.
The real solution to climate change is not terraforming the moons of Saturn or turning the skies white with miniscule mirrors. The real solution to climate change is both blindingly obvious and, currently, politically impossible: an immediate and complete transition away from a carbon economy. Newitz clearly knows this, and says as much. The question, then, is why she spends so much time on ethically ambivalent pipe dreams like interplanetary colonization, and on recapping humanity’s (admittedly impressive) history of survival; and why she spends comparatively less time on how to deal with the massive global climate crisis that’s staring us in the eye. I suspect it’s for the same reason that we thrill to watch The Walking Dead’s zombies gnaw and groan: We’d rather live in fantasy than begin the difficult work of saving ourselves from ourselves.
Drew Nelles is the editor of Maisonneuve Magazine in Montreal.