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(Randy Quan)
(Randy Quan)

Elizabeth Renzetti

When the Big One comes, my vote’s for survival Add to ...

It’s been a busy time, so you’ll be forgiven for failing to celebrate Emergency Preparedness Week, which just wrapped up across the country. Conservative MPs announced this year’s theme, “Make a Plan,” earlier this month at the Atlantic Storm Prediction Centre. (Why they weren’t warned about the approach of Hurricane Duffy is a great mystery.)

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I know what you’re going to say: You’re too busy having emergencies to actually plan for one. And I would answer: Disaster is a serious business. Emergency preparedness weeks are like Christmas for people like me, who always have one wary eye on the future. As a child, I was fixated on the possibility that nuclear war would bring our world to a fiery premature end (an underreported threat to this day.)

I was a doomsday gloomster before it was cool to airlock your basement and fill it with beef jerky. My copy of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth nearly fell apart. I arranged for a showing of If You Love This Planet at my high school, and sat biting my nails in the dark with a handful of other freaks who dreaded the impending apocalypse instead of the much more likely tragedy of the prom.

Later, I moved to Los Angeles, where disaster is a metaphorical and literal industry. (The film world’s obsession with catastrophe might have to do with the fact that rich Hollywood executives are surrounded much of the year by brushfire and earthquake and landslide.) The bumper sticker on my car read, “Emergency Preparedness: It’s an L.A. Thing!”

Truly, it was. Each year, the city hosts a vast Emergency Preparedness Fair, where scientists and salesmen from various disaster-prevention industries gather in a park. At one, I chatted with a cheery seismologist who was trying to educate the public about earthquakes. “I wonder if the Big One is really going to happen,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. He smiled broadly. “Oh, it’s not if,” he said, “it’s when.”

It’s heartening to find this neurosis shared by others, and not just the stars of the hit show Doomsday Preppers, who seem to spend most of their time devising urine cocktails for end times. In her new book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, American science journalist Annalee Newitz writes, “For most of my life I’ve been obsessed with stories about the end of the world.” She set out to write a book about how humans are on a black diamond run to extinction, until her research turned up something unexpected – “a single bright narrative thread that ran through every story of death. That thread was survival.”

Instead, she wrote a book (reviewed in Saturday’s Globe Books) about how humans just might survive various catastrophic scenarios: extreme climate change, pandemics, asteroid strikes, nuclear war, mega-volcanoes. For one thing, living creatures have managed to outlast five mass extinctions. About 250 million years ago, for example, there was the Great Dying. That sounds like a bunch of aging newscasters coming together to colour their hair, but in fact it was a climate-change cataclysm that wiped out perhaps 95 per cent of the species on Earth.

So what will save us from going the way of the mammoth and the Neanderthals? Ms. Newitz believes in our capacity to run away from trouble (possibly to other planets), to pass on stories of successful survival strategies and, most important, to adapt our own troublesome behaviour: “Human beings may be experts at destroying life, including our own, but we are also tremendously talented at preserving it.”

To that end, she looks at some of the best hopes for future, from the far-fetched – space elevators, uploading human consciousness to star-sized computers – to the “geo-engineering” going on right now to combat global warming, from solar deflection to using algae for carbon-dioxide removal. (This is particularly welcome in a week that provided overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is caused by humans.)

In the not-too-distant future, Ms. Newitz writes, we might be living in cities that are not so much concrete and glass as algae and biofuel, cities that “heal” themselves and breathe. As one of the urban designers she interviews says, “We might start to experience the city as something we have to take care of the way we take care of our bodies.”

Of course, that’s the ideal outcome. We might also be shivering in sprawling underground cities under a blanket of nuclear winter, a less pleasant possibility she also explores. We may even be able to survive that, although boredom and claustrophobia and the proximity of family members in a kind of hellish, never-ending, turkey-free Thanksgiving would make it a fate worse than death.

Cheerful futurism is less popular than it used to be. If you believed the bestselling writers from a few decades ago, by now we should all be wearing disposable paper clothing and piloting flying cars.

We’ve since screeched down a darker road. Optimism is less thrilling than dread, and zombies are more fun than engineers. As novelists like to say, “happiness writes white.” For that reason, Ms. Newitz is bound to have many detractors. Considering the alternative, I think I’ll take her side.

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