Annalee Newitz has a succinct, bittersweet message for the human race: Mass extinction is coming, and we're probably going to survive it. Whether it's manmade (a nuclear holocaust, anthropogenic climate change), earth-spawned (mega-volcanoes, a pandemic) or of the cosmic variety (radiation bombardment or an asteroid impact), there's eventually going to be catastrophe big enough to snuff out the vast majority of life on Earth.
The eventual plausibility of these events is precisely why our religion, science, and pop culture is obsessed with the end times. It's not just that it's in our egotistical human nature to perpetually imagine ourselves as standing among the last age of man—it's that there's an ironclad precedent or five for large-scale planetary die-outs. Earth has been through this before, and Newitz, who is the editor of another future site, io9, knows this better than anyone. Her book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, details the five major mass die-offs that have racked the planet in the past, and plumbs the story of the survivors of each for advice on how humanity might make it through the next one.
It seems like we're keen to obsess over the Last Days—Walking Dead is one of the biggest cable shows ever, This is the End was this year's idea of comedy, and films like Oblivion and After Earth dominate our cinemas—but we're not doing much critical thinking about how they'll actually unfold. Or how we might prepare for them.
What, I wondered aloud to Newitz recently, should humans do, specifically, to survive mass death? Three lessons from the book and our conversation seemed to bubble up to the top: If humanity is going to make it, we're going to have to emulate the most resilient proto-mammals in geohistory, listen closely to the message of Occupy Wall Street, and start engineering our globe to prepare for major climate change—right now.
Newitz first shaped the theme of her book after researching the Great Dying—the worst extinction event in the planet's history thus far. Some 250 million years ago, a series of geologic events caused a dramatic climatic shift that extinguished nearly 95 percent of the planet's life. Newitz, a self-described "apocalypse buff" nonetheless found an unlikely wellspring of hope in the pernicious chaos.
"Not only was this horrific event going on for a really long time with mega-volcanoes and other problems, but then it took, possibly, about 30 million years for the planet to recover," Newitz says. "And, I thought, how awesome is that? 30 million years of, basically, just giant crocodiles fighting each other in scum-filled sludge."
As countless plants and animals were killed off for good, a handful managed to thrive. "All of these creatures, all these plants and bacteria and sludge made it through the worst thing that's ever happened—measurably, scientifically the worst thing that's ever happened—and all of these creatures made it. And in a sense, the planet made it through. I just got interested in the tough heroism of these animals that made it."
Thus, not-so-coincidentally, learning to emulate one of those survivors is our first mass extinction survival tip. We've got to follow the Lystrosaurus's lead.
Do as the Lystrosaurus does
"It was a humble creature. Maybe the size of a dog," Newitz says. "Lystrosaurus looked pretty darn goofy. But it managed to become the most powerful animal on land for millions of years. Something about that idea that even the humble pig-face could make it through, really made me curious about who were the other survivors of these other events? And what were the tools they had that we might want if we want to survive?"
"There's a couple things that they did that humans could do too," Newitz explains, "one of which is that if there is a really horrific event that changes the entire environment, Lystrosaurus was a burrowing animal, and was able to go underground. Humans have done that periodically throughout our history—different communities of humans have had to go underground. And certainly we might have to do that again in the future, if there's some sort of radiation disaster, or some other really dramatic change, maybe something like a megavolcano or if something like an asteroid hit."
We tend to think of subterranean cities as grim compounds or sterile bunkers, but Newitz insists that we've got to start thinking about ways to make living below ground more bearable. We have in the past, after all.
"Underground cities were really quite popular in the Middle Ages, in areas where it was easy to build them. Where there was a lot of strife, and people were vulnerable to having their villages destroyed by invaders. They were like, alright, let's just build underground. These villages lasted hundreds of years—over a thousand years in one case." We're starting to venture subsurface again, to build parks like the Low Line, or transit systems. We'll have to be ready to expand again.
"What Lystrosaurus did by instinct we could do because we're tool users and such good shapers of the environment," Newitz said.
Beyond burrowing, the piggish proto-mammal was also good at something humans are certainly capable of—unrepentant cowardice and escape-routing.
"The other thing Lystrosaurus had going for him was, one: they fled upon the scene of disaster. They scattered."
Which seems easy enough, but Newitz cautions otherwise.
"Humans, I think we're often taught that if there's some kind of danger, that we should face the danger. You know, fight the war. And it turns out that's a really bad survival strategy. That actually, survivors are the ones who scatter from nature and who are brave enough to look somewhere else to live and not try to stay where they've been and not try to destroy the danger but just run away. Lystrosaurus did a great job of that."
Thirdly, there's inherent strength in numbers. The Lystrosaurus knew that too.
"Another thing that they did, which humans are doing, accidentally, is that they lived in a pretty high population size. There were a lot of them. If something terrible happened, which it did, there were still plenty of them left, even if many of them had died out. The same is true for humans."
Think of it as an anti-Malthusian ideology—in the event of a massive catastrophe, huge numbers are a hedge against extinction.
"One of the reasons I'm so certain that humans will survive, even after a major planetary disaster, is because there are so many of us. Many of the survivor species that we see in these several mass extinction events have been species like humans, invasive species, that have lived in a bunch of places, and have fled danger to find a new place to live, and there were a lot of them. So, with humans, take out like 4 billion of us, and you still have 3 billion left. Which is still more humans than lived on the planet in 1930. Which was about a billion. So we're in good shape."
Finally, Newitz notes that the the Lystrosaurus was also just plain lucky. Because it had lived underground, its lung capacity had evolved in a way that might have been ideally suited to the methane-choked atmosphere.
So, to recap: According to Newitz, we've got to follow the pig-faced proto-mammal's lead. We should hone our ability to live underground. Learn to scatter. Keep our numbers up. And we've got to get lucky, in both an evolutionary and cosmic sense.
That's the most basic stuff; the base animalistic instincts we should embrace to get by. But, seeing as how we're capable of abstract thought, after all, there are certainly ways we can organize and prepare ourselves in ways the Lystrosaurus couldn't. We can, for instance, address biblical-scale threats like famine and pestilence by building more equal societies.
"Economic inequality at the level that we're seeing it right now is totally unsustainable, and it's fatal. Literally fatal," Newitz says. "I think we can all kind of agree on that."
That's because inequality at great scale both weakens populations and renders them susceptible to disease and starvation and inspires violent conflict. Millions died during the Black Death, for instance, because the poor were herded together, and the disease was easily transmissible. And oppressive economic and social policies forced the Irish to convert farmland to cash crops during the potato famine. And this sort of societal mismanagement is still going on, of course.
"When you have economic inequality, that will cause humans to be less healthy. That's something that's really measurable and you can actually point to the numbers and say 'economic inequality caused mass death in Ireland. It caused mass death in India. It's causing mass death in parts of Africa now.'"
Messages like the one trumpeted by Occupy Wall Street, those that call for a more equal distribution of income, resources, and services, aren't just a left-leaning political goal, then—they're a necessary plank of a long-term survival strategy.
Newitz won't prescribe any particular form of government or set of social policies ("If I had my druthers, I'd probably live in a city-state," she says), though she does lambast modern politics for distracting us from science and from important survival preparation:
"What I want to suggest with this book is that we actually have the scientific knowhow and a lot of the engineering tools to create a better world right now. Which I think is something a lot of people don't realize because of the fact that we're so mired in politics, which we can turn a lot of this stuff into endless debate. Instead of being like, hey guys, we actually have this shit right now. We can do this right now. Instead we're arguing about, well, what should we do, and do we even think that the world exists, and is there evolution? So people get so mired in those questions that they don't focus on the scientific reality that we could be building self-repairing buildings, like, next year."
In Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, Newitz tours a number of examples of new technology that engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are embracing to prepare for the future—from the immediately pragmatic, like tsunami-research labs and algae biofuel projects, to out-there sci-fi concepts like "living" cities built and covered with organisms and cyborg suits that might one day allow us to telecommute to robot colonies on Titan, to the supremely contentious: Geoengineering projects that could alter the Earth's atmosphere to head off climate change.
And that's the third plank here. One lesson we can glean from every single previous planetary disaster, Newitz says, is that the climate inevitably changes. And we, being fleshy, finicky humans, can only thrive in a pretty specific atmosphere. So we've got to understand and stop climate change.
"We're heading into a period now where we're seeing climate changes going on and so given that we now have the science to understand that it's going on," she says, "and we know how to change it, we know if we reduce carbon loading in the atmosphere, that we can probably have an effect on climate change. We need to be thinking about that."
But Newitz says that simply reducing emissions won't be enough in the long term. "Let's build awesome new technologies that prevent the climate from changing so that we can continue to enjoy those ice caps we love and the animals we love to eat." She's talking primarily about geoengineering efforts like cloud or iron-seeding, technologies that some scientists believe could be used to tinker with the global thermostat. In fact, for Newitz, controlling Earth's climate takes top billing. I asked her what she would put on the top of the list of humanity's survival guide, and, after demurring that the matter was too complex for simple bullet points, here's what she said:
"Maybe the list would be: Try to prepare for disaster. One of those disasters is going to be climate change, no matter what, even if humans don't do anything, the climate is still going to change and we need to be prepared for that, and thinking about the technologies that we need to maintain he climate in its current state; because the one that it's in now is the best for our ecosystem."
This is a bit of controversial stance, especially in the environmental community—geo-engineering, or using technology to hack the atmosphere itself, is both seen as potentially dangerous and a cop-out that will encourage inaction from the global community. Critics worry that convincing the public that we can build a giant 'off switch' for climate change will leave the root of the problem—out-of-control industrial carbon emissions—unaddressed. And there's always the chance that geo-engineers could miscalculate and over-cool the planet, and usher in a manmade ice age instead.
But overall, she's truly optimistic—which may seem unusual, for someone whose life work for the past few years has revolved around mass death. Yet it's the clinical optimism of a pragmatic scientist: We're going to survive the coming disruptive disaster, yes, but billions of us are no doubt going to die. It's the species that will live on, not necessarily your grandson. This is the pattern of life thus far, after all. Even the mighty Lystrosaurus eventually died off, albeit after a much, much longer stint than we've enjoyed so far.
But humans, with their big brains and unprecedented technologies, seem at some level capable of transcending the previous patterns, and that's what's interesting about Newitz's work: this perpetual tension between humanity and our survival-ready precursors. We're smarter, maybe, but more ready to self-destruct. We're proven survivors, but we've done so without eradicating many of our worse habits—war, oppression, genocide—and we now possess technologies that could literally wreck the planet. So the big question becomes whether we're actually willing to be better at thinking ahead.
"We need to be figuring out what our long term goals are as a species," Newitz says. "What would be an ideal outcome for humanity?"
Newitz thinks it's focusing on space exploration—visiting and colonizing other worlds, which is the opposite of apocalypse, maybe. But everyone's idea of a human end game is bound to be different. So the biggest takeaway from all this apocalypse talk is that we definitely need to be talking. Not just watching apocalypse porn and reading the perpetually grim news and hoping for the best, but incorporating long-term human sustainability into our conversations, our planning, our governance.
"What we really need to be doing is not looking at lists, but be actively planning ahead for the future on a small scale, like in our cities, our city blocks."
Mass extinction may spread across the globe, but survival starts at home.
Top image: Flickr