Science

Mass extinction: How humans can survive the apocalypse

Mass extinction book

A book on mass extinction happens to be one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever read. It’s oddly comforting, particularly in the time of coronavirus. If you love science, I highly recommend “Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction” by Annalee Newitz.

I’ve read this beautifully written book twice, and most likely will read it again this year. It’s somewhat ironic considering this book tackles the inevitability of one apocalypse or another causing a mass extinction on Earth. Yet it fills me with pragmatic optimism that humanity will survive, not because of some vague hope, but through science and the strategies that our ancestors and different species have employed in order to avoid extinction.

Why humans are screwed

"Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction" author Annalee Newitz
Science journalist and science fiction writer Annalee Newitz. Photo credit: Sarah Deragon. Taken from Newitz’s official site at techsploitation.com

Newitz (preferred gender pronoun: “they/them”) is one of my favorite writers. They were the founder of my go-to science and science fiction blog io9 and served as the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo.

Blunt yet highly engaging, this book doesn’t sugarcoat the apocalypse. Newitz accepts that everything they have read in science and science fiction leads to this dark conclusion: “Humans are screwed, and so is our planet.”

Facing the truth, no matter how dark, is what we need to do in order to survive.

The Big Five

A mass extinction is also known as an extinction event or biotic crisis. It is a catastrophic event that wipes out 75% to more than 90% of all species in a geological blink of an eye. Since the Cambrian, Earth has experienced five mass extinctions. The Big Five includes the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event (K-T event) that ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

A number of scientists believe that the sixth mass extinction is already underway.

Although biologists are still debating how much the current extinction rate exceeds the background rate, even the most conservative estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity typical of a mass extinction event.

In fact, some studies show that the interacting conditions experienced today, such as accelerated climate change, changing atmospheric composition caused by human industry, and abnormal ecological stresses arising from human consumption of resources, define a perfect storm for extinctions.

All these conditions together indicate that a sixth mass extinction is already well under way.

Are humans to blame?

Humans are said to be the culprit behind accelerating the rate of extinction. We have dramatically changed natural landscapes and caused climate change. Some have even called this geological epoch the Anthropocene or Human Epoch to underscore the impact of humans. Though some have criticized the arrogance of naming an epoch after ourselves and inflating our own importance. After all, human history is just a small blip in this planet’s history, and we could very well be gone in the blink of an eye.

Newitz, however, is not interested in what kind of apocalypse we will face, or what will cause. Instead, they want us to be prepared.

“My point is that regardless of whether humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, it’s going to happen. Assigning blame is less important than figuring out how to prepare for the inevitable and survive it. And when I say ‘survive it,’ I don’t mean as humans alone on a world gone to hell. Survival must include the entire planet, and its myriad ecosystems, because those are what keep us fed and healthy.”

The story of humanity

I like that Newitz recognizes that humankind doesn’t stand apart from the rest of the ecosystem. Surviving means saving a living Earth, not hunkering down in a barren world, or escaping to another planet.

What Newitz reminds us in this book is that humans have come close to extinction several times in the last million years. It is fascinating to read how our ancestors found a way to survive, against all odds. “Scatter, Adapt, and Remember” also inspires us by reminding us how life on Earth has come close to total annihilation several times. Yet somehow a few creatures survived and found a way to adapt to the new environment.

“Humanity’s story must be one of constant change because that is one way to transmute hope,” Newitz says.

We are survivors. We must never forget that.