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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 3

Pick Your Poison: How Humankind Could Doom Itself

A member of the species describes how Homo sapiens could go out



Matt Collins

The scene occurs very near the end (there's your spoiler alert) of what may be the best sports novel ever written, End Zone, by Don DeLillo. (The book came out in 1972, but I'm not clear on the expiration dates for spoiler alerts.) The protagonist, college football running back Gary Harkness, tells a teammate about his hobby: “I like to read about mass destruction and suffering.... Horrible diseases, fires raging in the inner cities, crop failures, genetic chaos, temperatures soaring and dropping, panic, looting, suicides, scorched bodies, arms torn off, millions dead. That kind of thing.”

The fictional Gary Harkness would love the new nonfiction book The Fate of the Species, by Fred Guterl. (Disclosure: Guterl is Scientific American's executive editor, but I'm not holding that against him.) Harkness would adore the first part of the subtitle—Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction—although he would probably be less enthused about the concluding phrase—and How We Can Stop It.

Guterl covers all of Harkness's interests and more, although the sundered limbs are merely implied. “What I'm aiming to do,” Guterl writes, “is tell some stories about real dangers we face. I won't give you a balanced view. I will intentionally ignore the bright side of these issues and focus on the question of how bad can it be.” The answer: Really bad. Not millions of dead but billions, including, of course, you and me and/or all our progeny, depending on the timing of the day of reckoning.

Guterl takes us on a tour of various apocalypses, starting with viruses, especially flu. Every infectious disease expert I've spoken to in the past two decades is terrified of a new strain that could rival the horrific 1918 flu outbreak in killing efficiency. Today we face an adjunct disease threat: wackos with radio programs telling millions of devout listeners that any public health actions taken by officials are mere smoke screens for nefarious policies. (Google “2009 flu” and “Limbaugh.”)

The book goes on to give due respect to the civilization-upheaval potential of climate change, ecosystem collapses, bioterror and artificial evil intelligence—that Stuxnet computer virus designed to mess up Iranian nuclear enrichment operations could return tweaked to take down the U.S. power grid. Any of those cases could wipe out significant portions of the world's population. And the subsequent societal breakdown would then sweep away vast numbers of the survivors. Hey, a blown transformer down the street took out my electricity for three hours last week, and I was about to start burying flash drives full of Bach for aliens to find in the distant future.

Despite the gruesome subject matter, Guterl maintains a sunny disposition. “I tend toward the techno-optimistic side of the spectrum,” he writes. “I also think optimism is our best weapon.”

I'm less sanguine. (Google “climate change” and “Inhofe.”)

Guterl also talks about the get-it-over-in-one-shot scenario, an extinction-event asteroid impact. In comes one of those Chicxulub crater makers, and we're cooked. Former astronaut Edward Lu says we could send a telescope into a Venus-like orbit around the sun that in weeks would double our information about potentially Earth-rattling asteroids. If an inbound killer rock were spotted, we would theoretically mount a mission to deflect the thing.

Lu's Sentinel Mission has to raise a few hundred million hard-to-find bucks to get off the ground. Meanwhile, as I write in early July, the National Hockey League's Minnesota Wild has announced the signing of free agents Ryan Suter and Zach Parise for a combined cost of just under $200 million. Yay.

The book's last chapter is called “Ingenuity.” As Guterl muses, “We've beaten the odds so far. To continue beating them will take every good idea.” Yet even the best ideas may not be foolproof, because, as has been said, fools are so ingenious. Many years ago I happened on a quotation that went something like this: “If all the world's oceans were filled with gasoline, sooner or later some lunatic would throw in a lit match.” The match may already be lit.

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