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Apocalypse Never: Outsmarting Humanity's Impending Extinction

A conversation with io9.com editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz, whose new book argues that humanity has a fighting chance to survive the next mass extinction.

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of the science and science fiction website io9.com and the author of the new book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, about how humanity might survive a mass extinction. A resident of San Francisco, she recently spoke to us about soft apocalypses, the surprising power of storytelling, space elevators, and Star Trek's blueprint for solving the City's housing crisis. She will be appearing on June 8th at Writers With Drinks at the Makeout Room.

This book has a really gripping topic—the science of mass extinctions on Earth and how humanity might escape the fate of so many previous species. How’d you land on this topic?
I’ve always been fascinated with apocalyptic stories. I though maybe I’ll try to write a hard science version of a disaster movie. The worst disaster ever is mass extinction. But I set out to write a very different, much darker book, about how we were all doomed.

So, are we or are we not doomed?
I didn’t really understand how mass extinctions worked. The more scientists that I talked to, the more I realized that these mass extinctions are really complicated and that there are always survivors. The good news is that humans have the characteristics of a survivor species.

Like what?
We’re very adaptable. We can live in a lot of different environments and eat a lot of different things. When you have these kinds of disasters, where over 75% of all species die out, they’re almost always caused by climate change. So coping with changes in the environment and food supply is important. Another thing is that there are a lot of us—seven billion. The animals that tend to survive are invasive species with a high population size. That’s us.

You argue that we have an extra advantage—storytelling. What do you mean?
Humans have access to information that no other species—that we know of—has had. We have stories. They are an extra tool in our kit. We can share information about survival strategies. Instead of coming up with them on the fly, we can let someone else figure it out and then read about it. It’s much easier.

So what does a mass extinction look like?
There is a lot of persuasive evidence from geologists and environmental scientists that we are in the early stages of one right now. We can’t be sure, because these events often take a million years to shake out. But we may be 15,000 years into one. It’s connected with climate change, which is no surprise to anyone who reads the headlines. If a mass extinction were to be happening, what it will look like is the climate will heat up and the oceans will become more acidic. As animals and plants begin to die out, you won’t see the spectacular carnage that you’d expect. You’ll see starvation. Famine. Science fiction writers talk about a soft apocalypse. Something that happens so slowly that it’s almost unnoticeable unless looked at with a longer time frame.

We could be living in an apocalypse and not even know it?
I think we do know it. That’s what’s hopeful. We are living in an apocalypse that’s unfolding, and we’ve actually figured it out, and we are takings steps to remedy it. For a lot of people we’re not going fast enough. But if we’re only 15,000 years into it, we have time to remedy climate and extinction issues. I don’t think it’s going to be easy.

So let’s talk about survival strategies. One that caught my attention in the book was the space elevator. Could you walk us through that?
Well, that’s a speculative idea. It’s a hundred years away. But basically the space elevator is a way of thinking about sustainable space travel. Right now we use rocket fuel that is very expensive and polluting. If you want to have a civilization that isn’t dipping its toes into space, but treats it the way we use the ocean right now, you need a way to get people off of the planet on a regular basis that doesn’t cost a lot or pollute the world. The space elevator would pull people off of the earth using a kind of a port in space, a counterweight holding a long ribbon that sets down at the equator on earth. And you would have robotic sleeper cars. It would take you a while to get up there—it’s 60,000 miles long, so it would take about 3 days to get up. Once you reached that counterweight, which would be like a little city, you could take ships to the moon, to the asteroid belt, or to large structures we’ve built in space.

What’s cool about this idea is that it’s actually plausible, not just science fiction, right?
NASA helped develop the idea. There are actual scientists and engineers who worked on it. It’s physically possible—and it reminds us that we need to be thinking about technology that seems speculative now to prepare better. Maybe this idea won’t come to fruition, but another one will. That’s why it’s worthwhile to have scientists thinking about far future stuff, and not just what we do tomorrow.

So let’s talk about the day after tomorrow? What are our cities going to look like?
We need to rethink how we build them. Cities need to be sustainable and robust against disaster. I’ll give you an example. There are a number of architects who are thinking of how to incorporate synthetic biology into city design. For instance, there could be self-healing materials, which are partly made of microbes that, when exposed to heat, could fill in cracks in cement or a ship’s hull.

Or cracks in the Bay Bridge?
Yeah, exactly. Where a piece of infrastructure starts to crack, it would be able to heal before a disaster happens. We’d probably want it to set off some kind of alarm to let you know, though. Maybe it would turn another color. You’d be able to see the crack like a scar, so that engineers would know that this part of the bridge needs shoring up, but in the meantime it’s healing itself. It’s more sustainable, since we’re not building things up and then ripping them down.

Did you see the new Star Trek movie?
Of course! [Laughs]

What did you think of the San Francisco skyline in it?
Well, there was a lot of high-density housing. High-density housing is great. But something that’s weird about this new Star Trek was it had a much uglier, darker view of cities. It was almost Blade Runner in certain parts. That particular Star Trek movie may not be a good template for a future. But, you know, it’s still nice to see San Francisco with more high-density housing. Because, God, we need more high-density housing. So at least that part gets it right.

Your book is so much more Jetsons than Blade Runner.
[Laughs] I didn’t really grow up with the Jetsons. I grew up with Ecotopia, which is set in San Francisco. I’m imagining kind of cross between Ecotopia and the Jetsons. Like we build Ecotopia and then we go to space. Growing up in the 70s, I guess that’s what happens to your brain.


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