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Are We All Going to Die?

Easing back into the folds of a shabby, yet comfortable living room sofa, I opened Annalee Newitz's new book and turned to page one, ready for a speculative treat. The introduction of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction is bluntly titled: "Are we all going to die?" Reading the question stoked my macabre excitement. Death, destruction, and devastation, this book was going to feed my masochism on a world scale. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an equally fulfilling thread woven throughout the pages: hope.
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As it turned out, Newitz entertained the same pessimistic thoughts as me when she set out to write the book, "Humans are screwed, and so is our planet," she originally surmised.

But after immersing herself in the scientific literature on mass extinctions, reading about potential survival strategies, interviewing hundreds of experts, and traveling the world, she realized that our species may not be fated to nonexistence.

"I emerged from my research with the belief that humanity has a lot more than a fighting chance at making it for another million years," she writes.

But it won't be easy. Over the next 10,000 centuries, humanity may have to contend with earth-shattering asteroids that could cloud out the sun and choke us with poisonous gases, self-inflicted global climate change that may disrupt vital food webs and agricultural systems, ozone-damaging cosmic rays that will render us vulnerable to space radiation, and megavolcanoes that could, counter-intuitively, spark a global-cooling event.

How will we survive such a menagerie of death? For starters, our cities probably need a redesign, Newitz asserts. We'll likely need to transition from cities built without consideration of their environmental impact, and instead create living, "self-healing cities that look like glowing ruins and sprout food and power from every surface."

Still, biological cities won't save us from megavolcano eruptions, cosmic ray bombardment, or asteroid collisions. If any one of those devastating scenarios does come to pass, humanity may very well have to cede the surface for a time, and move underground. There, in carved tunnels, civilization would linger, protected from the harsh existence of the surface above. We'd sustain ourselves on insects, mold, and fungus and do our best to soldier through the damp, dark, monotony. Nobody says it will be easy, but we'd survive.

Of course, there's an option far more preferable to retreating underground, and that's shooting for the stars. "All civilizations become either space-faring or extinct," Carl Sagan once said. Newitz agrees.

"We'll strike out into space the way our ancestors once struck out for the world beyond Africa. And eventually we'll evolve into beings suited to our new habitats among the stars."

Millions and millions of species have existed and perished throughout our planet's 4.54 billion year history. Out of our efforts to explore and learn, we know what problems beset our defunct ancestors, and we can take steps to and remedy those situations. To live, we must learn. And once we learn, we must do something even more difficult: put those teachings to use.

A good first step, I think, is to read Newitz's book.

Source: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Annalee Newitz