There are so many ways the world could end, even in the next year, that it’s impossible not to fantasize about some of them, some of the time. The question is, what do you do with these apocalyptic thoughts? It seems to me there are two basic choices.
You can decide that the apocalypse is inevitable, so you might as well just give up hope now. Or you can decide that the apocalypse is quantifiable, and make plans to deal with it when it happens.
I was thinking about these two options a lot recently, after I read two books in a row that were basically about humanity’s struggle to come to terms with the end of the world. One, Elizabeth’s Kolbert’sThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, was a beautifully-written elegy for the many species on Earth that humans have destroyed — and a sad prophesy that we are doomed to destroy so many more that eventually we will kill off two-thirds of the life on our planet in a mass extinction event.
The other was a rather cheerful book by Lewis Dartnell, called The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, which dealt with how we’d loot cities to rebuild civilization in the wake of a pandemic. There is a certain amount of dark glee in Dartnell’s account, where he begins by explaining we’ll have to throw the social contract out the window, before we get down to forging our own weapons and restarting the calendar system.
Both Kolbert and Dartnell are convinced that we’re facing some kind of devastating, global scenario, whether it’s from a slow-burning mass extinction or a fast-traveling deadly disease. But their tactics for dealing with this information are very different.
Watch It All Die
The apocalypse that Kolbert describes is very likely already underway. She carefully explains that extinction rates among animals are far above the norm — among certain groups, like amphibians, it may be 44 thousand times higher than the typical extinction rate. There’s a lot of evidence that we’re heading into a mass extinction today, and with Kolbert we journey to the many field labs where scientists are literally counting up the bodies of the dead.
Kolbert explains that the planet has suffered through five mass extinctions before — most recently, in the millennia following an asteroid strike 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. Previous mass extinctions were caused by vulcanism and glaciations. But she believes the sixth one is likely to be very different. We can’t learn anything from these previous extinctions, she argues, because what humans have done to the planet is “unprecedented.” Humans may deserve a “special status” as creatures who cause extinctions in ways that other species don’t.
Ultimately, Kolbert believes that mass extinctions share only one feature, which is that they are caused by events so extreme and unexpected that the laws of natural selection no longer hold. Life forms cannot adapt quickly enough to their catastrophically transformed environments, and so they go extinct in ways Darwinism can’t anticipate.
With evolutionary theory thrown out the window, Kolbert is able to argue that there is simply no way to know what is coming next. And that means we can’t really prepare for the apocalypse, nor can we stop it. All we can do is watch, horrified, as more animals die from the catastrophe that is human civilization.
I have a lot of sympathy for Kolbert’s point of view, especially because she’s right that animals and plants are dying off in numbers that far exceed the typical rate. But does that mean we must throw fundamental rules of evolution out the window? If humans changed the world enough to initiate the apocalypse, as she believes, can we not … I dunno, change it so that we prevent an apocalypse too?
We Can Rebuild It!
That’s the premise of Dartnell’s book. Rather than tossing scientific principles out of his equation, he begins by tossing the social contract away. We’re going to have to do some looting and rule-breaking if we want to stay alive in the wake of disaster. But one rule is never broken: Dartnell embraces the scientific method as a way of picking ourselves up out of whatever rubble we create, in order to rebuild the world as we know it.
Even as Dartnell contemplates a future as unimaginable as the one Kolbert does, he tackles every possible problem logically, whether that’s a lack of fuel and food or a lack of health care and radio. Each chapter explores how you would take the raw materials you need out of cities to create a new world built using sustainable power sources (given that you don’t have the technology to frack) and only the natural laws of physics to guide you.
Whether he’s writing about creating your own clothes, or rebuilding our broken transit systems, Dartnell believes that humans can prepare for whatever is coming by educating ourselves. The history of science and discovery will be our guides through the apocalypse.
All of this is very hopeful indeed, and does make me want to bring some basic textbooks on medicine, electricity, agriculture, and metallurgy with me into a global disaster scenario. But Dartnell’s strategy has as many blind spots as Kolbert’s does. He assumes a rather tidy disaster that doesn’t take out all of our food sources like a mass extinction would.
Still, Dartnell’s book The Knowledge stands as a reminder that we can actually plan for unimaginable disasters — even if we aren’t quite sure what that disaster might be.
Plan for the Worst
The different approaches taken by Kolbert and Dartnell can be summed up with one word: preparation. Though Kolbert is a lot more careful to explain why her apocalyptic scenario is plausible, she does not truly believe there’s a way to change our fate. Dartnell does, and it involves thinking very specifically about what we might need in a future scenario, however outlandish.
In the end, of course, the “watch it burn” and “rebuild it” approaches to the apocalypse are both about how we approach the world in the present. Are we more interested in describing problems or solving them? It turns out that we really need to be interested in both. We can’t solve our problems, in mad scientist Dartnell style, unless we have pessimists like Kolbert to remind us of what those problems are in the first place.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She is also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.