It was weird reading this during the wake of Hurricane Harvey. There was a heavy focus on natural disasters in this book and, well, it was hitting too close to home.
I picked this book up because I wanted to see her ideas on how humans will do it. Because, right now, I’m not so sure we can. I also was hoping she’d give me a reason why we should survive. It always seem inherent that humans deserve life and that is what I am not so sure about.
Newitz says “If humans are going to make it in the long term, and preserve our planet along with us, we need to accept that change is the status quo.” But she barely touches on the fact that change could mean us no longer being human. Though she does touch on it.
The first 10% is just detailing the earth’s history to give context to mass extinctions, often humorously:
“Today we worry that cow farts are destroying the environment with methane; back in the Proterozoic, it’s certain that algae farts ruined it with oxygen.”
But most of the time, this recounting of extinctions before humans read more like the story of Genesis — something I didn’t care too much about it because so much of it is still so vague and unknown to really be helpful. But I can see how talking about them was necessary to prove that extinctions aren’t anything new and so we should be looking out for them. If we understand how they work, maybe we can prevent one.
But I’m also a bit concerned with the lack of prevention explored in this book. She more so lists human-made disasters that weren’t prevented (but could have been, had we been smarter) than gives solutions on how we could stop them. At the end she tended to accept the fact that we’re going to destroy the planet and we’re not going to stop so we need to learn to adapt to the mess we’ve created. Nevermind voicing an opinion on how carnism and pro-natalism are killing us.
And, at first it seems she’s flirting with the idea of colonialism (expanding to other planets). She doesn’t abruptly put her foot down, but she does eventually direct us toward how betting on moving to space can be colonialist. CAN BE.
Um, no, it is. And we need to stop before we start.
She acknowledges fears of the sixth mass extinction and how ours is happening too fast, but then she quickly moved on. Never mind giving reasons to stop those extinctions. It’s not us yet.
I liked it when she explored our language on neanderthals and how, when we speak about them, it can almost sound racist. She handled that very well when she came to it. DNA is also a topic that is explored and how complicated it is.
It’s here that we start to really focus on humans in the book. The plague is dutifully mentioned.
Interesting thing I learned: “Of all the forms of mass death we’ve looked at so far, famine can be understood as the least natural of all disasters.”
And so on. And at this point I was getting frustrated because all this time she had been talking about extinctions but not how we prevent it or accept it–or why we are worth saving, really.
“And yet, if history is any guide, the humans of tomorrow will be nothing like us–their bodies will have been transformed by evolution, and their civilizations by the kinds of culture-changing events that have already marked human history.”
She then uses science fiction examples–mostly using Octavia Butler a lot…
Basically only Octavia Butler.
Because Butler is probably the best example of speculative apocalyptic bounce backs.
But Newitz does not address to my satisfaction why we should plan to prevent the worst. Why are humans worth saving? After all, a die-off created us. Extinction allowed US to form. Why should we deny that of another potential species? Also, there have been other catastrophes we did not plan for and it seems we got along just fine. Was that her point? I didn’t see a convincing argument here for change, just an exploration of inevitability. No prevention needed.
Toward the end she finally starts to really explore how humans could next evolve/adapt and why space colonization is not a good thing:
“‘I think it’s unethical to colonize space because we’ll make a mess there as well,’ she said.”
And then she touches on — with only a few pages to spare — how uploading ourselves or becoming more cyborg-like might be how we adapt. Well, duh. That or, you know, we could stop killing the planet right now.
“Because Bostrom believes this future of superintelligence and uploads is inevitable, he’s convinced that we won’t got to space at all. We won’t want to…so instead of exploring outer space in fantastical vessels, we’d use robots to dismantle every object in space…”
While this book is almost like a brief history of the apocalypse, it doesn’t explain well “how humans will survive a mass extinction.” She is not radical enough–not in her actions of entertaining possibilities and not in her conclusion.