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The Fate Of The Species – Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, by Fred Guterl (executive editor of Scientific American) is a good book, but I was terribly disappointed with it. It’s too damn nice. Guterl makes a good case that humanity is on, even over, the tipping point toward extinction, but he does so with the pleasant equanimity and quiet objectiveness of a lepidopterist pushing pins through a recently living butterfly and sticking it in a box.

Pinning a buttergly

Earth and humanity compared to a butterfly pinned in death in so many ways.

Picture from Insects of Iowa.com

Considering the danger of extinction of the human species as very real I was hoping for something more passionate about our impending doom. I expected something more like Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God. Please mentally replace the word God with Nature and it reads well.

“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.”

The sermon is an hour long but the whole thing is furious with the coming wrath and revenge for misdeeds. Nature of course doesn’t have emotions, and yet its change of behavior as we destroy our source of sustenance might easily be felt as a god-like fury by humanity, when it does arrive.

The subtitle of The Fate Of The Species – Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It — appears to give us some hope. But, as the book develops, it becomes obvious that any hope that humanity has is based on many decisions to go in directions that are at present absolutely odious. The biggest decision would be to quickly and voluntarily reduce the human population to a more sustainable number, but that is anathema at present. He spends considerable ink on how to ramp up population, none on how to reduce it, as if feeding a couple of billion more people will somehow solve our problems. It is obvious that an increase in population would place even more demand on our world’s other resources. He palms off these population thoughts onto Gretchen Daily on page 182, and observes, “If this is the path, let us hope we move down it slowly and by choice, rather than quickly, by imposition.” That sounds reasonable but if the people already alive, let alone the projected and accepted increases, are bringing on disaster in the many ways he discusses, the nearly inevitable solution is a catastrophic drop in population by a very nasty imposition by natural processes. A slow return to two billion people, as he suggests, would take centuries, and with various pollutions such as CO2 rising rapidly, and even with the population we presently have, a gentle decline is far and away too slow.

The disasters Guterl discusses may well exterminate humanity. Perhaps the most horribly effective of them would be militarized diseases. It may already be possible — in fact it may have already been done — to make a flu virus which is 100% deadly to humans and highly contagious. If that disease was nonlethal to wild birds it could be spread world wide and if the virus could live permanently in birds and the remaining humans couldn’t develop immunity, that would bring to completion the tragedy of our species’ lack of forethought.

When murder and research are highly paid,
Set high as proper things for men to do,
Then all should know, there’ll be uncalled for deaths,
With suffering moms and dads and young girls too.

How strange that we are known as homo “sapiens”,
When our most brilliant children plan our demise;
A noble god says “That group gets no paeans;
Early death be theirs!” What else can we surmise?

Why do we claim ourselves to be so wise,
When we so simply fall dupes to fools’ ploys,
Unable to see through their simple guise,
Or spot the naive tricks that they employ?

It’s for the common good that we must strive,
For all are victims when foul research thrives.

Climate change is apparently inevitable if we keep pumping pollutants into the atmosphere. The effort to curtail those pollutants has met with resounding failure, because everyone living wants to have a better standard of living and that means consuming more fossil fuels. A horrendous climate catastrophe probably wouldn’t bring about human extinction, but it would bring civilization to a horrendous change and perhaps total collapse. Our species might well survive, but be living as hand-to-mouth farmers in the not distant future.

Guterl seems to think the world’s 30,000 or so atomic bombs, currently held at the ready by humanity, don’t figure into our future survival even though the subtitle  includes, “Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction“. This is so blinkered a view I can’t comprehend it. Instead of covering that morbid possibility he goes into depth about Stuxnet, and GridKill and other potentials for computer malware that can destroy much of the infrastructure of civilization and perhaps reduce our productivity to half or even one hundredth of its present level. That would be dreadful, but it isn’t the end of civilization or of our species, and it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for humanity in the thousand-year view, because it would reduce human impact on the planet.

This was a pleasant enough book to read. It is well written by what should be a fully informed man on these problems, the editor of Scientific American, but by the end of it I felt the book was counterproductive. Yes, this book does more harm than potential good, and the reason is simple enough: it soothes the fear that we are in deadly peril. It fosters hope where there should be desperation. The author puts humanity into the mood of the Fool stepping over the cliff into certain death and oblivion.

The Fool from Rider-Waite Tarot deck

The Fool from Rider-Waite Tarot deck

If you have solutions, don’t waste time reading this book, but work on the solutions.