How humans will survive a mass extinction

Our review of Annalee Newitz’s book, ‘Scatter, Adapt, and Remember’


What makes life on Earth, our only home (so far), so lively is exactly what makes it so deadly: the planet’s inherent instability. Over its 4.5-billion-year history, Earth has been smothered in greenhouse gas emissions, choked by ice, bombarded by cosmic radiation, split open by megavolcanos, and—as if the planet’s own dangers weren’t enough—hammered by the neighbours, too, in the form of that dino-killing asteroid 66 million years ago. In the last half-billion years alone, there have been five mass extinction events. Each time 75 per cent or more of all species died out in less than a million years, a geological blink of an eye. In one, the cheerfully named Great Dying, the species death toll hit 95 per cent 252 million years ago. One way or another, rapid climate change, too fast for most creatures’ adaptive reactions, was always the culprit.

Ninety-five per cent, however, is not 100, as Newitz stresses. There have always been survivor species, and from our earliest evolution humankind has borne the marks of one. Like sharks, another great survivor, we are natural wanderers (the Scatter of the title); who will “eat any old crap,” as Newitz sums up the human and shark diets (Adapt). Lately—the last 100,000 years or so—we’ve added something even more useful to our survival kits: memory. We know what’s happened before and what will surely come again.

And that’s where this engaging account of past catastrophes becomes arresting. If we’re going to last long enough to get off this murderous hunk of rock—the ultimate scatter—we will need to give up our mindless fossil-fuel addiction and our ecological dreams of restoring untouched nature (since it’s nature that’s trying to kill us). We have to actively manage the planet, argues Newitz. And from geoengineering to regulate sunlight to crafting living cities, half-constructed and half-natural, we’d better get going.

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How humans will survive a mass extinction

  1. This is what bugged me so much about the last two elections, when it was generally noted, “there is more to government than AGW”. The msg being that global warming is only part of the problems and solutions of running society, and that the CPC compensated for the lack of addressing AGW in other ways.
    But this isn’t true at all. We need to solve each of these risks; we can’t even screw up one of them. And they are correlated: you are most at risk for tyrants and technological Nazi-worlds when you lose control via AGW projected forward. So if the problem is Neocons: dump them. If the problem is Chrsitian or other religion’s fanatics: dump them. If the problem is AB/SK, blow up their pipelines and trade routes. I don’t like having to consider using a future pandemic to attack a Neocon future dystopia, but I care about this world, not what some hallucinating humans millenia ago taugh or wrote.
    I need time to learn this stuff and we elected a bunch of stuff-grabbing children a majority.

    • Shrill dystopian hystericalism, no more based in science than the “Chrsitian or other religion’s fanatics” (sic) so feared by the author.

      • My point is, she is ignoring the man-made extinction risks in projecting forward. This book and any on topic discussion here are pointless.
        The biosphere is full of WMDs. We will need to live in rotating space colonies we build from planetoids and the Oort Cloud, or will we live in preemptive sanitariums and prisons on Earth under much tighter watch than in space. People will choose space and freedom. To really avoid the Orwellian world you will need to be stupid. Part of getting there means limiting the power of said fanatics and said individuals such as our PM and the SK Premier who pander to them.

        • We are going to to need an engineering aptitude for quite some time because it is a big galaxy and universe of surprises. All major religions fail badly here at suggesting how to channel progress.
          ex., for AI risks, we might make everything out of materials that aren’t semiconductors, or perhaps coat everything with a sensor surface. When someone or a robot goes out of bounds, to soil for instance, it will be necessary to ensure a mentally healthy human (in the 23rd century sense of the term) or humans are there to enforce. But you can’t scatter unless you can be sure the colonies don’t make AI and that they all have a mature neuroscience with associated sensors (thought police). It seems a lot easier to hang around the Solar System for now and there is more margin for error if a human or robot escapes a rotating colony…it will take them a while to get to an asteroid compared to an escapie from some AI-inert bunker on Earth.
          Anyway, keeping taxes low and forcing potential thinkers into deadend job didn’t work in the USA and it won’t work here. Reading the Bible over and over again hits both of the wrong sides of that safe channel of progress.

          • Towards the end of the Cold War, the USA realized they were in the same pickle they were in at the start of the thing: they couldn’t keep the lid on WMDs and WMDs grow in efficacy over time in an open society, even with a massive intelligence bureaucracy. So they opened up capitalism even more, hoping for more students to get fed and figure out solutions. But all we really got was Bible thumpers growing richer. The petro players tend to come from an inefficiently too-religious background, and this is reinforced the more markets for oil open up and the more oil isn’t nationalized. Also the products of oil are static generally (recyclable thermoplastics notwithstnading) while a progressive manufacturing sector like Ontario’s are forced to innovate. The Joint Chiefs of the 1970s did not count on idiot red States and AB/SK/interior-BC ruining things by using the media to make people even dumber. Now I’m wondering just where to draw the line; if there is one in combatting neocons. Or, should WMDs be used to depower North American Bible thumpers before colonies in space? Annalee’s little scatter is a libertopian strategy that kills us unless she thinks we can come back and conquer. I think for every time more than once you’ve read an religious text, you should be forced to read three other humanists texts, some non-WMD science or drop a rank in power. Better than scatter as a strategy for AGW mitigation.

          • It is generally understood by defence officials who’ve thought about this, that we will need Arms Control treaties with enforcement, for different sectors/technologies by different deadlines. They are overly confident in their own loyalty/sanity and unsure how to prepare the United States public for such property infringements. Probably something like the the spiders from “Minority Report”, were they only to be looking for WMDs, would work for searching for clean rooms, which might be very small indeed (used to make computers). This would work until maybe 2075, but there might not be a risk until afterwards and the facilities might be not needed or too hard to find after then.
            I could tell Annalee came from California. The Jetsons and Bay Area philosophy was okay at the time but did not combat big oil from the 1980s onwards because of too much anarchy/market-forces/libertopia. As soon as the USA switched strategies to an open society, AGW disproved their new tack and they are still fighting big oil and media. If Annalee really wanted to be helpful here she would pluck my clock.

  2. When AGW happens badly enough, we will lose the division of labour that enables police raids and military strikes, and we will have rely on either on buggy robots or we will let future WMDs diffuse to terrorists. This is the tax rates you idiots chose through three elections.

  3. A problem with the scatter is we can’t let pan-scatter WMDs/ideologies be created. A super-smart-but-not-ethical brain made from a carbon black asteroid, for instance, would try to wipe out all nodes. So it is best to solve these risks first. I figure if we start off by only scattering around our Solar System’s planets, we only incur some of the independant node risks while using many of the Earth-system-utilized safeguards against risks that would wipe out Earth but might leave the gas giant’s moons intact.
    Here, it would be really nice to have Chretein’s GAI and Dion’s carbon tax. Not helped one bit by the tar and finance profits; I’m not some geriatric pensioner looking FW to heaven.
    What you are really saying is you want people like me to work dead end jobs and do a half-assed job here, and you want to get even more laid and fed and landlordy.
    Solve the pan-node risks before you scatter or use the Earth defenses for a limited radius scatter: the NSA can surveil Mars. How far will quantum encryption relays go, assuming harvesting asteroids or Lunar impact Brechia?

    • No one has time to learn all of these degrees and get paid for it. The mentally ill parasites ruin the welfare coasts. Canada chose half-assed solutions instead of having monopoly banks and retarded petro: share. The RIM quantum computer R+D would be the long-term type Harper just cut. Maybe CSIS can give China the RIM intellectual property password?

      • Know what I wanted to learn yesterday that I learned today: salt affects the viscosity of clay. Know what I will miss out on next week? Either a wetlands book or a microbiology book. Yesterday I learned (a couple jokes) you grab crappy bags of grain with your thumb and pointer knuckle and not your finger-tips.
        You guys are crying about the world falling into the hands of rapists and polluting idiots when you helped this happen already. Enjoy your untaxed intenrational flights from your consciouses; consider the tropics a preview of AGW.

  4. So, your solution also leads to an AI one of the nodes applies to wipe out every other node unless one of the other nodes is able to travel fast enough and win militarily in time, to disarm the WMD-enabling node…
    What you need are physiological experiments in space to determine mental health and such…is why I lobbied for Garneau. Some of us have a memory of a god-ordained Rapture and many of the people who work in the NSA, CIA, and under the Chiefs of Staff, sometimes the Prez, are of this ilk? Again, they wouldn’t keep power in a bad enough pandemic nor would the CPC. Your not smart enough to find away FW nor brave enough to learn yourselves smarter. Your market forces are a dead end. Your religion is a dead end. Your scatter is a dead end.

  5. To be clear, my partial solution is to put the 18th century scottish or train existing WMD info guardians to be the 18th century scottish, in charge of future WMDs and sensor their mental stability and give them happy humanitarian outlets and upbringings/reeducations. Then use quantum encryption to keep it under wraps along with strike abilities against the hackers before they can uncan what they’ve hacked. Scatter as define takes potential future WMDs away from the CIA/RIM built quantum encryption network here. How do you prevent the scattered nodes from developing WMDs?? Write a book about blowing up oil pipelines and about using oil in future renewable petrochemical products. What I remember is how hard it is to fight Skynet. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.

  6. We need a mind division of labour where only certain people have access to certain levels of power. We need to define brain states that lead to utilitarian faculties, and we need to develop sensors for the general population that only look for WMDs. We need to clear away all the mentally ill noise and all the zealot ideologies away so first responders can kill or rehabilitate WMD terrorists. We need to learn how to check this power if that is desired (check it too much and aliens might wipe us out). This is for starters. We don’t need a GOP inspired anarchist scatter. That nuclear option fragments one problem into many problems

  7. It is easier to use communications to solve WMDs than to use transportation. This is why Dieppe was about stealing an Enigma Machine and not a jet blueprint. Even if we could scatter now, we’d be stuck with our Cold War mindsets. We should instead, instead of electing leaders who use marketing tools to maintain power, empower leaders who use marketing tools to create 18th century humanists designing a 25th century world. They will need time, so this whole system of keeping petro wealth in the idiot Province is broken.

  8. …sensors of all types are manufactured goods that Ontario would be well positioned to R+D unless AGW wrecks the global supply chain. Human trials of new sanity implants and drugs would be well-positioned here unless are debt is too high to fund it.

  9. Here’s the thing: if you can figure out what to do about my stupid sense of humour, how will you stop a stupid mass extinction?

  10. Zero point energy quantum encrypted communications relays might not decohere. Have you considered sweeping out the hydrogen atoms of a channel in space and using zero point energy to maintain quantum encryption? You’d have to have enough redundancies not to set your superfluous to bare bones utilitarianism mines off; the civilization reset on a rotating space colony is certainly safer using a lower level of engineering competance than is living the good life. Unless we have a good science of a safeguard that is an alternative to our brain behaviour or not too enhanced brain behaviour.

  11. I see two distinct environments: planetoids and rotating colonies. The materials of the colonies can be surveilled easily. The materials can be controlled easily. Planetoids house the potential for WMDs. Surveillance will have to be intrusive in or around our brains. We won’t live on Earth except in an emergency. The planetoids will be the lifeboats, not Earth. We will all be living on rotating colonies. Physics experiments will detremine what the easiest WMDs are. Probably an AI robot that can get to a mine. So we lay down Earth sensors and leave it be free from robots and people. We can’t sensor Earth but we can maintain an orbital quarantine and save the biosphere for other animals. If we want the ability to respond to alien threats, the mental faculties, we have to realize the Nazi and Soviet and American aerospace technologies represented the end of Earthlings in the long-term. We can surveil artificial space station against AI, against computation. And our bodies. Maybe one century, with a honed counter-AI technique, we can go back. I’ll miss you all so very much. But not really.

  12. We need to learn the Drake Equation and GUT/TOE and build a large observatory, after we get these surveilled colonies and safe tyrannies, if not before. With the DE and GUT and observatories we will have an estimate of alien WMDs. The Drake Equation will require simulating the capabilities of alien brains.

  13. The Keystone Garter. with his many posts and nary a reply, seems to represent the sound of one hand clapping.

    • That’s because no one understands what he’s talking about.

      We’re not even sure he does.

  14. The vision of Jaques Fresco featured in the acclaimed Zeitgeist film series is an option worth considering. It appears profits are now the mortal enemy of progress.

    • That’s nice dear. Wear a sweater.

  15. I still see value in the book as she has enough engineering and there is a lack of long-term forecasting in capitalism. We can still visit Earth under max security I suppose. But part of being able to plan for the future involves the capacity to dream of and build WMDs. I’d still think a human brain, perhaps with some tweaks, is still safer than AI or an alien brain, given our 1st hand appreciation of neurosciences vs buggy software.
    In the future the Earthlings will be animals like Wiley and Wolfie. The Indians were right and the Catholic conversion I lie. I for one, welcome our coyote overlords.

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