Saturday, February 8, 2014

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

So do you want to live in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world? All the latest cool fiction is doing it, so why not embrace it as a life choice? With the weight of scientific (biological, medical, atmospheric, psychological) evidence leading us to this unfortunate hand-basket theory, it is tempting to jump on. However, let me introduce you to Annalee Newitz, an author whose book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction can provide you with post-post-apocalyptic inspiration on a scientific level.

I first became aware of Newitz from the superlative science website, where she is editor and contributor, and where articles about physics or comparative global population distribution are interspersed with ones on the year’s best fantasy movies.  Like the website, the content of her book ranges from the solemn to the humourous, but with solid scientific backing and a very engaging writing style.  

For me, one of the best parts of the book is the “Preface to the Canadian edition: Moosejaw on Venus”, written for the Penguin Canada imprint of the book. Newitz has a special place in her heart for Canada, and a deep respect for the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She believes that Saskatoon epitomizes the city of the future, calling Saskatoon “a model for human survival” because of its success in dealing with a difficult climate. “[P]eople there have found ways to incorporate the latest scientific advances into agriculture and urban design without overspending,” Newitz states, which she feels can inspire other urban centres to adopt similar methods. 

As for outlining the theory of her book’s title, Newitz doesn’t just look at human models, like the Jewish diaspora, to illustrate the virtues of “scatter”. She posits “adapt” using cyanobacteria that, united, can become, as she says, "Mighty Morphin Power Ranger-like". In other words, super powerful, but expressed in a way much more fun. She advocates humans emulating the capacity for deep “remembering” that the majestic gray whale has, as a species, for international migration, with constant variation in their routes taken.  

Coming back to the human world, Newitz looks at a variety of approaches to survival. Along with mining science fiction for evidence of "pragmatic optimism" (not her strongest chapter), she also strongly advises rethinking civic planning with profound creativity. From ancient Catalhoyuk (where residents "dropped in" on their friends literally, entering the house from the roof), to underground cities, to a Waterworld-inspired tsunami-proofed model city built at Oregon State U; adaptability and resilience are key concepts that cannot be left out of planning. To round it all up, Newitz looks at the million-year plan, which involves terraforming a la Star Trek 2 but on our own planet, asteriod-crushing situations a la Deep Impact and beyond, and replacing our wimpy body parts a la RoboCop. All the cheesy movie references are my own, don't worry.  

This book has its fair share of cutting-edge scientific theories and cuttingly witty ways to express them. Here’s an example of Newitz's charm:

“If there had been a paleogeologist among the last of the dinosaurs, she could hardly have pinned the blame on her peers’ demise on any single factor. The entire ambiguous history of the planet would have to stand trial for murdering brachiosaurus and letting a bunch of little monkeys take over.” 

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly picture that denizen of the Cretaceous scolding me with one of her three front toes shaken in my direction--how fun is that?

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