Why Humans Will Survive The Apocalypse | Live Wire Radio

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of Gawker's science fiction/fact blog, io9, and author of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction. On our 218th episode, Annalee read an essay about how to survive an apocalypse without the help of Bruce Willis. That essay, and her reading of it, is below. 

Why Humans Will Survive the Apocalypse
By Annalee Newitz


So I've spent the past couple of years writing an optimistic book about the end of the world. Before you get excited, I should just tell you that I have no advice about zombies. I'm interested in real-life threats called mass extinctions. That sounds like the title of the next Will Smith movie, right? MASS EXTINCTION. BRRRAAAM. But it's actually a scientific term of art.

A mass extinction is when over 75 percent of all species die out in less than a million years. That's fast in geological time. Over the past billion years, there have already been five mass extinctions on Earth. Most of you have probably heard about the most famous one. 65 million years ago, an asteroid hit the planet and just ripped the shit out of our atmosphere. As a result, almost the entire dinosaur population went extinct.Anyway, let me get to why I'm optimistic about all this. There's strong evidence that humans would survive a mass extinction. Here's why.

The animals who make it through planetary disasters tend to be adaptable and live at high population sizes -- just like humans. Whatever our flaws, you can't accuse us of having a small population.  We can also adapt to pretty much any crazy environment on Earth -- as well as environments in space, beneath the ground, and under the water.

In fact, our incredible adaptability puts us in league with some of the planet's greatest survivor species, like bluegreen algae and sharks. Both species survived more than one mass extinction. They did it by living everywhere and eating whatever crap they could. Which -- again, just like humans.

But here's what humans have that sharks and algae don't. We are able to learn from the past, including the deep geological past of our planet. For example, scientists now know that most of the previous mass extinctions on the planet were caused by climate change. Volcanoes or asteroids ripped the planet apart, sure. But the real damage came from the way these events loaded the atmosphere with carbon and other poisons. Sometimes it caused an ice age. Other times, the oceans went acidic and the climate got so hot that lots of species died out. Unlike sharks, humans are in a position to understand the dangers that await us. And, even better, we can do something about it. Already many governments are funding programs to develop alternative fuels that don't load the environment with carbon. And startups are experimenting with  new technologies that help small farms produce fertilizer and grow food in a carbon negative way.

But humans are also polluting the environment in unprecedented ways. We're driving many life forms extinct. Plus, we're getting more efficient at killing each other every year. Do we really deserve to survive? It's easy to get judgey when we're talking about the future of humanity. People who hate the death penalty will cheerfully say that the entire species should be consigned to extinction because we are such bloodthirsty, carbon-barfing creeps.

But if you think that humans are the first creatures to destroy the planet's atmosphere, you are suffering from a species-level delusion of grandeur. Billions of years ago, those blue green algae I mentioned earlier caused a climate apocalypse. They did it by farting out so much oxygen that our methane-dominated environment became oxygen-dominated. Only the creatures who could breathe oxygen made it through. It was pollution by oxygen – much like today's pollution by carbon. Meanwhile, there is strong evidence that ants, chimps, and even dolphins go to war with each other. My point is that humans aren't the biggest bastards on Earth. We're in good company.

Like every other animal who ever lived, humans have a will to survive that has nothing to do ethics, culture and beliefs. We're not going to survive because we deserve it. We're going to do it because we're adaptable and there are a lot of us. Take out 6 billion humans and you still have a billion left.

For me, the question is what our survival will look like. Homo sapiens could survive a radiation disaster by moving underground, and eating mold for the next millenium. Or we could survive by planning to mitigate disasters, and by preventing deadly events from reaching mass extinction proportions.

So . . . will we be eating bugs in the ruins, like Will Smith in his next disaster movie? Or will we build carbon neutral cities, and eventual explore the spaces beyond our planet's puny envelope of atmosphere? That's up to you. Right. Freakin. Now.