The Fate of the Species – FAQ

What is The Fate of the Species about?

Every day in the news we hear references to scary, apocalyptic things that could happen. In this book, I’ve taken them on directly. It’s a bit like sitting around a campfire. You hear a sound in the woods. You don’t know what’s out there, because it’s dark, but you can’t help wondering what it might be. This book is kind of like sitting around a campfire, except we’re sitting with scientists, who know a lot about what could be out there. We’re asking them, what monsters might we have created, and how bad could things get?

Who should read this book?

Anyone who wants to understand the technological world we’ve created, and who cares about our fate. I cover a lot of ground here–paleobiology, ancient climate, computer malware, plagues and pandemics, and biowarfare. I’d like to think that this book serves as a good primer for keeping up with the news. I’ve also tried to make it, believe it or not, kind of entertaining.

Why write this book now?

When my father was born there were fewer than 2 billion people on the planet. There are now 7 billion. The effects of such rapid growth tend to lag the growth itself, and we’re beginning to see them now, in the impact we’re having on the planet, in the vulnerabilities of our high-tech society, in the natural environment.

We hear a lot about how our lifestyles aren’t sustainable, the different resources we’re on the cusp of using up, and how we’re headed for doom in the next few decades. After writing this book, do you agree that we’re in trouble, or are these fears overstated?

We face existential problems. But oddly enough, writing the book has made me more optimistic. When you try to ignore your fears, your imagination makes them worse; you grow more fearful. When you shine the light of day into those dark corners, it has the opposite effect. You begin to think that maybe humanity can beat the odds.

Do people fear the same things–scientists and the public, government and the media?

Sometimes our generals worry more about our enemies than about our weapons, which can be destructive on their own. Public health officials certainly worry more than the public about things like influenza, because they know that even though it’s a familiar pathogen that it can be potentially destructive. When you know a lot about something, sometimes you see where our vulnerabilities are.

Jared Diamond famously called agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Is there anything we’d be better off if we’d never invented?

I don’t come at this from the standpoint of regret. We are who we are, we are an inventive species, and the problems we have now are problems of our own rapid success. If we had to design a way to sustain a world of 7 or 10 billion people, we wouldn’t come up with what we have now. But we are stuck with it, and we have many mouths to feed. We have no choice but to invent ourselves out of the situation we’re in. I think we can.

Would you care to venture a prediction for the fate of the species? Are we going to continue living largely the way we do, or will there be a seismic change?

We can’t live the way we do now with the systems we currently have in place. There has to be some change. However, I don’t think we’re going to have to go back to relying on candles for reading or backyard gardens for growing our own food; much “back to nature” thinking is just unrealistic. We’re going to have to make some fundamental changes in how our civilization runs–how we produce energy, how we feed ourselves, how we interact with the planet. These are tough things to do, but we’re clever.

What was the best part of researching and writing this book? What was the worst?

The best part was the feeling of tackling a subject that is on many people’s minds, and approaching it in a unique way. Things can be pretty gloomy, when you obsess about them, as I have. I couldn’t have done it without keeping a healthy sense of humor. I’ve often thought of a line of Saul Bellow’s in The Adventures of Augie March: “That’s the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up.”