A fine scientific explanation of our abuse of the natural world that, despite the subtitle, does not explain how to stop it.
Scientific American executive editor Guterl begins by discussing mass extinction, a process that has occurred half-a-dozen times over life’s 2.5-billion-year history, eliminating up to 90 percent of species. The survivors thrived, and the current mass extinction (already in progress) may not eliminate the human species, but the consequences will be dismal. With frequent detours into discussions of terrorism, the author describes the science behind a dozen potential disasters provoked by a combination of sheer human numbers and technological advances. Deadly plagues are inevitable as microbes jump back and forth between animals and humans; if these natural mutations don’t produce a superbug, genetic engineering (perhaps by a clever terrorist) might do the same. Guterl portrays global warming, now under way, with vivid specifics on rising sea levels, melting ice caps, vanishing fresh water and increasingly unstable weather. Widespread famine predicted by doomsayers isn’t yet happening, but food prices are rising. The obligatory hopeful finale mentions eliminating carbon-based fuels, doing without energy-consuming conveniences and living in harmony with nature—though the author admits these measures are unlikely to be undertaken. Dramatic advances in genetically engineered plants and animals, atmospheric coolants, small-scale local, energy-efficient agriculture and massive carbon-sequestration will work when they arrive—but none have arrived yet.
Aside from too many lurid terrorist scenarios, this is an intelligent account of the mess we are making of the planet; the unsettling conclusion: that humans may survive because we are resilient, not because we can fix matters.