Humanity's Future: Envisioning the Worst Case Scenario

News | February 24, 2012

Fred Guterl is the exectuive editor of Scientific American and a speaker at the Affordable World Security Conference, coming to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on March 27–28, 2012. He spoke with EWI's Thomas Lynch on potential environmental crises and how they can be addressed.

I’d like to start by addressing your upcoming book The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause its own Extinction and How We Can Stop It.  In the book, you consider whether humanity is currently undergoing a “mass extinction event.” Well, are we?

Many scientists think so, but there isn’t enough evidence to make an iron-clad case. The book is then a bit of a thought experiment. A lot people think we’re getting in some hot water the way things are heading on our planet. Behind the headlines, you see oblique references to things that could happen in the worst case. You read about climate change, things like bird flu or crop monocultures. So I decided to put the idea in the foreground and examine the notion of what the worst case scenario could be.

If we are headed for a “mass extinction event,” how long would it take?

When you look back on previous extinction events, they seem to have taken place over millions of years, but we don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. It is possible some of these mass extinction events took place very rapidly—not necessarily over a weekend but over a span of time that is meaningful for human beings. You could argue that, if we are in the middle of an extinction event, it might have started 14,000 years ago with the Pleistocene extinction of large mammals. Following that is the impact of agriculture, coming up to the present industrial age when we began pumping carbon dioxide in the air, and you are seeing many effects now. 

Would the development and use of technology then be the driving factor behind such an event?

Our species has been tremendously successful and we have technology to thank to that to a large degree. If we are going to get out of the mess we’re in, technology is going to play an important role. Some tend to be close minded because they feel technology has caused many of our current problems, which is true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should reject all technological solutions.

Can you provide an example of technology being used as a solution?

I’ll give you a dramatic one. It’s an indisputable fact that the planet is warming. How much it’s going to warm in the future is not known. How the planet is going to respond to rising temperatures isn’t known either. It is possible the planet could respond very badly in 10 to 20 years and, if rising temperatures became a crisis, one option that has been looked at it is releasing sulphates into the upper atmosphere to form a kind of haze that would temporarily lower temperatures.

This actually happened following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, where it became two degrees cooler for a couple of years. A few scientists have posed this scenario as a potential measure of last resort. Of course, these people have trouble getting funding, and some people reject this kind of geo-engineering out of hand because it could be seen as an excuse to continue polluting unabated. You hear these arguments a lot.

What policy actions internationally and nationally can be created to address these issues?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy prescription, but for that geo-engineering case it would be helpful to fund research to determine, if we had to do this, what would it involve, what would the risks be, would it work, what would the consequences be, etc. Knowing the answers to those questions would be helpful.

For the Affordable World Security Conference your panel topic is human safety and sustainable security. How do you see sustainability influencing security policy?

Broadly speaking, human populations are growing very quickly. If you look back to the beginning of the century you have something like a billion people and then when I was growing up in the late 50’s there were about 3 billion people; the U.N is expecting 10 billion before we top off by 2100. So we have this huge ramp up in the last 100 years—an exponential growth. I think we are just now starting to see the impact in terms of climate. We ramped up agriculture to feed all these people, created conditions for new germs to come along, and so forth. If an ecologist looked at population of bacteria growing that quickly, he would say that can’t happen indefinitely, and at some point that population is going to crash.

The population can’t just grow and then level off?

The population could level off, but it could also go down suddenly. We don’t want that to happen, obviously. What is the right number of humans on the planet? Gretchen Daily and Paul Ehrlich did a study in 1994 and they came to the number of 2 billion. It was practically a back of the envelope calculation, but that is a lot less than the 7 billion people we have now. The point is, if that’s where we have to be, we don’t want to get there too quickly. If the human population crashes, the security implications are huge.


For Twitter updates on these issues, follow Fred Guterl: @fredguterl and the Affordable World Security Conference: @AWSConference