The Fate of the Species

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am


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The Fate of the Species
by Fred Guterl

The world can comfortably hold two billion people but we now have seven billion. So, the planet is already grotesquely overpopulated, with dire implications, according to scientist Fred Guterl.

'Among ecologists, it is a truism that a population cannot keep growing faster and faster forever. The truism is easier to accept for a bacteria or rodents or seagulls than for humans, but that doesn't make it any less of a truism,' Guterl writes.

True, we can fit low-energy light bulbs and eat home-grown food, but the risk to civilisation remains vast, thanks to our thirst for invention. 'This is mainly a book about technology, about artifice, about the unintended consequences of the success of Homo sapiens,' Guterl writes. 'What I'm aiming for is telling some stories about real dangers we face. I won't give you a balanced view ... I am going to try to answer the question: how bad can it be?' Very, Guterl says.

For starters, thanks to our plague-like species, the sixth 'mass extinction event' in earth's history is under way, with more than 200 species dying out daily. The loss of countless species could cripple the biosphere with awful results, if our immune systems are not wrecked by 'superviruses' that Guterl puts under the microscope.

Another threat that Guterl documents is a ruinous climate shift sparked by global warming. Other nightmares include a collapse of the computer systems underpinning the world economy, and nuclear war - the threat he grew up with, which whetted his interest in doom. Then there are those mutant artificial organisms called frankenmicrobes.

'We are beginning to create artificial life - call them [sic] organisms or biodevices - with technologies of molecular manipulation that will only become cheaper, faster, and more widespread, putting unprecedented power to destroy into the hands of individuals. Think of what a Unabomber-type lunatic could do now with a PhD in microbiology and a few thousand dollars worth of lab equipment,' he writes.

The executive editor of Scientific American, Guterl worked for a decade at Newsweek, covering trends in science and international affairs, and taught science writing at Princeton University. Yet despite his stellar credentials, Publishers Weekly reckons he is spewing 'Hollywood fear factory cliches'. That dig seems harsh, given that he says the book is about dystopian monsters - indulging in dread is the point.

Still, The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It could use more pace in places. It is hard to shake the suspicion that his tract could have been crunched into a magazine feature. Another blip: the book fails to fulfil the subtitle's promised explanation of how the rot can be stopped.

Nevertheless, you must admire Guterl's ambition, embodied by the swaggering title. His epic text ends with the consolation that our messy species has a knack of muddling through.