I confess: It can get lonely sometimes, being Scary Disease Girl. The universe of people who are deeply invested disease geeks is passionate (thank you, constant readers) but it isn’t that large. And let’s face it, keen interest in things that could bring an end to civilization as we know it — hitherto-unknown pathogens, rampant antimicrobial resistance, nanotechnology run amok — isn’t like to earn repeat invitations to most dinner parties.
So you can imagine how I welcomed the publication of Fred Guterl’s new book, “The Fate of the Species: Why The Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction And How We Can Stop It” (Bloomsbury), a lean and thoughtful exploration of the possible impact on humankind of scary diseases, and many other potentially bleak futures. In a series of deeply reported what-if essays, Guterl explores the worst-case scenarios that climate change, species loss, and viruses both real and digital might bring — and what steps we might take now to avert these imagined but plausible outcomes.
A necessary disclosure: Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American, where I am a columnist on contract. But the book didn’t come to me as a result of that relationship; it was sent to me by a publicist who noticed this books series and had no notion of our connection.
For the latest installment of Superbug Summer Books, I talked to Guterl by phone and edited and condensed our chat.
Fred Guterl: I get asked that question a lot (laughs). The things that I’ve been covering in the last 10 or 15 years tend to have an apocalyptic overtone – that is, the backdrop to the story is the possibility that things could go really wrong. You hear this enough, and you start thinking: “Well, what if?”
For instance, I was talking to an ecologist from the Santa Fe Institute, Jennifer Dunn, about how rapidly the human population has been rising. You know, we have 7 billion people now; when my father was born, there were fewer than two billion. The UN has this nice predictive curve that goes up to 10 billion and then levels off. And she said, “You know, that’s not what populations do. They don’t rise really quickly and then reach a steady state at the peak. They crash.” So then I thought, “Well, what could cause a correction?” And that leads to all the scenarios that I came up with.
Wired: In each chapter, you take one major potential threat, and you perform a thought experiment. You start with things which actually happened that didn’t go well — but didn’t go apocalyptically badly — and then push it a little bit further?
Guterl: I like the phrase “thought experiment,” because that’s what this is. I’m not making predictions. For instance, I start with the 2009 flu pandemic. This thing caught us with our pants down – and those are not my words, but the words of Robert Webster, the very distinguished flu virologist. He said: “We were completely surprised by this. It was just dumb luck that the virus was mild. And if it hadn’t been mild, it could have caused many, many deaths.” And when I say many, many — you know this — the 1918 flu caused 50 to 100 million deaths depending on how you count them. The population in 1918 was 1-2 billion and now we’re more than three times bigger. A simple extrapolation would put that at hundreds of millions of deaths, for a virus that had the 1918 mortality rate. Then take the mortality rate of the H5N1 bird flu, which is 60 percent. That would cause staggering losses.
Wired: How did you pick the examples, or thought experiments, that you did?
Guterl: You can report only so far, and then you have to make an informed guess of what is plausible. But in each case I tried to find people who have thought this stuff through, who have thought about what could really go wrong, and exactly how it would go wrong, and why it would happen in that way. It was kind of eerie; it reminded me of the discussions that went on during the Cold War, when people were considering what to do in case of mass casualties — when kids had to practice ducking under the desk, and people were told, “If you see a mushroom cloud don’t look at it.”
Wired: When people see my byline, they assume that their reaction to the story may well be, “Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die.” (Which sometimes is true.) I’ll admit, eliciting that reaction from your audience – or experiencing it yourself when you’re reporting – can be a psychological burden after a while. So I’m wondering how you lived with that as you were working on this book, pressing on to the next most awful scenario.
Guterl: As I was writing this book, I was at Newsweek, and Newsweek was disintegrating around me, so there was a whiff of apocalypse in the air. I left Newsweek, I started at Scientific American, I was writing the book — it was a very busy time in my life. There were a lot of good things going on, but at the same time, it was tough. And this was tough to write.
When you are trying to write a book, you follow your curiosity. You are thinking, “Well, what would happen? And then what if that happened? How would that play out?” When I started finding the answers, I kind of pulled back a little bit. I didn’t want to write a book where every chapter ends with shoveling mass graves. So in some of the chapters, I actually didn’t go as far as I thought I would have. But there were times when people would say, “So, what’s your book about?” And I would start talking, and I would see the look on their faces as I was telling them about a virus that could go from one end of the world to the other, and the bodies that would be piling up in the streets. After that, they either really wanted to read the book, or they really didn’t want to.
Wired: I’m imagining you going deeper and deeper into these scenarios, and then getting to your last chapter, where you say: “But look! There might be some ways that we can save ourselves.” It must have been a relief. But given everything that leads up to it, do you actually have any confidence that these solutions could be achieved? Some of the things you talk about aren’t not necessarily complicated, but they require a kind of open-eyed assessment and political will that are in somewhat short supply these days.
Guterl: I think they are possible, and I think they are easier to think about when you think of them as technology problems. I don’t think anything is just a technology problem. Climate change, for instance, is not something that you could say technology will solve on its own. But I think if you think about them that way, then there’s hope. If you think about everything being a political question then I just start to get really depressed. We’re better at building things, I think, than we are at making sweeping political change. So if you focus on that then I think it’s easier to be optimistic. Which of course leaves me open to being accused of being naive, which is the drawback of being optimistic. But nevertheless, I am.
Wired: When I was reading the book, I kept thinking of Robert Frost: “Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in ice.” I wonder: Out of everything you examined, do you have a favorite apocalyptic scenario – or maybe it’s better to say, one that you think is most likely?
Guterl: I don’t have a favorite. But the one that was most surprising to me is the possibility of malware bringing down the Internet. We think of the Internet as being something pretty benign, and we base our global economy on it. We don’t think of computer programming and artificial intelligence as being necessarily bad. But the kinds of things that are possible now, and are becoming more possible, when you start making software that can act on its own, with a high degree of intelligence – and the way we’re giving over our decision-making as a result – that was unnerving to me.
Wired: As we’ve talked about, most of what you write about is – potentially – dire. So I’m wondering if there’s anything you explored for the book that has caused you to live your life differently in any way.
Guterl: No — but I’m a very lazy person. What I should do, maybe, for the sake of my family, is become more of a survivalist and start stocking up on things that we would need in a disaster. But then I think, “Well, we are in this together.” I think I’ve learned to value human connection more than anything else. It’s really important, connecting with people — professionally, your neighbors, your family. I didn’t write this into the book, but it’s the main thing that I’ve thought about, the last couple of years.
This is part of an intermittent series I’m running this summer about books I like and think you should take a look at. Some of the books are directly related to this blog’s core topics; others I just think are cool. You can find my picks at #SBSBooks on Twitter.