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2012 Fall Issue 4 (October 12, 2012)

Editor for Scientific American Talks End of the World

October 15, 2012
By Alex McMurtry

In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic panicked the world for a brief time before being dismissed as being another hoax apocalypse. In his book The Fate of the Species, Fred Guterl, executive editor for Scientific American, examines what might happen if the next outbreak isn’t a hoax to be shrugged off.

As part of his book signing last Friday, Guterl spoke to a small group of Carleton students and community members explaining just how several dooms-day scenarios in the near future may prove to be more than just empty warnings. 

“[The Fate of the Species] is really about worst-case scenarios, it’s about what could happen in the near term – the near term being the next few decades – that could really spell terrible tragedies, humanitarian disasters or even extinction,” Guterl said.

The talk underscored how two factors have helped to make humanity vulnerable to possible disasters; overpopulation, and technology.

“I focused on things that we’ve created or things that we’ve brought about by our own actions or really just day- to-day existence.” Guterl said.

Some of the scenarios that he found were “deadly influenza pandemic”, “irreversible climate change”, and “the frailty of cyber systems that support much of the infrastructure in the developed world”.

Guterl first struck upon the idea for the book in his work at Scientific American. He noted that many stories seemed to have “apocalyptic undertones” that connected them.

To narrow the scope of apocalypses that he examined, he selected several possible catastrophes caused by human presence on the earth, which could be on the horizon, and “followed the threads.”

One of the most discussed topics in his talk, influenza, has been shown by the H1N1 scare to be capable of spreading across the world in a short matter of time via planes.

The major concern facing many scientists and virologists is if the next strain of influenza mutates and became far more lethal, hundreds of millions of people could die. The “super-virus” scenario also highlights the complexity of finding solutions to the problems.

Because many of these issues were borne out of science and technology, what Guterl described as the “million-dollar question” is: Can science and technology find the solutions? In trying to better understand the “super-virus,” one strain that combined both traits of transmissibility and lethality, was created under lab conditions.

This suddenly made it clear that a virus capable of mass death could be manufactured, and could potentially be used for global terrorism.

Though only one of several complex scenarios, influenza highlights some of the fundamental issues at the core of The Fate of the Species, and how grave problems are emerging that will need to be addressed.

Students who attended the signing remarked on how it is  important to bring attention to these potentialities.

“We’re all interconnect by these things and to not talk about these problems which are global problems, would just make it much harder for us to fix them when they’re biggest threats come to a head,” said Hillary Barbetta ’15.

One underlying implication of the entire talk was that many of the potential issues Guterl addressed could wind up helping to define careers of some students graduating from Carleton over the coming years.

As Eric Dahlquist ‘15 explained, “We’re going to be the ones that are solving the problems of the world and so if we see this as a problem – the issues that were outlined in Fred Guterl’s book – there is a significant probability that we will be the leaders that have to directly deal with those problems.

“So, we better be aware of those problems early on.”

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