Review of A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FUTURE
A non-sensational take on the future of earth and humanity
I’ve read several books detailing the impacts of climate change, how fast we will destroy the planet, or how things aren’t that bad and technology will save us. Which is correct? What will happen because of climate change? Certainly, the planet will warm, many places will become hotter and dryer, but some much wetter, sea levels will rise, and hundreds of millions of humans will need to migrate in the coming century. But nature will not end, even if we do.
In A Natural History of The Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species, Rob Dunn provides, in my opinion, the best overview of what our future holds for humans and the challenges we’ll face assuming we continue business as usual. Applying basic “laws” of biology, Dunn explains the impacts of growing cities, deforestation, and mono-agriculture on species evolution, how climate variability will impact extinction, and what our arms race with antibiotics hold.
The common view of what life is, Dunn shows, is incredibly limited. We often forget that the most visible life – us, mammals, birds – is a spec on the larger tree of life, which is mostly comprised of bacteria. Even the most extreme climate change is unlikely to wipe out life on earth given that bacteria survive in environments that are extraordinarily hostile to humans.
So, what about us? Despite the perception that humans are able to survive in a variety of climates, the human niche is actually quite narrow and unchanged across our evolution – if anything, it’s become more narrow over time. Future humans, therefore, face many challenges in the near future as a result of our misuse of the environment. Humans have evolved in a period of extreme climate stability, and our institutions are dependent on this stability. But the future is going to be variable and extreme. Whether our civilization can adapt is still an open question.
What is more, in the past ten thousand years, we have destroyed our water systems, reduced crop diversity, and broken natural systems of co-dependence. We are attempting to correct for our environmental destruction with technology. Although necessary in some respects, Dunn explains that conservation is actually a much more economical and stable strategy for the long-term. We are becoming better at replicating complex ecosystems that we and other animals have long depended on, but we create close replicas, not perfect ones. It’s nearly impossible to replicate what millions of years of evolution has created.
A Natural History of the Future is filled with fantastic insights about what scientists have learned about ecosystem evolution from speciation in cities, to building corridors for animal migration to home to new environments as the climate changes, how the creation of crop islands reduces resilience to climate variability, and new strategies for combating antibiotic resistance in medicine.
Dunn provides the most interesting book I’ve yet read on the natural science of humans’ impact on the earth and what it means for our near-term future, with numerous practical implications of how we can adapt to our changing climate. He also provides a cool app reference where you can see what the climate of your current city will be like in 60 years assuming continued high emissions – your environmental twin. Below is what Salt Lake City (where I live) is predicted to be like in 60 years: 10.5 degrees F hotter and 74.9% drier in the summer. What will your home be like?
Published: November 2021
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
The Physics of Climate Change by Laurence M. Krauss (2021)
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard (2021)
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (2020)
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