Illustrated by Nicole Miles
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"Serious science and great gags, with a bit of hope thrown in.” –Steven Sheinkin, bestselling author of Bomb and Fallout
An action-packed look at past, present, and future threats to humanity’s survival—with an ultimately reassuring message that humans probably have a few more millennia in us.
Scientists estimate that 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Whoa. So, it's not unreasonable to predict humans are doomed to become fossil records as well. But what could lead to our demise? Supervolcanos? Asteroids? The sun going dark? Climate change? All the above?!
Humans—with our big brains, opposable thumbs, and speedy Wi-Fi—may be capable of avoiding most of these nightmares. (The T. rex would be super jealous of our satellites.) But we're also capable of triggering world-ending events. Learning from past catastrophes may be the best way to avoid future disasters.
Packed with science, jokes, and black and white illustrations, Save the People! examines the worst-case scenarios that could (but hopefully won’t) cause the greatest mass extinction—our own!
DEAR POTENTIAL READER,
This book is not for everyone. That’s a strange thing to admit when I’m hoping to sell a million copies. Because these chapters are bursting with scary but true information, some people—mainly adults, I imagine—will want to close the cover and ignore the dangers looming inside. But looking the other way doesn’t make threats disappear. To come up with solutions, we must arm ourselves with knowledge and science. (You know science, the subject that brought us antibiotics, the internet, and the recipe for homemade slime.)
Save the People! Halting Human Extinction is what I’d call “nonfiction horror,” which is probably not currently a section in your library or favorite bookstore. With the way things are going, though, maybe it will be soon. In these pages, we will examine frightening topics like mass extinction and the inevitable potential demise of our planet. Some of these events have already occurred, others will probably never happen (thankfully), still others are possible, and one is well underway. (Spoiler alert: It’s climate change.)
If you don’t like scary stories, you might be tempted to put this book down. No hard feelings. However, if you believe in the power of science and humans’ problem-solving abilities, and you’re brave enough to confront perilous possibilities, I encourage you to soldier forward. Grab a flashlight and a friend (that’s how I like to watch horror movies), and get ready to take a scientific journey from Earth’s past through today and beyond, to our questionable future. Who knows? Someday, you may hold the key to saving the people.
All my best,
IN THE BEGINNING
LET’S FIRST LEARN FROM THE PAST
“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it,” British prime minister Winston Churchill said in 1948, borrowing from philosopher George Santayana. Churchill probably wasn’t referring to the birth of our solar system or the extinction of dinosaurs, but knowing our science history is essential to understanding today’s world and today’s threats.
So let’s jump into the past and see where we came from before we look at where we’re heading. With any luck, we won’t repeat what the dinosaurs lived through.
… Actually, they didn’t live through it.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY
Buckle up! This is going to be a ridiculously quick ride through time and space, so keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. If you have questions, don’t worry. We’ll take a deeper dive into the most intense ideas once we catch our breaths.
13.8 BILLION YEARS AGO
CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A UNIVERSE!
Once upon a time, our universe began with a bang. A big one! Originally, the universe was smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, and then energy, matter, and time were created in a blink.
13.7 BILLION YEARS AGO
STAR LIGHT, STAR BRIGHT, FIRST STAR I SEE TONIGHT…
About 180 million years after the big bang, the universe got its first stars.
4.6 BILLION YEARS AGO
CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A SUN!
Our neighborhood star is obviously our favorite (don’t tell the others), and it came on the scene a whopping 9 billion years after those first stars. Before the sun became the sun, it was an enormous rotating ball of dust and gas, AKA a nebula.
4.54 BILLION YEARS AGO
A PLACE TO CALL HOME.
The leftover dust and gas that didn’t join the burning hot sun became our solar system—a collection of eight planets (which does not include Pluto), at least five dwarf planets (which does include Pluto), over 150 moons, thousands of comets, and millions of asteroids.
STILL AROUND 4.54 BILLION YEARS AGO
CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A MOON!
Earth’s first years were lifeless and harsh. Especially one day during the Late Heavy Bombardment period, when a Mars-sized rock crashed into Earth. Scientists call this boulder Theia. On impact, Theia was obliterated, and so was a portion of Earth. This crash shot debris thousands of miles into space, but over time, Earth’s gravity captured some of these chunks and wrapped them into a neat little ball. And thus, our moon was born. So basically, the moon is Earth and Theia’s child.
4.5 BILLION–ISH YEARS AGO
Earth continued to be pelted with space rocks and experienced very violent volcanic activity. Then things cooled off and got wet. About 100 million years after Theia’s impact, water covered nearly the entire planet. Some small islands may have dotted the waterscape, but Earth was definitely in its bluest-of-blue phase. Most of our planet’s surface water probably came from magma cooling (picture steam escaping as molten rock solidified). Some H2O may have been delivered from outer space via icy comets.
OVER THE NEXT BILLION YEARS
Large proto-continents (meaning: early continents) slowly appeared. Earth was no longer just H2O on the surface, but the land was barren and boring. The seas weren’t exactly exciting either, though scientists have discovered fossils from simple microscopic life that existed 3.5 billion years ago. (Sadly, no one was around to jot down the exact date life began on Earth. Go figure.)
2.7 BILLION YEARS AGO
Finally, oxygen! Pro tip: If you ever time travel, be sure not to go back further than 2.7 billion years. Or, if you do, wear a space suit with an oxygen tank. For its first 1.8 billion years, our planet lacked this gas.
1.85 BILLION–850 MILLION YEARS AGO
Geologists call this time frame the Boring Billion because Earth didn’t change much. I’m not going to argue with these scientists. Let’s move on.
579 MILLION YEARS AGO
TIME TO PRESS DEFROST.
In the millennia (meaning: thousands of years) before this time, our planet had been in its Snowball Earth phase. Ice covered the globe from the poles to the equator. This is also known as the Big Brrr! (Okay, I’m the only one who calls it that.) Ice ages happened repeatedly in Earth’s history. But after this particular cold spell, life (finally!) got a kick start.
541 MILLION–530 MILLION YEARS AGO
BOOM! AN EXPLOSION.
Things got exciting with the Cambrian explosion (no TNT required!). We’re talking about a sudden boom in life-forms! This all took place in shallow seas that covered the planet. What little dry land existed was still barren—no trees, no shrubs, no bugs, no plants, no Starbucks. Before the Cambrian explosion, life-forms munched on chemicals and absorbed energy, like sunlight. Now Earth had creatures that could move around and eat other creatures. Yum!
444 MILLION YEARS AGO
Critters of this era experienced Earth’s first mass extinction. Turns out, this will be a common cycle for Earth—new life-forms flourish, then a mass extinction presses the reset button. The planet has experienced this five times since the Cambrian explosion, and signs point to a sixth mass extinction ringing the bell from our doorstep.
(Stay tuned: much more on mass extinctions in Chapters 2 and 3.)
383 MILLION–359 MILLION YEARS AGO
Another mass extinction.
252 MILLION YEARS AGO
Another mass extinction. This one is known as the Great Dying. Because “great” is in the title, we know it’s got to be awesome.
230 MILLION YEARS AGO
HELLO, SLOW, NOT-SO-SMART DINOSAURS.
The first dinosaurs scampered across the planet. But don’t imagine Jurassic Park–type reptiles. These dinos were small, but the start of something big.
201 MILLION YEARS AGO
Another mass extinction.
66 MILLION YEARS AGO
Another mass extinction. This one wiped out the dinosaurs.
(Stay tuned: much more on dinosaurs in Chapter 3.)
2.5 MILLION YEARS AGO
MEET OUR NOT-SO-DISTANT COUSINS.
Let’s selfishly fast-forward to human times. Homo erectus (translation: upright man) was one of the earliest human species, and the first to pack their bags and venture out of Africa—walking on two feet, of course. They survived for 2 million years on this planet, which is about ten times longer than our current reign.
(Stay tuned: much more on humans in Chapter 4.)
300,000 YEARS AGO
HOMO SAPIENS! AKA: US!
Your great-great-great-great-great-great-… grandparents started roaming the planet. Scientifically speaking, this wasn’t that long ago! Imagine all of Earth’s 4.54 billion years condensed into a seven-hour school day with the planet’s formation happening just as the first bell rang. Homo sapiens would not join the class until there was about one second left in the day. We are a relatively new, invasive species in this world. We are everywhere. We are multiplying. We are taking over—it’s safe to call us an aggressive organism.
12,000 YEARS AGO
HUMANS SETTLE DOWN AND PLANT SOME ROOTS.
We Homo sapiens think we’re pretty sophisticated with our upright posture, big brains, and smartphones. But most of our time as a species has been spent as potential prey, not as dominant predators. (Though we’ve probably always fought each other for resources.) Until 12,000 years ago, we made our living hunting and gathering, with an emphasis on gathering. Then we turned to farming, which allowed us to settle down, produce more food, and advance our societies. But farming is backbreaking hard work and probably had some folks wishing for the good ole days of berry picking and mastodon hunting.
(Stay tuned: much more on the rise of Homo sapiens in Chapter 5.)
580 YEARS AGO
MORE BOOKS ARE POSSIBLE!
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Europe, an important development for bookmaking (and education and communication). Thank you, Mr. Gutenberg! Though Pi Sheng created movable type in China about four hundred years earlier. Thank you, Mr. Sheng!
250 YEARS AGO
The first industrial revolution began in a small corner of the world called England. Technological and scientific advancements moved workers from the fields and cottages to the factories and offices. Coal (a fossil fuel) became a popular option for heating homes, powering trains and ships, and manufacturing iron, steel, and other materials.
150 YEARS AGO
GETTING INDUSTRIOUS, TAKE TWO.
The second industrial revolution took off, and so did our devotion to fossil fuels, which put carbon in the atmosphere, which has affected our planet’s temperature, which may spell disaster for future humans.
(Stay tuned: much more on our love of and dependency on energy in Part III.)
75 YEARS AGO
Humans made the first nuclear bomb. Sadly, wars are nothing new to us, and battles even predate written history. But the invention of the atomic bomb suddenly made our species very efficient at killing one another.
(Stay tuned: much more on warring and nukes in Chapter 10.)
50 YEARS AGO
ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND.
On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the moon—the first non-Earth place humans visited. But decades later, the moon is still not an earthling vacation destination. NASA hopes to send astronauts (and not just male astronauts) back to the moon in the 2020s and also wants to explore Mars up close and in person in the 2030s, though the 2040s might be more likely.
JUST ONE DAY AGO.
You should really remember what happened yesterday.
Earth is home to about 7.9 billion Homo sapiens and millions of species of plants and animals. Earth’s flora and fauna live on land, in water, in ice caps, near undersea volcanoes, and on international space stations. Earth is a unique planet (at least in our solar system) capable of hosting a multitude of life. Some of it is even intelligent life, like you, me, and labrador retrievers.
WHAT DOES THE CRYSTAL BALL SAY?
Earth has ideal conditions for us to eat, sleep, breathe, and play Minecraft, but is this optimal environment going to stick around? We certainly want the answer to be “Oh, yeah!”
In the next chapters, we’ll take a closer look at the history of Earth’s catastrophes and the numerous potential threats to our planet. But let’s be honest: Earth can withstand just about anything (except what’s in Chapter 11). It’s us humans—the delicate beings we are—who require a specific environment with particular ingredients. And it’s up to us to understand (and hopefully save) this planet for our own sake.
THE FIRST FOUR OF FIVE
TIME FOR SCARY STORIES
Mass extinction: an event when at least 75 percent of all species are terminated. Poof! These are the horror stories of Earth’s natural past. Like any terrifying tales, they’re fun to hear about, but it would stink to participate in them. Scientists have identified five big ones over the past half billion years:
• Ordovician-Silurian extinction
• 444 million years ago (mya)
• 85% of species croaked
• Devonian extinction
• 383 mya–359 mya
• 70–80% of all animal species perished
• Permian extinction, or the Great Dying
• 252 mya
• 95% of marine species and 70% of land species permanently checked out
• End-Triassic extinction
• 201 mya
• 76% of species kicked the bucket
• Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction
• 66 mya
• 80% of animal species died, including all non-avian dinosaurs
While these are the big, known events, mass extinctions also occurred before 450 million years ago, like when oxygen came along and all the organisms that didn’t like this new gas died. But the life-forms of a half billion years ago were microscopic, and the fossil evidence needed to study these ancient events is hard to obtain. (But not impossible! They’re called microfossils.)
Let’s look at the first four mass extinctions here. (The dinosaur extinction, which we could argue is the most infamous, will be covered in Chapter 3.)
AKA: End-Ordovician Extinction (because, well, the Ordovician era ended)
Rank: Silver Medal! The Second Worst
What Life Looked Like Before:
If we could travel back 460 million years, we’d find a round and wet Earth, and we wouldn’t recognize much else. This is the time of the “sea without fish,” though that’s not entirely accurate. Proto-fish (meaning: early fish) swam about, but they didn’t look like trout, bass, tuna, or anything we might catch with a rod and reel today. And they were rare. Instead, alien-looking invertebrates (meaning: spineless creatures) dominated the seas. They crept and crawled along the floor of an underwater world.
Earth’s sea levels were at their highest. It was a warm and wet world with very little ice, even at the poles. Life flourished almost solely in the water, either in the vast ocean or the shallow seas across the continents. Even places we now know as Wisconsin and Siberia were covered in knee-high water. Some plants, like liverwort, may have nestled near the water’s edge, but what little dry land existed was barren.
If we could view this ancient world from space, we’d see that it was bottom heavy. All the landmasses (which, again, were mostly covered in shallow seas) hung out in the southern hemisphere. The king of the continents was Gondwana, which consisted basically of modern-day Africa, South America, Antarctica, and Australia mashed together. North America was part of the continent of Laurentia. The Panthalassic Ocean dominated the northern half of the globe.
And the differences to the modern world continue. The sun was 3 to 5 percent less bright. Earth rotated faster, with a day lasting about twenty hours. The air had more carbon dioxide (CO2) and less oxygen (O2), hence the balmy temperatures. There was no Wi-Fi.
What Likely Happened:
The last centuries of the Ordovician burst with excitement: major volcanic activity and asteroid strikes. Yet these events likely didn’t cause our first mass extinction. The popular theory for the loss of 85 percent of Earth’s species is the dawn of an ice age. Climate change! Gondwana drifted to the South Pole and became a hot spot for glaciers (well, maybe “hot” is the wrong word). More and more glaciers formed, trapping water and drying shallow seas across the early continents. Suddenly, real estate became a problem, and the water-dwelling critters were homeless.
Also, the new Appalachian mountain range formed, which led to carbon dioxide being sucked out of the air. We think of trees as CO2 gobblers with their awesome photosynthesis skills, but rock erosion also nibbles away at the gas. (Recipe: Take rocks loaded with calcium and magnesium, add CO2 captured in rainwater, and combine to create limestone.)
The general rule: The more CO2 in the atmosphere, the warmer Earth’s temperature. Less CO2 means a cooler planet. (Trust me, we’ll hear this a lot.)
When the Ordovician era’s warm-and-wet-loving creatures were thrown into a cold and dry environment, the result was apocalyptic.
• Some species of brachiopods. They look like clams, but they’re not.
• Some species of conodonts. They look like eels, but they’re not.
• Some species of trilobites. They have exoskeletons like insects and lobsters, but they’re not. Isotelus rex—the world’s largest trilobite ever—went buh-bye forever. One fossilized I. rex was over 2.3 feet long.
This extinction took out plenty of species but not entire taxonomic families. (It would be like if the giant panda went extinct, not all bears would be extinct. We’d still have polar bears, brown bears, etc.) Think of it like trimming the tree of life but not cutting off entire branches. This is a good thing. Because new species can rise up after things calm down.
AKA: Late Devonian Extinction
Rank: The Fifth and Least Impressive (or is it?)
What Life Looked Like Before:
Now we travel from the “sea without fish” (though technically not accurate) to the Age of Fishes in the Devonian period. Some of these critters appeared more fishlike, but some certainly did not. Like placoderms: terrifying, armored fish that would keep me from going even knee-deep in the water. The king of these beasts was Dunkleosteus, which could grow to thirty feet long. That’s the size of a school bus! A third of its body size was an armored head. Dunks didn’t have teeth but instead had self-sharpening blades. Its bite force is considered the strongest of any fish ever and could rival that of a T. rex. And because Dunkleosteus could open its bottom and top jaw (humans, sharks, and most other animals move only their bottom jaw), it created a suction that inhaled its prey. Dunkleosteus had no predators to worry about, except other Dunkleosteus. Maybe they fought over territory, or maybe they ate each other. It’s hard to say. But fossil evidence shows they definitely had cage matches, just without the cages.
Armored predators and other vicious swimmers made the seas terrifying. Maybe that’s why some fish crept out of the water. For the first time, the world became a home for tetrapods—animals with vertebrae (meaning: spines or backbones) and four limbs that live on land. (Hey, we’re tetrapods. Go, team tetrapods!) Also, the land wasn’t plant-free anymore. By the mid-Devonian, Earth had proto-trees (meaning: early trees), which were more like thirty-foot-tall weeds. Later came a 100-foot-tall tree called Archaeopteris that had a root system. Still, overall, the seas were more diverse and lively than the land.
What Likely Happened:
Praise for Save the People:
A SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction Text for Older Readers Finalist
A 2023 Bank Street Best Book
- *"A casual but damning account of the future of our species, bound to turn many youngsters into climate activists."—School Library Journal, starred review
- “A lighthearted look at global catastrophe. (Think The Uninhabitable Earth meets Captain Underpants.)”—New York Times Book Review
- *“This book is full of dire facts, but it’s not doom and gloom. Its lively, conversational tone with plenty of jocular asides keeps it unintimidating and accessible…Lively writing, pertinent science, and an urgent topic make this a must-read for all.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- “Stacy McAnulty has done the impossible: Writing a book about mass extinction that is a joy to read. Save the People is engaging, funny, affecting and delightful. You’ll never have more fun learning science.”—Stuart Gibbs, bestselling author of the Spy School series
- “Serious science and great gags, with a bit of hope thrown in.”—Steve Sheinkin, author of Bomb and Fallout
- "Cheeky banter wrapped around accessible science, a pages-long time line, charts, graphs, a bibliography, and extensive chapter notes contribute to this fresh take on saving our planet."—Booklist
- "What could easily come off as an apocalyptic, science-based horror story, author Stacy McAnulty instead handles with humor . . . backed by thorough research which is documented in an extensive notes section."—School Library Connection
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2023
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers