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During a fan Q&A on reddit, Sir David Attenborough cited Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental science expose, Silent Spring, as the book that most changed the scientific community (aside from Darwin’s Origin of Species, that is) (Thomsen, 2014). The same year that Attenborough highlighted Carson’s impact on environmentalism, New Yorker journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History hit shelves. The following year, Kolbert received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Over the past 50 years, writers such as Carson and Kolbert have provided the general public with commentaries highlighting the rise of the Anthropocene, an unofficial geological era brought on by humanity’s undeniable impact on ecology and climate change.
Bryan Walsh’s End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World flips the perspective of such publications by examining the multiple ways in which mankind may one day be eliminated.
Climate change plays a smaller, yet concerning dilemma in Walsh’s book, where asteroids, bioengineered viruses, and insubordinate artificial intelligence all compete for a hand in our demise. Such extreme situations usually provide the fodder for SciFi’s latest movie or line the shelves of any bookstore’s speculative fiction shelf; End Times, however, aims to “wake [people] up to the reality of existential threats, whether from nature or the hand of man—and wake them up to the fact that we’re not helpless in the face of those threats.”
At 416 pages, Walsh’s End Times is a thorough field guide to both existential risks and the potential solutions we can implement to prevent or dampen their effects. “[Such] risks [are those] capable of putting an end to the existence of humankind, for all time,” Walsh writes. “They are the mistakes we can’t recover from, the disasters that could end the human story in mid-sentence.”
While each chapter in End Times covers its own extinction event, Walsh’s existential risks come in two main varieties: natural catastrophes such as asteroids, supervolcanoes, and pathogenic epidemics, and anthropogenic, or man-made risks (think along the lines of AI, bioengineered viruses, and nuclear weapons). Walsh, however, repeatedly underlines the ambiguous influences behind, say, climate change which is “neither purely natural nor solely man-made, but rather the product of an interaction between the mechanics of the planet and our own actions as an industrialized species.”
Walsh draws on multiple fields in an attempt to root out the source of humanity’s denial and ignorance toward existential risks.
Just as the definitions for each existential risk discussed prove uncertain by their very nature, the solutions Walsh proposes are inevitably muddied by the conflicting interests of our species. Making sense of the motivations behind the global scientific community or United States Government’s complicated relationship with nuclear weapons is no easy task; Walsh does wonders in unknotting the dizzying agendas fueling many of the existential risks explored in End Times.
Walsh draws on multiple fields in an attempt to root out the source of humanity’s denial and ignorance toward existential risks. Invoking psychological biases such as availability heuristic—our inclination toward putting the most value on what is most visible and immediate —and scope neglect, or our difficulty in empathizing with tragedies on a massive scale, End Times asserts that our seemingly indifferent attitude toward existential risk originates from an ingrained blunder in our reasoning.
When discussing man-made climate change, End Times delves into how economic models such as the “social discount rate” can explain why we “privilege the present over the future.” The interdisciplinary approach Walsh uses to capture the pervasive effects and influences behind existential risks never attempts to leave his readers behind; rather, Walsh’s accessible language attempts to inform the general reader of the multi-tiered nature of the issues he discusses.
At its core, End Times is a field guide to omnicide, or the self-induced extinction of our own species.
Thoroughly researched, the volume utilizes both studies and his experiences as a senior editor for TIME International to curtail the sensationalism bound to hover over any discussion on apocalyptic events. Whether it’s recounting how Barack Obama saved 2009 United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change from a weeklong impasse or reporting on the 2003 SARS epidemic ravishing Hong Kong, Walsh exploits in international journalism adds a first-hand authority to his arguments. The interviews used in End Times provide both an unabashed look at the global ramifications of individuals like Donald Trump, and valuable insight into the unsettling trends of entire industries.
At its core, End Times is a field guide to omnicide, or the self-induced extinction of our own species. Even when considering seemingly natural extinction events such as asteroids and supervolcanoes, Walsh stresses that humanity’s responses to these existential risks will determine our future on this planet. In fact, Walsh argues that “the most salient fact about existential risk [is that] it’s not about us [but rather] about our sons, daughters. . .all those unnamed billions, even trillions, who might come after them—but won’t, if our human story ends now.”
Despite the inevitable outcomes of certain risks such as climate change (which, Walsh claims, would create an increase in global temperature by several degrees even if all carbon emissions were to cease), End Times weaves hope into many of the challenges it presents. In describing his motivations behind writing End Times, Walsh professes a willingness to act as a catalyst for change by educating his readers of the role they play in the impending crisis: “ If I had one objective in writing this book, it’s that: wake people up. Wake them up to the reality of existential threats, whether from nature or the hand of man—and wake them up to the fact that we’re not helpless in the face of those threats.”
IMAGE SOURCES: Hachette Books (Cover); Time Inc. (Profile); Creative Commons