End Times by Bryan Walsh

End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World     By Bryan Walsh Hachette, 2019

We would all act to save a life in danger, writes foreign correspondent and former Time magazine editor Bryan Walsh in his new book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, and some large chunk of humanity would band together to save itself from the existential threat of, say, an approaching asteroid, or so we’d like to think. “By the same token,” Walsh writes, “shouldn’t we be even more motivated, even more desperate, to protect the future generations who would take their turn on Earth - provided we don’t destroy it all now, or let it be destroyed?”

Giant killer asteroids are just one of the existential threats Walsh examines in these pages. He travels the globe and interviews specialists of all types in order to explore the potential threats posed such things as asteroid strikes, the eruption of supervolcanoes, nuclear war, or some new rampaging plague. His chapters range from threats that are unfolding right before our eyes, right now, in the present-day news cycle (catastrophic climate change) to hypotheticals as familiar as they are far-fetched (hostile space aliens), and of course in the 21st century he also includes some thoughts on the possibility that human-created artificial intelligence will rise up and throttle its progenitors.

All of it is written in an engaging style that is by turns inviting and slightly irksome. The well-worn tactic of American feature-writing, the inclusion of copious narrative and ‘atmospheric’ details about the author’s legging around researching the book, occasionally rings a little tinny here, given the book’s subject matter; the cranky state of a rental car’s air conditioning seems like a bit of distraction laid alongside the threat of thermonuclear annihilation. And the book’s many stretches of evocative prose can sometimes start to slip out of our author’s grasp, as in the description of the earliest moments of a nuclear explosion:

At 0.053 seconds, that perfect bubble begins to lose its clarity, becoming diffuse and unfocused, as if overwhelmed by its own energy, while the inferno at the surface expands, gouging out the earth below. At this point every living thing within a radius of a mile is dead, or will be soon. At .10 seconds, the blast looks like nothing less than a halo ringing the head of some Renaissance painting of Christ, as the exposure itself begins to degrade. The atomic heat has made the air glow luminous, as the force of the shock wave expands outward, shredding the matter in its path. Everything is ravaged, everything is burned.

“Everything is ravaged, everything is burned” is of course very strongly worded, but even so: Renaissance paintings of Christ don’t have heads, or haloes, and “luminous” is about the only way the air can glow, just as “outward” is the only way a shock wave can expand. 

Walsh consults with the wisest, most experienced people in the various fields of study touched by his worst-case scenarios, and as such experts have been doing since the dawn of modern science, they spend a good deal of effort at the tricky task of simultaneously describing and downplaying the magnitude of their respective monster threats. Supervolcanoes have exterminated all life on Earth before, but there’s virtually no chance of them doing so again any time soon; asteroids have likewise been massive life-killers, but there’s a chance humans could see one coming and band together to stop it or divert it; AI might have nightmarish powers, but it wouldn’t be so rude as to actually use them, and so on. This is the nature of disaster-books like this one (which have increased in number since 2016, go figure): like any cheesy horror movie, they seek to alarm and assure at the same time. After all, most of what’s going on in these pages are simple thought-experiments, right? 

Perhaps its for this reason that the book’s chapter on the possibility of a new pandemic is one of its most specifically engaging: here we have an actual tangible threat, something that, as Walsh points out, humanity has been combatting for the whole of its time on Earth:

This is the paradox of infectious disease as an existential risk. Nothing has killed more human beings through history than the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause disease. Not natural disasters like earthquakes or volcanoes. Not even war. By one estimate half of the human beings who ever lived were killed by one disease, malaria, which still knocks off nearly half a million people per year. Epidemics have been mass killers on a scale we can’t begin to imagine today. 

Millions of humans die from infectious diseases every year, and the collateral costs for the living are equally astronomical. The SARS epidemic alone cost the global economy $80 billion, and thanks to the unchecked expansion of both habitat despoilation and intercontinental air travel, the whole human population is increasingly vulnerable to pathogens they’ve never encountered before. Walsh describes many terrifying and outlandish threats to the species, but in the end, nothing along those lines is more frightening than a flu virus that’s just 20% tougher than the ones we have now. 

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.