Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
17 Feb 2020
Written for Hardback
If the end of the world is something that keeps you up at night you might want to skip this book. Some might snigger at the “rogue robots” in the book’s subtitle, but End Times
is a serious look at so-called existential risks. Former foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor with TIME
magazine Bryan Walsh takes an unflinching look at the various disasters that could wipe out humanity, the people whose jobs it is to seriously think through catastrophic threats, and how, if at all, we can prepare ourselves.
Walsh starts with the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs (see T. rex and the Crater of Doom
) before turning his attention to the search for near-earth objects, covering similar ground to the recently reviewed Fire in the Sky, including the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, a visit to the same Catalina Sky Survey, and an interview with NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson. The chapter on volcanism covers the usual suspects, such as the Siberian Traps (see my review of The Ends of the World
), the Toba volcano (see my review of When Humans Nearly Vanished
), the Tambora volcano, and the looming threat of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
The threat of nuclear war is a topic that I am less familiar with, and Walsh walks you through the history of the first atomic bomb tests, the arms race during the Cold War followed by disarmament, and the recent resurgence in nuclear weapons stockpiling. Combined with the secret government war plans and the many near-misses, this makes for chilling reading.
Walsh has interviewed plenty of people while researching this book. Additionally, he draws on personal experience when writing of climate change and pandemics. He was stationed in Hong Kong during the 2003 outbreak of SARS and makes many relevant observations: vaccine resistance, the lack of investment in developing new ones (see my review of Superbugs
), and the evolutionary trade-off between transmissibility and fatality that prevents diseases from completely wiping out their hosts.
Just as Jon Gertner, he has visited Greenland’s Jakobshavn glacier (see my review of The Ice at the End of the World
). He discusses climate change tipping points, the fiendish problem of continued global warming even if we stopped emissions now, why addressing the hole in the ozone layer was easy and curbing carbon dioxide emissions is not, and why we all need to read Vaclav Smil’s work. Smil’s point about the difference in energy density between fossil fuels and renewables, and the challenges this presents, is often overlooked (see Energy in Nature and Society
and Energy and Civilization
Walsh attended the 2009 UN climate change summit in Copenhagen and it is here that he makes some of his sharpest observations on the psychology of our inaction. He notes how in Copenhagen: “no one really wanted to do all that much to slow climate change. Not if it carried any political or economic risk. Not if it could cost them their job, or restrict their citizens in almost any way. Climate change was important, sure – but not that
important” (p. 137). He calls climate change “the ultimate collective action problem” and highlights how this existential threat, uniquely, foremost affects generations yet to come.
The remaining threats – biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and aliens – all stand apart as ones that have yet to pass. He considers biotechnology becoming bioterrorism in the wrong hands the biggest threat of all, discussing at length the ethics, regulation, and double-edged nature of this kind of scientific research. He clarifies why there is nothing to giggle about “killer robots” if so-called artificial general intelligence were to enter the loop of recursive self-improvement and take off on an exponential curve (see also Superintelligence
). And the seemingly unlikely threat of alien life forms results in a chapter that nicely discusses the Drake equation, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and some of the solutions to the Fermi Paradox (see also If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... Where is Everybody?
As a reporter, Walsh knows how to write a captivating and entertaining book, even if the topic is grim. Yet I do have some concerns. I appreciate that, in tackling so many big subjects in just over 300 pages, the coverage is going to be somewhat superficial. Although he refers to peer-reviewed literature, I also noticed many references to online newspaper and magazine articles. Similarly, he seems to cite some, but not all, personal communications with people. And when mentioning the work of certain authors (e.g. Vaclav Smil), he curiously cites articles about them, rather than anything they have written.
If it seems I am harping on about this, I ended up questioning how much Walsh has relied on second-hand information for this book. Although I trust that as a reporter he can judge sources for their reliability, I worry that he sometimes misses out on subtleties. A point in case is the extinction of the dinosaurs, where he sketches as dissenters those who blame massive volcanic eruptions. Although the evidence for impact is by now undeniable, the relative importance of each remains hotly debated (recent examples of palaeontologists airing different views in their books are The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
and The Dinosaurs Rediscovered
). And the idea of a global conflagration following impact is not supported by research on fossil charcoal (see my review of Burning Planet
). Similarly, the fear of AI running rampant has its share of dissenters.
Finally, I am not sure I always share Walsh’s optimism that e.g. geoengineering will offer a solution to climate change, or that colonisation of space is the answer to an overcrowded planet. I would not want to exclude these, but I feel as much attracted to Eileen Crist’s call of scaling down and pulling back (see my review of Abundant Earth
). Which brings me to two existential threats I felt were missing. What of the one-two punch of habitat destruction and rampant resource extraction? Together with climate change, they are, in my opinion, symptoms of overpopulation accompanied by increasingly widespread overconsumption. I expect these will cause global disruption before climate change can get to us.
If a book such as Global Catastrophic Risks
seems too daunting at first, End Times
makes a great read as a popular introduction to existential threats. Where it concerns ethics and philosophy, or human psychology in the face of threats, Walsh makes some excellent observations. Keeping in mind above reservations, I would encourage readers to subsequently go deeper into the literature if any one of these topics fascinates them.