The Ends of the World

In this non-fiction account of the last five apolayptic scenarios our planet has endured, Peter Brannen writes in lucid detail in The Ends of the World about what led to each of them and, potentially, how we might be entering a new apocalypse of our own making.

The Odorvician, Devonian, and Permian mass extinctions, where more than 80% of all species were annihilated, share some common themes, according to Brannen. First, it’s almost never a single event that kills off a species or causes mass extinctions. Second, these events are attributable to our biosphere’s relationship with carbon dioxide. Whether that’s giant trees that caused one of the first ice ages, or whether it was a Russia-sized volcano that almost ended life on earth, it’s the world’s relationship with carbon dioxide that’s paramount to keeping the biosphere in balance.

One of my favorite notes that Brannen consistently makes is how the world as we know it is temporary, fluid, adaptable:

We take for granted the shape of our world and the position of the continents—the familiar geography that seems as eternal as the order of the planets. But this arrangment is temporary: it isn’t how the planet has been and it isn’t how it will be. This ever-shifting world map has major implications, far beyond cartography. The accidental orientation of the continents has a profound influence on life.

Another fascinating point that Brannen makes (of which there are really too many to count) is when he describes how large areas of research are underfunded and unspoken of because of how unsexy they are, rather than as to how interesting and useful the science might be:

When the listless brachiopod is compared to a dinosaur, an animal whose blockbuster appeal is immediately apparent, the retort is quick from those who study marine invertebrates of the sort that mucked about in the prehistoric seas: anyone can love a dinosaur, but it takes a true diehard to appreciate the life—if one can call it that—of a brachiopod.

This book has been swimming around in my thoughts for the past week as I’ve been reading it and it’s ended up in almost every conversation, too.

Earlier today I headed over to Emeryville to grab coffee with Charlie Loyd, inventor of one of my favorite websites (I’d recommend loading that one in Safari on a desktop if I were you because oh boy it’s a big website). Although he doesn’t seem to publish much, I think Charlie is one of my favorite writers on the “climate crisis”, as he described it, and the barrage of problems we’ll be shortly facing if we don’t dramatically change gears economically and politically.

We talked for a couple of hours and at one point he dryly said that “eventually humans will be living in a sustainable way.” Implying of course that we get to do that the easy way (we change our economic policies to prevent an apocalypse in the future) or the hard way (we don’t do anything and our species potentially goes extinct or so many of us are destroyed that the rest get to live happy lives without us).

The conversation was fascinating, but towards the end I asked him how he feels about this stuff. About Climate Change. The Big Double C. And he looked out at the rest of the café – all of a sudden I was aware of the electricity pulsing through the walls and the jukebox and all of the materials that had been dug up so we could talk and drink comfortably, the sheer weight of hundreds of years of pillage and plunder of our world just so that we could share a few moments together like this – and he held the pause another long second, thinking.

Suddenly he said that he wanted to make the climate crisis “an enemy rather than an anxiety.” This is a thing that needs to be fought, to be beaten. The climate crisis is not a puzzle – there are people in the way. Enormous economic and social policies need to change for us to continue as a species. For us to live here, happily, soaking up the Emeryville sun and drinking coffee.