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.
Surveying the table of contents feels like the roll call of Doomsday classroom: “Asteroid impact? Here. Volcanic eruptions? Check. Nuclear war? Thanks, your usual radiant self, I see. Climate change? Stewing in the corner over there. Pandemic and biotechnological killer virus? Thanks – please stop trying to poke each other’s eyes out. AI overlord? Check, can you please put down your smartphone? Aliens? Has anyone seen the aliens?”
Several of these topics have been the subject of book reviews here before. Walsh starts with the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs 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, the Toba volcano, the Tambora volcano, and the looming threat of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
“Surveying the table of contents feels like the roll call of Doomsday classroom.”
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, and the evolutionary trade-off between transmissibility and fatality that prevents diseases from completely wiping out their hosts.
“[Vaclav] Smil’s point about the difference in energy density between fossil fuels and renewables […] is often overlooked”
Just as Jon Gertner, he has visited Greenland’s Jakobshavn glacier (see the previous 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.
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.
“[Walsh] calls climate change “the ultimate collective action problem”.”
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. 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 these two fantastic YouTube videos from Kurzgesagt).
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.
“there is nothing to giggle about “killer robots” if so-called artificial general intelligence were to enter the loop of recursive self-improvement”
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. 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. 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.
“What of […] habitat destruction and rampant resource extraction? […] 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, or consider the recent book The Precipice which has similar but more in-depth coverage.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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