‘The Ends of the World’ by Peter Brannen

Mass extinctions do not lend much of themselves to amusement or diversion, and admitting to reading a book about them generally returns a grimace that befits a bad smell in a small space.  Nobody, it seems, likes books about depressing subjects such as death, despite the fact that many nonfiction genres revolve around it and nearly all of them end with it.  Such books, however, appeal to me.   They are a rich source of fascination.  When The Ends of the World was put in front of me my immediate reaction was ‘I must read that’.  And I did.  And for all of its fascination (of which there was a great deal), it turned out it was actually quite depressing, in ways I had not expected.  For that, however, we perhaps only have ourselves to blame.

The appeal is simple: the planet Earth is a remarkable place.  In its evolution over billions of years, in the sheer fortune of it being so precisely placed and so precisely formed that it can sustain complex life, in its resilience and in its fragility, Earth is mind-bogglingly astonishing.  We strut about the surface of an oblate spheroid of (mostly) rock that is four and a half billion years old, and other than our own cultural history, all most of us are content with knowing is that some apes took to walking and talking, and before them were the dinosaurs.  There is, quite literally, a whole world out our feet, an immense expanse of time and life, and the occasional very bad thing, that have brought us to now.  Books such as The Ends of the World offer a glimpse into that.

The dinosaurs, as we know, lived a very long time ago until an asteroid came along and wiped them (and a lot of other species) out.  After that, as the planet recovered, mammals and birds spread themselves across evolutionary niches, and eventually there were such things as pigeons and whales and apes, and the rest is history.  But prior to the dinosaurs other cataclysms had virtually eradicated all life on at least four other occasions, effectively wiping the fauna slate clean.  The dinosaurs themselves had benefitted from such a catastrophe, as had their predecessors, and so on back in time.  Mass extinctions have shaped the surface of both the planet and its inhabitants.  They are why we are here today, and they are also why, at some point in the future, we probably will not be here anymore.

In its survey of the catastrophes that have curtailed life, The Ends of the World surveys the life that was curtailed.  Adopting an obvious chronological approach, Peter Brannan introduces and charts the development of an ostensibly alien world.  Herein lies the fascination:  a potted history of life, of how unlike Earth the planet was, and how it changed into what we recognise today.

A history of life on Earth is not an easy topic.  It is vast and strange and can either require a large leap of imagination or get bogged down in academic detail, and that is before the lack of hard evidence can be factored in (the further back in time, the sparser the fossil record).  But there are scientists out there who have done the digging and analysis; Peter Brannen is not one of them, and for this we can be grateful – as a science journalist he can render a lot of potentially confusing information and argument into something readable, corralling a narrative and making a point, a quality in nonfiction that ought never be underappreciated.

For many a book, this would be enough, but Brannan seeks not to just chronicle who and what died but how and when.  Exploring the catastrophes that ended life, Brannen discusses with remarkable precision the many related factors – the geological record and the science behind it, climate and what can affect it, the changing composition of the atmosphere and plate tectonics to name just some.  It is the inevitable multi-disciplinary invasion common to big topics; when the big picture is being viewed, it is usually made up of a lot of detail.  In a history of life and death spanning hundreds of millions of years, Brannen delivers explanations that are relevant but never loses sight of the story or the patience of the reader.

This is not to suggest a dumbed-down read.  This book is all science: just approachable and understandable.  And up to date.  It celebrates the men and women behind the science and just how much we have come to learn from them, whether we choose to pay attention or not.  And it is not afraid of highlighting changes in their thinking.  That dinosaur-killing asteroid, so easily summed up, is in truth a realisation within living memory for many of us.  Firmly established enough now that it can be rote by schoolchildren, the role of some very large, lingering volcanoes in (what is now) India indicates it cannot be taken wholly for granted.  Not everything, it would seem, is written in stone, even when it is.

As varied as the genesis of the life-ending catastrophes were – asteroids, apocalyptic volcanoes, the movement of the continents, trees – Brannen argues the resulting impact on climate were the forces that drove the extinctions as living environments – the land, the water – became uninhabitable.  Rapid climate change toward either end of the scale outpaced life and therefore almost everything, everywhere, died.  It is a bleak picture, made bleaker by the similarities to climate change today, similarities Brannen makes frequent reference to, at some length, in some detail, to an alarming degree.  This is a book about mass extinctions caused by climate change and therefore it is a book about climate change, and as impressively thorough it is about what lived when and what happened to it, it is as impressively thorough about the damage done to the planet today.  The fascination remains, but instead of ‘oh wow’ it is more ‘oh dear’.

In keeping with the book’s theme of planet-wide ramifications, Brannen draws parallels of what is happening now with what happened 374 or 295 or 64 million years ago.  It does not bode well for biodiversity.  The forecast is grim and it left me feeling we are all horribly doomed, along with nearly every other living thing on the planet. Shock tactics will not work for all, and prophecies of doom are not always welcome, but it is a side to a climate change narrative that is too often reduced to the inconvenience it will cause to us humans.  It might feel like a point is being laboured or pummelled, but perhaps it is a point that needs to be pummelled.

The Ends of the World is a thrilling history and a stark warning, a cautionary tale steeped in awesome natural history, pointing to an unhappy future (spoiler: aside from an imminent mass extinction, there is only about 800 million years left of a habitable Earth; after that it is back to barren rock; it may seem like a long time, but as with everything else, it will be over before you know it).  It is a book with a point and it makes that point in no uncertain terms – a showcase of how amazing and precarious life on Earth was, is and will be; well written, well argued, and well read.  I am not going to say it is an important book that must be read by all.  It is an important book, but not everyone is going to read it, and yet it certainly deserves to be read by more than are prepared to see what it has to say.

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