Book Review: The Ends of the World, by Peter Brannen

Because it’s not the end of the world until it‘s literally the end of the world.

Perspective is important. It helps us cope with the bad times, as well as reminding us to keep our egos in check. The world existed long before we arrived, and it will exist long after we are gone, too. The Ends of the World is about the geological and ecological history of our planet and some of the major transformations it has undergone since formation: specifically the times when the world appeared to be coming to an end. In addition to showing us our past, it compares the impact of human activity to that of the forces of nature, and shows us where our actions could lead us in the future.

I don’t usually go out of my way to read longer non-fiction works. This is partially due to my short attention span and partially because I enjoy reading longer works for escapist purposes. I typically consume my facts in a shorter format, such as articles, or visually through documentaries. However, I make the occasional exception for topics that are of extreme interest to me. The geological/ecological history of the planet is one of those exceptions. Also, I’m a sucker for good cover art, and I totally dig the neon on black design.

If you were fortunate enough to live within a day or so of a good natural history museum as a kid, or, if your school had a science program actually worthy of the name, at some point, you may have come across a timeline that looks something like this:

By WoudloperDerivative work: Hardwigg — File:Geologic_clock.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11926892

Our planet is over 4.5 billion years old. Life itself is about 3.8 billion years old. The dinosaurs, the pop stars of the ancient world, lived from 230 to 65 million years ago. Our species, Homo sapiens, is about a paltry 200,000 years old. For perspective, if the lifespan of the earth were a 24 hours day, we basically showed up less than 2 minutes to midnight, like an unwanted party crasher who pre-gamed too hard before going out to the bar on a Saturday night.

If you found any of the above statements interesting, you will love reading The Ends of the World. It primarily focuses on the five major extinction events that occurred throughout the planet’s history. (You can find the BBC’s brief summary of these here.) The author travels to various geological sites, some of which are in the heartland, and others that are excitingly close to my home in New York State. You will learn about what was living during the eras immediately before and after the extinction event, about the geological changes during these time periods, and what was left behind for us to discover many years later. You will also learn about the geological sites mentioned, and the obstacles faced by those who explore them. Not everyone is eager to uncover our distant past. Funding and access remain an obstacle to discovery, as well as attitudes toward evolution. The book also reviews the conditions required for fossilization to occur, and how things from the past are either preserved for future generations to find, or lost to the mists of time.

You’ll learn why New York City will NOT be a lasting monument for the future.

To all of Wall Street and most of Brooklyn, with love. Image from Google Image Search.

Happily, Trump Tower will not be part of the legacy we leave behind us.

Trump and the GOP’s attitude toward climate change and denial of science, however, may be preserved in our planet’s geology for time immemorial. Human actions are compared to natural disasters occurring around the five major extinctions. While timing may be against us in some ways, our species is also not doing itself any favors in terms of elongating our time on this planet. We are unlikely to live up to the legacy of the Mesozoic.

When I picked up this book, one of my concerns was that it would be too technical to enjoy. I have a B.A. in bio collecting dust somewhere at my parents’ house, and many more recent years of customer service filling my brain. My current vocabulary consists of corporate speak mixed with a dash of politics, but very little science. Happily, I can say that Peter Brannen does a very good job of presenting scientific information to non-scientists. He does so without being condescending or watering it down to the point of insulting the reader’s intelligence (I’m looking at you, Yahoo Tech). I personally found myself using Google to refresh my memory as far as the time period names were concerned, but you are probably better with names than I am and won’t need to do any cross-referencing. The environmental message is also presented without being pompous, excessively philosophical, or holier-than-thou, something that turns off even other environmentalists. Peter Brannen is more Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam (YAS) and less Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (ew) tone-wise, and it makes this book a very enjoyable read.

In addition to being interesting and informative, The Ends of the World is also an oddly soothing read for someone who is having a bad day. The reason: it reorients the reader’s perspective to a larger scale, if only for a few moments. Contemplating vast expanses of time and the evolution of life itself is a wonderful way to put aside your troubles, until later when you’ve shrunk them down into tiny specs and smaller moments to be examined with a more peaceful mind.

The Ends of the World can be found on shelves at Barnes & Noble of course, but you can get a much better price here on Amazon. As someone who is short on space, I usually buy eBooks, but I actually recommend a hard copy of this book, as you will probably want to share it and it’s worthy of precious physical space. It is worth every penny and every page is a treasure.