The Ends of the World, Peter Brannen’s masterful non-fiction debut, might be just the book to give to that uncle of yours who still wants to argue about climate change (or even, to your US Representative). But first, read it yourself. It’s a page turner.
The book’s premise is mind-bendingly vast: a geological history of Earth’s past extinctions. It succeeds because of bold and lyrical writing—a rare occurrence in a science book—and because of its unyielding focus on the present. Brannen shows us how past extinction crises were in fact climate crises. Deep time and geology are the keys to comprehend the effects of global warming. Even more so than statistical models and projections, fossils and discontinuities in ancient rock layers tell us a gripping tale of what lies ahead of us. As the author remarked to me: “it’s crazy that most people don’t know anything about the most important events in the history of the planet […] especially given their unsettling relevance to the future.”
Cataclysmic global mass death inevitably summons images of the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous era. And yet, as Brannen artfully recounts it, the dinosaurs’ cinematic end is merely the last great extinction event in the deep past, and a misleading one at that. All extinction episodes, including the dinosaurs’, share one feature or process in common: quick and massive disruptions in the atmosphere’s carbon cycle, usually—but not always—triggered by volcanic activity.