Today’s WorldView Interviews Science Writer Bryan Walsh on the Many Ways the World Could End

The man-made fires ravaging huge expanses of the Amazon rainforest have — if only for a brief moment — trained global attention on a looming calamity facing the planet. More people now understand that a series of alarming environmental developments are all linked: A spike in carbon emissions, the rapid melting of Arctic ice, the steady rise of global temperatures, the increasingly erratic and extreme storms assailing coastlines. Every day, we are living in a “dramatic climate emergency,” declared U.N. Secretary General António Guterres this week.

But it’s not just an evolving climate that poses an existential challenge to humanity. “End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World,” a new book by veteran science writer Bryan Walsh that published this week, is a harrowing chronicle of a range of threats that could bring about human extinction in the not-so-distant future. These include eternal dangers to the planet, such as supervolcanoes and asteroids, but also distinctly modern perils — from killer robots and artificial intelligence to civilization-ending nuclear war to weaponized bioengineered super viruses. And then, of course, there’s the inexorable toll of man-made global warming, whose effects we’re already feeling around the world.

Walsh’s book isn’t all gloom, taking us to the front lines where researchers and scientists are seeking new ways to protect humanity. His conversation with Today’s WorldView (full disclosure — we were formerly colleagues at Time magazine) was edited for space and clarity.

TWV: Is there a degree to which humanity is in greater peril now than it ever was before?

Walsh: Yes, we’re in greater existential peril than we’ve ever been before, because on one hand we have those background risks (volcanoes, asteroids) that have always been with us, but we’re introducing new risks into the world, even as we’re more connected, which means that those risks can spread much more rapidly than in the past. And the spread of survivalism on one hand, and the techno-dystopians on the other, speaks to that, a recognition of where we’re at and where we’re going.

Of the threats outlined in the book, is there one that you’re leastworried about?

It’s probably infectious disease, at least as it comes from nature. It was reporting on climate change that really got me started on this book, but I can trace it all the way back to being in Hong Kong for the SARS epidemic in 2003, and seeing the way a disease could pop out of nature and catch fire in a globalized world. That was legitimately scary, especially to live through at ground zero. But it — along with the other diseases I reported on, like avian flu and Ebola — also taught me that nature has a kind of speed limit on disease.

Disease has killed more human beings than anything else, any war or natural disaster. But evolution prevents anything that comes out of nature from being both virulent and contagious enough to remotely threaten human extinction. So I’m not that worried about a virus suddenly emerging and killing us all — even among animal extinctions, you almost never see that happen.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor