Book Review: It’s the End of the World

“It is much better, psychologically as well as practically, to greet the impending disastrousness with a cheerful hopelessness. After all: we are all doomed. Everybody dies. There are no exceptions, and it demeans us to deny that fact.”

It’s the End of the World, by Adam Roberts, is strap-lined But What Are We Really Afraid Of? The author’s thoughts on this are expanded in six chapters, bookended by an introduction and an epilogue. He opens with the comment, ‘It’s always the end of the world’, and goes on to explain why, given the average existence of any species of mammal, humans may well be facing extinction in the not too distant future – in planetary timescales at least. He also posits that this need not concern us unduly, that it is what happens while we live that counts more than our eventual demise.

In exploring the wider picture there is the suggestion that disaster followed by reset may be a regular occurrence – that a Big Bang could eventually lead to a Big Crunch (the universe collapses in on itself) resulting in a Big Bounce as matter is flung away from the centre. All of this is speculation but what is interesting is how parochial, how miniscule, is the timescale most humans will consider about their species’ existence.

“Why should the universe we’re living in at the moment be the very first? Maybe our current reality is the millionth version”

This isn’t, however, what we’re afraid of. What many people struggle to accept is their own mortality.

“we’re not really worried about the end of the world. We’re worried about the end of our world”

Popular culture has long been fascinated by the prospect of a catastrophe that threatens to wipe out, if not all then most humans. This is an important distinction. It is regarded as disaster followed by reset, in which good men face an opportunity to build a different world than that which we currently inhabit. Sometimes the threat comes from space – such as aliens with no concept of how important man believes he is – but often the catalyst is man-made war or natural disaster. Films and books present stories triggered by an event where the moral is it could have been prevented had actions been less thoughtlessly selfish.

“Climate change is a result of us treating the world as a resource that we should exploit rather than a life-support system to nurture”

It is pointed out that one such resource is people – exploited by the more powerful for as long as they have existed.

“We are Monty Python’s Black Knight, gaily lopping off our own limbs while loudly boasting about our invincibility”

The author name-checks a great many works of literature and films. These include the Armaggeddon that closes the bible and Ragnarök from Norse mythology. In the present day, popular video games feature futuristic locations where avatars destroy and rebuild. Endings are rarely acceptable unless there is at least some chance of a new beginning.

Do we really want to live forever? A favourite chapter was on those who do not die, instead changing form. The author explores the recurring trope of zombies as harbingers of apocalypse.

“perhaps our fascination with zombies comes not from our fear of death but our fear that we won’t die […] This is perhaps connected to the different indignities we might suffer as we age. We might be fully in command of our faculties, but trapped in a body that is deteriorating before our very eyes. Or our bodies are fit and healthy but our minds are slowly being taken over by dementia.”

The book was completed in 2020 so Covid 19 is mentioned, the author pointing out how small a percentage of the world population has been killed by this virus compared to previous pandemics. Medieval plagues in Europe enabled survivors to fight off future viruses. When these countries started to conquer and colonise other continents the effect was truly devastating to native populations.

“The Wampanoag population of Native Americans, mostly located in modern-day New England, suffered up to 90 percent loss of population as a European disease, now thought to be leptospirosis, spread through their tribes. In the cocoliztli epidemic of 1545-48, in what is now Mexico, 12 million people – a staggering 80 per cent of the native population – died of a disease brought by European settlers.”

It is pointed out that such diseases do not wipe out literally everyone. However grievous and horrific, these episodes have never come near ending the world.

Although this may all sound rather depressing to read, the tone of the book is more one of irony and interest in man’s ability to ignore the wider implications of choices and lifestyles.

“Our own life, our own experiences, are the only frames of reference that we have for existence. This is why the idea of the world carrying on beyond our deaths is so troubling”

“Through our stories we have constructed a version of the world that gives an illusion of security – one made out of societies, laws, religions. But that world of our creation is vulnerable to change and upheaval; even though physically it might not end, those structures can, and have, come crashing down. Imagining the end of the world is an expression of our collective anxiety over life as well as death.”

The uber-wealthy may plot and plan to colonise another planet. The next economic level down may stockpile food and build bunkers. The poor are left to fend for themselves – we are a selfish species. Yet most of what is feared does not happen – although sometimes worse occurs in a way not yet imagined. An asteroid may strike, climate change accelerate beyond our species’ ability to survive the changes. Both these events are known to have happened in our planet’s past.

I found this a fascinating book in the ideas expounded. We use stories to work through our fears while largely avoiding the facts around the damage we cause. Man may wipe himself out but the end of the world, if or when it happens, is unlikely to be caused by us. Other than to ourselves, on a world building scale, we are really not that important or impactful.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.