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Nature writer travels the world for hints at ways it could end
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Craig Childs' new book is like no other you'll ever read about the "end of the world."

It's mostly the author's travelogue to the world's most extreme locations. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth is a fantastic read in the tradition of great popular science books. It pulls off the near impossible, placating our concerns about the end of life as we know it — which won't be nearly as dramatic as we think, turns out — while also rousing us from complacent slumber.

The "end of the world" Childs shows is a force constantly in motion — albeit probably slow enough for us to catch the next big bus out of town and to another location. If we're paying attention, that is.

"The sixth mass extinction is well under way," Childs warns in his introduction. As a balm, he tells us that since change is inevitable, it should only be embraced. "Current conditions represent about 10 percent of what the Earth has been like over the last 3 million years."

Over nine chapters and various locales, Childs describes how he "worked to see beneath the surface appearance of things and stand in the presence of apocalypse."

A nature writer of renown and author of previous books The Secret Knowledge of Water and Animal Dialogues, Childs will read from his book Saturday, Oct. 20 as part of the Utah Humanities Council's Fifteenth Annual Book Festival. (See box for event information.)

If Americans learn about the end of the world at all, it's usually through a high-school science teacher. We learn that our sun will one day run out of hydrogen to burn, turn into a "red star," then simultaneously knock the Earth off its orbit and consume it. But this won't happen for some 5 billion years. What was the first time you learned about the eventual end of the world?

My high-school context was always nuclear annihilation. All of a sudden, there'd be a bright flash while you're eating your breakfast cereal for breakfast, and then you didn't exist anymore. If you grew up during the Cold War, you're infused with the idea that it could all come tumbling down at any moment. It wasn't even that dramatic an image, but it was always burned into our psyches.

Out of the nine ways that the world as we know it could end discussed in your book — such as expanding deserts, extinction, cataclysms — which route do you believe is most likely?

All of them are not only likely, but will happen. They're all just different stages and scale. Mass extinction is happening right now. Rising seas and melting ice are not really ends. They're these big changes, but they're not closures. They're pieces of continuity. For many species and people they may represent for them the end. But mostly they're events that just happen. I'm trying to put them in context of what they mean when they happen. And they will all happen. I don't think there's anything in the book that's not in store.

There's an emerging school of thought that says, "Rather than panic about the end of the world, whether it's through environmental disaster or religious prophecy, the best we can do is tend the world we have today." To what extent are certain elements under our control? Is control of these elements enough to stave off disaster?

It's hard to tell. There's not a lot that's under our control, but there's a lot that's under our influence. We know that if we do "x" something happens. We know we have an impact. How to determine what that is is really tough. I try to contend with it in this book, saying, "Here's our role, but there's a certain amount of chaos and unknown."

In the chapter "Civilizations Fall," you recount how as a teenager in Phoenix, you plotted to survive the end of the world, with your father's guns and girlfriend in tow. That personal example seems to say there are juvenile ways and mature ways to prepare for the future. Are we at a juvenile stage or mature stage?

We're at a fairly juvenile stage. We're fascinated by "the end." I'm not saying I'm not juvenile. What I want to say in this book is that we should look at it realistically. Right now we're not preparing for continuity, we're preparing for endings. Not all the way across the board, but for the most part we prepare for endings. We work hard as a society not to destroy every damned thing we touch. But it does seem that a lot of people can't wait for the world to end, as if the world we have now isn't exciting and real enough. They want volcanoes and Armageddon. I want to say, "Whoa, let's really think about what this means."

What's the most important process you believe we should understand?

That we aren't on an entirely stable plant. The world we see in front of us isn't our only option. Blue skies and green trees aren't that way forever. It's more tenuous than we though. Whole scenarios are thrown completely out of whack by small changes. You look through the geologic history and you find it's not always this way. What we have now requires maintenance.

You both divide and combine the thesis of your book based on our dual understanding of the word "apocalypse" as a kind of cosmic realization and religious revelation. Why did you start with the premise that both definitions must be honored?

I think of apocalypse not in a way we normally think of it. It's not a moment, but a process. I wanted to steer away from this notion that it's final, that it's a "nothing-after-it event." I wanted to unfold it to show there's a larger process going on. It's about beginnings and endings, rather than just endings.

A chief aspect of your book is the way you demonstrate how these changes accumulate over time, much like the millions of years that make Darwinian natural selection possible. That's often been hard concept for people to grasp.

Really rapid change is rare. You will get sudden events, but they tend to get smoothed out. Even asteroid impacts may not be as exciting as we thought. Fire and impact is exciting, but the real impact of an asteroid hitting the Earth sometimes isn't felt for a long time afterward.

I'm trying to redefine time. The changes we make now are felt way down the line. I wrote this book to write about time. We don't have a real mature way of looking at it right now. I'm still trying to learn a lot of it myself.

Do you have a favorite or least favorite disaster movie?

My favorites are a lot like "Blade Runner." Certain aspects of life peter out, but this thing we call the world just keeps on going. That's a scary future. I finally broke down and watched "2012," about the so-called Mayan calendar prediction. It was a lot of fun, but completely unrealistic. The science just isn't there. Those enormous catastrophic ends just don't happen.

bfulton@sltrib.com

Facebook.com/fulton.ben —

Craig Childs's reading

When • Saturday, Oct. 20, 3:30 p.m.

Where • Salt Lake Main Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South

Info • Free. Call 801-359-9670 or visit http://www.utahhumanities.org for more information.

Visiting author • Craig Childs warns the end of the world is always near — but still distant enough to ponder.
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