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I took the idea for this book from my aunt who was sitting on her kitchen floor weeping. We were in her home in Southern California with a broken refrigerator pulled out from the wall, food rotting inside. Streams of sugar ants laced the ceilings and baseboards. It was a seasonal infestation, tiny ants coming out of the ground and filing into her every room. She also had rats. We could hear them padding behind walls and along trusses overhead. I had found one dead in her bathroom vanity. The ants were all over it.
My aunt was in the middle of writing her own book about how to survive the end of the world. Her book was meant to prepare people for what she saw as a coming change, a much-heralded apocalypse and a dawning of a new age. Now she was having trouble just getting through her day.
“I feel awful,” she cried. “Everything is falling apart.”
She and I used to talk about end-times. That was years back in New Mexico, where she was born and raised almost within earshot of the first atomic explosion. She had looked me in the eye and told me the end was coming and I would be one of those who survived. With a sad and loving smile she had said, “If anyone is going to make it, you are.”
Why did my aunt believe this? Maybe because I could skin and eat a snake or knew how to start a fire in the rain. But I didn’t know what exactly I was supposed to survive, or even if I wanted to. I was younger when she told me this, a bit more spry anyway. Now I was too chunky and balding to survive anything of consequence. I couldn’t even fix her refrigerator. Nor could I do anything about the rats or ants, nor the wildfires that had begun burning in the hills above her house, nor the tectonic fault itching to slip directly beneath us. Even the divorce she was going through was beyond me. I crouched before her, and all I could do was put my arms around her as tears started again, her life crashing in all at once. Together we weathered the terrible squall, what is said to be the end of the world.
With a strained laugh, she sniffed and palmed away her mussed bangs. “I feel so stupid,” she said. I told her it happens to the best of us.
I put her to bed, pillows behind her back, and brought her a bowl of hot soup. When her eyes closed, I took her empty bowl. In the bathroom I doubled a grocery bag and removed that wretched rat, dropping its ant-maddened remains into a trash bin outside. I tidied her sink, quietly closed the door behind me, and made off with her book idea.
The term “end of the world” is thrown around as if we know what it means. Apocalypse? What sort of apocalypse—one that destroys civilization, life, the entire planet? How does it work? Is there a way to stop it, or is it just going to steamroll us?
And are we even asking the right questions?
Most people, when you ask, are a little vague on the details. Informed mainly by blockbuster films, the popular vision is that the end will be rather sudden and accompanied by a thrilling soundtrack as cities slide into the ocean and global climates swing overnight. Sure, that’s one way it could happen.
Robert Frost mused it would be by either fire or ice. His conundrum was a product of the nineteenth century. Frost missed the wider, more circular array of options—volcanic cooling of the atmosphere, fossil-fuel-generated warming, global permafrost-methane releases, reentering ejecta from an asteroid impact burning the planet and sending it into a biological tailspin, and so on. Since Frost’s time, we’ve girdled the earth with temperature probes, gravity sensors, and mass-balance buoys. Ice caps have been cored, ancient geographies exhumed. Trace down through ice cores and ancient lake-bottom sediments, pick at fossils and ruined cities, and you will see that the scientific and anthropological records tell a much more complex story.
Like any book, this one does not have only one starting place. As much as it was my aunt, it was also an earthquake. In mid-January 1994, driving back from guiding a trip in Baja, I stopped in Los Angeles for one night. I was sleeping on a couch on the third floor of a concrete apartment building in Pasadena when, a couple hours before morning rush hour, one of the most violent urban quakes ever recorded in California struck the city. Dressed in nothing but a sheet, I was off that couch in about two seconds as the floor banged back and forth beneath me.
This was not a huge event in global terms, 6.7 on the Richter scale, but it was one of the fastest ground accelerations ever recorded on the continent. I didn’t have time to rub my eyes or blink. I knew you were supposed to get in a doorjamb to protect yourself, and that is exactly what I did. In the darkened light of the living room, where I’d just been, I could see shelves emptying themselves, books shuffling off the coffee table and onto the floor. This flimsy doorjamb wasn’t going to save me if the building came down.
I had never been in an earthquake before, impressed by the sharpness of its pulses as if the building were being rapidly jerked around by its shoulders. This doorjamb seemed no place to be. I darted back into the living room, where I spread my feet and surfed the quake.
In those moments, my picture of the earth was remade. The floor felt as if foot pedals were pumping beneath me, a continental margin humped up on the back of a passing tectonic plate. Humans may have a big hand in carpeting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and dumping every toxin we can imagine into waterways, but when the earth decides to roll, it is no longer our game. Right then, this wasn’t the planet I thought it was. All bets were off. The ground was moving, and overpasses were pancaking all around the city.
About ten seconds into it, the euphoria wore off. I must have instinctively known the tensile strength of concrete reinforced with tied rebar, and we were near the limit. I remember thinking, “If this goes on for about five more seconds, this building is coming down.”
At that moment, the shaking subsided. The tectonic rumble echoed away. I stood slack jawed, amazed. Car alarms must have been going off everywhere, but to my ear there was nothing but unbreakable silence. The world was again still.
With power out, predawn dark was filled with stars.
Fifty-seven people died that morning in the Northridge earthquake. If it had struck during rush hour, that number would have been in the hundreds or thousands, freeways jackknifed under streams of commuters. A couple points higher on the Richter scale and it would have been the big one so many talk about, the catastrophe we seem to dream of as if we just can’t help ourselves, drumming our fingers at the edge of apocalypse.
Power came back on between tantalizing aftershocks. I and the two others who lived in the apartment gathered at the television to get a sense of the damage. Seen from a helicopter, it was mostly buckled streets, fallen fronts of buildings, and freeways collapsed in bright morning light. As the helicopter turned to the eastern side of the Santa Monica Mountains, I witnessed something that made the experience viscerally indelible. The mountains on the television suddenly went hazy, as if a single blow had struck dust from a drumhead. I was about to say it must be an aftershock, but I was interrupted by a sound rising in the distance, not from the television, but from outside. The rumble grew as it passed over the city toward us, a wave rolling through the earth’s crust. It hit us like a shoulder tackle, and our building violently swayed for a few seconds before settling again. The rumble passed and I understood in my bones the connected curve of the planet. Nothing was separate. We were all in this together, and I mean all, everything under the dome of the sky.
That event lifted a veil for me, and I glimpsed a seething and perilous world underneath. I wanted more. What else happens? What massive, elemental changes could come not to one city alone but to the entire planet? This book answers these questions. I will show you what it looks like when it happens. The interest is not merely prurient, the tales not only cautionary. This is what the earth is capable of. It is something that should be known.
To write this book, I traveled to nine different locations around the globe, each an apocalyptic landscape in its own right, an analogue for a likely ending to life even remotely as we know it. If a particular series of events happens, this is what the world will look like. I traveled from the inside bend of South America where sits the driest nonpolar desert in the world to the tectonic madhouse of the Tibetan Plateau to the severe, biotic dearth of central Iowa.
In the original sense of writing a field guide, I kept assiduous notes in journals I carried with me, pages crisped by sun and dotted with rain spatter. This book is what became of those pages. In the most desolate, phenomenal, and downright strange parts of the world, I recorded moments of global regimes shifting entirely. I saw when and where maximums and minimums were reached and new ages began. Land bridges have been consumed by seas, ice sheets have buried the locations of major cities, and formerly serene vistas have been encased in lava and volcanic ash. Comparing what is seen on the ground with geologic records spanning more than
4.5 billion years, I found evidence of an excitable planet where frequent and even regular catastrophes have not taken a hiatus for our benefit. Our version of the real world may be the most fleeting of pleasures.
This much scientists agree on: Five times in the history of the earth, most life has winked out. Five times, one species after the next disappeared, the chain collapsed, grazers died as the plants they depended on were lost, and predators disappeared shortly after, life on earth reaching as close to zero as you’d ever care to get. Up to
90 percent of life in oceans and 75 percent of life on land have been suddenly eliminated. These are the really big ones we talk about, the upheavals that lie at the far end of the pendulum swing, endings you would be glad not to witness.
But you may not have a choice, because we appear to be in one now.
On this much, too, scientists agree: The sixth mass extinction is well under way. Numbers of lost and declining species are rapidly rising with no end in sight. Some researchers offer outside estimates that as many as half of all remaining species may disappear within the next century. Since declines on this scale have happened only a handful of times in the fossil record, this point in earth’s history appears pivotal.
Conditions will not remain as they are. That is a guarantee. They never do. In the geologic past, deserts have swallowed the globe, and most of the planet has been infrequently locked in ice, equatorial seas bobbing with slush. In one form or another, these changes have kept going, the earth shifting and jerking between equilibriums, pushed and pulled by all manner of forces, from planetary axis tilting to flushes of CO2. Our own warm and relatively moist geologic era of the Holocene has gone on for about ten thousand years, and yet it is only a sliver. Current conditions represent about 10 percent of what the earth has been like over the last three million years. Even a mere six thousand years ago, the climate of what is now Phoenix, Arizona, was nearly uninhabitable, water hard to find in the middle of a hyperarid desert.
We fret about whether we will survive the next major change. But who are we talking about being the ones to survive? Humans with our tricky thumbs and extraordinary ability to adapt and spread, familiar ecosystems, or the simple presence of life itself?
What would it mean to be the last ones standing on an ultimately sere and ruined planet?
Just to see it, to taste it, and to experience it firsthand, I stepped forward. Wanting to know what the end is made of, I went there. In the company of lava, ice, and blowing desert sands, I worked to see beneath the surface appearance of things and stand in the presence of apocalypse.