The Earth has always been prone to violent changes, natural disasters, mass extinctions and climate extremes. Global warming will make matters worse, but this lyrical natural history is both a polemic and a preview.
Science writer and NPR commentator Childs (Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, 2010, etc.) aims to experience the apocalypse firsthand. Childs walked the ergs (wind-swept sand with no vegetation) of Mexico and the rainless plains of northern Chile. He visited the frigid Bering Sea, only 100 feet deep and once a vast, ice-free plain, listening to native Inuits complain of rising seas. Trekking the Andes, he observed rubble left by the retreat of the greatest nonpolar glaciers before visiting Greenland, where researchers are recording travails from a far more massive ice sheet. He turned up mass extinction in prosperous Iowa, formerly home to thousands of High Plains species, today a monoculture of genetically modified cornfields in soil that now consists mostly of high-yield petroleum products harboring a dozen other life forms barely surviving in the chemical soup. Civilizations collapse when infrastructure fails. Childs recounts the Hohokam, whose culture and complex irrigation infrastructure withered centuries before settlers arrived at his native Phoenix. American infrastructure (water delivery, sewers, bridges, dams) is crumbling; 240,000 U.S. water mains burst every year. Childs pauses regularly to allow scientists to explain what’s happening and deliver gloomy forecasts, but he eschews the traditional how-to-fix-it conclusion.
Gripping descriptions of deteriorating ecosystems that may soon require less travel and perhaps none at all for readers to experience.