Apocalyptic Planet

A man travels to the far reaches of our "excitable" Earth and returns with a warning

Craig Childs calls himself a "student of desolation" and it's true, he is, and thank heavens for that. Why? Because if you have to face the end of the world as we know it, it's nice to have someone knowledgeable about such things to lead you through it. Sure, it's still scary - just read the chapter names in his newly released book, "Apocalyptic Planet" [Pantheon Books, $27.95] and you're ready to go buy canned goods: Ice Collapses, Seas Boil, Cold Returns, Species Vanish, Civilizations Fall, Cataclysm Strikes and so on.

Childs believes, as do scientists, that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of life on what he calls "our everending planet." To examine what's happening, to find the micro-cataclysms that portend the macro, he takes you on an oddly reassuring "field trip" to places distant and near - among them a Mexican desert, glaciers in Chile, a Bering Sea island, Tibetan mountains and a wasteland in Iowa.

Along the way, he uses a mesmerizing mix of science and adventure to make you understand that it's the way of things, that it's all happened before and that it takes a long time. Though he refutes the idea of an apocalyptic end to the Earth, he does say that we're at "the far end of the pendulum swing," where upheavals lead to "endings you would be glad not to witness." It is, he adds, a time when small changes can pivot us into big changes - and fast.

All that bad news is delivered softly by Childs' lyrical and insightful writing.

This is a must-read book, all 368 pages of it. It will absolutely dazzle you - and, yes, scare you silly.

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