When the cold war ended, the fear that the world might end tomorrow seemed a little less immediate. In this small book, Bill McGuire - a professor of geophysical hazards and the man Tony Blair would ring if a natural disaster struck Britain today - reminds us that it might happen after all. His aim is to implant in our minds a whole range of non-nuclear ways in which we could be wiped out tomorrow, next month or next millennium.
By far the best-known of these looming apocalypses is the one with which McGuire opens the book - global warming. He makes a convincing case against those who argue that the phenomenon is non-existent, pointing out that the insistence of the US right that this is an "evenly balanced" and "fiercely contested" debate is simply dishonest. On the one hand, we have virtually all of the world's experts on climate change saying that we must cut carbon emissions urgently; on the other hand, we have "a few maverick scientists, oil company representatives and the president of the world's greatest polluter" questioning the existence of global warming altogether.
McGuire is, however, ill-advised in taking a swipe at Bjorn Lomborg, who argued, in his viciously contested book The Sceptical Environmentalist, that the environment is in many respects improving and that, broadly, we could all relax. McGuire is correct when he says that Lomborg's research is at best highly selective and misleading, but in many ways his own book is similarly flawed.
Lomborg puts a relentlessly (and absurdly) optimistic spin on every environmental indicator, but McGuire's pessimism is equally comic. He always opts for the worst-case scenario, and describes it in melodramatic language worthy of airport fiction: "Imagine the worst possible vision of hell," he writes. "The vile stench of sulphurous gas pervading a world of darkness broken only by a dull red glow on a distant, invisible horizon . . ." Somebody's been reading a bit too much Tom Clancy, I suspect.
The book is best at those rare moments when it eschews this dull fatalism and offers imaginative potential solutions. For example, one possible method of combating global warming is to "use the oceans as a dumping ground for atmospheric carbon dioxide, either by physically discarding it in the deep ocean via pipeline or tanker, or by seeding the ocean with iron to encourage the growth of marine micro-organisms that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere". Pilot experiments have already shown that these techniques work. This is the information we need, rather than facile panic-mongering.
A Guide to the End of the World annoyingly touches on interesting political issues without fully exploring them. McGuire alludes, for example, to the way in which our western-centred media prevent us from realising that climatic and environmental catastrophes are not simply the stuff of science fiction but an everyday reality for the earth's poorest people.
Every year since 1990, he tells us, "20,000 people were killed and tens of millions affected by raging floodwaters, and in 1998 major river floods in China and Bangladesh led to misery for literally hundreds of millions of their inhabitants". Two-thirds of Bangladesh is regularly submerged underwater. The Indian city of Bhuj was entirely destroyed in an earthquake last year, killing an estimated 100,000 people. (To those who will retort that such disasters have always happened, it should be pointed out that natural disasters have increased by 4 per cent since the mid-20th century.)
The Americans will get whacked by natural disasters, too (as with Hurricane Andrew in 1992), but the US has the economic resources to rehouse its citizens, and to erect stronger buildings in the first place. This is why they are less worried than everybody else, and why a staggering 96 per cent of all deaths arising from natural hazards occur in developing countries. There is no proper discussion of this here. After reading this book, readers will be a little more frightened, but no closer to preventing the end of the world.