Book Review: 50 Ways the World Could End by Alok Jha

This has been my coffee table book for the last couple of months. Consisting of short chapters of about 7 pages each, we get a tour of 50 possible scenarios that could result in the destruction of at least the human race. But please don’t think that this is a book of scaremongering. At the risk of judging a book by its cover, the graphics and font are all rather jovial hinting that this is a relatively light look at the matters in hand.

For some unknown reason, Jha opted not to include any kind of preface or introduction which makes his overall purpose slightly obscured when you begin by diving straight into the first scenario.

One of the early chapters is on the question of overpopulation where Jha reappraises some of Thomas Malthus’ works. Considering the reputation Malthus has, this is certainly a brave move, but not an unreasonable one.

The various scenarios are grouped by theme, though there is some overlap between the themes. There’s also some overlap between the specific scenarios. I couldn’t help but think on occasion that a few of them could have been merged, or rather that they have been artificially split into two in order to make up a predetermined quota of 50.

Some of the more technologically-focused scenarios are going to be worth visiting in years to come, given the rate of change in our collective technological abilities. These may prove to be incredibly insightful prophecies though I suspect that some may prove to be slightly wide of the mark.

The wide variety of scenarios require Jha to be a bit of a jack of all scientific trades, though the vast majority fall within the fields of physics or biology. One of the slightly misleading things about the title, though understandably so, is that it’s very anthropocentric. A more accurate, though less aesthetically pleasing title might be 50 Ways Human Civilization Might End. Some are decidedly end of the world situations, some result in the world carrying on just with the absence of humans.

In each case, there is some attempt to say how likely each is to occur. In most cases, it’s “[not very likely]” though what might have made a good addendum would be a summary. After all, anyone whose studied statistics could look at 50 fairly unlikely events and reason that the chances of at least one happening may not be insignificant. But Jha isn’t out to scare us. If you put the book down and straight away start looking bunker designs then I think you may have got the wrong end of the stick.

It’s a reasonably entertaining, well-written, informative book that is worth dipping into. I wouldn’t be in a rush to encourage any and all to read it, but if the title appeals to you then you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t expect to be overwhelmed.

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