Book Review: David Wallace-Wells' 'The Uninhabitable Earth' is a Brutal Account of Humanity's Imminent Self-Cull. Read It, But Be Prepared
A few weeks back, a commenter in my piece on climate anxiety recommended (and warned against) reading David Wallace-Wells’ recent smash hit, The Uninhabitable Earth. I picked it up the other day and I have been making my way through it. The need for a warning alongside the recommendation was immediately apparent. It is…not easy reading. Even for someone who tries to stay on top of climate collapse developments, reading The Uninhabitable Earth has been a constant struggle against being buried beneath an onrushing avalanche of desperately depressing facts, statistics, and projections. Honestly, I would struggle with recommending it to everyone. It is very well written, unafraid of using appropriately dramatic language to deliver devastating information, and Wallace-Wells takes periodic rhetorical steps back from the flood of statistics to let things settle in before diving in again. Yet those—like me—who struggle with climate anxiety, should consider that the book will not ease or soothe their mental anguish in any way. It will have the opposite effect. You will likely need to take breaks. And perhaps it might serve your mental health best if you don’t pick it up at all. For me personally, I have recently reached a conclusion that I would rather continue to stay as informed as possible, and to risk whatever wounding of my psyche may well follow as a result. That, however, must remain an individual, personal choice.
The book opens with a line that gives you an idea of the tone that follows: ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think.’ What follows justifies that opening line quickly, and dramatically. ‘Bleak’ doesn’t begin to cover it, as Wallace-Wells draws on a formidable amount of research and interviews to paint a picture that outlines how even our most (unrealistically) optimistic projections for carbon emissions and the attendant rise in global temperatures (2 degrees centigrade) are at levels that will doom the planet, with its flora and fauna—including our species—suffering truly apocalyptic outcomes. On the other end of the spectrum, the worst-case scenarios (4, 5, 6, or more degrees centigrade) make those apocalyptic outcomes look trivial by comparison. Wallace-Wells argues that humanity does have the means and the time to prevent the worst scenarios becoming a reality—but it is the balancing of the equation involving factors like political will and the power of entrenched industrial-capitalist structures that will determine whether or not our species faces near-total wipe out, or merely a major self-culling. As Wallace-Wells says in the book:
If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year. This is why U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres believes we have only one year to change course and get started.
It has become commonplace among climate activists to say that we have, today, all the tools we need to avoid catastrophic climate change—even major climate change. It is also true. But political will is not some trivial ingredient, always at hand. We have the tools we need to solve global poverty, epidemic disease, and abuse of women, as well.
The book’s main aim is to detail how climate collapse will affect the human animal that has spread its civilisation across the planet’s surface in such an unthinking way as we have. Wallace-Wells likens us, quite evocatively, to moss. Intriguingly, Wallace-Wells—deputy editor for ‘New York’ magazine—opens by saying that he never considered himself an environmentalist. That as a relatively progressive yet city-reared person, he always considered that our position on the food chain meant that we had earned a certain right to extract resources and to bend nature to our will. For the author of a book that is now being hailed as one of the definitive popular treatises on climate change, this initially comes across as quite a stark pronouncement, even a jarring one. As a long-time advocate of socialist environmentalism, the effect on me was certainly closer to the latter. Yet the framing this personal admission provides seems to resonate with the urgency of the problem under discussion, as the awareness of the issue of climate collapse has now reached critical mass, with even people who would have never considered themselves ‘into’ the topic now finding themselves in the know. In many ways it is similar to the financial collapse of 2008 after which millions of people basically had no choice but to become pseudo-experts in the machinations of capitalism. When the flood reaches your front door, it’s hard to stay ignorant of rising water levels.
Historically, human-made climate change has been a political and scientific issue clouded in ignorance, as well as obfuscation and deception. As has been noted many times before, the former was a direct result of the latter, with energy companies such as Exxon notoriously having been aware of the eventual catastrophic effects of their actions for decades, yet spending millions of dollars to fund a smokescreen campaign to muddy the issue and to sow doubt, as well as to purchase politicians to ensure they never act to impede their reaping of lethal profits. The main aim of The Uninhabitable Earth could be described as the total demolishing of any last vestiges of ignorance around the issue of human-made climate change. Rather than providing a rap sheet and detailed accounts of those responsible for mass ecocide, it concerns itself mainly with the practical effects that humanity is soon to see. Wallace-Wells may well describe himself as having never been an environmentalist, yet in his incredibly detailed forecast of the ways in which our destruction of the planet’s ecosystem will destroy us in turn, he touches on that age-old environmentalist ethos: Humanity, for all its delusions of grandeur, is not separate from the planet that birthed us. Nature is us; we are nature. The Uninhabitable Earth shows, with brutally unflinching honesty, what happens when we inadvertently turn this previously benevolent cradle into a weapon of unimaginable destructive power. Passages like these are the norm in the book:
In 2014, we learned that the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets were even more vulnerable to melting than scientists anticipated—in fact, the West Antarctic sheet had already passed a tipping point of collapse, more than doubling its rate of ice loss in just five years. The same had happened in Greenland, where the ice sheet is now losing almost a billion tons of ice every single day. The two sheets contain enough ice to raise global sea levels ten to twenty feet—each. In 2017, it was revealed that two glaciers in the East Antarctic sheet were also losing ice at an alarming rate—eighteen billion tons of ice each year, enough to cover New Jersey in three feet of ice. If both glaciers go, scientists expect, ultimately, an additional 16 feet of water. In total, the two Antarctic ice sheets could raise sea level by 200 feet; in many parts of the world, the shoreline would move by many miles. The last time the earth was four degrees warmer, as Peter Brannen has written, there was no ice at either pole and sea level was 260 feet higher. There were palm trees in the Arctic.
Higher temperatures means more forest fires means fewer trees means less carbon absorption, means more carbon in the atmosphere, means a hotter planet still—and so on. A warmer planet means more water vapor in the atmosphere, and, water vapor being a greenhouse gas, this brings higher temperatures still—and so on. Warmer oceans can absorb less heat, which means more stays in the air, and contain less oxygen, which is doom for phytoplankton—which does for the ocean what plants do on land, eating carbon and producing oxygen—which leaves us with more carbon, which heats the planet further. And so on. These are the systems climate scientists call “feedbacks”; there are more.
As well as providing a veritable ocean of raw data and a multitude of varied projections, The Uninhabitable Earth grapples with the conceptual side of climate collapse. Wallace-Wells tackles the ignorance that has been associated with the issue; the rapid fading of that ignorance as we enter an era of new, catastrophic paradigms and norms; and of the existential conundrum that awaits a species considering itself in the face of a threat such that it has never seen before. Wallace-Wells uses a very effective and emotive device in describing this crisis: He describes the story of humanity now taking place as an incredibly compelling, two-act play of life or death. As the vast majority of all carbon emissions happened within the last few decades, the story is essentially one that shows one generation dooming the world, and the following one either saving it, or perishing.
Early naturalists talked often about “deep time”—the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. But the perspective changes when history accelerates. What lies in store for us is more like what aboriginal Australians, talking with Victorian anthropologists, called “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already by watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea—a feeling of history happening all at once. It is.
Another of Wallace-Wells’ most compelling conceptual turns in the book is to constantly remind the reader that climate change is not just a series of challenges, but the ‘all-encompassing stage on which all those challenges will be met—a whole sphere, in other words, which literally contains within it all of the world’s future problems.’ The possibilities—of interconnected and sometimes unforseeable covariants that can snowball irreversibly—are almost endless.
The content of this book is, to put it lightly, harrowing. It is a few hundred pages of statistics around the mass insect and animal extinction, the extreme weather events, the desertification, the ocean salification, and the human displacement and death—to name just a few—that our economic systems have already caused; and the projections of the horrors to come that will make those horrors pale in comparison. Yet this is the reality we face. There is no running from it.
You may be wondering: Is there any hope in all this? Some. But not much. Wallace-Wells doesn’t go quite as far as I personally would in his damming of industrial capitalism, but he does discount the delusion that the tech bros or the markets will save us, as well as detailing the unfathomable global North-South injustice of the crisis. The best case scenario, Wallace-Wells outlines, is one that involves the total cessation of all carbon emissions as of right now, and of the root-and-branch reformation of entire global industries and economies that must happen if that is to take place. Naturally, that is impossible. So the story unfolding now is one of minimising the apocalypse as much as possible. The Uninhabitable Earth is a vital book. But it is unforgiving—there is no time for forgiveness—and more chilling than anything else you might pick up. Read it, but be prepared.
Here is a great interview that Wallace-Wells did with Britain’s Novara Media, which outlines many of the topics under discussion in the book and gives you a taste of what you’ll find within:
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