You’d think that a culture woven through with intimations of apocalypse would know how to receive news of environmental alarm. But instead we have responded to scientists channeling the planet’s cries for mercy as though they were simply crying wolf. Today, the movies may be millenarian, but when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. This is climate’s kaleidoscope: we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly.
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, p. 143
Metaphors for climate change are abundant, but few cleanly hit their mark because the problem is so multilayered, interwoven, and psychologically befuddling. Human beings have solved countless technological challenges over millennia. But now, with a clear and present existential threat barreling down at them, we are frozen into inaction and imprisoned by our own natures.
In The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Penguin, 2019), David Wallace-Wells has penned the most powerful and frankly horrifying book on climate change I have ever encountered. It is indisputably the most timely. This is not a book about the politics, economics, and science of climate change per se, though it draws on such material for its findings. Rather, it is a reflective and exhortative examination of the psychological and sociological underpinnings of climate’s kaleidoscope.
Wallace-Wells came to prominence on climate with his extended essay in June 2017 in New York Magazine. He then devoted himself to researching the topic through the end of 2018. As a result, The Uninhabitable Earth may not have a long shelf life, at least in terms of its empirical findings. Its philosophical perspectives, however, will remain timeless.
Those who have only thought causally about warming – Wallace-Wells insists on this term in his opening chapter – and experts will find their musings and formal inquiries alike refracted through its pages. For this reason, it should figure in everyone’s book club in the coming months. It should also be on university syllabi this summer and fall. If there is one book on energy we all should read now, this really is it.
We are already screwed
Wallace-Wells’ multi-faceted argument has two major thrusts. The first is that we are already screwed. “Even if, miraculously, humans immediately ceased emitting carbon, we’d still be due for some additional warming from just the stuff we’ve put into the air already” (p. 19). The second is that “the last twenty-five years of emissions…is about half of the total that humanity has ever produced” (p. 67). Or, put another way, more warming has occurred since the premiere of Seinfeld (p. 4).
The book is jam-packed with holistic perspectives that challenge us to think more deeply about climate change and what it will bring in the coming decades. After the forceful introductory chapter that surveys the damage already done, Wallace-Wells dives into twelve “Elements of Chaos” – Heat Death, Hunger, Drowning, Wildfire, Dying Oceans, Climate Conflict, and more.
My favorite chapter was Economic Collapse, in which he recognizes fossil fuels drove the rise of the West, including the Industrial Revolution, and China’s recent rise (p. 115-22). Western powers created the problem of climate change, but current powers, and the quest of developing countries to leave poverty, are deepening it. “The graphs that show so much recent progress in the developing world—on poverty, on hunger, on education and infant mortality and life expectancy and gender relations and more—are, practically speaking, the same graphs that trace the dramatic rise in global carbon emissions that has brought the planet to the brink of overall catastrophe” (p. 53).
These insights are not new to those versed in energy and climate justice, but help frame warming in a way that will raise eyebrows for non-specialists. We are, quite simply, already screwed and have decided to screw ourselves even more since learning about the problem.
A kaleidoscopic journal
The Uninhabitable Earth succeeds, above all, because of its honesty. But it is far from a page-turner. Each of us recognizes that climate change is too big for any one individual to solve; our individual bad behavior also literally doesn’t matter, although weaning ourselves off intercontinental flying would help. We know it’s bad, so what is reading about it going to accomplish besides making us feel worse? I similarly caught my eyes glossing over paragraphs, not out of laziness or boredom, but because I simply couldn’t stomach to read on.
But I kept coming back, quickly drawn in by the power of the book to generate reflection. Wallace-Wells’ style, between expository and free form, is ideal for the content. He fastidiously marshals evidence, but writes with a freedom and abandonment of convention that takes us to another world. The first page of the book, for instance, is two sentences. This draws the reader into the problem, and the world we have already entered that is being wrecked by warming. The form also falls somewhere between a journal and a journalistic narrative. As such, it inspires the reader to think about the problem on both personal and social levels.
What is the meaning of life?
It is impossible not to have viscerally personal reactions while reading The Uninhabitable Earth.
I had one when the author cited a 2017 article in The Guardian titled “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children” (p. 135). The author rejects such deterministic notions. If we continue as we are now, yes, more mouths to feed will increase warming, but we have a choice.
As a father of one, and soon two if all goes well, I am admittedly engrossed in my own egoism in rejecting The Guardian’s question. Yet it seems to me that children – and younger generations of adults – offer our only hope. My parents’ generation – the Baby Boomers in the United States – completely failed on warming. Generation X has a mixed record. Gen Xer Barack Obama was the first president to aggressively address the problem.
Today, climate change is gaining attention rapidly in the United States. The Green New Deal is a great start. There are many leaders, and we must all be one in our own right. My favorite is a 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg, who is trying to galvanize adults to act. I also love that my daughter’s kindergarten has her coming home singing a new climate tune nearly every month. We all must give children the support and encouragement they need to succeed. This starts with self- and collective-reflection on what matters to us as a species.
We humans will be able to inhabit the Earth for the coming decades, but it’s going to be ugly no matter what we do. By 2100, it will likely be uninhabitable if we don’t make radical changes (p. 11-16). At that point, the microorganisms that launched this experiment in human life eons ago will gladly resume dominance over the one planet we have been given.