David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
Reviewed by Sarah Boon
Tim Duggan Books | 2019 | ISBN: 9780525576709| 320 pages
In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells’s expansion of his 2017 New York Magazine feature, he notes that when the latest International Panel on Climate Change report came out in the fall of 2018, “it offer[ed] a new form of permission, of sanction, to the world’s scientists. The thing that was new was the message: It is okay, finally, to freak out.” And freak out he does, bombarding the reader with worst-case scenarios of global climate change.
The book is divided into four sections. Section I, “Cascades,” provides a bird’s eye view of climate change worldwide. Section II, “Elements of Chaos,” includes 12 chapters that cover individual aspects of the climate system: e.g., drought, wildfire, oceans, sea-level rise, air quality, and how they interact. Section III is about how we view climate change, and is thus called “The Climate Kaleidoscope;” it covers several viewpoints on dealing with climate change, from economics to storytelling to technology. Finally, Section IV, “The Anthropic Principle,” summarizes some of the key goals of his book.
Wallace-Wells is fully up-to-date with his examples, including events from the fall of 2018. He also excels at providing global rather than just regional examples. He clearly defines the issue of climate justice—which he calls the “climate caste system”: the less wealthy (and the browner) people are, the more they’ll be impacted by climate change. He also describes climate change as “weaponizing the environment,” creating hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, etc.
Wallace-Wells focuses specifically on the lifetime of the baby boomers, who have caused a climate disaster that will affect future generations. He therefore sees climate change as a fundamentally human rather than scientific problem, noting that “this book is not about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.” This means impacts on human health, the economy, the social order (e.g., climate refugees), technology, and more. Because he focuses specifically on human animals, he provides minimal insight into how non-human animals will be affected. Do we not have a moral duty to also advocate for the non-human life that shares this warming earth with us?
He also focuses on the mid-range temperature change scenario: an average of 4° C of warming by 2100 (not the worst-case 8° C). But what are the odds of reaching this scenario? As Wallace-Wells writes, we can assume how natural systems will respond and interact with climate change to create feedback effects and tipping points, but the future is relatively unknown because we don’t know the key ingredient: human response.
Wallace-Wells is careful to state that we have not reached a “new climate normal.” The climate system is unstable enough, and interconnected in ways that we don’t fully understand, that we will continue to see change rather than stabilization. In fact, Wallace-Wells describes climate change as a “hyperobject—a conceptual fact so large and complex that, like the internet, it can never be properly comprehended.” Our myopia is such that we’re unable to even think beyond 2100, the year in which our climate models end. He also describes climate change as “an existential crisis,” and notes that “climate nihilism” is one of our delusions. As Rebecca Solnit adds, “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world [i.e., climate nihilism], which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.”
Despite the doom-and-gloom nature of the book, Wallace-Wells surprisingly writes that he is optimistic. However, his argument for optimism is relatively weak, and may be predicated on the fact that he had a daughter while he was writing, so his perspective on the coming climate apocalypse has shifted. He writes that “she will be living . . . quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending.” Why? His argument for this is not entirely convincing. He also examines the trend towards not having children, and provides a wholly incomprehensible argument as to why a growing population isn’t a problem. He writes, “Further degradation isn’t inescapable; it is optional. Each new baby arrives in a brand new world contemplating a whole horizon of possibilities.” But is this really true? One more human ultimately means more resource use—there’s no way around that.
When it comes to how we can act on climate, Wallace-Wells notes in one instance that individual actions like eating less beef, flying less, and buying a Tesla have a minimal impact on carbon emissions, because industry and agriculture are by far the largest emitters of carbon pollution. He then changes his argument by saying that North Americans should reduce their footprint to that of Europeans, and lists a series of what he calls “low-hanging fruit” that would involve reducing the emissions of individual families: not wasting food, recycling more, reducing air-conditioning use, and not buying Bitcoin (which is a major energy user). It’s thus unclear whether he’s on the side of neoliberalism-based individual action, or getting major polluters to act.
He also doesn’t address the fact that, even though personal change may be driven by a neoliberal agenda and might not have a major climate impact, for some people it may be a case instead of personal morals: of living ethically in the world according to your own limitations.
One fascinating aspect of the book that I hadn’t considered was the extent of the impacts of climate change on human health. For example, outdoor laborers such as farm hands get heat stroke and kidney failure if they work in conditions that are too hot. Also, diseases can spread to warming regions, including ticks, the Zika virus, and malaria. There’s also concern about frozen bacteria being released as glaciers and permafrost melt. In Russia, a small child died when anthrax spores melted out of the snow. There are also public health impacts from wildfire-caused air pollution, with people across the West having to wear face masks to keep from breathing dangerous particulate matter.
I was also surprised by Wallace-Wells’s note that, while the world has been urbanizing for the past few decades, that trend may reverse as cities get more uncomfortable to live in due to the heat island effect, ozone pollution, melting asphalt, and the like. Repopulating rural landscapes will be an interesting shift in the demographics of the country; many post-apocalyptic novels describe cities emptying out after a climate catastrophe.
The economic impacts will likewise be severe. Not only will it cost more to recover from so-called natural disasters, but there will be less money coming into the economy as sea-level rise destroys waterfront real estate and more people become climate refugees and therefore less productive. This is highly similar to Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, New York 2140, which describes a new, post-climate change economic system.
Wallace-Wells doesn’t reveal his key points until the end of the book. He writes that “the emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective . . . if humans are responsible for the problem, then they must be capable of undoing it.” Wallace-Wells argues that we have to go beyond astrophysicist Adam Frank’s idea of “thinking like a planet,” and instead “thinking like a people, one people, whose fate is shared by all.” The key, therefore, as outlined by many others, is that we must build in-person communities to increase resilience to climate change. That community will be first responders when disasters happen, with a variety of skills and services to share. Your community will also be the people who accept climate refugees. As Paul Kingsnorth quotes Leopold Kohr, “small states, small nations, and small economies are more peaceful . . . prosperous, and . . . creative than great powers or superstates.” By building these small, shared communities, we can also help each other deal with solastalgia, or what Canadian researcher Ashlee Cunsolo terms “environmental grief.”
Overall the book is somewhat long and repetitive, which occasionally buries the narrative. It also includes several unnecessary tangents such as the discussions of colony collapse disorder, alien life, and climate change affecting our art. Yet The Uninhabitable Earth doesn’t mention the role of shifting baselines: the idea that we will find conditions in 50 years “normal” because our conception of what’s normal has shifted over that time.
Finally, I question who the book’s audience is. Wallace-Wells covers such a wide range of topics across scales, and incorporates so many ideas, that it may not draw in the general interest reader. He may lose readers by not addressing conservation and related issues, or he may be otherwise be preaching to the converted.
Wallace-Wells obviously doesn’t believe that technology will save us. There are those who worship at “The Church of Technology,” Wallace-Wells writes. “Elon Musk—it’s not the name of a man but a species-scale survival strategy.” Basically, by relying on technology and not taking concrete climate action, we are, as Wallace-Wells quotes Kate Tempest, “Staring into the screen so we don’t have to see the planet die.”
So after I all that, do I recommend the book? I do. The Uninhabitable Earth is the only book that comprehensively lays out what we can expect from the earth’s systems in the face of global climate change. Wallace-Wells has done the hard legwork of combing through scientific research and interviewing scientists to figure out what we’re up against and what we can expect in the near future. Though some argue that the doom-and-gloom approach doesn’t motivate people to act on climate and instead traumatizes people into thinking there’s nothing they can do, there is research suggesting that fear is effective in demonstrating the urgency of the situation. Once people understand that, they’re more likely to do something about it. There is no denying that David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth has widened the conversation about climate change—and that’s a very good thing.
Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field-research adventures in remote locations.
Header photo by Simanovich Inna, courtesy Shutterstock.