Review: David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth”

by Miles Raymer

Uninhabitable Earth

David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth is by far the most upsetting book I have ever read. Given the number of decades we’ve allowed to slip by without doing anything to properly combat climate change, the problem is now so superlatively fucked that only a book as grim and gruesome as this one can do it justice. And while I don’t think Wallace-Wells’s text should be considered definitive or internalized uncritically, I commend the uncompromising courage, urgency and gravity that howl from every sentence of this book.

The strongest element of The Uninhabitable Earth is the artfulness with which Wallace-Wells conveys data-heavy arguments with arresting prose, creating a palpable sense of distress and dread. Take, for example, this lengthy appraisal of humanity’s current predicament:

For centuries we have looked to nature as a mirror onto which to first project, then observe, ourselves. But what is the moral? There is nothing to learn from global warming, because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons; we are after all not merely telling the story but living it. That is, trying to; the threat is immense. How immense? One 2018 paper sketches the math in horrifying detail. In the journal Nature Climate Change, a team led by Drew Shindell tried to quantify the suffering that would be avoided if warming was kept to 1.5 degrees, rather than 2 degrees––in other words, how much additional suffering would result from just that additional half-degree of warming. Their answer: 150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5-degree warmer one. Later that year, the IPCC raised the stakes further: in the gap between 1.5 degrees and 2, it said, hundreds of millions of lives were at stake.

Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but the 150 million is the equivalent of twenty-five Holocausts. It is three times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward––the largest nonmilitary death toll humanity has ever produced. It is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind, World War II. The numbers don’t begin to climb only when we hit 1.5 degrees, of course. As should not surprise you, they are already accumulating, at a rate of at least seven million deaths, from air pollution alone, each year––an annual Holocaust, pursued and prosecuted by what brand of nihilism?

This is what is meant when climate change is called an “existential crisis”––a drama we are now haphazardly improvising between two hellish poles, in which our best-case outcome is death and suffering at the scale of twenty-five Holocausts, and the worst-case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction. Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole.

Here, the facts are hysterical, and the dimensions of the drama that will play out between those poles incomprehensibly large––large enough to enclose not just all the present-day humanity but all of our possible futures, as well. Global warming has improbably compressed into two generations the entire story of human civilization. First, the project of remaking the planet so that it is undeniably ours, a project whose exhaust, the poison of emissions, now casually works its way through millennia of ice so quickly you can see the melt with a naked eye, destroying the environmental conditions that have held stable and steadily governed for literally all of human history. That has been the work of a single generation. The second generation faces a very different task: the project of preserving our collective future, forestalling that devastation and engineering an alternative path. There is simply no analogy to draw on, outside of mythology and theology––and perhaps the Cold War prospect of mutually assured destruction. (28-9)

Most people will be unable to read these words (or the rest of the book, for that matter) without feeling as if they’re being repeatedly punched in the gut. But that’s the whole point; getting people to care about climate change is at least as much about inflaming emotions––bodily instincts and fears––as it is about providing the cold facts, and in this sense Wallace-Wells displays exceptional talent.

The Uninhabitable Earth is a searing record of how “warming articulates its brutality,” taking the reader on an open-ended but always-devastating tour of ways in which our home planet will revolt against us in the near future (127). These scenarios, which are screaming into reality with frightening celerity, signify not a “new normal” to which we all must adapt, but rather a permanent negation of normality itself:

Never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has battered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in preview. It would be more precise to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia…What that means is that we have not, at all, arrived at a new equilibrium. It is more like we’ve taken one step out on the plank off a pirate ship. (18-9)

Given that our technology-driven world seems to already outstrip and reinvent itself while simultaneously undermining most of our adaptational efforts, surrendering the concept of normality feels as appropriate as it does paralyzing. Within this “new realm unbounded by the analogy of any human experience,” new horizons of pleasure and contentment will perhaps be possible, but new horizons of horror seem the only guarantee (73).

Exacerbated inequality would be a good candidate for the most harrowing of these horizons. Globalization fueled by unchecked capitalism has brought us to the brink of climate destabilization, and those same forces have also created unprecedented concentrations of wealth that seem to be controlled by fewer and fewer hands each year. There is no good reason to assume that a more treacherous planet will make it easier to solve the inequality problem, and many reasons to believe the problem will get worse:  “The world’s suffering will be distributed as unequally as its profits, with great divergence both between countries and within them” (121).

Most disturbing is Wallace-Wells’s description of “climate apathy” as a probable coping mechanism utilized by those who manage to escape the front lines of the climate war:

Through appeals to nativism, or by the logic of budget realities, or in perverse contortions of “deservedness,” by drawing our circles of empathy smaller and smaller, or by simply turning a blind eye when convenient, we will find ways to engineer new indifference. Gazing out at the future from a promontory of the present, with the planet having warmed one degree, the world of two degrees seems nightmarish––and the worlds of three degrees, and four, and five yet more grotesque. But one way we might manage to navigate that path without crumbling collectively in despair is, perversely, to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it, as we have so much human pain over centuries, so that we are always coming to terms with what is just ahead of us, decrying what lies beyond that, and forgetting all that we have ever said about the absolute moral unacceptability of the conditions of the world we are passing through in the present tense, and blithely. (216)

This strain of apathy is already familiar to anyone living in the developed world, and there can be little doubt that it will proliferate as people lucky enough to retain access to decent ways of life become increasingly surrounded by the tragedies and lamentations of the less fortunate.

Of course, the endgame here is that climate change comes, eventually, for us all. Wallace-Wells is attentive to this reality, arguing that a new wave of collective, climate-focused political will is the only way this crisis can be responsibly addressed. With the possible exception of some technological breakthrough or set of breakthroughs that changes the energy landscape both rapidly and profoundly, I believe he is right about this:

We only have a first shot to engineer a solution. This goes beyond thinking like a planet, because the planet will survive, however terribly we poison it; it is thinking like a people, one people, whose fate is shared by all.

The path we are on as a planet should terrify anyone living on it, but, thinking like one people, all the relevant inputs are within our control, and there is no mysticism required to interpret or command the fate of the earth. (226)

This last sentence hints at an understandable but frustrating inconsistency that flits in and out of The Uninhabitable Earth. The book is dominated by a tone of general malaise, and yet Wallace-Wells sometimes drops into a space of sanguinity that ruptures his narrative. Anyone who has watched this problem escalate should at least question if not outright reject the notion that “all the relevant inputs are within our control”. This appears true superficially (i.e. dumping more carbon into the atmosphere is a human activity and therefore under our control), but it is completely untrue in other, more fundamental senses: We don’t have a clue about how to nonviolently halt globalization (or make it somehow carbon neutral), nor do we know how to influence consumption habits in order to engineer swift and widespread decarbonization. Furthermore, climate change plays out within ecological systems and according to geographic timelines that contain innumerable inputs and dynamics over which we have no control whatsoever. Wallace-Wells is intimately aware of these facts, and describes them beautifully. It feels insulting, therefore, when he pivots by claiming all we need to do is start using the tools that are right in front of us and that we already control.

This inconsistency can be found earlier in the book as well. Ruminating about the kind of world in which his children will come of age, Wallace-Wells indulges a form of gritty optimism:

I know there are climate horrors to come, some of which will inevitably be visited on my children…But those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action can stop them. Climate change means some bleak prospects for the decades ahead, but I don’t believe the appropriate response to that challenge is withdrawal, is surrender. I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won, and acclimating yourself to a dreary future brought into being by others less concerned about climate pain. The fight is, definitively, not yet lost––in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less. And I have to admit, I am also excited, for everything that Rocca and her sisters and brothers will see, will witness, will do…She won’t just be watching it, she will be living it––quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending. (31-2)

This passage, noble and heartfelt as it is, seems downright delusional when matched up with the barrage of bad news that inundates The Uninhabitable Earth. It reads like a text determined to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are fucked, and that the near future is nothing more than a doomed expedition to discover the precise character of our fucked-ness. I get that Wallace-Wells would rather believe––and in some sense must believe––that bringing his children into the world could have been a good idea, but nothing of substance in his research makes that a defensible position. In fact, all the evidence seems to suggest that it would be something of a miracle for any of Wallace-Wells’s children to experience net-positive lives. Better to admit that he knowingly added to the world’s overall capacity for suffering at the exact moment when global potential for suffering is about to explode. Wallace-Wells is a brave writer, but his bravery has limits.

When it comes to climate change, fatalism is unpopular. We’re told to keep our chins up, to keep striving for a better tomorrow, to remember Gandalf’s observation that “even the wise cannot see all ends.” I’ve gone through many stages in my relationship with climate change. First it was my father’s dark obsession, a planet-wrecking boogey man that haunted my childhood. Then it was an alarm bell that gave birth to a newfound communitarianism. Then it was marching orders for political change, suffused with hope for righting the world’s many wrongs.

The Uninhabitable Earth made me realize that I’m done with all that. Keeping an open mind about this problem, one that allows for desirable outcomes, is too exhausting, and more intellectually dishonest with each passing day. This probably makes me an early casualty of climate apathy––a fact with which, fittingly, I have already made my peace.

Rating: 8/10