The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

Review by Peter Reason

I am approaching my seventy fifth birthday. As I look back, I see my life has been overshadowed by the gathering ecological catastrophe. I have a childhood memory, strangely both clear and hazy, that was an intimation of things to come. As a small boy in the 1950s I am sitting at the kitchen table turning the pages of a weekly magazine—possibly Life or Picture Post. I come to a double-page spread featuring a dramatic black and white photo of a filthy smokestack, illustrating an article predicting a future environmental crisis. I ask my mother about it, and her reply brushes my concerns aside as if forbidding even the thought behind the question, “You don’t want to think about that, dear”. But clearly the notion that life on Earth was precarious lodged in my mind. Throughout my adult life this early intimation was reinforced: I was just eighteen in 1962 when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published; I recall having the weird image of a mother bird crushing her eggs as she sat to incubate them because the shells were so thin. This was followed in 1968 by Buckminster Fuller’s challenging proposal that we live on ‘Spaceship Earth’; in 1972 by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report pointing to overshoot and collapse; in the 1990s by Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth; in the new century by the series of increasingly alarming reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); and now daily reports of rapidly melting icecaps, record temperatures, violent storms, the bleaching of coral reefs, chemical and plastic pollution, all indicating that ecological catastrophe is on us faster even than the pessimists thought.

As professor at the University of Bath, I taught and researched ‘sustainable business practice’—a phrase the now seems rather archaic. I remember conversations with colleagues back in the 1990s, agreeing, “We have another ten years to address this, then it will be too late”. Yet here we are now, over halfway through the second decade of the new millennium, when little has really changed. Is it still nearly too late, as the latest IPPC report argues; or has the moment, if indeed it existed, actually slipped from our collective grasp? And is it alarmist to talk about the possibility of ecological and social collapse? Or is that a taboo that needs breaking? All these issues are raised by David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth.

In 2017 Wallace-Wells published an article in New York Magazine ‘peering beyond scientific reticence’ to argue that the climate catastrophe is ‘I promise you, worse that you think.’ It was a punchy piece that attracted considerable criticism for being alarmist and for selecting evidence to suit his argument. When I read it myself, having watched humanity fail to respond to the gathering crisis for so many years, I thought his major theme was uncontrovertibly true. The book is a development of that article.

It is a shocking book, shocking in several ways. First, in its appearance. From the moment my review copy arrived in the post, I tried to keep it out of view. The stark cover—the title set in plain black letters on a light cover, with a small dead bee underneath—is a brilliant piece of typographical design. But it is not the kind of image you want to have at your bedside—I found myself constantly putting the book out of sight on a high shelf. It was as if I myself was hiding from confronting the issue.

The second way in which this book is shocking is the most important: its content. For the book details the many ways in which climate change is impacting life on Earth far faster and more profoundly than public discourse accepts. It has become the all-encompassing stage on which life in conducted—and will continue to be so into the distant future. We brought this upon ourselves. Humankind impacted the Earth system since hunting with spears cause the extinction of megafauna way back in prehistory, as Elizabeth Kolbert brilliantly details in The Sixth Extinction. But most of the damage to climate stability has taken place since the Second World War in what has been called the ‘great acceleration’, the exponential growth of resource use and pollution, mainly in developed Western economies. Indeed, Wallace-Wells tells us that a full half of the carbon dioxide exhaled into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels has taken place in the last three decades—since Al Gore, then US Senator, published his book Earth in Balance: ‘we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance… we wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or anyway didn’t look squarely in the face of the science’.

The first main section of the book details the ‘Elements of Chaos’, the many ways in which climate change will have an apocalyptic impact of life on Earth. It must, at the very least, mean the end of the way of life that we in the developed West take for granted, let alone the impact the global south and other creatures: heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse and conflict. Each chapter is packed with statistics gleaned through research articles and interviews that makes horrifying reading. To pick just one example: as Arctic ice melts and reflective albedo is lost, additional warmth is absorbed by the dark sea; this results in as much additional heating as 25 years of global carbon emissions. Parts of Earth will become too hot for human survival; sea will rise of up to two metres by 2100, inundating coastal cities and changing coastlines; crops will fail—cereal crops in particular don’t do well in higher temperatures; storms will be increasingly violent and damaging; and on and on. We have to move fast in reducing carbon emissions, not to stop, but just to limit the warming that is already in the climate system.

This book doesn’t definitely claim, despite its title, that Earth will become uninhabitable within current lifetimes; that depends on the choices we make and fail to make. But ‘the fact that we have brought that nightmare eventuality into play at all is perhaps the overwhelming cultural and historical fact of the modern era’. What we face is ‘the end of normal’, the end of the environmental conditions that enabled the human animal to evolve and develop its range of cultures and civilizations. The impact of climate change is more extensive and faster than certainly conventional science imagined. The IPCC report that global society has just twelve years to take effective action is alarming enough, but it is important to note that the IPCC is necessarily conservative, only admitting new research that has passed the threshold of unarguability. For example, the last report did not account for the kind of feedback effects of loss of albedo, or the potential release of methane from thawing permafrost. And in the past two years since that report, the Earth has had record-breaking temperatures, and new evidence that ancient ice is melting far faster than expected in both Arctic and Antarctic.

This leads to the third way in which I find this book shocking: it is shocking that we find it shocking. There is an apocryphal story of the leading professor of climate science who asks all prospective PhD students to name the major theoretical advances in climate science since the 1970s. The correct answer is, of course, that there have not been any: there are new empirical findings and new methods of assessment, but the theory has been confirmed time and again; indeed, scientists first predicted the impact of greenhouse gases in the nineteenth century. But the scientific community has generally been reticent about setting out the threats clearly; and despite the best efforts of many activists, we have not found the language, the stories, the rhetorical forms to encompass the threats. We continue to discuss climate change within the conventions of today’s world, rather than in terms of a world ‘deformed and defaced beyond recognition’. We pick up on one issue for a while—plastic pollution is the current favourite—but fail to understand the systemic implications, the ‘cascade effects’ as Wallace-Wells calls them. Maybe the current wave of schoolchildren’s strikes and movements like Extinction Rebellion will contribute to the emergence of a new narrative: there certainly does seems to be some fledgling new urgency in public discourse, although not from government circles.

I also find the book shocking in that it is entirely anthropocentric. The author makes clear he has never been an ‘environmentalist’ or a ‘nature person’. He writes ‘I may be alone on the environmental left in feeling that the world could lose much of what we think of as ‘nature’ as far as I cared, so long as we could go on living as we have in the world left behind. The problem is we can’t’. Apart from his failure of empathy for other creatures, he appears to have no clue that humans are part of a web of life, totally dependent on a flourishing ecology for our survival.

The book has been generally welcomed in the mainstream media, described as ‘lively’, as ‘relentless, angry journalism of the highest order’. But I found it not really very well written; assembled rather than composed. Here I agree with John Gibbons in the Irish Times, who sees Wallace-Wells as a ‘skilled essayist’, but finds the book doesn’t advance his original arguments, feels rushed, and needing better editing to free the narrative from a tangle of statistics and extraneous details.

I often found myself stumbling on long sentences full of subclauses, having to go over them a second or third time to grasp what his meaning. The first major section of the book, detailing the elements of chaos, has a certain dynamism to it, driven by the information he lays out. The later part of the book, ‘The Climate Kaleidoscope’, explores significant themes—Storytelling, Capitalism, Technology and others—in short and rather insubstantial chapters. Wallace-Wells draws draw on major and minor contemporary commentators but all too briefly and superficially. There is no unifying perspective or narrative through this second part. Overall, I found the book a struggle to read.

This book is important because it contributes to breaking the taboo against discussing the seriousness of our predicament: to repeat, it is ‘worse, much worse, than most of us think’. It is a contribution to the emerging debate about the profound existential threat posed by climate change and by our collective failure to make anything like an adequate response; a debate we must learn to have. For to accept this does not mean we lapse must into fatalism; as Jan Zwicky writes in Learning to Die, the first requirement of a moral human is to ‘look the truth of our situation in the eye’. And beyond that, there remains much we can do for ourselves and for the community of life on Earth—adopting the kind of New Green Deal proposed by the Greens in Europe and the radical Democrats in the USA would be a good start. Above all we need imagination and courage to dream new futures. 

I suspect this is a book that will be more purchased and discussed than actually read. I would certain recommend reading the original article in the New York Magazine before buying it. I would also consider other books and media sources that make the same argument: Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction is well researched and much better written; Naomi Klein a much stronger polemicist; academic and Green Party campaigner Rupert Read’s sets out the climate catastrophe in his talk on YouTube; management professor Jem Bendell covers similar ground in his paper on Deep Adaption; there is a very clear essay Facing Extinction by Catherine Ingram, an Australian writer and Buddhist teacher.

I must give the last word to David Wallace-Wells, who ends his book asserting:

‘climate change… calls the world, as one, to action. At least I hope it does.’

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His book In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.euand on Twitter @peterreason

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future. (Allen Lane, 2019). 978-0241355213, 320pp., hardback.

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