Book review – The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

“It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don’t think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.

The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future“, written by David Wallace-Wells, published in Europe by Allen Lane in February 2019 (hardback, 310 pages)

The Uninhabitable Earth expands on the essay published in New York magazine in July 2017. The piece quickly attracted criticism from climate scientists for being rather cavalier with its facts. Amidst the many responses, a useful summary is the piece published by science education NGO Climate Feedback in which 17 prominent climate scientists evaluated the essay. To its credit, New York magazine was quick to publish an annotated edition.

The near future sketched in the first half of The Uninhabitable Earth is one of a planet tortured by epic wildfires, rising sea levels, megadroughts, famines, acidifying oceans, polluted air, and rising temperatures amidst which hundreds of millions of climate refugees wander a planet in the throes of collapsing economies and emerging conflicts. In short, Wallace-Wells would like you to know that, unless urgent action is undertaken to combat climate change, we are all royally fucked.

He is not the first to sound a desperate alarm, and his book joins a budding subgenre that some critics disparagingly label “climate porn”. James Hansen, the well-known climate scientist who has chastised colleagues for not speaking up out of fear of being labeled alarmist, has done so before (see Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity), while others have declared the fight over (see Too Late: How We Lost the Battle with Climate Change or Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – and What It Means for Our Future). Some climate scientists are annoyed by what they perceive as scaremongering, arguing that frightening people will result in fatalism rather than galvanizing them. I guess people will respond in different ways, and recent climate protests suggest that his approach certainly works for some. Either way, Wallace-Wells does not mind being called alarmist, his (touché) defence is that he is alarmed, and you should be too.

“[…] Wallace-Wells would like you to know that, unless urgent action is undertaken to combat climate change, we are all royally fucked.”

Now, Wallace-Wells openly states he calls on predictions, on science that is in flux as new findings come to light. Even if he gets some of the details wrong, the overall pattern is pretty clear. As I have written elsewhere (see my reviews of The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions and The Oceans: A Deep History), the findings from palaeoclimatology leave little doubt as to what happens when you keep pumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The author brings together many poignant observations. Global warming is not a moral and economic debt that has been accumulating since the Industrial Revolution – about half of all fossil fuels have been burned in only the last three decades. And our epoch could very well be a blip on the timeline, the result of a gigantic one-off injection of fossil fuel into our economy, allowing us to live in a temporary mirage of “endless and on-demand abundance for the world’s wealthy” (I told you he was poetic).

“[…] our epoch could very well be a blip on the timeline, the result of a gigantic one-off injection of fossil fuel into our economy”

The Uninhabitable Earth is not a book of solutions though, and Wallace-Wells spends a good part of the second half of the book railing against what he thinks will not work. Against the hallucinatory fantasies of Silicon Valley who hope to escape into a virtual reality, uploading their consciousness into computers. Against as-of-yet hypothetical technofixes such as carbon capture and storage or negative emissions technology. Against ecological nihilism by burned-out environmentalists such as Paul Kingsnorth (see Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist). If you want practical advice, you are better off reading There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years.

The Dutchman in me can appreciate his in-your-face polemic style. This is why I am surprised he overlooks one vital aspect: overpopulation. As soon as this topic comes up, Wallace-Wells seems blindsided. Part of him is excited for his daughter and the world she will inhabit, one which will be “doing battle with a genuinely existential threat”. This seems mildly perverse given the litany of terrors he lays out in this book. And those who abstain from having children over their concerns for a world ravaged by climate change “demonstrate a strain of strange ascetic pride”.

“For a book that prides itself on its fierce frankness, not addressing overpopulation feels like a serious omission.”

One problem I have with this line of argumentation, that our lifestyle and economy are wrecking the planet, is that it ignores numbers. Yes, our ancestors were not despoiling the planet, but I would argue it was not for want of trying, but for want of numbers. Now, I have no data to back this assertion up with, so I am going out on a limb here, but how much damage do you think a population of 7 billion stone age hunter-gatherers would have inflicted on the planet? Or 7 billion people trying their hand at farming some ten thousand years ago? I would not at all be surprised that if you work out the numbers, the reason our ancestors did not bring about climate change has more to do with their lack of numbers than with a lack of impact of their lifestyle.

And Wallace-Wells comes so close when he observes that most emissions have only happened in the last three decades. Could it be that the doubling of our world population has something to do with this? For a book that prides itself on its fierce frankness, not addressing overpopulation feels like a serious omission. It is a thorny topic (see my review of Should We Control World Population?), but if you want to talk solutions, addressing it should be a vital part of a multi-pronged approach he envisions to avoid the bleak future sketched here.

The Uninhabitable Earth is lyrical and stirring, but also controversial and not without its flaws. Is taking the predictions of climate change impacts to their logical extremes a valuable exercise? I am left feeling conflicted. I can sympathise with the urge to want to grab people by the scruff of the neck, but whether it ultimately is constructive is something I am not fully convinced about.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however. This review has been slightly edited since its publication to emphasize that I consider the author frank rather than alarmist.

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