Comes at you like a death metal prose poem meant to shatter every notion you hold about climate change.
David Wallace-Wells’ bullshit-free polemic The Uninhabitable Earth comes at you like a death metal prose poem meant to shatter every notion you hold about climate change. The author clears through the misinformation and performative acts of environmentalism to tell the important truths about the suicide track the human race continues down as our economies spew massive quantities of greenhouse gases in the air. Both a page-turner and a stress headache, Wallace-Wells has crafted one of the most important books about the climate crisis because of his clarity of premise: we are fucked, but there is hope.
Wallace-Wells opens the book with what should be the next great quote tattoo for the erudite, as well as a brand used to shame the deniers and profiteers delaying the large scale actions required to save lives: “It’s worse, much worse, than you think.” Our planet is an outlier, and the alchemy that allowed it to create the systems that support the amount of diverse life on its surface is fragile. We have ruptured that alchemy and need to accept that it is not coming back. Wallace-Wells presents a simple choice: do we work together to alter our economies of consumption to prevent hundreds of millions of people from suffering? Or do we continue on our present course to complete collapse? It’s one or the other. No scenario exists now where we can restore the environment to the life sustaining habitat we so blissfully neglected. We are doomed, but that doom has levels.
Part of the challenge, especially here in the United States where teaching controversies where none exist is just part of normal discourse, is our inability to perceive the threat. Normal no longer exists, but we pretend it does in our daily conversations. For instance, it has been cold in Southern California all year, but residents treat this phenomenon as an anomaly and not part of the extremes we now live under that saw the state burning from wildfires just months before. A tornado rips through central Ohio far from “tornado alley,” a stretch of Midwestern states susceptible to this particular atmospheric event, but the possibility that this is a symptom of the climate crisis goes unaddressed. We would rather stare in wonder and engage in nostalgia for all the old weather patterns than consider the danger we’re in.
Science illiteracy certainly plays a role. Far too many people find it amusing when a senator brings a snowball to the floor of the Senate to chide progressives for their alarmism. This is one of the great misunderstandings between climate and weather with the former being seen too often through the prism of the latter. Four hundred parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere sounds like a massive number, but the resulting degrees of warming seem paltry and unthreatening. We’ve all lived through days two to eight degrees hotter than we expected and nothing dire happened. Surely a robust planet can survive being a little warmer.
To put numbers on this misperception, the difference between one and a half and two degrees of global warming is 150,000,000 lives. According to Wallace-Wells, three or three and a half degrees of warming “would unleash suffering beyond anything humans have ever experienced through many millennia of strain and strife and all-out war.” The Paris Agreement set international emissions goals to keep warming between one and a half and two degrees. To make this scenario a reality, nations would have to limit their carbon emissions to 405 parts per million. Last June, global carbon emissions exceeded 411 parts per million with fossil fuel usage continuing to rise. Add this to the release of carbon and methane set free from the melting permafrost and the Paris goals joins the ranks of other international pipe dreams, performative and unenforceable.
The future we are hurtling toward is one of scarcity, disease, war and famine and many of the lesser known horseman of the apocalypse. So where’s the hope? We are all complicit in this reality no matter how tiny we try to make our carbon footprint, our daily living bringing our species closer to extinction whether we use plastic straws or paper, making optimism the scarcest of resources. But after laying out our sins, Wallace-Wells shows a great deal of faith in the human race’s ability to work collectively to limit suffering in a funhouse mirror view of the actions we took to create this mess. We did this. While we won’t be able to rebalance the atmosphere to what it once was we can take action to keep as much of the planet livable as possible for its billions of residence. All it will take is political will and imagination to enact things we can do now like carbon taxes, the phasing out of fossil fuels and the shifting of national dietary habits away from beef and dairy. Just writing those things makes the optimism drain away. Think of the sniping you hear when people use those paper straws. Now think about what you’ll hear when they are forced to eat an Impossible Burger.
Fatalism is always an option, and with Jeff Bezos looking to make the moon his panic room the reasons to worry are genuine. The thing is we only have the one planet and there’s no getting off it. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere isn’t part of a natural cycle. We did this and it’s our responsibility to limit the damage of the destruction we’ve created in the name of convenience. We now live in a post-Nature era of our own design. Our great project will have to be surviving it.