Brief Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Image result for the uninhabitable earth“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

So opens David Wallace-Wells’ harrowing, terrifying journey into the almost inevitable future of our planet.

Except it’s not really the future of the planet, the book’s title notwithstanding; it’s the future of humanity, or the immiserated, dessicated disaster-plagued remnants of it we have inflicted upon ourselves.

Everything about The Uninhabitable Earth, from its title to the minimalist cover to the unrelenting parade of horribles Wallace-Wells describes, is bleak. Here, for example, is the list of chapter titles in Part II, titled “Elements of Chaos:”

Heat Death
Hunger
Drowning
Wildfire
Disasters No Longer Natural
Freshwater Drain
Dying Ocean
Unbreathable Air
Plagues of Warming
Economic Collapse
Climate Conflict

This is no dry and technical document of climate science; Wallace-Wells is a journalist and brings a journalist’s gift for distilling complicated concepts into digestible prose – even if the result makes you lose your appetite. In fact, Wallace-Wells spends little time attempting to convince the skeptics of climate change; at this point, as yet another hurricane described as unprecedented has leveled another island in the western Atlantic, only the willfully obtuse continue to deny the existence of global warming. Rather, his goal is different: To make abundantly clear that our current trajectory is catastrophic, and what exactly that means in terms of temperatures, sea levels, food shortages, pollution, migration, disease and disasters.

Because, Wallace-Wells argues, even those who accept the factuality of anthropogenic climate change have swathed themselves in comforting falsehoods:

The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a mater of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended agains nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.

None of this is true.

And that’s just the first paragraph.

What strikes the reader is not just how total and overwhelming is the damage we humans have done to ourselves and the only home we have, but also how recent this damage is – most of it within the past three decades, when scientists were already sounding the alarm – and how inadequate even the most aggressive efforts thus far to reduce emissions will be to counteract the cascade of calamity heading our way, that in fact has already begun, as the former residents of Paradise, Calif., could tell you.

The Uninhabitable Earth is not totally without hope. Wallace-Wells points out that we have both the technology and policy that would likely avert the worst of the terrors he describes, but we are lacking in perhaps the most crucial resource: political will. This is especially true in the United States, where in the past 40 years, when scientists have developed an essentially unanimously agreed-upon portrait of the problem, 24 of them have now been presided over by a president, including the current one, who denied not just the importance or urgency of fighting climate change, but its very existence. As we sit here, the party in charge of the presidency, Senate and Supreme Court continues to reject the very existence of a threat that will destroy human civilization if allowed to run unchecked. But as Wallace-Wells points out, even countries not held captive by industry-funded anti-intellectualism, are doing far too little. Thus even the hope he provides is significantly hobbled by the reality of our political – and, let’s say it honestly, capitalist economic – systems.

This is a book that demands reading. It is the most important book of the year, perhaps the decade, perhaps our lifetimes, hyperbolic as that sounds. But this is a time in which hyperbole and reality are not so easily distinguished. As Wallace-Wells points out, one of the reasons we have reached this point is that those who most fully understand the scope of the crisis often pull their punches for fear of being seen as unreasonable or alarmist. He understands his book may indeed be called alarmist. Well, he responds, “I am alarmed.”

So should we all be.

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