The book currently on top of my ever-growing ‘To Read’ pile is David Wallace-Well’s 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth. Based on his 2017 essay of the same name, this book packs a punch and delivers a grave warning to us all in no uncertain terms: we cannot keep ignoring the climate crisis we face.
That is not to say that the book is profoundly ‘preachy’, telling us what we should and shouldn’t do in order to fend off climate catastrophe. In fact, no clear solutions are recommended, although Wallace-Wells acknowledges that we do have all the necessary resources to go about improving the situation still available to us. Rather, the author is informative and writes with sometimes jarring clarity about the effects our current behaviour will have – and is already having – on the planet’s climate.
My use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ here is not accidental. Wallace-Wells makes it clear that we are, or should be, all in this together – although there is no cause here for a High School Musical-type celebration.
In fact, triumph is rare in this book. The narrative is no longer one of ‘we are doing well, we can push through the crisis’, one that seems to rear its head following each new climate summit or agreement. The mood is rather one of solemn realisation and struggle.
This mood pervades to the point that there is a sense of being overwhelmed each time you open the book. There are facts upon facts thrown at you about a whole host of troubles, from ‘Hunger’ and ‘Drowning’ to ‘Wildfire’, just to sample a few chapter titles from the first half of the book. Immediately on page 4, we are hit with the revelation that ‘more than half the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades’. Such a bombardment of despair is enough to make you want to put down the book and ignore it – yet that is exactly what we must not do, and Wallace-Wells makes this point in no uncertain terms.
When writing about extreme flooding across the world, for example, he mentions the devastating floods in Kerala in 2018, stating: ‘The floods hardly made a mark in the United States and Europe, where consumers of news have been trained over decades to see disasters like these as… both “natural” and distant’. As a matter of course, we ignore what we hope is distant, but the author presents us with hard evidence that this is a practice we must stop. Ignorance will not combat the climate crisis, after all.
You could easily claim that a book like this is demotivating, and on first glance you might be right. If things are so dire, why should we even worry at all? Wallace-Wells makes it clear that although dire, almost all of what he predicts for the future is subject to change. A lot of what he says is based on estimates, or trends newly observed in the last few decades. If humans change their habits, so will the impacts change. Once again, we have the tools, if not the drive or political atmosphere, to make a change for the better, but the onus is on us and it will be hard.
Basing a book on predictions of what will happen in the future, especially when it is founded on ever-changing human activity, means it is hard to be certain that any of these things will actually take place. It has led some to refute the author’s claims, suggesting they are more hyperbolic than realistic. I cannot claim to know all of the data behind what is written – however, the book cites an array of references which illustrate its point.
Does Wallace-Wells run the risk of alienating people with hyperbole and an overwhelming of negativity? Possibly. But is it not best to act as if the worst predictions are to be made real, rather than sit in blissful ignorance? I would say so.
Mark O’Connell of the Guardian says of The Uninhabitable Earth that to read it is to “understand the collapse of the distinction between alarmism and plain realism” with regard to the climate crisis. By that, I think he means that there is no more time for warning – and the author certainly does make this starkly clear. We must focus on this problem, and the only time for action is now.