David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019)
This week we’ve had so many killer records coming in to the store that I haven’t been doing much listening outside of new releases, so for this staff pick I’ll go with a book. The Uninhabitable Earth is a book about climate change, and its basic argument is that things are much, much worse than anyone has acknowledged, and we’re not heading in the right direction if we want things to get any better. The book is a tough read. Besides having to swallow the bitter pill that is Wallace-Wells’s thesis, the writing style is dry, focusing on statistics and logical arguments without many of the anecdotes or illustrations that science writers use to pull in lay readers. I noticed readers complaining about that in the book’s reviews, but part of Wallace-Wells’s argument is that the genre conventions of science writing (alongside pressure on scientists not to be “alarmist”) have made the threats surrounding climate change seem much less dire than they are.
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned from this book is how much greenhouse gas emissions and other contributing factors for climate change have been increasing over the past few decades. We’ve been hearing about global warming and climate change for so long that you figure we must be making some progress on the issue, but in fact things are getting worse, with global emissions rising sharply since the 80s. The natural world differs greatly from when I was a child, with changed weather patterns and a sharp decline in biodiversity, all due to human beings’ actions. While we think of climate change as happening on an imperceptibly slow timescale, these are changes I can observe over the course of my own life. Unfortunately, the changes are coming faster and faster with each passing year.
Even if emissions stayed where they are, climate change will seriously impact human beings’ quality of life as its effects pile up, but at this point emissions staying where they are is a pipe dream. The question isn’t whether emissions will continue to rise, but how quickly, and Wallace-Wells outlines the consequences of what different levels of action will look like in the coming decades. It seems like there is little hope that much of the world won’t be uninhabitable by the year 2100, and while that’s longer than I expect to live (I was born in 1979), our generation’s children and grandchildren will, according to Wallace-Wells, live in a world that is far different and much, much harsher than ours. Vast stretches of the earth will be literally uninhabitable (i.e. you won’t be able to go outside for more than a few minutes at a time), which will cause a cascade of negative effects including (but not limited to) climate refugee crises, food shortages, civil unrest, war, and economic collapse. Anything short of drastic action in the very near future will produce similar results by the year 2050, a year when I’m hoping I’ll still be alive. Unfortunately, drastic action is not looking likely, and I worry that in my old age the earth will be a miserable, unforgiving place.
This book came out in 2019, and it’s interesting to think about it considering everything human beings have gone through with the COVID pandemic. One thing this disease has helped me to see is that no one is steering humanity’s ship. In the US, at least, either no one is willing or no one can change the momentum that is pushing us toward disaster. In fact, many people seem philosophically opposed to doing good things for humanity, confident that their own privilege, wealth, or intelligence will shield them from whatever horrors are on the way. As bad as COVID is, climate change is even more challenging because it is a global problem that would require an aggressive, globally coordinated solution. If we are to solve that problem it will require a total rethink of how human beings organize and imagine themselves, and right now I don’t see who has the vision or the resources to make that happen. I can only hope that COVID serves as a warm-up that gets us heading in the right direction so we can confront the even more serious crisis lurking just beyond it.