Authors on Climate Change: The Uninhabitable Earth
Continuing down the bleak path of literature on climate change, today’s book of choice is The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. The book is inspired by a 2017 New York Magazine long-form article of the same name (also by Wallace-Wells) and begins with the sobering message to its reader that climate change “is worse, much worse, than you think.” Reassuring, right?
Part I: Cascades
In Part I, the author discusses the changes experienced by the planet as a result of rising global temperatures, beginning with talk of the five mass extinction events which preceded the one we are currently experiencing. These extinction events, however, have not been influenced by carbon dioxide emissions to nearly the extent that our ongoing one is. According to Wallace-Wells, “there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years.” The author states that this period of mass carbon emission began with industrialization and has continued at a rapid rate through human-produced greenhouse gas emissions to create the “cascades” the planet is being subjected to: natural disasters like hurricanes and forest fires. The author notes that though efforts have been made to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (through policies like the Kyoto Accord and the Paris Agreement), these natural disasters still persist and will likely all occur at once, in a great and terrible amalgamation of global disaster. The author states that “the assaults will not be discrete—this is another climate delusion. Instead, they will produce a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation, the planet pummelled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond.”
Part II: Elements of Chaos
Wallace-Wells continues into Part II with his exploration of what he calls “disasters no longer natural” that are fuelled by climate change — everything from sea level rises to economic collapse. He separates each of these events into individual chapters and explains the terrifying implications of each, citing specific incidents caused by carbon dioxide emissions (i.e.: how carbon dioxide emissions have affected human nutrition, causing plants and other natural foods like bee pollen to decrease in nutritional value). Wallace-Wells further explains that these events and their consequences do not run parallel to one another, but are intersectional, and will work together to bring greater ruin to the earth through the aforementioned “cascades” as global temperatures continue to rise.
Part III: The Climate Kaleidoscope
The third section of Wallace-Wells’ book brings to light the social side of climate change through the lens of what the author calls the “climate kaleidoscope”, the distortional effect of which makes us, as humans, complacent in the face of climate change. Like Bringhurst and Zwicky’s Learning to Die, the segment deals with how humans should interpret climate change and its role in the imminent death of humankind. He separates Part III into six chapters, each of which discusses a social element and how it interacts with climate change: narrative, capitalism, technology, politics, history, and ethics. Wallace-Wells explains that each of these factors has its own “distortional” effect on how we view climate change, furthering his point that humankind is too complacent when considering global climate crisis and how our daily practices are only contributing to ultimate climate collapse.
Part IV: The Anthropic Principle
The book’s fourth and final section uses existential philosophy as a call to action to Wallace-Wells’ readers. The first philosophical model the author employs is the Fermi paradox, which asks the question: “if the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it?”. To counter this is the titular Anthropic principle, which discusses the exceptionality of intelligent human life existing on Earth. Wallace-Wells puts an optimistic spin on this philosophical dilemma, urging readers to “feel empowered” by how “unlikely it may seem that intelligent civilization arose in an infinity of lifeless gas”, and to embrace this intelligent existence by using it for good, even in the face of an imminent death.
Wallace-Wells’ book is, in my opinion, a 228-page call to action to its readers in the face of the grim reality of climate change and how humans have contributed to it. Through the citing of natural disasters in both ancient and recent history, and by outlining the specific ways in which greenhouse gas emissions created by humans contributed to those disasters, the author ensures that the reader walks away from his book with a sense of ownership when considering climate change and the future of the planet. Through discussion of the social side of climate change, and how humanity’s social structures have affected and are consequently affected by climate change, Wallace-Wells further endows ownership upon his reader. And lastly, through philosophy, he urges his readers to use their unlikely existences — existences which were capable of contributing to global climate crisis — to instil positive change. The book is both terrifying and hopeful, and puts into perspective how we have lived and should continue move forward in a world plagued by global warming. According to Wallace-Wells, “this is not a book about the science of warming; it is a book about what warming means to the way we live on this planet”, and ultimately, the author argues that the way we live should be more consciously and less complacently in the face of climate crisis.