The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells is the only book that I’ve ever read that I think everybody—and, yes, I mean everybody—should read. Reading it could literally—and this is the correct use of the usually misused word—save the planet.
The book catalogues in beautiful, lyrical, readable writing how we are destroying the planet. A friend who has been concerned about climate change for 30 years told me that the book “doesn’t contain anything new,” but I’ve convinced him, who had only scanned the book, that he’s wrong. My friend was familiar with the general picture of the horrors that Wallace-Wells describes–heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, unnatural disasters, loss of freshwater, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse, and systems failure—but he did not know all the detail. The book is extremely well-researched and referenced.
This is the most comprehensive and best written account of how we are destroying the planet and ourselves that I know.
Plus the most original part of the book might be the second half discussing how we are failing to respond, why we are failing and what we might do.
“Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves.”
Wallace-Wells repeatedly makes the point that the most unpredictable part of climate catastrophe is how we will respond. We may not know exactly what will happen if we allow the world to warm by 3C, as we are currently on track to do, but we do know it will be awful, killing billions, making the earth uninhabitable for most, and opening up the probability of species extinction. What we don’t know is how humans as a species will respond.
The response so far has been hopeless—promises but insufficient action. But in Britain in the past few weeks there have been positive signs: the direct action and civil disobedience of Extinction Rebellion; the visit of Greta Thunberg; David Attenborough’s programme giving the facts of climate change on peak-time television; the House of Commons voting in favour of declaring a climate emergency (pointless if action does not follow; and the government’s scientific advisory committee recommending that Britain achieve net carbon zero by 2050.
Wallace-Wells’s book is mostly painful to read, but he ends on a positive note: “Personally, I think that climate change itself offers the most invigorating picture, in that even its cruelty flatters our sense of power, and in so doing calls the world, as one, to action.”
I hope that everybody will read this book, but to get you started here are a lots of quotes.Quotes from Yhe Uninhabitable Earth. David Wallace-Wells
Fifteen percent of all human experience throughout history, it’s been estimated, belongs to people alive right now, each walking the earth with carbon footprints.
The optimists have never, in the half century of climate anxiety we’ve already endured, been right.
“The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead.”
If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it—the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances—recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other. That collapse of trust is a cascade, too.
[We need] a more complete retreat from economics as an orienting beacon, and from growth as the lingua franca through which modern life launders all of its aspirations.
Those who have imbibed several centuries of Western triumphalism tend to see the story of human civilization as an inevitable conquest of the earth, rather than the saga of an insecure culture, like mould, growing haphazardly and unsurely upon it.
Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves.
Politics has produced gestures of tremendous global solidarity and cooperation, then discarded those promises immediately.
It takes eight pounds of grain to produce just a single pound of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent its life warming the planet with methane burps.
Nearly all of the astonishing productivity gains [in agriculture] of the last century trace back to the work of a single man, Norman Borlaug, perhaps the best argument for the humanitarian virtue of America’s imperial century. Born to Iowa family farmers in 1914, he went to state school, found work at DuPont, and then, with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, developed a new collection of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties that are now credited with saving the lives of a billion people worldwide.
A state of half-ignorance and half-indifference is a much more pervasive climate sickness than true denial or true fatalism.
“A crime is something someone else commits….Someday, perhaps not long from now, the inhabitants of a hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet than the one on which I lived may wonder what you and I were thinking, or whether we thought at all.”
All climate change is governed by uncertainty, mostly the uncertainty of human action—what action will be taken, and when, to avert or forestall the dramatic transformation of life on the planet that will unfold in the absence of dramatic intervention.
Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets—enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean.
For a time, we had come to believe that civilization moved in the other direction—making the impossible first possible and then stable and routine. With climate change, we are moving instead toward nature, and chaos, into a new realm unbounded by the analogy of any human experience.
As soon as 2030, global water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent. Today, the crisis is political—which is to say, not inevitable or necessary or beyond our capacity to fix—and, therefore, functionally elective. That is one reason it is nevertheless harrowing as a climate parable: an abundant resource made scarce through governmental neglect and indifference, bad infrastructure and contamination, careless urbanization and development. There is no need for a water crisis, in other words, but we have one anyway, and aren’t doing much to address it.
Even before the drought, one estimate found that South Africa had nine million people without any access to water for personal consumption at all; the amount of water required to satisfy the needs of those millions is only about one-third the amount of water used, each year, to produce the nation’s wine crop.
As long as it has had advocates, climate change has been sold under a saltwater banner—melting Arctic, rising seas, shrinking coastlines. A freshwater crisis is more alarming, since we depend on it far more acutely. It is also closer at hand.
“There’s a saying in the water community,” Gleick tells me. “If climate change is a shark, the water resources are the teeth.”
“Who has known the ocean?” Rachel Carson wrote in her essay “Undersea.” “Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere.”
“The ocean,” said the lead researcher Bastien Queste, “is suffocating.”
95 percent of the world’s population is breathing dangerously polluted air.
Globally, one out of six deaths is caused by air pollution.
(Every round-trip plane ticket from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.)
The U.S. military is obsessed with climate change, the Pentagon issuing regular climate threat assessments and planning for a new era of conflict governed by global warming.
The first country to industrialize and produce produce greenhouse gas on a grand scale, the United Kingdom, is expected to suffer least from climate change. The world’s slowest-developing countries, producing the least emissions, will be among those hardest hit; the climate system of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries, is scheduled to be especially profoundly perturbed.
A form of emotional prophylaxis is also at work: in fictional stories of climate catastrophe we may also be looking for catharsis, and collectively trying to persuade ourselves we might survive it.
Almost everything about our broader narrative culture suggests that climate change is a major mismatch of a subject for all the tools we have at hand.
Ninety-six percent of the world’s mammals, by weight, are now humans and their livestock; just four percent are wild. We have simply crowded—or bullied, or brutalized—every other species into retreat, near-extinction, or worse.
With global warming we have unwittingly claimed ownership of a system beyond our ability to control or tame in any day-to-day way.
We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception.
The much-heralded green energy “revolution,” which has yielded productivity gains in energy and cost reductions far beyond the predictions of even the most doe-eyed optimists, and yet has not even bent the curve of carbon emissions downward. We are, in other words, billions of dollars and thousands of dramatic breakthroughs later, precisely where we started when hippies were affixing solar panels to their geodesic domes. That is because the market has not responded to these developments by seamlessly retiring dirty energy sources and replacing them with clean ones. It has responded by simply adding the new capacity to the same system.
Solar isn’t eating away at fossil fuel use, in other words, even slowly; it’s just buttressing it. To the market, this is growth; to human civilization, it is almost suicide. We are now burning 80 percent more coal than we were just in the year 2000.
The transition from dirty electricity electricity to clean sources is not the whole challenge. It’s just the lowest-hanging fruit: “smaller than the challenge of electrifying almost everything that uses power,” Steffen says, by which he means anything that runs on much dirtier gas engines. That task, he continues, is smaller than the challenge of reducing energy demand, which is smaller than the challenge of reinventing how goods and services are provided—given that global supply chains are built with dirty infrastructure and labor markets everywhere are still powered by dirty energy. There is also the need to get to zero emissions from all other sources—deforestation, agriculture, livestock, landfills. And the need to protect all human systems from the coming onslaught of natural disasters and extreme weather. And the need to erect a system of global government, or at least international cooperation, to coordinate such a project. All of which is a smaller task, Steffen says, “than the monumental cultural undertaking of imagining together a thriving, dynamic, sustainable future that feels not only possible, but worth fighting for.
We think of climate change as slow, but it is unnervingly fast. We think of the technological change necessary to avert it as fast-arriving, but unfortunately it is deceptively slow—especially judged by just how soon we need it.
The poet and musician Kate Tempest puts it more brinily: “Staring into the screen so we don’t have to see the planet die.”
The climate crisis demands political commitment well beyond the easy engagement of rhetorical sympathies, comfortable partisan tribalism, and ethical consumption.
If the world’s most conspicuous emitters, the top 10 percent, reduced their emissions to only the E.U. average, total global emissions would fall by 35 percent.
Today, we don’t even have to gaze into the future, or trust that it will be deformed by climate change, to see what that would look like. In the form of tribalism at home and nationalism abroad and terrorism flaming out from the tinder of failed states, that future is here, at least in preview, already. Now we just wait for the storms.
There is no good thing in the world that will be made more abundant, or spread more widely, by global warming. The list of the bad things that will proliferate is innumerable.
Human metanarratives as pervasive as heterosexuality and progress.
The last several hundred years, which many in the West saw as a simple line of progress and growing prosperity, rendered instead as a prelude to mass climate suffering.
The possibility that our grandchildren could be living forever among the ruins of a much wealthier and more peaceful world seems almost inconceivable from the vantage of the present day, so much do we still live within the propaganda of human progress and generational improvement. But of course it was a relatively common feature of human history before the advent of industrialization. It was the experience of the Egyptians after the invasion of the Sea Peoples and the Incas after Pizarro, the Mesopotamians after the Akkadian Empire, and the Chinese after the Tang Dynasty. It was—so famously that it grew into caricature, which then spawned decades of rhetorical critique—the experience of Europeans after the fall of Rome.
We should draw roughly the same meaning from an understanding of the imminent death of the species as the Dalai Lama believes we should draw from an understanding of our imminent personal death—namely, compassion, wonderment, and above all, love.
“I sometimes call it toxic knowledge,” Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, where McLemore was a commenter, has said.2 “Once you know about overpopulation, overshoot, depletion, climate change, and the dynamics of societal collapse, you can’t unknow it, and your every subsequent thought is tinted.”
They quote Bertrand Russell recapping Conrad, saying that the author of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim “thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.”
“We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves,” Kingsnorth and Hine write—namely, “the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature.’” All, they add, “are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.”
Kingsnorth is more of a true Stoic. “And so I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?” He offers five tentative answers. Numbers 2 through 4 are variations on new transcendentalist themes: “preserving nonhuman life,” “getting your hands dirty,” and “insisting that nature has value beyond utility.” Numbers 1 and 5 are the more radical ones, and form a pair: “withdrawing” and “building refuges.” The latter is the more positive imperative, in the sense of being constructive, or what passes for constructive in a time of collapse: “Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?”
The world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin. You can’t halfway your way to a solution to a crisis this large.
The problem, it turns out, is not an overabundance of humans but a dearth of humanity.
But, all told, the question of how bad things will get is not actually a test of the science; it is a bet on human activity. How much will we do to stall disaster, and how quickly?
If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment—collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.
Several climate scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as a Fermi solution. The natural lifespan of a civilization may only be several thousand years long, and the lifespan of an industrial civilization conceivably only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and then burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another.
Personally, I think that climate change itself offers the most invigorating picture, in that even its cruelty flatters our sense of power, and in so doing calls the world, as one, to action.
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