The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, by David Wallace-Wells (New York: Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019, ISBN 9780525576709). 320 pp. Hardcover, $27.00.
So, how bad do you think climate change is going to be?
Take a minute.
Nah. It’ll be way worse than that.
That is the message of The Uninhabitable Earth, a harrowing but fiercely readable secular prophecy by journalist David Wallace-Wells. Rising seas, more savage weather, killer heat waves, vanishing freshwater, unprecedented climate-refugee migrations, oceans bereft of macroscopic life, massive die-offs of food animals, crops, and pollinators upon which we utterly depend—each of those apocalyptic threats awaits us. Each will be more destructive and far-reaching than most imagine. Each will build upon and interact with all the others in terrifying ways.
Wallace-Wells means his book’s title to speak literal truth. Humanity is way too far into a toboggan plunge at whose bottom looms a nightmarish world. The Paris target of holding global warming below 2º C is already a pipe dream; more likely is warming of 4º, 8º, or higher—in which case the earth will become largely uninhabitable for humans.
Despite its bleak message, the book manages to be neither alarmist nor despairing. (Although Wallace-Wells is better at avoiding alarmism than he is at forestalling despair. More on that later.)
Wallace-Wells avoids alarmism by marshaling both journalistic and technical sources expertly, by writing masterfully, and by providing massive annotation. It would be alarmist if he were overselling the scope of the problem, but most readers will come away convinced that he is not. Any who follow the “x-risk” scholarship of researchers such as Free Inquiry contributor Phil Torres—or the better-known geographer-historian Jared Diamond, who thinks it 49 percent likely that civilization will collapse before 2050—will appreciate Wallace-Wells’s unflinching account of the deep, deep hole into which humanity has dug itself.
That hole isn’t merely deep; it’s deepening quickly.
One common error is to imagine that climate change began in 1712 with Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine and swelled steadily ever since. Down that path lies much unproductive guilt about how much damage our great-great-great-great-grandparents did clear-cutting forests to fuel early steam locomotives.
In truth, the damage done to Spaceship Earth by the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age, and even the two World Wars was relatively modest. The biosphere absorbed those insults with limited consequence because only some humans were perpetrating them and because humanity’s absolute numbers were still relatively small. The assault that’s now overwhelming Mother Nature took shape only in the second half of the twentieth century, as human numbers raced toward, then passed, seven billion and as the developing world began to consume and pollute to a degree previously open only to the “privileged” West and as its people began to reach for American standards of personal abundance.
What’s actually driving much of the crisis is the explosive growth of industry and the concomitant rise in living standards in places such as China and India. This emerged so recently that at the turn of the twenty-first century, climate change could have been blunted by a far smaller reduction in humanity’s carbon footprint than what experts counsel today. Wallace-Wells writes:
If we had started global decarbonization in 2000 … we would have had to cut emissions by only 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut our emissions by 30 percent each year.
Climate-change specialists tend to understate the true depth of the crisis when speaking in public, perhaps out of a reasonable fear that many can’t handle the truth. In private, it can be a different story. I’ve been privileged to have one-on-one conversations with several top climate scientists. Most went like this:
Me: “It’s way worse than you let on, isn’t it?”
Expert: [Tossing back whole cocktail.] “Oh hell, yes.”
Wallace-Wells takes some experts to task for mollifying the public with Climate Change Lite, encouraging too many to view the crisis as an annoyance rather than the multi-faceted existential threat it is.
Which Returns Us to the Issue of Despair. Throughout his book, Wallace-Wells counsels against despair. True, a response large enough to matter now must entail a revolutionary change in the way humans across the planet use energy and consume resources, coupled with a dead-serious effort to control our numbers. But he insists there’s still hope if we respond radically enough. True, our successors will never know the soft, nurturing climates in which readers of this magazine grew up; those are gone forever. But our hotter, wetter, more violent world can still support human life and civilization—if less pleasantly than before.
There’s just one problem. Wallace-Wells’s litany of dooms is so relentless, the data he marshals so overwhelming, that it becomes difficult to imagine that people can—or, more accurately, will—undertake the life-wrenching reforms demanded. I expect that many readers will react to The Uninhabitable Earth by retreating into stupefied paralysis.
If only The Uninhabitable Earth were being alarmist. Because it isn’t, despair seems a rational response.
This book has finally convinced me that the jig is probably up for humankind. If I avoid stupefied paralysis, it’s only because I’ve thought humanity was living on borrowed time, though for another reason, for some while now.
A Curmudgeon’s Confession. I don’t expect humans to succeed in heading off climate-change catastrophe. I’ve seen this disaster movie before; because humanity failed to rise to the occasion in its twentieth-century prequel, I am grimly convinced that it won’t now.
I refer to the overpopulation crisis, the discovery that human numbers were growing unsustainably and something had to be done about it. This insight penetrated the scientific community shortly after World War II, exploding into popular consciousness with Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. Ehrlich predicted Malthusian catastrophes in the 1970s and the 1980s; when those failed to occur, popular opinion came to belittle overpopulation concerns. Tragically, overpopulation moved from being a mainstream issue to a marginal one commanding enthusiasm mostly on the anti-immigrant right.
What really happened? Ironically, even as Ehrlich was writing his book, the so-called Green Revolution started swelling harvests worldwide. With the global adoption of chemical fertilizers and mechanized agriculture, Malthusian tragedy was averted. Mind you, the population bomb was still ticking; Norman Borlaug’s fortuitous innovation had merely swept us out in front of it for a while.
Nor was the Green Revolution a panacea. Its unforeseen consequences included an explosion of monocultures; pollution from petroleum-based agriculture, through fertilizer production and emissions from farming equipment; fertilizer and pesticide runoff from fields fouling adjacent waters and eventually the open seas; and so on and on. (Quite a few of these problems make it into Wallace-Wells’s climate-based nightmare scenarios.)
How did humanity respond to the freak windfall of the Green Revolution? Reason would dictate that we should still have taken drastic action to curtail human numbers. By so doing, we might have maximized the Green Revolution’s benefits and assured a future of relative plenty to the largest possible fraction of the human family.
Of course, we didn’t.
Instead we took the Green Revolution as the “new normal,” then set about adding as many new humans as our enhanced agriculture could feed. Our numbers screamed upward. (Yes, fertility rates tended to drop as education and prosperity expanded; even so, we’re now staring down the barrel of population eight billion.) Our shared failure to address overpopulation stands among the causes of climate change Wallace-Wells elucidates.
Personally speaking, I read The Population Bomb at age fourteen, and it changed my life. I resolved to father no children (a pledge I’ve proudly kept). In my early twenties, even my search for a new hometown reflected overpopulation concerns. One of the reasons I sought work in Buffalo, New York—a city whose economy and population were then in the process of dropping by half—was curiosity about how its political leadership would respond to rapid shrinkage. (I still dreamed that society writ large would shortly embark on a campaign of deliberate shrinkage, so I sought for instructive examples wherever they could be found.)
How would Buffalo’s leaders react, twenty-something me wondered? By demapping emptied neighborhoods? By consolidating scattered residents into districts dense enough to save, then fencing off the remainder, decommissioning its infrastructure, and letting large tracts revert to wilderness? None of the above. Far from accepting shrinkage—much less planning to make Buffalo the best possible smaller city—area leaders simply pretended it wasn’t happening. They wasted energy chasing successive silver-bullet schemes to Bring Back the Good Old Days. Nor were matters notably different in Detroit or Youngstown, Ohio, other cities I once hoped might be laboratories for creative responses to population decline. (Of late, Detroit managed a renaissance despite itself. Buffalo did likewise on a smaller scale; Youngstown, not so much.)
To sum up, that last time humanity faced a credible apocalyptic threat rooted in its tragic facility for wretched excess, I was following developments closely. Scarcely anyone rose to the challenge of overpopulation. When the Green Revolution threw us a lifeline, we took it as an excuse for denialism rather than an unearned opportunity for escape.
Present-day economies and polities work best with a percent or two of growth each year—obviously an unsustainable course long-term. (Keep in mind that even at 2 percent growth, population doubles every thirty-five years!) Our contemporary system, reliant as it remains on perpetual growth, is “a pyramid scheme … a Ponzi scheme,” accused Nobel laureate and new AAAS president Steven Chu. I fear that we’ve learned nothing at all regarding the still-urgent need to reduce human numbers purposefully and (if this is still possible) humanely.
In short, human beings acquitted themselves miserably in the face of an overpopulation crisis that should have elicited commitments to the same sort of revolutionary change that is now, we’re told, humanity’s last hope to blunt climate change. Overpopulation and climate change both require deep, sustained reform that steers sharply away from humanity’s impulsive fixation on growth, growth, growth.
Since we couldn’t do the job against overpopulation—a threat that still poses existential risks to humankind—how reasonable is it to imagine that we’ll do the right, very hard, things about climate change?
Sorry, with the overpopulation debacle in mind, I simply can’t take seriously the idea that any number of YouTube videos of starving polar bears will prod humans to respond appropriately this time around. The dismal toboggan will plunge on. After reading The Uninhabitable Earth, I expect we’ll ride it, white-knuckled, all the way to the bottom.
I’m in my sixties, so I won’t have to see the worst of it. Because I never reproduced, I haven’t condemned any successors (or, just maybe, their successors) to experience the final collapse.
A Chilling Comparison. The book that most reminds me of The Uninhabitable Earth is a raven-dark 2013 overpopulation tract, Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion. Emmott was telegraphic where Wallace-Wells is encyclopedic; Ten Billion’s brief islands of text amid terrifying images most resembled the transcript of a really good PowerPoint. Its final page was printed in solid black, broken by just twenty-seven words in sere, white sans-serif text:
We urgently need to do—and I mean actually do—something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.
I think we’re fucked.
I think Stephen Emmott was right about overpopulation. And I think David Wallace-Wells is right about climate change. Regretfully, angrily—at last, resignedly—I think humanity is (to borrow a highly technical term that the aforementioned Phil Torres has striven to popularize) superfucked.
*Wallace-Wells never quite addresses the possibility that his book might be exploited to justify selfish Westerners in viewing climate change as somehow the developing world’s fault for growing its economies. In response to the inevitable “fairness” question—Don’t developing countries deserve the same chance to marshal resources and grant their people the good life of air-conditioned high-rises, cars, jet planes, and red-meat diets that Westerners have enjoyed for so long?— Wallace-Wells would probably answer that the dream of American-style material abundance for all was never achievable. To attain it would demand the resources of, very roughly, five Earths; because we only have one, even the attempt is making disaster all but inescapable.
**Jeff McMahon, “The World Economy Is a Pyramid Scheme, Steven Chu Says.” Forbes.com, April 8, 2019. Available online at https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2019/04/05/the-world-economy-is-a-pyramid-scheme-steven-chu-says/#3573c9c94f17; accessed May 6, 2019. To Dr. Chu I offer a hearty “Welcome aboard.” Longtime FI readers may recall my December 2007/January 2008 op-ed on population issues, titled—yes—“Beyond Ponzi Economics.”