The End of the World As We Know It
Review by Benjamin Pope
The Uninhabitable Earth
Life After Warming
Book by David Wallace-Wells
My earliest memory is of a bushfire. I must have been three years old. The sky was black and raining glowing red embers. I was standing in the garden while my father sprayed water on the house and garden, and explained what a bushfire was and what we were going to do. I felt the kind of stoic dread you feel as a child encountering something frightening for the first time, knowing your parents have it under control. That feeling has remained with me for twenty-five years, as bushfires have become a brute fact of living in Australia.
At Christmas visiting my family last year, the country was gripped by the worst bushfires in its history. Sydney was so choked with smoke that it was hard to breathe outside without an N95 mask: an eerie first taste of the coronavirus lockdowns. We were trapped inside, refreshing for updates about the fires’ progress, as resource-starved emergency services battled the blazes. For the first time I felt true fear of climate change: the fires would get worse, and worse, and worse. In this slow apocalypse, two horsemen—a virus and global warming—show up together, and the threat of climate change doesn’t go away because of the pandemic. In his 2019 bestseller, New York magazine deputy editor David Wallace-Wells made it clear that both events are different pieces in the same kaleidoscope of disaster.
The Uninhabitable Earth is a terse and engaging account of the whirlwind we expect to reap from decades of carbon addiction. Wallace-Wells’ tone is urgent to the point of alarmist – but the truth really is alarming: climate change, even according to our most optimistic projections, will upend our environment, our economy, and our culture. This is a tightly-written book, with a propulsive, almost exhausting energy. It zooms all the way from the nitty-gritty of climate predictions up to the big questions: does life on Earth have a future – and are we alone in the universe?
This book-length work expands on Wallace-Wells’ essay of the same title in New York magazine, the most widely-read piece in the magazine’s history. The article was also deeply controversial. With a background in history, Wallace-Wells is not a scientist. In an independent review some climate scientists criticized the piece. University of Exeter’s Prof. Pierre Friedlingstein wrote: “Such article [sic] does not help at all. It’s just too easy to prove it wrong and hence imply that the entire climate change issue is exaggerated.” This view is widely held among scientists: to be sober and restrained is considered a virtue. Communicate with the public – but not too strongly! Faced with nuclear winter – the inverted shadow of global warming – Carl Sagan’s public advocacy for his point of was the bane of serious climate scientists. I sit more with Wallace-Wells on this, when he says in the annotated essay, “I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. I’ll accept that characterization. We should be alarmed.”
The book mostly follows the structure of the essay. After a discursive and sometimes lyrical introduction, a sequence of short and punchy chapters goes over each threat we face from climate change: heatstroke, famine, rising seas, wildfires, vanishing freshwater and anoxia in the oceans, pollution, economic collapse, rising warfare – and indeed, pandemics. It is not a pretty picture, but it clips along quickly by deferring the detailed references to 65 pages of appendix notes (perhaps a nod to criticism of the original essay). The rapid chopping and changing does tend to lead to some bewilderment, and I felt like I needed a stiff drink after some grim chapters.
Wallace-Wells compares climate change to a ‘hyperobject’: “objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity.” This book too sometimes transcends documentary specificity to approach belles lettres, as the author connects big cultural issues with an appealing critical detachment and sharp turns of phrase. He is scathing about simple answers:
…it is perhaps a sign of our culture’s heliotropism toward technology that aside perhaps from proposals to colonize other planets, and visions of technology liberating humans from most biological or environmental needs, we have not yet developed anything close to a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation.
The final chapters weave together fascinating threads of cultural responses to climate change, from ‘Deep Ecology’ and its pessimism toward humanity, or ecofascism blaming and punishing immigrants; to Silicon Valley fantasies of escaping to New Zealand, or to Mars (apparently equally remote to the Peter Thiels and Elon Musks of the world); and predictions of our species’ post-human technological future – or extinction.
Wallace-Wells imagines an Earth after climate change that is so altered as to be inhospitable to life itself, a disaster on a cosmic scale. This is close to my own line of work: I am an astronomer studying planets around other stars. Stars like Aldebaran have evolved into red giants and burned their formerly habitable worlds to red-hot hells, while the magnetic winds from GJ 1151 have probably scoured its otherwise temperate planet down to airless rock. I am less accustomed to thinking in the same terms about our own planet. It is terrifying to think that two or three centuries of industry may be all it takes to render the Earth a wasteland that cannot sustain our civilization as it is, or even most existing life.
In his final chapter, Wallace-Wells relates climate change to the big question of extraterrestrial intelligence. If alien life is abundant in the universe, why haven’t we encountered it yet? This is called the “Fermi Paradox” after physicist Enrico Fermi, and was first raised in the academic literature by Michael Hart. Perhaps climate change is such a universal product of industrial civilization that thousands of civilizations have wiped themselves out before, and we are doomed to repeat their failure.
Perhaps because I am an astronomer, I am tempted to read the connection between climate change and life in the universe in the other direction. In a provocative essay, astronomer Jason Wright and artist Michael Oman-Reagan have noted that ideas of space colonization and alien contact are really code for the speaker’s contemporary world-view. I was surprised to learn that outside of astronomy, Hart is a leading American white supremacist activist – so it is unsurprising that he sees the universe as a place of conquest and genocide. Fermi asked his question on a lunch break from building atomic bombs. Life in the universe is a subject so incomprehensible in ordinary terms, that it is a blank canvas onto which we can paint our fantasies. I wonder whether Wright & Oman-Reagan’s point might also apply to climate change: our responses tell us more about our preconceptions than anything else.
The Uninhabitable Earth focuses on forecasts of the effects of climate change, rather than the murkier politics of how we will adapt to it or mitigate it. But in reality, it is hard to separate the two: the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere dictate the pace and extent of warming, and our emissions of those gases depend on these murky politics and economics. There is an unstated premise that industrial capitalism is the only game in town: in the final pages, in a single paragraph, Wallace-Wells argues that we have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; investment in green energy in carbon capture.
What a relief! After two hundred pages of dire warnings, pulling a punch like this feels disappointing. Business as usual with some modifications looks to me like a hand feeding the dog that bites it. The index has entries for eco-fascism and human extinction, but not eco-socialism or a Green New Deal.
The focus on predicting consequences of climate change is still embedded in a very particular world view, and the book doesn’t really address other ways of knowing and modifying landscapes. Yet there is an emerging consensus that Indigenous economies were sophisticated and ubiquitously shaped their environments, popularized for example in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Charles Mann’s 1491, or Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. In Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams I had the rare experience of an inversion of a long-held perspective: the celebrated ‘wilderness’ of the American West has been since time immemorial a landscape inhabited by and modified by human beings. Solnit links Yosemite National Park, a well-populated valley won in war to be a pleasure park, with the Nevada Test Site, where Western Shoshone people were exposed to Cold War nuclear weapon tests. They were never wilderness; Yankee eyes merely chose not to see.
In Australia, the story rhymes. The Maralinga nuclear tests in South Australia were in fact the moment of first contact between some Aboriginal peoples and the West. The tests rendered their homelands uninhabitable for forty or fifty thousand years – as long as the history of their habitation so far. Now Aboriginal communities in the deserts of the Northern Territory are already facing heatwaves so severe that they literally cannot survive them in their ancestral homelands.
There is natural common cause between economic justice, environmental campaigns, and Indigenous rights (I have written about this elsewhere), and it is surprising that Wallace-Wells doesn’t play to this theme. Beyond noting that Australia will be by far the developed country worst hit by climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth barely mentions the vast continent that is already a testbed for the worst effects of climate change – indeed, not even once in the chapter on wildfires. Wallace-Wells does refer to the Aboriginal Australian idea of the ‘dreamtime’ as a metaphor for climate change, but nothing else, and there is no mention of other Indigenous peoples of the colonized world.
And yet Indigenous oral histories accurately record some events at the end of the last ice age. There is a chauvinism to thinking about building ecosystems on Mars, but ignoring the possibilities of peoples using local knowledge and agency to react to and stabilize their ecosystems and ways of life. Many Indigenous peoples in Australia have traditionally managed ecosystems with controlled burning. This most recent catastrophic fire season is likely to become the new normal with climate change, and cultural burning may be the best approach to mitigating it.
Wallace-Wells makes a point of our collective responsibility, saying
This is why this book is also studded so oppressively with ‘we’, however imperious it may seem. The fact that climate change is all-enveloping means it targets all of us, and that we must all share in the responsibility so we do not all share in the suffering.
This ‘we’ feels uncomfortable when it is really certain peoples and their political economy who are the authors of climate change. Perhaps ‘we’ should consider some other perspectives in the solutions. But this is a pragmatic book, laser-targeted to shock the professional class who read New York magazine and contribute most to global warming: it certainly shocked me.
After the bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic feels like a cruel second act. (Pandemics are, as Wallace-Wells notes, expected to become more frequent with climate change). Masks back on, denial and disinformation again from the usual suspects, and heroism from some of the same heroes. The New South Wales state fire chief Shane Fitzsimmons, who led the response to the bushfires, is now in charge of coordinating the state’s coronavirus recovery plans. I doubt his next job will be easier. Wallace-Wells writes that climate change will produce
a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation, the planet pummeled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond.
What will that world seem like to children who grow up seeing disaster, after disaster, after disaster? Will we, their parents, be able to explain what we were doing?
Benjamin Pope earned his doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Oxford in 2017. He is a NASA Sagan Fellow at NYU in the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics and the Center for Data Science, where he has yet to find a planet he likes as much as this one.