Trigger Warnings: anxiety; death or dying; famine; fire; medical stuff; police brutality; starvation; trauma; violence; war
The nonfiction book club in my English 10 class wouldn’t be complete without a selection on environmental issues. I go through each year to update the titles to make sure the works are more current. In Spring 2020, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells was the selection.
The group of students that chose this title told me it is incredibly depressing reading, and boy were they right! As promised, I read all of the books the students selected. They all got through each title more quickly than I did since they only had one book to tackle. When I finally got to reading Wallace-Wells’s book, it was the summer of 2020 and the COVID 19 pandemic was in full effect.
I tend to read at night before bed; this is not a good book to read before bed if you, like me, worry endlessly about things you cannot control all night and wake up groggy the following day.
The Uninhabitable Earth is so intense because Wallace-Wells says that science and media focus more on the best-case scenario regarding climate change and global warming. He believes that it is equally important to examine the worst-case scenarios to understand what we are in for if we don’t do something now about climate change.
“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious, as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions.”Wallace-Wells 3
“Heightened estimates establish the boundaries of what’s possible, between which we can better conceive of what is likely. And perhaps they will prove better guides even than that, considering the optimists have never, in the half century of climate anxiety we’ve already endured, been right.”Wallace-Wells 8
“We know what a best-case outcome for climate change looks like, however unrealistic, because it quite closely resembles the world as we live on it today. But we have not yet begun to contemplate those cascades that may bring us to the infernal range of the bell curve.”Wallace-Wells 22-3
This logic makes a lot of sense to me; still, there’s not much that can prepare you for taking a close look at what our lives might become if the worst-case scenario plays out.
“This is not a book about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.”Wallace-Wells 11
There is a lot that climate change will affect that I didn’t think about. We often think about melting icebergs, rising water levels, and apocalyptic deserts. But we rarely think about how it will affect what we’ve created with our minds and hearts.
“Climate change could soon mean that, in the fall, trees may simply turn brown, and so we will look differently at entire schools of painting, which stretched for generations, devoted to best capturing the oranges and reds we can no longer see ourselves out the windows of our cars as we drive along the highways.”Wallace-Wells 25
Wallace-Wells spends Part I of the book explaining that the things we take for granted every day will change because of climate change, mainly for the worst.
“The assaults will not be discrete — this is another climate decision. Instead, they will produce a new kind of cascading violence.”Wallace-Wells 21
In Part II, “Elements of Chaos,” the author describes what will happen to these various aspects of life. In the first chapter, he looks at the deadly consequences of rising temperatures.
“Projecting future warming is a foolish game, given how many layers of uncertainty govern the outcome; but if a best-case scenario is now somewhere between 2 and 2.5 degrees of warming by 2100, it seems that the likeliest outcome, the fattest part of the bell curve of probability, sits at about 3 degrees, or just a bit above. Probably even that amount of warming would require significant negative-emissions use, given that our use of carbon is still growing.”Wallace-Wells 46
Something that goes hand in hand with heat death is hunger and poverty. There is a whole chapter on how climate change will affect our food sources and how the current hunger crisis we already have on our hands will grow.
“Remember, even with the remarkable gains of the last decades, we do not presently live in a world without hunger.”Wallace-Wells 56
“In previous centuries, empires were built on that crop. Climate change promises another, an empire of hunger, erected among the world’s poor.”Wallace-Wells 58
Another result is the rising water levels and what that means for coastal communities and other bodies of water across the world. The oceanic ecosystems and their role in our consumer culture are in peril. So too, will our freshwater sources suffer.
“By 2100, if we do not halt emissions, as much as 5 percent of the world’s population will be flooded every single year.”Wallace-Wells 60
“the ocean isn’t the other; we are. Water is not a beachside attraction for land animals.”Wallace-Wells 94
“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. But while the planet commands necessary resources today to provide water for drinking and sanitation to all the world’s people, there is not the necessary political will — or even inclination — to do so.”Wallace-Wells 92
Already, the United States sees wildfires every year, and it doesn’t seem like there is any lessening of their intensity. Wallace-Wells quotes California Governor Jerry Brown, who said that the state’s wildfires are “a new normal.”
“It is tempting to look at these strings of disasters and thing, climate change is here. And one response is to seeing things long predicted actually come to pass is to feel that we have settled into a new era, with everything transformed. . . . The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again.”Wallace-Wells 18
“The fires should be terrorizing enough, but it is the cascading chaos that reveals the true cruelty of climate change — it can upend and turn violently against us everything we have ever thought to be stable. Homes become weapons, roads become death traps, the air becomes poison. And the idyllic mountain vistas around which generations of entrepreneurs and speculators have assembled entire resort communities become, themselves, indiscriminate killers — and are made, with each successive destabilizing event, only more likely to kill again.”Wallace-Wells 77
Even natural disasters like hurricanes and tornados seem more frequent and more destructive of late. According to the book and to the horror of my students and me, it will only get worse.
“In a four-degree-warmer world, the earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling the ‘weather’: out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will strike much more frequently, and their trails of destruction could grow longer and wider. Hail rocks will quadruple in size.”Wallace-Wells 78
(My parents had just finished having their roof redone after a terrible hailstorm a few months prior. Since I worked from their house with the superior Internet connection during the shutdown, I was witness to the headaches that accompanied the necessary repairs and subsequent payments).
“For the world’s poor, recovery from storms like Katrina and Irma and Harvey, hitting more and more often, is almost impossible. The best choice is often simply to leave.”Wallace Wells 85
Recently, a manufacturing plant in my community caught fire and spewed toxins into the air. Families living near the plant had to evacuate. We get updates on our phones about air quality. Air, especially fresh, healthy air, is the sort of thing that we can easily take for granted. We can’t see it as it brings us life. But, as anyone who experienced the respiratory consequences of COVID-19 could tell you, the importance of our access to air is something we cannot live without. Regardless, the West continues to pollute the air with industrial waste to fuel our consumer culture.
“carbon is, more or less, the least of it. Going forward, the planet’s air won’t just be warmer; it will likely also be dirtier, more oppressive, and more sickening.”Wallace-Wells 101
The chapter on growing epidemics and pandemics seems like it’s science fiction. It looks like that board game, Pandemic. Except, I read this book during an actual pandemic and had the constant reminder that the threat of illness consuming the globe is all too real. How does climate change affect the spread of disease, I wondered. It has an overarching impact, and there are many things we don’t often think about when it comes to the connection between climate change and disease.
“There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years — in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them, which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues merge from the ice.”Wallace-Wells 109
“global warming will scramble . . . ecosystems, meaning it will help disease trespass those limits”Wallace-Wells 111
“We are operating in near-total ignorance about the effects climate change might have on the bugs in, for instance, our guts — about how many of the bacteria modern humans have come to rely on, like unseen factory workers, for everything from digesting our food to modulating our anxiety, could be rewired, diminished, or entirely killed off by an additional few degrees of heat.”Wallace-Wells 113
Another frightening thing that I never thought about is the rise of violence running parallel to rising temperatures. But, I read this in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and the media had violent images slashed across their platforms every day. It was hard to separate what Wallace-Wells reports about the correlation between heat and violence from what was going on around me.
“a planet four degrees warmer would have perhaps twice as many wars as we do today. And likely more.” Wallace-Wells 125Wallace-Wells 125
“Heat frays everything. It increases violent crime rates, swearing on social media, and the likelihood that a major-league pitcher, coming to the mound after his teammate has been hit by a pitch, will hit an opposing batter in retaliation . . . . The hotter it gets, the longer drivers will honk their horns in frustration; and even in simulations, police officers are more likely to fire on intruders when the exercises are conducted in hotter weather.”Wallace-Wells 129
It’s not just the planet that will feel the effects of warming. Part III examines how the changing climate will affect pop culture, technology’s progress, politics, economics, history, and ethics.
“If we could wish a solution into place by imagination, we’d have solved the problem already. In fact, we have imagined the solutions; more than that, we’ve even developed them, at least in the form of green energy. We just haven’t yet discovered the political will, economic might, and cultural flexibility to install and activate them because doing so requires something a lot bigger and more concrete, than imagination — it means nothing short of a complete overhaul of the world’s energy systems, transportation, infrastructure and industry and agriculture. Not to mention, say, our diets or our taste for Bitcoin.”Wallace-Wells 178-9
While highly interesting and well-researched, it’s hard to enjoy this book. It’s a stressful read. It also doesn’t provide much content on how readers can do something to take control of their fates. Even though Wallace-Wells claims that “it is not a fatalistic scenario” and that we are all “authors” of climate change and can therefore decide the fate of the earth, there is more philosophical contemplation about this than recommendations for actionable steps readers can take to write this ending.
“For centuries we have looked to nature as a mirror onto which to first project, then observe, ourselves. But what is the moral? There is nothing to learn from global warming because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons. We are after all not merely telling the story, but living it. That is trying to; the threat is immense.”Wallace-Wells 28
In fact, Wallace-Wells argues, the small actionable steps don’t make the impact that we believe they do. Instead, it’s going to be radical, political, and economic shifts that make the difference.
“The project of unplugging the entire industrial world from fossil fuels is intimidating, and must be done in fairly short order.”Wallace-Wells 32
“the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics. America’s rump climate party aside, that scaling should not be impossible, once we understand the stakes. In fact, the stakes mean, it must not be.”Wallace-Wells 34
Still, there are notes of hope ringing throughout these pages. Even without the actionable steps we can take, it is good to think, however philosophically, about how we can make the subsequent decades, the following centuries, better for our descendants.
“The fight is, definitively, not yet lost — in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less.”Wallace-Wells 32
I remember discussing the book with my cousin, Steven. He knows a lot about taking care of the planet and is passionate about sharing information with others on what they can do. While he hadn’t read The Uninhabitable Earth, he’d heard of it and read other works like it. While I found value in the book, I mentioned that I wanted something more practical and less intense for my students who are similarly passionate about these issues. He agreed that would be a better approach to engage kids in environmental justice. He recommended The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus, and Our House Is On Fire by Greta Thunberg. He says, “The scare tactics are effective, [be]cause so much of the conversation is ‘something will get invented by the time we need it.’ Scare you into action works, but it’s also nice to have concrete examples of positive options to keep from getting burned out.”
I couldn’t agree more. Honestly, we probably all need to read more about our own planet. So, save The Uninhabitable Earth for when you’re ready for its intensity. Start with something like Holthaus or Thunberg first.
Whatever book you decided to read about the environment first, you can get it on Bookshop.org and support indie bookstores. Supporting local and indie bookstores and businesses is an actionable thing that you can do to help the environment! A blog post for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts reports that smaller businesses have “smaller carbon footprints” than larger businesses and companies.
There you go! One thing you can do right now to help the environment!!!