The Uninhabitable Earth

By David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth reads very much like what it is: a magazine article that took off (or went viral, as magazine articles now do) that was then expanded to book length. Meaning that despite its timeliness and urgency it also wanders from point to point while becoming repetitive, which has the unfortunate effect of watering down some of its message.

The overarching point is announced in the first sentence: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” This is probably true, and I say “probably” only because I register as a “temperamental declinist” and so what I think is already pretty bad. The set of conditions — social, technological, economic, political — that have given rise to global climate change are all still very much in the driver’s seat. There seems little interest, at least among the class of those with the power to do much, to change the way we live now, and even if we did somehow manage such a transformation many of the consequences of our industrial, mass-production/mass-consumption economy (a historical blip in the grand scheme of things) are now baked into the system anyway.

In all of this there is nothing new, at least if you’ve been keeping even slightly informed about what’s been going on. Wallace-Wells isn’t providing any original analysis as he’s a journalist and not a scientist or environmentalist. He does, however, highlight the various main areas of concern moving forward, like extreme weather events, extinctions, rising ocean levels, refugee crises, and the spread of infectious disease. More broadly, he wonders what will happen when we step outside the environmental window that our species has evolved within thus far. If, as I think is true, “the wheels of all communities are greased by abundance; baked by deprivation, they stall and crack,” then how will we respond when that cracking occurs?

Little time is spent on potential solutions or fixes, perhaps because Wallace-Wells doesn’t put a lot of stock in them. Nor do I. Instead, he speculates on ways we may have to adapt in order to cope. These range from the withdrawal to virtual worlds (a preferred environment that gives us the illusion of control) to the development of new moral systems. In any event, “we know enough to see, even now, that the new world we are stepping into will be so alien from our own, it might as well be another planet entirely.” And that’s not just a comment on the physical or natural environment. In the way we live, work, eat, and relate to one another our children will become aliens too.

Review first published online March 11, 2021.

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