“No human has ever lived on a planet as hot as this one; it will get hotter.”
In a nutshell, The Uninhabitable Earth – the follow-up book to the New York Magazine article of the same name – is a compendium of all the climate-induced horrors awaiting our species. Wallace-Wells, the author, only spends a few pages on each, but that these together make a whole book is hint enough of just how badly things are going to go.
Climate change is happening. We are making it happen. We have an avalanche of science telling us this (and none of these scientists want to be right; none of them are in it for the money or they’d be doing studies on the behalf of the deep-deep-pocketed oil lobby). Now researchers are asking: what will happen next? If we act now? If we take another one, two, three, or more decades to act? If the temperature rises by two degrees Celsius, by three, by four?
The answers are, many of them, worse than I once thought – almost beyond my ability to comprehend, in fact. Whole bands of the planet will become uninhabitable simply because it will be too hot for humans to function (the Hajj will probably become impossible for Muslims within the next few decades). Rising heat elsewhere will impede our cognition and increase rates of murder and rape. Rising sea levels coupled with other climate effects will batter and devour islands and coastlines and, beyond this loss of home and life, will reduce the amount of arable land which of course will also be reduced by rising temperatures. Food will not just be scarcer, it will be less nutritious; increased carbon dioxide has been found to decrease the content of protein, calcium, iron and other nutrients in crops like rice (a trend already happening outside labs). Wildfires will beget wildfires, our forests becoming carbon producers instead of carbon sinks. Malaria will move into the north. And more, and more.
Perhaps the NHS should start giving this book out as a contraceptive.
The second half of the book is more speculative in its consideration of the range of ways in which society and governments might respond to the calamities of climate change. In all honesty, I started to get a little lost here; Wallace-Wells is fond of tongue-tying sentences and highbrow cultural comment. The TLDR summary is “we might sort shit out, probs won’t tho”.
Still, he keeps on with the memorable lines:
“Instead we assign the task to future generations, to dreams of magical technologies…”
“… the world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin.”
“… warming at the level necessary to fully melt Arctic glaciers and elevate sea level by several hundred feet promises to initiate rolling, radically transformative changes on a timescale measured not in decades or centuries or even millenia, but in the millions of years.”
The book does strike some jarring tones. Wallace-Wells goes to great pains to emphasise that he doesn’t care all that much about the natural world (apparently, arguing for ape rights is “offensive” to civil rights and feminist movements – um, okay) and is motivated simply by fear for his own species. Will this overt distancing from much of the “environmental Left” help win over more dubious readers? Only the reviews will tell. But what saddens me most is his rejection of individual agency. There are two inherent contradictions in his arguments:
- Collectively our consumption has created climate change, but individual behaviour change makes no difference.
- Individual behaviour change cannot make a difference if our political and industrial systems do not change commensurately.
Wallace-Wells tells us we should we vote instead of going vegan. But I fail to see how these two acts don’t operate on the same principle. There is as much econo-cracy as democracy in our modern world; the power of the ballot box and the power of the purse. My favourite example of this is Quorn Foods recently opening a massive new factory in the UK to cater for the rising popularity of flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets. (And you can read about various examples of successful ethical boycotts here.)
Secondly: governments and companies are made up of people. I’ve always been fascinated and disappointed by the black-boxing of these entities. It’s as if, as soon as an organised group of people reaches a certain mass, They become an It, an utterly alien being. These people have the same eyes and ears to witness the gathering effects of climate change. They have children. My point is: we need to generate Mexican waves of behaviour change in consumer habits, ones that envelope the higher strata of society too. Campaigns and boycotts must continue, of course; it must all happen at the same time, individual acts illuminating possibilities, a top-down and bottom-up assail on reticence and denial. Is it naive to imagine that if a whole board of directors were convinced of the need to change their own habits, were changing their own habits, they would choose to alter the course of their company?
I leave you with the final line of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas:
“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”