This is a book review that I wrote, which will be published in the journal, Science Progress, of which I am an editor.
"The Uninhabitable Earth." DAVID WALLACE-WELLS. Allen Lane 2019 ISBN 9780241355213; xx + 310 pp; £20.00
As set in motion by human hands, the forces of the Anthropocene – a word coined to mark the scale of our intervention in Nature as numbering among those of previous geological epochs – are predicted to drive the Earth system in expressing climate change to a degree that for many of the almost 8 billion, let alone 11-12 billion predicted to be here by 2100, the Earth would have become barely tolerable, and for some, actually uninhabitable, depending on the degree of warming that prevails by then, and the attendant consequences to the natural commons of air, land and water, which would be manifest unevenly around the globe. Even if we could halt our carbon emissions, instantly and today, the intrinsic inertia of the Earth system would nonetheless unfold the rising of sea levels, the degradation of land, and other changes (some, as yet, unknown) for centuries, perhaps millennia, to come. The book, “Uninhabitable Earth”, begins with “Cascades”, and takes a look at some of the likely consequences of climate change, the magnitude of which will be tuned according to the degree of warming that is unleashed, including mass migration of climate refugees, water scarcity, famine, a more extreme climate, wildfires, outbreaks of disease, and extreme “once every 500 years” events that become more the norm (“rain bombs”, mighty hurricanes), since the effects are not binary - “yes”, “no”; “on”, “off” - but exponential, and worsen over time, so long as we continue to produce, and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The author notes that, although there has been a self-comforting trend, particularly among Western liberals, to contort their own consumption pattern into performances of moral or environmental purity – less beef, more Teslas, fewer transatlantic flights – unless such actions are scaled up by politics, they amount to relatively little, beyond a “feel good factor”, in the face of bleaker evidence from science.
How politics will bend the overall scene is a moot point, since, for example, signing up the Paris Agreement is no more than a set of promises, and not binding in terms of any punitive consequences, for those who do not meet their targets. In any case, the United States is notorious in withdrawing from the Agreement, due to President Trump’s wish to protect the US coal industry, which he perceives as being disadvantaged by it, over other countries, especially China. The integrated nature, and scale, of the problem, is emphasised by the term “Elements of Chaos” (as entitles the second section of the book), and is in line with the concept of “The World’s Woes”, which stresses that many of the issues (e.g. peak oil, soil erosion, water stress, overpopulation, carbon emissions, etc.) that presently confront us are not individual problems, that can be tackled in isolation, but are interrelated symptoms (“cracks in the wall”) of a broader reality of systemic failure. Thus, the term “the changing climate” has previously been used, rather than ”climate change” – i.e. as driven by fossil fuel burning/global warming – to encompass the many features of change that we currently experience, although the climatic shifts driven by the additional energy, absorbed into the Earth system, are likely to play out over the most protracted timescale.
The question, of whether technology can solve all our current problems, has been asked before and, indeed, one is reminded of the “4 (possible) scenarios” proposed by David Holmgren, one of the originators of permaculture, which is a design system, based on three core ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Shares (return of surplus). Holmgren looks toward the future on the timescale of development of an old growth forest (say, 500 years), and concludes as “technofantasy”, the idea that technological advances will be able to, not only meet all energy and other needs, but absorb and repair the damage already done, and which we may continue to do, over that same time period, and, presumably, beyond it. Holmgren sees permaculture as a pathway to achieving a state of harmony between humans and Nature, “Earth Stewardship”, where resources are used not only sustainably but regeneratively, and that a more apposite icon for the latter is a tree, rather than a solar panel, since, arguably, all solar panels and wind turbines will have become trash (possibly toxic waste) long before then, unless better initial design and the cycling back of materials and solar/wind-generated energy into the system, overall, can be achieved. In the present book, Wallace-Wells is similarly sceptical (“The Church of Technology”) – and fearful – particularly over technologies for geoengineering, e.g. spraying particles (probably sulphate aerosols) into the atmosphere, with the intention to reflect sunlight back into space and reduce the burden of warming at the Earth’s surface. However, he also cautions that without the existing levels of atmospheric pollution, global warming would be even worse, and that if we manage to clean the atmosphere (i.e. reduce pollution), this could have the unintended, and highly undesirable, consequences of reaching the 1.5 oC limit more quickly than has been anticipated, and ushering in more extreme heating effects over the coming century and beyond. It is, therefore, a Faustian deal: a tug-of-war between controlling pollution and driving climate change. Moreover, once such technology had been inaugurated for climate control, it could never be discontinued, since if it were, climate change would ramp ahead at a yet steeper gradient.
The remarkably wasteful nature of our current use of resources – of all kinds – is a significant and underpinning urger of The Changing Climate, and, in principle, is where we might act most effectively. For example, some 50% of all plastics manufactured end up being used just once then thrown away, much of this for packaging, which accounts for almost half of all plastic waste. Here, undoubtedly, is an example where behavioural changes can be made, to curb both the waste of finite fossil resources, and the pollution that is engendered, since much of this waste escapes collection and enters the open environment. Deglobalisation/relocalisation has been proposed as one overarching approach to ameliorating this present situation; meanwhile, Bitcoin mining uses more electricity than the whole of Switzerland. Our concerns, so far, over the effect of climate change on water have, as Wallace-Wells stresses, been most often focussed on saltwater, in the form of storms and sea level rise, and building barriers against it; however, of the water there is on Earth, it is freshwater that is most precious, but is under increasing demand pressure, and in June 2019, Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, ran out of water: just one of 21 cities in this very populous, and rapidly industrialising nation, that are predicted to run out of groundwater by 2020. As Wallace-Wells quotes, “If climate change is the shark, the water resources are its teeth.”
The book takes the line that climate change, and what we can expect from it, is not only worse, but incomprehensibly worse, than we have been led to believe. Yet there are grounds for optimism, so long as we act now, and sufficiently. Thus, whether the strap-line of the book’s title, “A Story of the Future”, will prove true to history depends very much on what we do now – from this moment. It is, however, not merely a few minor, personal, lifestyle choices that are necessary, but change at all levels: social, governmental, individual, material, and perhaps, as has been suggested by Gus Speth, a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defence Council, “spiritual.” As Wallace-Wells points out, the term “Anthropocene” can be taken to imply conquer, which has connotations of the biblical “dominion”, of man over the Earth; that we have the divine right to use the resources of this planet only to our own ends, whereas a more modern view is that what is required of us is (Earth) stewardship, as expressed by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si, encyclical letter, on “Care for Our Common Home”. Wallace-Wells describes plastics and bee death as “climate parables”; however, these can be viewed, alternatively, as “poster children” for a system that is failing, and needs to be fixed, and plastic pollution, particularly, has united people from all walks of life, and across the world, in a sense of awareness and drive to “do something” to protect the environment. In this respect, they provide powerful rallying banners, even if their implications in climate change are, at most, fairly minor, and they are, rather more, elements – among many – of The Changing Climate: inflicted upon the Earth as (to quote the Pope) a “sister” that we have “abused and harmed”, who “groans in travail”, and whose wounds we must help to heal, or become ourselves wounded, as further environmental destruction unfolds. It is time to question what we mean by “growth”, and those values of a consumer based economic system that is underpinned by enlarging debt, and the consumption of finite resources – primarily the fossil fuels – hence, of itself, being non-maintainable, not being supported by solid, and sustainable foundations. As Wallace-Wells asks, “If you strip out the perception of progress from history, what is left?” Indeed, maybe this is merely a perception, and even partly an illusion.
In summary, this is a thought provoking, and largely well written book, in which the author’s assertions are convincingly substantiated by a comprehensive list of up-to-date references. The tone of the writing is quite measured, which makes the facts presented all the more stark. Since the material is based on interviews that Wallace-Wells conducted with numerous experts and thinkers from different formal disciplines, it is not only the opinion of the author that is expressed, but the spirit of those working directly to wrestle a view of what is happening now, and what will most likely become the “now” over the course of the present century, and beyond. It is true that we (or those alive then) will only know how things have played out on arriving at a given future date, for this is an experiment that we are all participating in, and are subjects of, in real time, but all evidence there is warns that humankind now levers on the fulcrum of the greatest shift in our known history – and the direction is our choice.