The Uninhabitable Earth

Our Broken Sky

Reckoning with David Wallace-Wells’s
The Uninhabitable Earth.

Here is another book that describes the end of our world. I did not want to spend 228 pages thinking about climate change, so it sat untouched on my desk for several weeks until I realized this was like plugging my ears while a doctor delivered the diagnosis. And David Wallace-Wells delivers the news with painful clarity: “The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead.”

Wallace-Wells writes beautifully about the days of fire and flood to come, diligently translating “the eerily banal language of climatology” into an eye-popping portrait of a world utterly transformed within decades. He forced me to look beyond the narrow fixation on the sea level and contemplate the wider landscape. Like a modern day Virgil, he guided me through a weaponized geography of fire, mud, drought, floods, toxins, contagions, and monstrous winds “tugging trees out of earth and transforming them into clubs, making power lines into loose whips and electrified nooses, collapsing homes on cowering residents.” His vivid rendering of climate change brings new energy to this question from Schopenhauer: “For where did Dante get the material for his Hell, if not from this actual world of ours?”

More critically, Wallace-Wells reckons with the knotty blindspots that prevent so many of us from taking action, outlining a list of psychosocial reasons from distrust to greed to fatigue to simply living through these bizarre days that require a permanent suspension of disbelief: “Perhaps it was because we were so sociopathically good at collating bad news into a sickening evolving sense of what constituted ‘normal’.”

“Toxic knowledge” is the environmentalist Richard Heinberg’s term for information that forever altars our sense of the world. “Once you know about overpopulation, overshoot, depletion, climate change, and the dynamics of societal collapse, you can’t unknow it,” he says, “and your every subsequent thought is tinted.” This book is filled with toxic knowledge: air filled with plastic, parasites awakening in our bellies, and the fragile aberration of social stability. Sunny day flooding. Rain bombs. Damage mechanics. The grammar of tomorrow’s weather shimmers with dread, and The Uninhabitable Earth maps the tribalism, autocracy, and retreat into dogma that are emerging as a response. We are rapidly moving beyond the Romantic notion of nature’s sublime terror towards a terror that is only manmade.

Yes, this is a book filled with toxic knowledge, but it also gives some cause for hope. Wallace-Wells reminds us that “what may sound like stoic wisdom is often an alibi for indifference.” We have agency. We have options. We already have the resources to end hunger, poverty, and hundreds of other ills, but we collectively choose not to. We can change course. If we do anything about climate change, we’ll probably dim the sun or paint the sky rather than rethink the religion of capitalism. One day soon we might awaken to a science fictional world with swarms of robots scrubbing the sky. If we are lucky.

Meanwhile, we live in a world that, as Wallace-Wells puts it, is “a running car in a sealed garage.” But change is coming, one way or another.

Gas

Somewhere in Kentucky

Powerball

May 13, 2019

My screen delivers footage of strangled sea turtles and disoriented walruses plummeting off a cliff. The United Nations says we’re on track to extinguish one million species from the planet. Meanwhile we worry about the health of the stock market. Wall Street’s anxieties dominate the news after the president tweeted his way into a pyrrhic trade war with China. I keep scrolling, fighting the urge to click a headline that says “Ten things you’re doing wrong at restaurants.”

I stand in an Econo Lodge parking lot in the hour of the wolf, bronzed by the glow of the Walmart and Waffle House logos across the street. The only noise tonight is the highway and it sounds like the sea. I’m fantasizing about the desert again, a place for transforming a messy life into myth. One of these days I’ll point the car west. An hour ago I stood in line at the Gas ‘n Go behind a furious man with a pistol tucked into the elastic waistband of his sweatpants, yelling that the cashier only gave him three Powerball tickets when he should’ve gotten four. I bowed my head and thought about patience and chance. The manager intervened and everybody narrowly avoided getting shot.

Near pump number nine, a woman in the passenger seat of a jumbo pickup truck wiped away some tears. She caught me looking and I turned away and began fiddling with the radio. A chipper advertisement encouraged me to order nutrients harvested from jellyfish. A news report at the top of the hour told me that we’re still arguing about whether guns kill people and kicking around new ways to hurt the poor. Standing in the grass near every highway ramp, there is a man holding a cardboard sign. Sometimes it says veteran, sometimes it says father, but it always says hungry. Sometimes I give him a dollar, sometimes I look the other way. I hate these moments when my nation not only feels ugly and cruel, it looks like a mirror. I stand in the Econo Lodge parking lot and think about what to do next.

The Detroit Escalator Co. — Shifting Gears

from Soundtrack [313] | Ferox, 1996 | Spotify

A selection from Neil Ollivierra’s gorgeous slow-motion score for post-industrial introspection. Motored by quietly churning machines, Soundtrack [313] rides a rare line between the plaintive and the hopeful. There’s an excellent in-depth interview with Ollivierra at Ambient Music Guide.

My father

Information

May 10, 2019

After my mother died, my father spent his days wandering through discount department stores, fixated on tracking down the correct size, exact model, or shade of color for something he thought he needed, usually a household item for the little apartment he rented after selling the house. Non-slip adhesives for the bathtub shaped like starfish. Mechanical pencils. A childlike table for his car keys that required hours spent cursing over a tiny wrench. He carried a small notepad in the back pocket of his khakis, diligently making lists with items like living room lampshade needs repair and replace screen in bathroom faucet and eggs are good for protein.

My father’s quiet notepads have been on my mind lately. The feel like a balm against these days when everything seems to be happening at once. Institutional decay. Angry weather. Homegrown terror. A cold civil war. I continue to click and scroll even though I know it’s trashing my mind, all this information commingling with fury, opinion, and performance. Our screens have hijacked and mangled the decent impulse to bear witness.

I try to remember the world through my father’s eyes, his sense that everything looked like science fiction, people dressed like children and swerving into one another while staring at little pieces of glass. He didn’t understand how the world had become so interlinked, how all of its information could live on a screen. It felt like an optical illusion, a cheap sleight of hand gag. Information was supposed to be earned through experience, through a combination of tough luck and scribbling into your notepad. Information required effort and my father craved the human contact required to get it. The sales clerks would check their stock and make calls to other locations for a linen drum lampshade or a pair of loafers with tassels. He’d eventually find the item but he would not purchase it, deciding he didn’t need it after all.

Datacide - Flashback Signal

from Flowerhead | Asphodel/Rather Interesting, 1995 | More info

A nearly perfect ambient album, Flowerhead has been a reliable sleepy-time companion since its release twenty-something years ago. Atom Heart and Tetsou Inoue’s collaboration merges the organic with the electric, yielding a blurry soundtrack for nostalgia. The whole album just sounds right, as if you’d heard it before, back when you were four or five.

Neon Jesus

Somewhere in South Dakota. Neon Jesus is the best Jesus.

Bow

May 8, 2019

Another school shooting, an event so common nowadays that it’s reported like the weather. Because we’ve acclimated. We’ve adjusted. We can adapt to anything, even if it’s awful. I try to pin down the moment we lost the capacity for national shock. Probably somewhere in the years between the killing of twenty first-graders and the election of a vicious game show host for president.

Meanwhile, our constitutional crisis deepens. The president remains defiant while Congress sputters and squawks, determined to follow the rules of a game no longer being played. They pass a resolution to hold the attorney general in contempt. A subpoena is issued for the president’s son. Sanctions and saber-rattling against Iran. We might be gearing up to manufacture another war. I turn off the news.

The motel manager was unnervingly chipper when I checked in, a shine in his eye that could have been religion or drugs. Now he’s walking the perimeter of the parking lot at midnight, staring straight ahead and making perfect ninety-degree turns. I close the blinds. Today would have been my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary and I’m not sure how to observe this fact. I do not want this information to disappear with me. I think about praying but I still don’t know how. Instead I fall asleep thinking about the origin of the word hotel until I become convinced it is a portmanteau of home and tele. A distant home. In the morning, some billboards tell me that God owes us nothing, love is an action verb, and the key to forgiveness was hung on the cross.

I drive with the windows down, thinking about forgiveness and my fifth grade teacher. I wanted to play the saxophone but she said my hands were too small. She made me play the violin and I was terrible. At our Christmas recital, she told me to just pretend my bow was touching the strings.

The towns in South Dakota have solid names like Reliance, Interior, and Alliance. A sign near at a rest area says several hundred victims of smallpox are buried nearby. Inside the travel plaza, giant flatscreens teach us the history of random celebrities. (Julianne Moore’s maiden name was Smith.) I wander the parking lot looking for the rental car, exchanging intense looks with a woman wearing a sweater that says “I’m not bossy, I just get everything I want.” I stare at the electrified gates of golf courses named after slain tribes. I speed past a dozen military planes propped up on concrete blocks like offerings to the machine gods.

Spiritualized - Lord Can You Hear Me?

from Let It Come Down | Arista, 2001 | Spotify | More info

A dazzling oscillation between hush and chaos and back again.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia

May 6, 2019

I remember driving down Interstate 75 just before dawn with the Detroit skyline on my left while a muddy cassette filled the car with reverberated drums. I remember believing the world would make sense when I grew older. But it never did and it probably won’t. This is a painful lesson, one that finds each of us in its own way. For me, it arrived in hospital corridors, envelopes with death certificates, and an attic filled with my parents’ belongings. There is no figuring out the logic of the world.

These days I notice another childlike conviction, one that is stubbornly waiting for things to go back to normal. Although my rational mind knows otherwise, part of me wants to believe these strange days are a blip, that someday I will return to a life when I wasn’t thinking about the president’s behavior or worrying about the strange weather or trying to fight the idiotic craving to stare into my telephone.

“We are choked with news and starved of history,” said the historian Will Durant in 1926. The poet Ovid mourned the loss of the days when humankind was “good and true,” fearing that “every kind of wickedness” marked his times. He wrote this in the year 8.

There is no lost golden age.

Nostalgia might be another form of grief, which requires working our way towards acceptance and, if we’re lucky, a little bit of grace. I’m doing my best to accept that things will never return to “normal”, that there was never any such thing. The world is speeding up. The weather is changing. Life is only going to get weirder, coarser, and more unstable. This is unsettling, but it could also be liberating.

Basic Channel - Inversion

Inversion/Presence | Basic Channel, 1994 | Spotify | More information

Twenty-five years later, Basic Channel’s Inversion remains the most melancholy machine music I’ve ever heard. This is the sound of industrial decay twinned with a very human longing for faith. A beautiful piece of winterized nostalgia for your dashboard.

Badlands

South Dakota

Badlands

May 4, 2019

North Korea is firing its weapons again, launching missiles into the Sea of Japan. Meanwhile our president is busy arguing with the internet, concerned there isn’t enough hate speech circulating through the already poisoned wells of social media. The Speaker of the House worries that he won’t cede power if he loses the election, an observation that would have been unthinkable three years ago. Our president. Strange how I am embarrassed to write his name, a name that looks like an obscenity on the page. Maybe it’s because I thought we deserved a worthy villain.

Eight years ago I was sitting in a Waffle House when my telephone buzzed with a CNN news alert: White House has pix of #Osama bin Laden with open head wound, his burial at sea, scenes from raid. The face of mass murder, hashtagged and hyperlinked next to the word “pix.” Then I saw a headline that said, “12 Pop Stars Tweet About the Death of Osama bin Laden.” Eight years later and I still can’t get that phrase out of my head. It was a modern koan, a signpost of things to come. American suicide rates continue to climb. Eight reasons why shampoo is a waste of money. Troops open fire on protesters. Your pets might smother you while you sleep. The trivial sits next to the catastrophic like never before, producing creatures like our president.

I remember racing against the sun to reach the Badlands before dark but I didn’t make it because I kept pulling over to photograph little white churches that flashed like teeth. I visited a tractor museum and a family playhouse. I cruised the streets of a leafy little town whose name I’ve already forgotten. When I reached the edge of South Dakota, the Badlands lay out there unseen, crouching in the dark. That night I dreamt of Natalie Wood, leaping and yelling hit your lights on the edge of a cliff, her arms swinging through the headlights again and again, my mind looping the scene until it felt like a critical message.

Dirty Beaches - True Blue

from Badlands | Zoo Music, 2011 | Spotify

From Alex Zhang Hungtai, Badlands is a perfect 26-minute record that soundtracked my drive across the Dakotas. “True Blue” loops The Ronettes into a beautiful blur of AM radio drums and desert twang that sounds like memory.

IMG_0914

Scribble

May 3, 2019

Woke up to news that they’re talking about dimming the sun. We’d rather mess with the sky than rethink our economy. A million people were evacuated from the coastlines of India and Bangladesh as a massive cyclone churned in the Bay of Bengal. But there was a gangbusters report on job growth in the USA. The presidents of America and Russian celebrated by spending an hour on the phone together. Meanwhile, words like kompromat, dezinformatsiya, and maskirovka circulate through our screens.

At an academic mixer, a consultant from Brussels asked everyone to draw the shape of their lives on a Post-It note. I made a scribble and people began approaching me as if I’d scrawled a cry for help. “But is the Bible considered fiction or non-fiction?” a woman asked nobody in particular. Cut to a hospital waiting room where an infomercial babbled to a row of empty chairs: “This rare melon defies the aging process, allowing you to stay fresher and firmer.” Later that night, a stern middle-aged man would turn to the camera and say, “My mattress topper performs as promised.” In the meantime, a headline scrolled across the screen: The Food and Drug Administration Warns Against Buying Young People’s Blood to Prevent Aging.

I heard a voice in the hallway say, “We’re all survivors here.” He’s right. We’re still here. Doing our best to survive these confusing days. Learning to function in a society that would rather tear itself to pieces than give up its myths and try something new. Anger or compassion? The answer must be compassion because it’s so much harder. Then again, it might be time to end the American experiment. Break it into city-states and clear the stage for a better show.

Autechre - Garbagemx

from Garbage | Warp, 1995 | Spotify

An industrial symphony that feels not only emotional, but generous. Recorded twenty-five years ago when Autechre was at the apex of merging melody with machine junk before heading down a brittle and academic path.

Desert

Desert

May 2, 2019

Flipped on the television to watch our government fall apart. Members of Congress talked to an empty chair. A flurry of subpoenas, refusals, and baroque legal theories filled the airwaves. Meanwhile floodwaters continued to shatter records in Iowa. There was something nervy and haunted in the faces on my screen, a jittery energy that reminded me of a man I met at a gas station in Bakersfield.

He had long gray hair and a tight leather jacket and he warned me about the desert. “When you get out there, don’t listen to anybody who dares you to walk,” he said, sending his half-smoked cigarette skittering across the parking lot where it sparked against a pick-up truck. He clamped my shoulder, fingertips digging into my bones. “I’m serious, brother. People get in trouble like you wouldn’t believe. They’ll challenge each other to walk ten miles into Death Valley without any supplies and then walk ten miles back. They wager money on it.” I tell him I’ve never heard of such a thing and he stares beyond me, watching the late night traffic. “Yeah, you can make good money on a bet like that,” he said, “but I lost some good friends that way.” I watched the tension in his jaw, the cords pulsing in his neck. God knew what he was remembering. I turned to go. “Don’t forget,” he called, “if you’re out there and you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated!”

No wonder so many religions began in the desert. The raptures and visions of the ancients were the most rational response to so much sky. And the higher the waters rise and the faster the wildfires burn and the quicker we lose faith in our institutions, perhaps we will return to otherworldly thinking, grasping at dogma, ritual, and rites. New prophets and cults will appear, promising salvation or at least an explanation. A future of old men in the desert, throwing fistfuls of salt and daring people to do dangerous things.

Enchanted Desert

American Decay, 2014 | More info

A track I built from a blurry loop of ‘Enchanted Sea’ by The Counts (Sea Crest Records, 1964). From American Decay, a collection of loops and reverberations recorded between 2009 and 2014.

Static

Static

May 1, 2019

It’s a strange sensation, living a life divided between these days of pixels and a childhood defined by magnetic tape. My first impressions of the world were delivered by audio cassettes and VHS, each unit of entertainment bound in plastic that occupied space and respected the logic of time: oxidized information gradually deteriorating whenever the tape was played, eventually dissolving into garbled images and hiss. Now it’s all so much static. No orientation, no sense of time. Perhaps my generation is uniquely positioned to be disappointed by the humiliations of today’s clicking and scrolling. After all, I still remember the optimism inherent in phrases like world wide web and information superhighway.

These are destabilizing days when there always seems to be a screen playing something upsetting in the room. Endlessly breaking news bleeds through the walls while opinion merchants spread outrage and contempt like new forms of weather. Today the Attorney General of the United States scowled before the Senate and encouraged us to deny our senses, breathing fresh life into Orwell: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” No, you did not see the president do that. No, you did not hear him say that. The adults have left the room. The calvary is not coming.

There’s an uneasy shiver in my nerves each time I turn on a screen, bracing for live images of another massacre or disaster, the latest inhuman act. Somebody could tell me the entire Eastern Seaboard has been quarantined and I would believe it. This is the age of the permanent suspension of disbelief. And each bizarre episode is quickly forgotten as we lurch from one shattered norm to the next, left with no option except to adapt to increasing weirdness while we fight to hold onto our attention and our grip on reality. It’s not an easy fight, and to everyone who manages to get dressed, go outside, and not yell at the sky: I salute you.

Ensemble Economique - We Come Spinning Out of Control

from Fever Logic | Not Not Fun, 2013 | Spotify | Bandcamp

This is the sound of two o’clock in the morning when the static in your head fades while you drive down the highway with your eyes fixed on the zipper, that long yellow line which never seems to end.

Red Neon and Broken Clocks

Long Day's Journey Into Night – Official Trailer

Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the best film I’ve seen in years. Built from red neon, broken clocks, haunted karaoke, and endless rain, it’s a puzzle that will never be solved—and it perfectly captures the architecture of dreams and the looping logic of regret. I never thought wearing 3D glasses could be so heartbreaking.

Metropolis

Metropolis, Nevada. He was old enough to remember when the seasons still looked like the pictures on a calendar.

Atlas Minor: 2018 All-City Classic

2018 Rotation

At least dystopia has an excellent soundtrack.

Everything continues to dissolve into static. Ideas are crammed into weird little boxes begging for attention. Scenes from our lives are cropped, filtered, stripped of context, and pinned to a scoreboard. Perhaps the album has suffered the most, stripped for parts and strewn across algorithmic playlists as our listening habits revert to the era of the digestible single. The endless churn of the digital jukebox brings to mind Adorno and Horkheimer’s phrase from 1944: “the freedom to choose what is always the same.”

Does the album still matter in 2018? Getting my head around an entire record takes more effort than I remember. Perhaps this is a result of age; more likely it’s because my attention span has been blown to bits. But putting a record on loop is still the best way I can nail my memories of each season to some kind of texture and timeline. Here are a few of the albums that challenged and reassured me and, above all, harmonized with the strange vibrations of another disorienting year:

Abul Mogard – Above All Dreams

Elegant drift and drone for a rainy afternoon. And maybe the story is true, that Mogard is a Serbian metal worker who began building synthesizers during his retirement, hoping to recreate the acoustics of the factory floor. Either way, this is the soundtrack of myth.

Ben Chatwin – Staccato Signals/Drone Signals

Haunted chrome and machine grit like a Ballard novel. A string quartet conjures a slow-motion chase across a snow-covered plain, followed by sensations of free fall as synthesizers stretch across the sky, covering the light. A line from Jeff VanerMeer’s Annihilation: “…when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”

Certain Creatures – Nasadiya Sukta

Spacey electronics that hum with nostalgia for the pre-millenial days of analogue bubblebaths, those halcyon years when artificial intelligence was still a fantasy and a networked future seemed like it would be so much more elegant than it turned out to be.

CUTS – A Gradual Decline

Cascading drums and plaintive synthesizers wrapped around field recordings of collapsing glaciers. I remember the sound of white thunder, that bone-shuddering crack as another piece of a ice fell into the sea. Most of all I remember the sound of our voices cheering and our cameras clicking, as if we were applauding the results of our terrible way of life. This is the sound of the world collapsing and it is sublime in the strict sense: beauty twinned with fear.

Divide and Dissolve – Abomination

Plunging miles beneath standard-issue doom and drone, this is vantablack snarl and groan with unexpected shifts that flash like bared knives.

Ectomorph – Stalker

Neuromancing future sleaze. Rarely have synthesizers sounded so tactile, conjuring black leather, blinding chrome, and broken glass. Bass lines crawl out of your speakers towards some shadowy corner of the room, leaving traces of godknowswhat across the floor.

The Eye of Time – Myth II: A Need to Survive

Ambitious and roomy, these songs aim towards a futuristic opera with layer upon layer of blurred vocals, crashing drums, and shivering columns of bass. The title of the first song perfectly captures the mood of these strange days: “There Is So Much Pain in This World That We Have Created Robots to Share It”

The Field – Infinite Moment

Another episode of The Field’s reassuring heartbeat chug, although it’s a bit more nervy this time around, veering into skittering drums, acidic synthwork, and grey morning weather with voices wailing at the edges like the echo of some half-remembered party.

GAS – Rausch

Another gothic monument from Wolfgang Voigt’s series. Dense pines beat against a stained glass window in the middle of the night. This is the closest techno has come to church.

Jerusalem in My Heart – Daqa’iq Tudaiq

Static spills into the margins of a reverberated ode to an Egyptian classic originally titled “Oh Neighbor of the Valley,” now renamed “The Language Of Speech Has Broken Down.” A fitting coda for 2018. Here is the sound of history collapsing, which is thrilling and a little scary. Don DeLillo’s Zero K comes to mind: “How human are you without your sense of time? More human than ever? Or do you become fetal, an unborn thing?”

Midwife – Prayer Hands

Vapor trails of dream pop and beautiful fuzz. “Angel” was my favorite song of the year, taking the best elements of classic Slowdive and Sugar Plant and streamlining them into something dark and new.

Witxes – Orients

An overwhelming blast of light. An uneasy blend of the melancholy and triumphant, this is perfect music for looking out of the window at 35,000 feet, breath fogging the window pane.