The Uninhabitable Earth

Our Broken Sky

Reckoning with 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 Schopenhauer’s question: “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 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.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books, 2019); Richard Heinberg quote from p.207.

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