David Wallace-Wells’ 2019 book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming presents a terrifying prognosis for the future of our planet – that if things continue at the present pace, large parts of the planet will become uninhabitable by 2100.
Inspired by his 2017 New York Magazine article of the same name, Wallace-Wells’ book builds upon his previously established arguments, outlining how the future can still be salvaged despite the damage humanity has already done. This book also addresses why we, as a species, are so indifferent to climate change despite all the information we have about its disastrous consequences.
Wallace-Wells’ facts are generally well-presented and laid out. The opening chapter, “Cascades,” is particularly poignant, as it lays out exactly what is at stake if we do not take the steps to rectify the damage we have already wrecked upon the environment. He pulls no punches. “It is worse, much worse, than you think,” Wallace-Wells writes. “The force of retribution will cascade down to us through nature, but the cost to nature is only one part of the story; we will all be hurting.”
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The Uninhabitable Earth, however, can be a dry read. Many of Wallace-Wells’ paragraphs are long barrages of statistics and speculation. After a hundred or so pages (this book is over three hundred pages in total), it is easy to get tired of Wallace-Wells’ repetitive writing style. His prose is not beautiful – it is unnecessarily arcane, and merely functional in that it serves the purpose of showing you how humanity is doomed, but is in no way memorable, fun or even easy to read. Some of his sentences take up nearly the whole page!
Wallace-Wells’ scope is also quite narrow. He chooses to focus almost exclusively on what may happen to humanity once we go through the predicted 2 to 8 degrees Celsius of warming between now and 2100, which makes the scope of his work rather myopic for a work focused on the environment. As he freely admits, he is not and never has been an environmentalist. In fact, he admits, he is “like every other American who has spent their life fatally complacent, and wilfully deluded, about climate change,” and has only recently awoken to the horrific future humanity may have unwittingly created for itself. Given his background, it is not entirely surprising that he says little about how climate change will impact other species. However, Wallace-Wells comes off as particularly insensitive about the impact of climate change on animals and other non-human lifeforms, even saying at one point that “the world could lose much of what we think of as nature, as far as I cared, so long as we could go on living as we have in the world left behind.” Ultimately, his anthropocentric perspective is a missed opportunity to discuss just how dangerous climate change is for all living things, not just humanity.
In general, the book says too little about what we can do to prevent this doomsday scenario from occurring. Accordingly, many of Wallace-Wells’ critics have criticised his book as being overly alarmist. Although we do not and cannot dispute any of the facts he has laid out, we will have to agree with his critics that his over-focus on past events, major incidents, and what may happen in the future as a result of our past actions detracts from the overall impact of his book. The Uninhabitable Earth would have been a much more powerful piece of work had Wallace-Wells provided more insight or suggestions as to how to fix the problems we are currently facing. Ultimately, he comes off as all talk and no action.
Wallace-Wells’ research is also lacking at times, making his book unfocused and strikingly unfactual in places (despite, and perhaps in spite, of his barrage of facts). Certain chapters of this book – in particular, the chapter on the economic consequences of climate change – have surprisingly few citations for a work that is otherwise packed with facts. In a similar vein, when he mentions how “many of the planet’s largest lakes have begun drying up, from the Aral Sea in central Asia […], to Lake Mead […],” he provides no concrete proof that these changes are caused by climate change. After throwing names of various lakes and seas that are drying up at the audience, Wallace-Wells concludes this paragraph with a vague “[c]limate change is only one factor in this story, but its impact is not going to shrink over time.”
All in all, I really wanted to like The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. It works as a cautionary tale, but Wallace-Wells’ abrasive bombardment of statistics without proper explanation, myopically anthropocentric perspective and lack of concrete suggestions for how we can protect our planet ultimately make this book an unenjoyable slog of a read.