In “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” David Wallace-Wells unpacks the pressing realities of climate change. In this book, countless examples, both simple and complex, of climate change and its myriad of detriments to humanity are explained in a compelling and genuinely informative way. Wallace-Wells, an American journalist, became well-known when his essay “The Uninhabitable Earth” was published in New York Magazine in July 2017 before the piece was expanded into the book of the same name. “The Uninhabitable Earth,” published last February, was listed by The New Yorker as one of their “favorite nonfiction books of 2019;”.
Wallace-Wells does not dull down the harshness of our planet’s condition. In the first chapter, he references how former California governor Jerry Brown described the “state of things in the midst of the state’s wildlife disaster,” as “a new normal.” California burning being the new normal is alarming enough. But Wallace-Wells clarifies on the facing page, saying that “we have not, at all, arrived at a new equilibrium. It is more like we’ve taken one step out on the plank off a pirate ship.” This sets an appropriate stage for a book about climate change. The world we are living in should not be regarded as being normal, or as in an inevitable stage. Wallace-Wells goes about detailing the current circumstances in concise ways, providing a cautionary tale.
In explaining this plankwalk, “The Uninhabitable Earth” details both scientific and cultural changes that the climate crisis has induced. Wallace-Wells quotes Joan Didion’s writing about the Southern California fires, for example: “The city burning is Los Angeles’ deepest image of itself.” This reference is then tethered to the recent, unprecedented horrors of California’s wildfire, and then to research about the future the earth faces regarding natural disaster. This framework is helpful in understanding the current problems we face today; Wallace-Wells provides appropriate cultural and scientific context for the present environment. With this context, the crisis of our world today becomes much more digestible. It also places the current state of climate affairs into a clear timeline, striking down the idea that climate change is a problem for future generations.
Wallace-Wells further explains climate change by tying the overlying issues to not only scientific data — that at times might seem dense or distant — but also by providing everyday examples. For instance, “Every round-trip plane ticket from New York to London,” causes the Arctic to lose “three more square meters of ice.” In addition to more guilt-inducing examples, Wallace-Wells mentions things like Major League Baseball statistics that are correlated to climate change. Wallace-Wells’ ability to oscillate between more and less grave illustrations is effectively informative. It paints a comprehensive picture of the effects of climate change; these repercussions are dutifully presented and become crystal clear.
Getting past the initial shock of the data in “The Uninhabitable Earth” is difficult. It is tough to wrap one’s head around the fact that, for example, by 2050 the plastic in the ocean will outnumber the fish. But Wallace-Wells writes repeatedly that his research does not lead him to conclude that impending doom is inevitable. “The Uninhabitable Earth” reads like a chilling sort of guide book; it details the path we are on but certainly leaves room for us to figure out a change of course.