The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, by David Wallace-Wells, Allen Lane, 310 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241355213
It’ll be forty degrees today in Alice Springs, in Australia’s Northern Territory, but it’s likely to go down to thirty-eight around midweek and then plummet to thirty-two in a fortnight’s time as autumn takes hold. But hey, what do I care? I don’t live in Alice Springs, I live in Dublin.
If we didn’t think that global warming was happening somewhere else, or sometime soon, but not exactly here and not exactly now, we would very probably do something about it. But for most of us it is insufficiently present (either spatially or temporally) for us to be very concerned. It is also a BORING subject, or that at least was the consensus among my peers when I worked for a newspaper: sure, we’ll put in something about climate, I know I know, it’s important – but don’t ask us to run a piece every single week: no one reads the stuff for God’s sake. It should be said that this was not the voice of prejudice but rather of jaded experience. No one did read “the stuff”, or at least only a small fraction of those who were keen to lap up the latest columnist’s excoriation of whatever political scandal had briefly captured his attention sufficiently to provide meat for the grinder that week.
Besides, haven’t we been there before and survived? Well, David Wallace-Wells tells us, the world has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are apparently living through now: “86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again.”
Wallace-Wells’s predictions for a future he maintains is not inevitable, or at least not inevitable in its very worst shape, are quite terrifying. But this is not science fiction. Many of these things are happening already. Climate change, drought and poverty were factors exacerbating the conflict in Syria, which apart from leading to huge numbers of deaths produced a wave of migration into Europe and a surge of xenophobic panic here orchestrated by far-right politicians in response. Large parts of Bangladesh may flood soon. Where will these people go? Where would they be welcome? What will happen to them when they are not welcome where they happen to end up? People will not stay where they cannot live. Can they be forcibly kept there, or kept somewhere else away from “here”? “I don’t care, in fact I really don’t give a fuck, where they go as long as they don’t come here” is what far-right populists like Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini say, an attitude which recently led a Catholic newspaper, Famiglia Cristiana, to compare him to Satan.
And how do you feel about tropical diseases? Not a concern as I don’t live in the tropics, you might say. But the tropics are moving; they’re on their way to a place near you. Just how fast they will move, and with them the mosquitoes and the diseases, will depend on what we do and what we don’t do. It won’t, very probably, affect you, but it will your children or grandchildren.
Annihilation [that is total annihilation of all life on earth] is only the very thin tail of warming’s very long bell curve, and there is nothing stopping us from steering clear of it. But what lies between us and extinction is horrifying enough, and we have not yet begun to contemplate what it means to live under those conditions – what it will do to our politics and our culture and our emotional equilibria, our sense of history and our relationship to it, our sense of nature and our relationship to it, that we are living in a world degraded by our own hands, with the horizon of human possibility dramatically dimmed.
David Wallace-Wells’s account of our future is eloquent, clear, persuasive and alarming, but not, I think, alarmist. If you can persuade yourself to buy one book on climate and the wider implications of climate change (this is not a scientific or highly technical book) this could well be the one to choose.