The Uninhabitable Earth (Review): Postponing a looming mega-death event

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Picture this: you live in a communal house with 10 other people, sharing minimal resources cultivated from your own private garden. You live in the great state of Kentucky, now gifted with oceanfront property. You can’t go to work today because the high temperature is 130°—much too hot to go outside. States like Florida, California, and countries like China and Spain are underwater. The sky hasn’t been truly blue in your lifetime, and people tell lore of a past form of precipitation called snow; a time where humans weren’t the only species on the planet.

Now, this scenario surely sounds drastic to any reader. However, the lifestyle very well could be our new reality if we do not begin to address climate change on a global scale. If you’re among the believers, that scenario may have even brewed a certain level of anxiety in your system. Whether you understand and respect the science and facts surrounding the reality of global climate change or not, the book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Penguin) written by David Wallace-Wells is an illuminating read. Although, I can’t promise choosing to pick it up will help you sleep at night.

While Wallace-Wells’ book is eye-opening, certainly it does not incline the reader to turn the page. The writing style is not the inhibitor here, but the anticipation of one disheartening fact after another leaves the reader with a feeling of apprehension. This by no means indicates the book should not be read; indeed, there are many people I can think of offhand that could use a good dose of The Uninhabitable Earth. The information is necessary, despite reading a little fact heavy at times.

David Wallace-Wells

Wallace-Wells does an incredible job of presenting the facts, backed up by real science and easy to digest and understand information. He skillfully avoids politicizing his material, something very important in today’s continuously polarized society. Individuals are often drawn to the trademark environmental crises when they think of climate change—sea level rise, ice caps melting, starving polar bears, and reusable straws. The Uninhabitable Earth reminds us that these are just the fads of climate change, and barely scratch the surface of what our reality has the potential to morph into. Our current trajectory places us at approximately two to four degrees of warming by 2050. Scientists calculate that approximately 150 million lives could be saved if Earth stayed even half a degree below the estimated two degrees of warming. That scale of loss is “the equivalent of 25 Holocausts.” Truly a menacing statistic, when placed in those terms.

After discussing the consequences of a general warming, the book plunges into the countless ways the warming will have adverse effects on life as we know it. The first is heat death. Some places in the globe will quickly become unlivable, driving populations to specific areas of the planet that are heat tolerable. When the population condenses, economic stress grows, and disease will be rampant. Disasters, like wildfires, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions, become “no longer natural.” Air quality decreases dramatically, and in tandem with extreme heat makes being outside often, if at all, nearly impossible.

Globally, we currently have the most ongoing active armed conflicts since WWII, clocking in at nineteen. Wallace-Wells insists that violent conflict will only increase as resources decrease and species are forced to share less and less space.

Of course, the biggest threat to our climate and the species we share our planet with could arguably be the perpetuation of capitalism. Wallace-Wells states, “…we tend to think of climate as somehow being contained…by capitalism. In fact, the opposite: capitalism is endangered by climate.” He discusses in this specific chapter how capitalism is within our control, while the climate is not, and therefore it becomes our focus. However, it will crumble in the face of the great economic costs predicted tragedies will create.

Those who are the richest have the greatest impact, and those who are the poorest are the ones who suffer.

One of the most fascinating potential epidemics Wallace-Wells discusses is the reappearance of centuries-old and never seen viruses and diseases. As the permafrost thaws, the oceans die, and freshwater drains, we will experience a sanitation crisis. Additionally, our species has little to no knowledge of what the bacteria inside and outside our bodies is capable of when exposed to extreme temperatures.

Wallace-Wells illustrates this point by talking about a specific bacterium that caused a “mega-death” in a saiga (a small horned ungulate) population in Asia. Researchers believe the bacteria, which had lived in the animal’s tonsils silently since they originated, reacted to the especially hot and humid climate, leaching into the bloodstream and infecting their kidneys, spleen, and liver. It resulted in roughly 200,000 fatalities. Boom. Mega-death. Something like this feels too close to home, considering the rapid spread of the extremely contagious coronavirus. We’ve had the warmest winter on record and most rainfall in certain months this winter—one would be surprised to find our current situation a coincidence.

Considering nearly a quarter of the book is citations for the hundreds of sources used, arguing with the information presented seems futile. Wallace-Wells does a wonderful job discussing human perspectives of climate change. Weaving a tangled web between the media, technology, and even writings, we begin to understand why certain groups of people may feel a particular way about our warming planet.

One thing this book fails to do is help the reader understand and develop the ways individuals can make an impact, in addition to fully outlining major changes that need to occur within society. That said, the most pervading thread is this: those who are the richest have the greatest impact, and those who are the poorest are the ones who suffer.

In The Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells emphasizes that we have the technology to reduce the impact of the planet’s active warming and a chance to save ourselves from the unfortunate trajectory scientists continue to predict every time they run models. The costs of continuing to do nothing are outlined throughout the pages and will increase should we wait. We must forego greed and belief in human exceptionalism before it is too late. A quote from William T. Vollman expresses it best: “We all lived for money, and that is what we died for.”

Purchase a copy of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.

WORDS: Elizabeth Kantra (@elizrs162 )

IMAGE SOURCE: Penguin/Random House

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