The Uninhabitable Earth could easily be placed in the science fiction section of the bookshop. The story it tells fits well with post-apocalyptic nightmare scenarios we’ve grown used to hearing - of famine, infrastructure collapse and socio-political upheaval unimaginable in a world previously torn apart by two world wars and financial crises.
But alas, regrettably, The Uninhabitable Earth is not fiction. Actually, it points blame at science fiction portrayals of disaster scenarios for framing exterior causes as the threat to humankind. In ‘Interstellar’, a crop blight creates widespread famine, while in Mad Max: Fury Road, the last oil resources are fought over by nomadic, desert tribes.
The reality is not that bad. It’s much worse. Given that we have inflicted the climate crisis on ourselves, we really only have ourselves to blame.
Wallace-Wells spells out the reality of the climate crisis in the first 40 pages, called ‘Cascades’. His substantiated, critical points are sharp and penetrating as much as they are disorientating and haunting. It makes reading his book feel the equivalent of watching your home burning in front of you - a place you’ve loved and clutch cherished memories from, become ravaged by the rage of climate disaster.
This book had many ‘This is fine’ moments (for those who do not know, a meme which indicates inaction in the face of existential peril).
The facts speak for themselves. 200 million climate refugees predicted by the UN by 2050. 150 million people dying from air pollution in a 2 degree warmer world. $551 trillion incurred in damages to the economy in a 3.7 degree warmer world, more disconcerting knowing that we’re on a path towards overtaking the 4 degree mark by 2100.
Everything should set off sirens in our heads - and lead to an urgent call to action, like previous historical movements to end slavery, war and global poverty.
But the reality has been the opposite. We have seen climate denial and refusal by politicians to acknowledge basic scientific facts. We have been seduced into the safety of entertainment and consumer lifestyles which distract us from demanding political change, allured into the promise of utopian, technological solutions which threaten to unleash even more harm in a crisis triggered in the first place by irresponsible human activity.
We have been failed - by politicians, elites and the retreat behind nation-state borders. The only recent crisis which has been resolved with immediate attention was the financial crisis of 2008 - where politicians were falling over themselves to bailout banks, but lack the urgency now to deal with a crisis on a scale tenfold and will envelop us all.
But most of all, we’ve been failed by adults. As a second-year undergraduate student, I’m aware of my positionality, aware that I’m the first generation to deal with the real life consequences of climate change. It has only accelerated in recent years: since the 1980s, greenhouse gases released by fossil fuels have more than doubled. I’ve seen freak weather just recently like the 2019 summer heatwave in Europe where France recorded highs of 45.9 degrees celsius, soon to become the norm by 2050.
Call me naive, but I had a belief growing up adults couldn’t really be that clever. They could sweeten hard truths with lies, laminate immoral actions with excuses and wave away concerns with stoicism that disguised indifference or self-defeat.
Now, I’m 20 and staring down the same accusing stare of children who were my age and feel them asking me the same question. You’re not really that clever, are you? You can’t fool me that climate change isn’t happening, doesn’t need huge systems change and an urgent call to action.
But I know what I would say to that child - and I go back to the image of the burning house. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, if our house was ripped from its roots in a freak storm, and we were to wake up from a concussion 30 years later, we would see a world completely and irreversibly destroyed by climate disaster.
But this is not the Wizard of Oz. There’s no chance to click our red heels and say ‘there’s no place like home’. There is no second earth.
In times of crisis, we reveal our best character. Hegel says: “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”. To appeal to higher goals, however impossibly lofty and beyond our reach, measures how much we value our current political freedoms and our responsibility to uphold them. To show how much we are willing to give to defend the only planet we know is home to a glorious diversity of life.
I appeal and reach out to anyone - read this book. And do something about the climate crisis. Because in the future, everyone should be sworn by how they answer this question:
What did you do to stop the climate crisis?