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‘The Uninhabitable Earth’: Unpleasant wake-up call to harrowing future

Fikri Angga Reksa


Jakarta  /  Mon, September 21, 2020  /  11:18 am
‘The Uninhabitable Earth’: Unpleasant wake-up call to harrowing future

'The Uninhabitable Earth' by David Wallace-Wells ( Books)

The COVID-19 crisis has created several compelling conspiracy theories. 

Some politicians and celebrities have exacerbated the widespread false claims and misinformation. One of the most prominent COVID-19 skeptics is Jerinx, an Indonesian musician who vigorously endorsed conspiracy theories in his social media posts. 

He claimed that the “global elite”, which consisted of Bill Gates and the World Health Organization (WHO), were the creators of COVID-19. He also denied the government's health protocols and firmly stated that the novel coronavirus was not harmful. 

But the fact is that COVID-19 is a real threat to humanity. It was created neither by Bill Gates and the “global elite” nor the big pharma companies. 

The crisis has been driven by environmental degradation, such as biodiversity loss and the acceleration of climate change that aggravates the spread of zoonotic diseases. However, it is unsurprising that many people are not aware of this as environmental destruction and its accompanying climate crisis are slow-onset hazards. 

In turn, many people, including top politicians, have exploited this lack of popular awareness by proclaiming that climate change does not exist to move ahead with their agendas.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells is an unpleasant wake-up call for all of us, especially to climate crisis deniers. This book is a riveting and terrifying account of our bleak future, drawing from numerous climate studies. 

Wallace-Wells remorselessly delineates the notorious impact of human-induced disasters in a worst-case scenario. He spells out the adverse effects of climate crisis in his book’s first line as “worse, much worse than you think”. 

He depicts the rapid devastation of the universe with an utterly convincing analysis. But this book is way too pessimistic, even depressing. Instead of prompting people to take action to respond to the crisis, it could drive them to learned helplessness or fatalism.

Wallace-Wells is a journalist and climate alarmist, though he does not define himself as an environmentalist or a nature-person. He became a climate columnist in early 2016 after reading related studies, terrified of knowing how fast the climate has changed since the Industrial Revolution. 

He felt compelled to write more about climate change, considering that only a few mainstream media outlets covered it. In 2017, Wallace-Wells gained recognition after publishing a long-form article, The Uninhabitable Earth, for New York Magazine. The article went viral and sparked further public discussions on the climate emergency. In 2019, he elaborated more solid arguments into this book. 

One of the most intriguing chapters in the book that is relevant to the current situation is Plagues of Warming. Albeit through a brief chapter, Wallace-Wells alludes to the immediate impact of climate change with pandemics concisely.

Long-dormant diseases have been trapped in permafrost soil for 1,000 or even 1 million years. Global heating has gradually melted ice sheets and ancient diseases could be unleashed. In Alaska, scientists discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected more than 500 million people. 

In a laboratory, a 32,000-year-old “extremophile” bacteria was revived in 2005 and an 8-million-year-old bug was brought back to life in 2007. If ancient diseases could wake, it means the modern human immune system does not know how to fight them.

Wallace-Wells portrays other devastating consequences of the climate crisis, such as heat death, unbreathable air, wildfires, sea-levels rising, perpetual conflicts, economic collapse and so on. The last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated 1.5 degrees Celsius as a warming tipping point until the end of the century. 

However, the temperature could actually rise from 4 to 8 degrees by 2100 if people do not make concerted efforts to reduce carbon emissions. This year, the United States National Weather Service recorded the highest temperature ever, 54.4 degrees, in Death Valley National Park, California. 

Extreme heat also occurred in Greater London when temperatures reached 37.8 degrees last July. Multiple cascading catastrophes would likely happen because of global heating. Rising sea-level could amount to constant major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai, Hong Kong and many other cities. 

This book dissects the root causes of the climate crisis in a comprehensive manner. Instead of saying that the climate crisis is merely a natural phenomenon, Wallace-Wells delves deep into the political and socioeconomic dimensions of the crisis. 

Pursuing economic growth requires sacrifices and trade-offs. In the last 25 years, fossil fuel burning for industrial activities has contributed to half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Research has revealed that more than 10,000 people die each day from the small particles emitted from fossil-fuel burning. An air apocalypse has occurred in some countries in Asia that could trigger climate genocide. 

To prevent this harrowing future, a radical change of human behavior toward the environment is crucial. Wallace-Wells does not underestimate individual initiatives in combating the climate crisis. 

But realizing the massive and rapid destruction nowadays entails significant actions through public policy. When it comes to government political commitment, it is harder to deal with. It is worth to mention that some Nordic and Western European countries have pledged to reduce carbon emissions as their long-term goal. But Norway, which commits a net-zero target by 2030, still has a national oil business that will continue drilling for oil until 2075.

On the one hand, this book is a potent reminder to reflect what Anthropocene and the climate crisis mean to our existence. On the other hand, Wallace-Wells' illustration from the first chapter to the end tends to scare and create panic rather than offering a middle ground. This approach probably will not raise the ideal self-awareness. 

Wallace-Wells suggests that only a technological solution and a social-political transformation at the macro level could significantly save us from devastation, which is not always the case. On top of that, the book also focuses only on human beings, neglecting other species that are also in danger.  

Despite its pessimistic tone, this book is recommended to those who want to know the bigger picture of the climate crisis. It sits on the complete opposite of The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, which has a more optimistic and inspiring tone. The crisis also gave way to climate activists, for instance.

In addition to Greta Thunberg, environmental movements at the grassroots level are fighting for climate justice. Different from Wallace-Wells, I think every action by an individual or a small group counts and is pivotal to the sustainability of our planet. We could start with a small step, such as eating local foods, planting a tree, reducing plastic consumption and using public transportation. (wng)  

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

David Wallace-Wells

320 pages

2019, Penguin Random House


Fikri Angga Reksa is a researcher at the Center for Area Studies – LIPI. He loves reading, traveling and watching live concerts in his leisure time. He was one of the original members of the Baca Rasa Dengar book club when it was established in 2015.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.