Wallace-Wells avoids the “eerily banal language of climatology” in favor of lush, rolling prose. The sentences in this book are potent and evocative, though after a while of envisioning such unremitting destruction — page upon page of toddlers dying, plagues released by melting permafrost and wildfires incinerating tourists at seaside resorts — I began to feel like a voyeur at an atrocity exhibition. His New York magazine article already synthesized plenty of information about perilous climate risks and scared the bejeezus out of people; what are we supposed to do with this expanded litany of horrors?...“The Uninhabitable Earth” wagers that we’ve grown inured to cool recitations of the facts, and require a more direct engagement of political will. “There is no single way to best tell the story of climate change, no single rhetorical approach likely to work on a given audience, and none too dangerous to try,” Wallace-Wells writes. “Any story that sticks is a good one.”
The book is extremely effective in shaking the reader out of that complacency. Some things I did not want to learn, but learned anyway: every return flight from London to New York costs the Arctic three square metres of ice; for every half degree of warming, societies see between a 10 and 20% increase in the likelihood of armed conflict; global plastic production is expected to triple by 2050, by which point there will be more plastic than fish in the planet’s oceans. The margins of my review copy of the book are scrawled with expressions of terror and despair, declining in articulacy as the pages proceed, until it’s all just cartoon sad faces and swear words.
“You might hope to reverse climate change,” writes David Wallace-Wells, “you can’t. It will outrun all of us.” His book is a journey into hell. On page 138, he remarks: “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader.”
Wallace-Wells is the deputy editor of New York magazine and, as a writer, he specialises in climate change. In 2017, he produced the most read story in the magazine’s history. It has now been expanded into this book. The article was a sensation and the book will be, too...The book’s leonine roar tails off in the last 30 pages into a not very helpful philosophical essay. Prior to that, however, it is relentless, angry journalism of the highest order. Read it and, for the lack of any more useful response, weep.
The book is written in a tone of sustained high alarm, but Wallace-Wells makes a case for why this style is not just right, but essential to convey honestly the scale of the planetary emergency we face. How else could one reasonably write about an existential threat to civilisation? Gently and calmly? The problem is that constant, continued shouts of emergency — like never-ending police sirens in his native New York — just become part of a numbing background hum, and risk making the reader switch off.
Wallace-Wells is a skilled essayist, as evidenced in his 2017 New York magazine article. Rather than advancing and refining his original arguments, the book feels rushed, and might have benefitted from a good deal more editing to clarify and develop his arguments, while also freeing the narrative from an unhelpful tangle of statistics and extraneous details.
While it has its strengths, perhaps its greatest shortcoming is that his journey of discovery should have left the author so one-dimensional and oddly detached in his narrow gaze at the fate of one species among millions.
Like Cole before him, Wallace-Wells’s project is a moral one, an indictment of his culture. Both narratives aim to convince us that the guiding beliefs of our times are wrong. But unlike Cole, who believed that self-annihilation was inevitable, Wallace-Wells insists that we can snap the narrative arc of rise and fall. Amid his stories of desolation and travail, he underscores our agency. This accounts for the excitement he feels about his newborn daughter’s future. She will live on a planet burned, flooded and baked out of recognition. But she will also, he believes, be a participant in what he calls “literally the greatest story ever told”, the possibility that calamity might somehow catalyse “a happy ending”.
This book may come to be regarded as the last truly great climate assessment ever made. (Is there even time left to pen another?) Some of the phrasing will give pernickety climate watchers conniptions. (Words like "eventually" are a red rag for them, because they catalyse the reader's imagination without actually meaning anything.) But Wallace-Wells's research is extensive and solid, his vision compelling and eminently defensible.
Wallace-Wells is an extremely adept storyteller, simultaneously urgent and humane despite the technical difficulty of his subject. That adeptness is tested by the same problem confronted by anyone who wishes to explain climate change’s impact: how to describe its scale in space and in time. Space is the easier of the two, which is not to say that it’s easy; one of the most impressive elements of the book is the way it manages, in its first section (called “Elements of Chaos,” and it delivers), to be truly global in its scope...In the end, though, I think it’s unfair to ask that he apply his narrative imagination not just to the worst-case scenario but to the solution; after all, the solution is both mind-numbingly obvious and impossible to imagine. In that way, one of the last lessons of The Uninhabitable Earth might be to show us the limits of storytelling. In the end, all David Wallace-Wells can really do is dare us to prove him wrong.
What if the thing you are worrying about isn’t really the thing you should be worrying about? What if the Irish backstop, the future of the car industry, or your right to travel after March 29 really doesn’t matter that much in the scheme of things?
That’s what American writer David Wallace-Wells wants to tell you in a book that’s by turns alarming, terrifying and just downright bleak. It’s a sustained piece of informed polemic which targets our worldwide failure to do anything about a challenge that has long been identified and agreed: the scale and effect of climate change.