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The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future Reviews

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

David Wallace-Wells

3.59 out of 5

10 reviews

Imprint: Allen Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 19 Feb 2019
ISBN: 9780241355213

'A profound book, which simultaneously makes me terrified and hopeful about the future'

  • The New York TimesEditors' Choice
4 stars out of 5
Jennifer Szalai
6 Mar 2019

"The crumpled carcass of a bee on the cover tells you only some of what you need to know"

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.”


3 stars out of 5
Francis Gooding
28 Jul 2019

"an attempt to prepare us for what has in fact already happened"

Wallace-Wells leaves out much of our disastrous impact on the natural world. He doesn’t dwell on biodiversity loss, for instance, or the details of the mass extinction that we are by all accounts now living through, though he reminds us that of the five previous mass extinctions, only the most recent was caused by an asteroid... The Uninhabitable Earth is an example of the class of writing the eco-philosopher Timothy Morton has described as ‘ecological information data dump’: quantities of frightening and confusing information, mostly out of date by the time of publication, ‘shaking your lapels while yelling disturbing facts’. Morton believes this approach is unhelpful, and that it is essentially a symptom of the diffuse psychological pain caused by climate change – an attempt to prepare us for what has in fact already happened. And most of what Wallace-Wells describes has already happened. The phenomena he documents in the first part of the book are not hypothetical outcomes or doomsday prophecies: they are accounts of real events.

4 stars out of 5
Mark O’Connell
27 Feb 2019

"The margins of my review copy of the book are scrawled with expressions of terror and despair, declining in articulacy as the pages proceed"

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.

  • The Sunday TimesBooks of the Year
4 stars out of 5
Bryan Appleyard
24 Feb 2019

"it is relentless, angry journalism of the highest order"

“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.

3 stars out of 5
Mark Lynas
23 Feb 2019

"Accused of eco-alarmism, this writer comes back and makes a stronger case"

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.

3 stars out of 5
John Gibbons
23 Feb 2019

"David Wallace-Wells’s take on global warming lacks any empathy for fellow species"

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.

3 stars out of 5
David George Haskell
17 Feb 2019

"This bracing account of the many predictions and uncertainties around climate change is designed to startle and shake us"

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”.

3 stars out of 5
Simon Ings
16 Feb 2019

"This book may come to be regarded as the last truly great climate assessment ever made. "

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.

4 stars out of 5
Julian Glover
15 Feb 2019

"There’s little to be optimistic about in this account of the effects of climate change"

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.

4 stars out of 5
Susan Matthews
15 Feb 2019

"Wallace-Wells is an extremely adept storyteller, simultaneously urgent and humane despite the technical difficulty of his subject"

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.