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Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

This entry is part 15 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while back—though in this case, a while back is just last week. 

Uninhabitable Earth is about as depressing as you would expect it to be.

I’ve heard that Wallace-Wells was taken to task for being too alarmist, or for having exaggerated the effects of climate change in that title—people splitting hairs over whether Earth will really become uninhabitable. (The question is whether you think it means able to support life at all, versus so wrecked that survival becomes a trial for many more people than it should, in many parts of the Earth.)

Personally, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “too alarmist” when it comes to climate change. Well, maybe, but I also think that at the point we’re at, sober telling of facts isn’t achieving much, so perhaps painting a vividly frightening picture will help a few more of us face it head-on. I’m also sure that the data has been refined, though from every new headline I see, I get the sense that the situation has been found to be more dire than Wallace-Wells described a few years ago when this book came out. (Perhaps we’ll get an updated edition inn 2028 that paints and even more dire picture?) 

In fact, reading this, I found myself wondering how many more such books we’ll have, written by someone who was radicalized by their own investigations, who realized, “Oh, no, this is really bad…” At some point, people are just going to have reached a consensus that it’s bad, and something must be done, right? 

Then again, Canada’s been on fire this summer in the same the way Australia was last year—unprecedented, horrible, catastrophic—which I gather is the way California is on fire every year. The smoke from Alberta and Saskatchewan’s catastrophic fires had Americans on the East Coast panicking over the AQI (which is a metric for air quality that many of us in Northeast Asia watch on a regular basis). We’ve been recently warned that the Amazon rainforest is far closer to collapse than we thought. There’s talk of the possibility that the Gulf Stream will slow significantly in the medium-term future (depending on how you define that), with catastrophic effects for many regions around the Atlantic. That’s leaving aside the more prosaic trashing of the oceans that we’re pursuing at an accelerating rate. So maybe it’s depressing to read a detailed, well-researched book about how this is only the tip of the melting iceberg. 

For all that, I think the fact that Wallace-Wells’ book is a sobering one is a good thing. This is a sobering situation, or it should be, and yet humanity’s still partying like it’s 1899. We’re still burning millions of tons of coal, for goodness sake. For all that Wallace-Wells tries to suggest a path forward—he’s not selling a black pill, here, though he is doggedly realistic despite it being very uncomfortable. Nonetheless I think it’s the sobering quality of the bulk of the book that I think has the most valuable effect on the reader. I thought I was well-acquainted with the likely effects of ongoing climate change, but I learned some new things reading this account, and I felt a renewed dismay and alarm that we’ve let things get to this point. 

Grim stuff, but, well… it’s a few hours alone with the truth—a truth many of us are already living with, and which is coming for the rest of us at a frantic pace. 


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