Book Review of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

Glen T. Martin

This is an extraordinary book that has deservedly been a best seller. David Wallace-Wells writes beautifully, clearly, and with an impressive knowledge of wide ranges of relevant literature. He details all the ways in which the Earth will be (and is) rapidly becoming uninhabitable. He calls these “elements of chaos.” He discusses the crisis of capitalism and resistance to change, as well as the “politics of consumption,” two central impediments to addressing the climate crisis.

In Part One of this review, I will describe some of the main themes of the book. I also want to point out here that the text of this book contains no footnotes. Notes are given at the end of the book using boldface key phrases in relation to page numbers where these are found. This is not a positive feature, leaving the reader wondering whether each topic covered has some corresponding note. In Part Two, I will discuss Wallace-Wells’ ideas about the crisis, addressed in his final chapters, and his thoughts about how we should respond and what we might specifically do. I will show how he leaves out our most significant and hopeful option, which is ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

 

PART ONE

 

David Wallace-Wells opens the book by reflecting on “cascades,” that is, all the ways in which the present state of the world’s climate is already foreordained to make things worse, much worse. Each day that passes in which we do little or nothing address the climate crisis means another degree of serious impact that is necessarily going to happen. Lack of action cascades into the future. We are passing one tipping point, one point of no return, after another.

In his second part of the book, “Elements of Chaos,” he reviews the forms of destruction that are hitting us now and will inevitably increase. The only real question is whether they will increase to the point of human extinction or will we act in time to salvage a livable planet. First there is “Heat Death.” Wallace-Wells reviews what scientists tell us it will be like at and increase of 2 degrees Celsius, 4 degrees, 6 degrees, etc. The consequences multiply and the prospect of the higher temperatures means an uninhabitable Earth.

Next there is “Hunger,” already a world problem and inevitably getting much worse. The yield of staple cereal crops declines by 10% for every degree of warming: “Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer by the end of the century, when projections suggest we may have as many as 50% more people to feed, we may also have 50% less grain to give them” (p. 49). Third, we face “Drowning.” Without a major reduction of emissions, standard scientific predictions give us “at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly eight by the end of the century” (p. 59). This chapter describes the dynamics of melting polar caps as well as the vast land areas that will be inundated by the rising oceans.

The next chapter, “Wildfire” presents a detailed chronicle of the thousands of wildfires that have been consuming the Earth during the past few years. Drying out and drought help precipitate these enormous fires: “it is the cascading chaos that reveals the true cruelty of climate change—it can upend and turn violently against us everything we have ever thought to be stable” (p. 77). The following chapter is on “Freshwater Drain.” He describes the huge inland freshwater lakes that have been disappearing or have disappeared around the world from overuse. He chronicles the shrinking underground aquifers that are losing water faster than the rate of recharge. Also, half the world’s population depends on snow melts from glaciers in the Himalayas and elsewhere, all of which are rapidly melting.

Next we have the chapter on “Unbreathable Air” in which he describes the immense particle content and polluted air of many major cities around the world. Medical studies have shown the high increase in respiratory infection and many other ailments when the air is polluted to this degree. The following chapter, called “Plagues of Warming,” describes the increase of diseases, some of which have emerged from melting ice where they have been locked away for hundreds of years. Others are becoming more common due to global warming, from yellow fever to malaria to Lyme disease.

In the chapter called “Economic Collapse,” Wallace-Wells points out that some contemporary economists are not attributing the history of swift economic growth throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to the wonders of a “free market” but rather to the discovery of the fossil fuels that powered this growth from then to the present. Some are predicting a great depression that will dwarf the one of 1929. The world is drowning in debt (as Ellen Brown, 2007, and many others have pointed out), but with serious flooding, immense wildfires, droughts, and water shortages, is it possible for capitalism to continue its growth mantra? Again, there is the theme of “cascade.” The enormous losses from climate disasters are “cascading through the world system,” portending serious economic consequences: “Every day we do not act, those costs accumulate, and the numbers quickly compound” (pp. 112-23).

The final chapters under “Elements of Chaos” are “Climate Conflict” and “Systems.” The facts of climate conflict, he says, are there in the obsession of the US military with climate change. And climate shocks around the world are indeed causing instability, collapse of governments, major movements of refugees, and social instability. Under the chapter “Systems,” we encounter studies that have been done of those experiencing climate disasters: people experience PTSD, “climate depression,” and “environmental grief.” Some get angry and harbor “vengeful thoughts” (pp.136-37). When, he asks, are we going to wake up: “At what point will the climate crisis grow undeniable, un-compartmentalizable? How much damage will have already been selfishly done? How quickly will we act to save ourselves and preserve as much of the way of life we know today as possible?” (p. 140).

In his third section of the book, called “The Climate Kaleidoscope,” Wallace-Wells considers the problem of capitalism, the option of technological solutions to the climate crisis, and the issue of limitless consumption. All three of these phenomena are major impediments to effective change, and technology is not likely to be the answer. Wallace-Wells reviews some of the dramas, the stories, that we tell about ourselves and our human condition that can bear on how we might respond. However, whatever stories we invent, we are still clearly living in the Anthropocene, and a major theme of the book is that if we had the power to create climate crisis, then we humans must recognize that we also have the power to respond effectively.

Climate denial is not a legitimate option. The scientists writing the 2018 report of the IPCC (the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), speak in a note that is no longer merely “objective” and dispassionate sounding (p. 157). There is a serious crisis, they are saying, and it must be addressed with major immediate changes. At the same time, this book has chronicled the many possible responses to the coming uninhabitable Earth that evade the issue and try to find ways to escape, both physically and psychologically.

PART TWO

The last two chapters of this book address “Ethics at the End of the World” and “The Anthropic Principle.” Wallace-Wells clearly does not want the foreboding possibility of human extinction to happen. In “Ethics at the End of the World,” he surveys a range of responses to climate collapse and the impending demise of the human project. This chapter is not about ethics as the discipline reflecting on how human beings should act, but rather it is about the responses of groups and writers to the “toxic knowledge” of what is happening to all of us and our planet.

These responses range from a “hedonistic quietism” that withdraws from the world into private satisfactions in a kind of Stoic renunciation of hope, to the response (that he associates with the Dalai Lama) that we should be living as fully as possible with compassion, wonderment, and love. Indeed, it evokes wonder just reading in this book about some of the ways people and groups have responded to the prospect of the demise of civilization. On the negative side there has been widespread “climate nihilism” with synonyms like “climate fatalism” or “human futilitarianism.” There are writers like Roy Scranton who declare that “civilization is already dead” (p. 215).

We are in danger, he writes, of a “climate apathy” in which we are “drawing our circles of empathy smaller and smaller, or by simply turning a blind eye” and finding “ways to engineer a new indifference” (pp. 215-16). Or there is the movement toward a “new inhumanism” that rejects human self-focus and apparent narcissism for the primacy of what is “not man,” the world apart from human egoism in its “transhuman magnificence.” So what if human beings go extinct, these responses proclaim, the magnificence of the natural world will simply continue without us.

I wonder if Wallace-Wells believes that the traditions of ethics in both eastern and western thought have been merely symptoms of such a human narcissism? It is difficult to tell from what he writes, and from the way that he appears to ignore these traditions. In the final chapter, called “The Anthropic Principle,” he attempts to make a comeback from the varieties of denial and despair to a positive response to climate crisis. But his response is a weak one.

He recalls those physicists who have wondered why we appear to be alone in the universe. Is it because human-like civilizations have appeared many times in the vastness of the universe but have all burnt themselves out in climate suicide? But he opposes this pessimism by appealing to the Anthropic Principle in which physicists have pointed out that the initial conditions of the universe in the Big Bang were precisely such that human beings would eventually develop and self-consciously ask questions about the mystery of existence (p. 225, see Harris 1991).

Out of the ambiguity about who and what we are, and out of the variety of possible responses to the “tragic knowledge” of our imminent demise (unless serious world-wide action is taken immediately), Wallace-Wells comes down on the side of “thinking like a planet.” Or better, he says, we must “be thinking like a people, one people, whose fate is shared by all” (p. 226). He says that the very fact that we had the effective power to place ourselves in this terrible danger should awaken us to the fact that we have the power to save it. It should serve as a call to action. We must choose to protect our planet, which is also the only home human beings will ever have.

One wonders if this is the proper fruit of all the admirable erudition manifested in this book. If a person reads too much, perhaps there is the danger of having too many possible perspectives on every issue, leading to paralysis. Where are the great ethical traditions of both western and eastern thought that see human beings as having an “infinite” dignity and worth, beyond all price and calculation? Where is the great Upanishad principle of vasudhaiva kutumbakam, the world is one family, with its Vedic presupposition that human life is sacred? Where is the great Kantian principle that every person is an end in his or herself, having infinite dignity and incalculable worth, or the principles of universal love taught by Jesus?

Moving from this great traditional wisdom to contemporary science, we should ask how the breakthroughs of the past 80 years in quantum physics bear on our responses to the coming uninhabitable Earth? The great Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo declared that the Universe becomes conscious of itself in us (1973, p. 49). Contemporary interpreter of quantum physics, Ervin Laszlo, concludes that “Through us, the beyond-spacetime intelligence of the cosmos enters the spacetime domain of the universe” (2017, p. 45).

20th century philosopher Errol E. Harris writes: “The universal principle [God] is necessarily immanent in every part and every phase of the system. It is the alpha and omega of the universe, and without it nothing could be what it is, or happen as it does. Bringing itself to consciousness in our minds, it determines the essential nature of our thinking….” (1992, p. 99). This is what science has been discovering since Einstein first published his principle of relativity in 1905. The telos of the universe gives us the mission of holism, harmony, and unity with nature in the service of a loving consciousness of the whole. Surely this bears directly on how we should respond to climate change and the threat of extinction?

Wallace-Wells’ good instincts steer him away from climate nihilism and despair. But he appears to miss the nature-transcending dignity and worth of humanity and the human project. He is tempted to look at this tradition in both the East and the West through the lens of those environmental fatalists who see our special place in nature as a narcissistic illusion. To transcend nature as free, rational beings, to recognize that the universe has become conscious of itself in us, is not to claim the right to dominate and destroy nature. It is a realization of humility, of Buddhistic “no-self” (anatta), rather than one of arrogance. It opens us to our deeper self, what Marx called our “species-being,” what Swami Agnivesh calls “a holistic vision in which all the parts dwell organically within the whole and the whole dwells within the parts” (2015, pp. 13-14).

We are clearly part of nature and should be living in harmony with it. At the same time, we are inevitably custodians of nature and need to protect its balance and integrity. The great insight of both East and West is the incredible dignity and responsibility of being human. We need to connect with the transcendent foundations of our humanity and manifest this connection in active lives of love, justice, and compassion. The “great-souled” one, Mahatma Gandhi, declared that “non-cooperation with evil is a duty,” and it should be clear that the destruction of the ecological balances of our planet is evil.

Wallace-Wells calls us to action in the name of our common humanity, but it is a weak call, diluted by the plethora of possible (false) responses to our climate crisis. We have the duty to act because we are one world, one human family, and one civilizational project—all transcendently valuable as a manifestation of the deep foundations of the universe. There is something sacred about a human being within whom “Atman is Brahman.” There is something divine about a human being who is “made in the image of God.”

Climate response involves acting from the deepest sources of our being, not the superficial egoism of capitalist competition, nor the puerile self-centeredness of nationalistic pride, nor from some weak-kneed promise that if we made the mess, then we can also clean it up. It requires a waking up to who we really are as children of the Kosmos, as manifestations so deep that the voice of Being could proclaim: “let there be light.” Many thinkers have pointed out the danger of the emerging one-dimensional “cosmopolitanism” or “everydayness” of the modern world.

Theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich (1987) worried that modern man was trapped in a horizontal dimension that reduced everything to a manifestation of the same, ignoring the “deep dimension” of human existence. Psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (1981) observed that mass society had reduced our capacity to respond fully and creatively to the holism of the world in a perpetual rebirth. Philosopher Karl Jaspers observed that modern man was losing the sense of the depths of being, he is “undergoing absorption into that which is nothing more than a means to an end, into that which is devoid of purpose or significance…. he would seem to be sacrificing the being in which he realizes his own selfhood” (1957, p. 83).

Wallace-Wells has no concrete suggestions about how we should be responding to climate crisis. And in this respect his book is less valuable than books like Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Heinberg’s The End of Growth, Romm’s Climate Change, or Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. Nevertheless, all these authors have the insight that humanity is one and should act as one. But none of them draw the true implications of this insight that the best way that we can act to address climate change is through uniting the nations through ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. That is, we must actualize our oneness and not just wax poetic about it.

The Constitution is not a document deriving from any particular religious tradition. Its only reference to religion is in the Bill of Rights, which gives every person the equal freedom to either practice religion or no religion. However, the Constitution is founded on the gigantic truth of human unity and dignity. It is directed to addressing climate crisis with the holistic force of human beings working collectively together. If we are a human family, then it is time we began acting like one. The Constitution ends war and addresses the problem of poverty in the same way: through the synergistic force of the united whole of humanity.

This is the only reasonable and effective way that we can deal with climate crisis. The egoistic competition and nationalistic fragmentation that created it (along with the discovery of fossil fuels) must be overcome by human unity, solidarity, compassion, and love. These qualities are manifested as we join in global democracy under the Earth Constitution. There is no other credible alternative. G.F.W. Hegel declared that “universals” are worth little until they become “concrete universals;” ideals are worth little until they become “objectified” and actualized in history. And Karl Marx applied these insights to our real economic and political conditions.

The threat of collapse, the collapse that is already happening all around us, can only be effectively addressed through the united action of humanity, bound together in that unity by a Constitution that gives us an effective tool for taking action. Without that tool, all the idealistic slogans in the world about our common humanity remain ineffective and largely hot air. The Earth Constitution joins us together in democratic equality, and legally empowers us to take effective action.

Under the Earth Constitution, effective action addressing climate change is identified as one of the “broad functions” of the entire Earth Federation government in Article 1. The government is granted “specific powers” to protect the fresh waters, oceans, and atmosphere of the planet in Article 4. A protected and healthy environment for the planet is one of the human rights declared in Article 13, and a specific action oriented global program or addressing all aspects of climate change is outlined in Article 17.

Here is the powerful and effective way that human beings can respond to climate crisis. Not weak, disconnected responses here and there such as recycling, promoting solar, or a carbon tax. But a worldwide effort to address the multidimensional aspects of the crisis in a comprehensive and integrated fashion. Wallace-Wells does an excellent job of identifying the multifaceted crisis we are facing, currently leading toward an “uninhabitable Earth.” But the answer is not a weak “we should work together” but rather a concrete and real joining together, legally, economically, and morally. This effective action can only be achieved through ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Works Cited

Swami Agnivesh (2015). Applied Spirituality: A Spiritual Vision for the Dialogue of Religions. New York: Harper Element Books.

Sri Aurobindo (1973). The Essential Aurobindo. Ed. Robert A. McDermott. New York: Schocken Books.

Ellen Brown (2007). Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Money System. Baton Rouge, Louisana: Third Millennium Press.

Constitution for the Federation of Earth, with an Introduction by Glen T. Martin. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press. Also on-line at www.earth-consitution.org and other places.

Erich Fromm (1981). On Disobedience and Other Essays. New York: The Seabury Press.

Errol E. Harris (1991). Cosmos and Anthropos: A Philosophical Interpretation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. London: Humanities Press International. See also Harris’ 1992 book Cosmos and Theos: Ethical and Theological Implications of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle (London: Humanities Press) in which he shows the relationship between this principle, the holism of the cosmos, and the depth-reality of God.

Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Karl Jaspers (1957). Man in the Modern Age. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Anchor Books.

Ervin Laszlo (2017). The Intelligence of the Cosmos. Why Are We Here? New Answers from the Frontiers of Science. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

James Gustave Speth (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing the Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Paul Tillich (1987). The Essential Tillich. Ed. F. Forrester Church. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kate Raworth (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Joseph Romm (2018). Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

David Wallace-Wells (2019). The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books.