The Uninhabitable Earth


Life After Warming

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”   The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells

After we moved from upstate New York to central Oregon, one of the most unsettling adjustments we had to make was contending with late-summer wildfire smoke. For several days in a row, I didn’t venture outside. On a couple of especially bad days, people wore masks if they had to go out and about.

As bleak as The Uninhabitable Earth is, it did relieve me of my wildfire and smoke worries, somewhat. Should we stay where the air can be so hazardous to our health? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. No place on earth will remain unaffected by climate change upheaval, and the climate we enjoyed growing up is gone forever.

This book is being compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which had an enormous impact when it was published in 1962.

But of course The Uninhabitable Earth was not a pleasant book to read. I hurried through it, sometimes skimming, often wanting to put it down.

“The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset…: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead.”

David Wallace-Wells intends for The Uninhabitable Earth to arouse fear, even panic, so that we will finally do something. He has been one of the first writers to synthesize research on catastrophic climate change that involves warming of 4 degrees Celsius or higher – because this is what we are on track for so far – and present it to a lay audience.

Something new I learned was that most atmospheric damage has occurred during the last thirty years, and not since the Industrial Revolution began. For the past thirty years, we were raising our children. It isn’t easy to acknowledge that my generation, more than any other, is most responsible for this mess.

“Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before. ….The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld.”

It is also depressing to know that my adult children and nieces and nephews – and any grandchildren we might someday have – will have lives severely degraded by climate change. They will have no choice but to engage in an epic, lifelong battle.

It’s not just about sea level rise, either. If we do nothing, other catastrophic changes will “deform” every life on the planet:  heat, hunger, wildfire, lack of water, unbreathable air, economic collapse, war, and masses of refugees.

“…150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5 degree warmer one….Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts. It is three times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward – the largest nonmilitary death toll humanity has ever produced. It is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind, World War II.”

Similar to Naomi Klein, who believes that only mass social movements can help us now, Wallace-Wells believes that lifestyle changes on an individual level won’t make much difference at this point. The most important thing we can do is engage: become politically active and work, ceaselessly, for swift, dramatic mobilization and change.

“The thing is, I am optimistic. Given the prospect that humans could engineer a climate that is 6 or 8 degrees warmer over the course of the next several centuries – large swaths of the planet unlivable by any definition we use today – that degraded middle counts, for me, as an encouraging future. Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced through many millennia of strain and strife and all-out war. But it is not a fatalistic scenario; in fact, it’s a whole lot better than where we are headed.”

Many people David’s age are opting not to bring children into the world. I was touched to read that while he wrote this book, David Wallace-Wells became a father. And, yes, he is hopeful.

“In the course of writing this book, I did have a child, Rocca…I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won…I have to admit, I am also excited, for everything that Rocca and her sisters and brothers will see, will witness, will do. She will hit her child-rearing years around 2050, when we could have climate refugees in the many tens of millions; she will be entering old age at the close of the century, the end-stage bookmark on all of our projections for warming. In between, she will watch the world doing battle with a genuinely existential threat, and the people of her generation making a future for themselves, and the generations they bring into being, on this planet. And she won’t just be watching it, she will be living it – quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending.”

Wallace-Wells has this to say, in a footnote:

“….particular market forces have almost conquered our politics, but not entirely, leaving a bright shining sliver of opportunity; and I also believe…that meaningful and even dramatic change can be achieved through the familiar paths: voting and organizing and political activity deployed at every level. In other words, I believe in engagement above all, engagement wherever it may help. In fact, I find any other response to the climate crisis morally incomprehensible.”

Currently, my husband and I are familiarizing ourselves with climate activism in central Oregon so that we can become involved. We’ll try to make environmentally responsible lifestyle changes, too, but we agree with Wallace-Wells that political activism is now our best hope.

Here is Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, now 16 years old. She has rocketed to fame in recent months and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize:


Thoughts? Please comment! What books, if any, are you reading about climate change? How are you coping psychologically, and have you found ways to feel empowered?

Next time, I will bring you a beautifully written book of hope by Rebecca Solnit. 



19 thoughts on “The Uninhabitable Earth”

  1. I feel like I have little grasp of how to get involved in activism offline. I did help organize our local science march and I donate, but I’m interested in something I could do that would have more long-term impact than the march. If you find a way you think is worthwhile to get involved, I’d love to hear about 🙂 Great review!

    1. You might want to check out the Climate Mobilization Project, which is newer, I think. McKibben’s has been around for a while. I’m still investigating myself as to what we can do here on the local level – either some group that exists or starting one. Good luck. I think it’s challenging to become active, to know where to start….I love your blog, thank you so much for doing it, I often learn about books I want to read.

  2. […] The Uninhabitable Earth – In her thoughtful review of David Wallace-Wells’ newly published The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, Valorie Grace Hallinan of Books Can Save a Life, describes his meditation on climate change as “bleak”, while asserting we must “become politically active and work, ceaselessly, for swift, dramatic mobilization and change.” […]

  3. Thanks for another thoughtful article and for sharing the wonderful video. It goes without saying that it’s powerful stuff. I’m not sure that I could make it through a book like this so I really appreciated reading your review of the book and how it impacted on you. Vicarious learning!
    It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that, like many people I feel very much like a small cog in a gigantic wheel. You said that the author wrote the book in order to arouse fear and panic but I wonder if the main audience for his message are likely to read this book?
    I’m looking forward to your reading your thoughts on Rebecca Solnit’s book.

  4. This sounds like a worthwhile read, definitely a necessary one. I do think that (perhaps outside US) a lot of individuals are making a great effort to improve things and things are changing. It shouldn’t take the threat of disaster to make us want to be good custodians of the Earth. Like keeping our homes clean and tidy, not wasting resources, caring for the Earth seems like good sense. However, manufacturing approaches need to change and our demand for endless everything needs to change too. I think of my generation as the disposable generation: biros, clingfilm, single use plastics. Everything is convenient and disposable, though it isn’t really. Just a sad, terrible mess. We can do better.

  5. I am on the waiting list at the library for this book. I am heartened that there are quite a large number of people in Minneapolis who want to read it. I have been doing quite a lot of reading lately on restorative agriculture. I am also reading a book about building community resilience. And a really good book by Joanna Macy called Active Hope.

    1. Stefanie, I have the book out of the library currently, and I have to get it back – there is a waiting list of 45 people here in central Oregon! That’s good, right? I am interested in restorative ag, too, even though I’m just a beginning gardener here in the tough climate east of the Cascades. I love Joanna Macy – I’ll have to get her book, she is such a leader in the psychology of resilience regarding climate change. I’m so glad you checked in with me about this – please let me know down the line what you’re reading and doing, and your community as well. It means a lot to know there are others committed to changing things. (And we librarians have so much to offer, too, lol!)

  6. I have not read a book on this subject. I certainly see and am concerned about climate change, but I don’t know if I could cope with that much despair. I totally agree that there is no perfect place to live and future generations are certainly going to be dealing with issues that our parents and grandparents didn’t have to address. Scary subject matter.

  7. Well, since you asked …the best book I have read on climate change and how to cope, is “Beyond Hope: Letting Go of World Beyond Collapse” by Deb Ozarko. She is fierce, to-the-point, brutally honest. Leaves no stone unturned. Within the midst of the chaos, she encourages and supports the reader to find the answers within themselves, and be in that space of internal knowing. I agree with Deb that instead of trying to shift the inherently broken paradigm of the current world we live in, as David Wallace seems to suggest, it is best to let it all go and live from an internally referenced space and BE the world you want to live in. This is where true power comes from. This is, by far, the most liberating book I have ever read!

    1. What an affirming notion Deb Ozarko presents! Based on David Wallace-Wells’ evidence (wow! those numbers are certainly truth-telling!), it’s difficult to imagine what we can do individually when the collective is less than willing or ignorant of the changes portended. I agree that global warming will do as he says. But the changes I can do? Will they matter? Enough?

      But this…! “BE the world you want to live in…” is a MINDSET shift that is love based vs. fear based. Perhaps the real and lasting thing we can do is to teach and share how a mindset shift is not Pollyanna-ish but an act of self and other care to shepherd us through the coming epoch.

      1. It is difficult for me to understand this stance, I would have to read the book. I think we have to change the way we operate in the world, dramatically, especially while we still have time. So I must be missing something in the translation….

      2. Thank you for the response, Debra. You got it! That is precisely her point –BE who you are, live from the essence of your Truth, let go of the outcome. Gaia will do alright… humans have collectively chosen this and are unwilling (and perhaps, unable) to wake up to the truth of what’s unravelling in front of us daily. I find her point of view incredibly liberating and not hinged on denial (aka hope).

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