Review: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

Through the grim futures imagined in the book The Uninhabitable Earth, and later in the book's popular success, it seems clear that journalist David Wallace-Wells has tapped into a growing vein of public fear around the effects of climate change. But although the calls for action around global warning are necessary and urgent, and the cascading effects of this change are becoming ever more noticeable on our planet, the book takes on a dour and defeatist view of the situation that in my opinion seems removed from the larger picture of the planet and climate change.

In reality the world has always been changing. In fact it never stays in one place for much time at all. Since the first dawn of the oceans the sea level has been rising and falling. Through whole geologic epochs the globe has become extremely hot and in others entire continents have frozen over with mile-high glaciers. Humans have always been struggling with the environment and climate change, and it will never stop being a problem. Our ancestors--the distant family members who lived 50,000 years ago--lived in a world with extensive glaciation, one that was barely inhabitable and where humans were in a never-ending struggle for survival.

The world changes all the time. There's nothing intrinsically good or bad in this change by itself, it is only our reactions to the change where that change becomes fear, or anxiety, or pessimism for the future. More to the point, I think that this panicked reaction to the threat acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, where humans are always the bad guys and any change we make to the earth is bad news.

One of the faults of human thinking is that we can often hold multiple beliefs that contradict each other. As long as these beliefs never come into contact with each other, they can subconsciously exist in our minds without any apparent contraction. It seems that a lot of environmentalists believe that any destructive change you make to the natural world is a bad thing. These same people also believe, subconsciously or not, that any positive change you make to the human world is a good thing. Killing a whale is a bad thing. Having a baby is a good thing. But when these beliefs are examined together for long enough, it becomes clear that you cannot rationally believe both facts at the same time. On the earth there is a precarious balance between species and ecosystems, where each species competes for its own share of the finite supply of energy required for life. A species can only ever become plentiful in its environment if that species is able to outcompete others, in effect to harness the most energy within that environment. Every human alive today is taking up a spot on the food chain, consuming resources that might be consumed by other non-human animals. You cannot give humans life without taking away animal life.

There are a lot of "coulds", "mights", and "potentiallys" in the scientific research on this frontier, but the biggest uncertainty is around human action. Humans have adapted to climate change before, and will most likely adapt to climate change in the future. Even if all the worst case judgement day predictions in the book come to pass and humans go extinct, that extinction would go down as one among the many exinctions that allowed humans to evolve in the first place. In the grand scheme of the world humans are relatively insignificant, and it takes some imaginative stories to think that humans are the most important thing that ever lived or will live. Nothing in this world has ever been permanent, but with a frame of reference stuck in the present, books like this one seem to take a position that we should do absolutely everything to ensure that the world stays permanent. Such a desire will always be a losing battle, so rather than wallow when that inevitable change comes to pass, people would do well to find new ways to thrive and adapt to our world. Life on this planet will always be a fight, but if you go into that fight thinking you are going to lose you almost certainly will. You are better served by being open-minded and optimistic, and looking forward to the future with the hope that we can make the world a better place, than you are predicting its inevitable doom.