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The Uninhabitable Earth

A measured study of the effects of climate change

Yes, it is as bad as it sounds. And yet, despite the depressing title, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells lifted me out of my climate apathy and into hopefulness. After years of trying my best to escape the anxiety of looming climate change and focus on solving the worries inherent in career and personal development, I could not put this book down, so convinced was I by its insistence on action and the hope that awaits if we do act. David Wallace-Wells, the deputy editor at New York Magazine, delivers an incredibly well-researched and well-written analysis of the effects of climate change.

The book first outlines, according to the most recent research, what exactly the effects of our continued reliance on fossil fuels will be. The chapter titles are telling: Heat Death, Unbreathable Air, Economic Collapse. I read these 130 pages in a single day; I simply couldn’t look away. The second part of the book then investigates how, with this information so readily available, we manage to ignore a problem so great it easily could result in the extinction of our entire species. Wallace-Wells also focuses on cognitive biases and even the philosophical ramifications of the coming changes, a section I loved, fascinated as I am (and no doubt you are too, as avid readers) by characters, the stories we tell ourselves, and the impact of setting on lived experience.

Wallace-Wells admits that this future is difficult to divine; after all, as he points out, it is hard enough to predict the future when you don’t understand the intricacies of the climate system, one of the most notoriously unpredictable systems known to the scientific community. If that weren’t enough, you also don’t know the dynamics of the most important input into that system: how humans will react to this threat in the coming decades. Wallace-Wells, though, knows what he’s doing, and presents probably the best summary analysis there is of the changes that await, with a tone that balances the graveness of our situation with informed and well-reasoned solutions.

The takeaway that most changed my outlook is, again, Wallace-Wells’ emphasis on hope. He is not blindly optimistic. Instead, he points out that this problem is a human one, as all the best research asserts, and that could be the greatest argument for action and hope that we have: if we made the problem, we can fix it. We have never experienced a cause of proportions this epic: we can literally save the world if we are realistic and work hard—starting right now.

Wallace-Wells has written a book that makes you want to learn everything there is to know about one of the most depressing and anxiety-inducing phenomena in our world. As I place the book back on my bookshelf and find my focus shifting back to career and personal development, I am glad to be left feeling convinced more than ever of the centrality of climate to my own life, and to be left feeing inspired to do something about it.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells is published by Penguin, 336 pages.

Interested in environmental writing? See artist Olafur Eliasson’s selection or try James Thornton’s Client Earth.

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