David Wallace-Wells has written a blinder, a book that could actually prompt people to push through complacency. But it’s not enough to pump us up full of fear and then just leave us there, bumping around like so many useless balloons, writes Catherine Woulfe
This article originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.
“It is, I promise, so much worse than you think.”
So begins the New York magazine essay that changed the way I picture the future – mine, and my son’s, and that of humanity in general. The Uninhabitable Earth ran in July 2017, demolishing the magazine’s readership records and screaming across the internet, the journalistic equivalent of a smoke alarm: wake up, people. The house is on fire.
The piece was written by deputy editor David Wallace-Wells. It catalogues the many ways in which we are thoroughly and, depending on how hard and fast we act, irrevocably screwed: heat death, wildfires, acid oceans, deforestation, economic collapse, food scarcity, wars, droughts, pandemics, on and grimly on. Oh-ho, Wallace-Wells writes (I’m paraphrasing.) Thought you were safe because you live inland? All the better for starving and sickening.
The thing is he had science to back it up and a big fat credible masthead and a tone that said “trust me”. And I was completely ready to freak out. Already freaking out a fair bit, actually. The essay just opened a door in my head that I’d been quite happy to leave shut. I’m reluctant to say a door to doomsday – but yeah, pretty much that.
I read it and lay awake for four hours. Wallace-Wells was light on solutions – fair enough, I figured, he did have a lot of problems to cover – so I stewed without focus.
We were trying, desperately, for another child. Was that morally defensible? We still eat meat – albeit free-range – and we chug down yoghurt and cheese and all manner of milky goodness. Did I have the energy to switch our whole family to vegan? If not, why not, and what sort of monster was I? And the garden. All that useless grass. We should be creating a wetland or emergency shelter or planting it up in legumes, or, or…
Over time the grief and fear that hit me in the guts that night metastasised into an anxiety that whined and nipped and tugged. This is, I still believe, a reasonable response to what is extraordinarily sad, scary shit.
I despaired when Auckland’s soft plastic recycling scheme went on indefinite hiatus. How could we be so collectively useless? I checked how high above sea level our property sits and relaxed for a moment then remembered the wildfires and ancient plagues. I watched the plum tree we’d planted over our son’s whenua four years ago wither to brown, this absurdly hot summer, and I thought “Huh. Well, I hope there are still trees when he grows up.”
What I didn’t know was that Wallace-Wells was writing a book – his essay, writ long. Same title, same premise: scare the bejesus out of people with science.
And so it came to pass that 20 months after reading the essay, I saw the book on Amazon and my brain loosed a bolt of adrenaline so strong it made the longed-for baby in my belly roil and kick. I made a sort of “uuuuurghhh” sound and clicked through.
“Hits you like a comet,” read one blurb. “Insanely lyrical prose about our pending armageddon. Written with an eerie gusto for its own horrors, it comes just when we need it… I hope everyone will read it and be afraid.”
Yeesh. Okay. Bring on the abyss, the comet, the burning house. Surely this time, given a whole book to lounge around in, Wallace-Wells would at least show us a way out.
Sample chapter headings: Heat Death. Hunger. Unbreathable Air. Reading one called Drowning, I realised for the first time that we’re going to lose all of the beaches. No more black sands. Being human and hopelessly self-interested, this hit harder than the understanding that Bangladesh and Miami and Shanghai and so many islands are very probably going under.
Similarly, while the statistics are astonishing – 200 million climate migrants by 2050; hail stones that will quadruple in size; in the 20 years since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol we’ve pumped out more emissions than in the 20 years prior – it’s the stories he weaves in between them that will stick in my head forever.
Here’s a particularly sticky one, from the chapter Plagues of Warming.
The saiga, we learn, is an adorable antelope native to central Asia.
“In May 2015, nearly two-thirds of the global population died in the span of just days – every single saiga in an area the size of Florida, the land suddenly dotted with hundreds of thousands of saiga carcasses and not one survivor.”
Here’s what happened. A spike in heat and humidity triggered an erstwhile ‘friendly’ bacteria to move from the saiga’s nostrils to its bloodstream, where it went rogue, a lethal pathogen. The antelope’s microbiome weaponised against it.
We’ve only identified one percent of our own microbiomes, Wallace-Wells notes cheerfully. The other 99 percent? “Presumably climate change will introduce us to some of them.”
This. This right here is what I’m talking about.
The man has a gift for boiling science down to its most harrowing bones. He is a fan of speaking plainly. Coral bleaching? Call it coral dying. “So much more dying is coming,” he writes, of the mass extinction we’ve set in motion – and no, he’s not just talking about coral. He thinks of climate science as a kaleidoscope, a bamboozling, shifting thing of infinite facets, each new vision dictated by humanity’s action or lack of. (I came to see it as a telescope, cutting through space and time, focused always on my kids.) He drums home the message that climate change is not binary. We get to choose when to pull out of the race toward annihilation. Caveat: only kind of, because climate change will continue for hundreds of thousands of years due to the damage we’ve already done.
He’s very good – read: very scary – on the pace of this change, and on feedback loops. “More burning only means more warming only means more burning,” he writes, of the relationship between wildfire and further rises in global temperature. It’s the sort of simple poetry in which my son recounts the death of the dinosaurs.
It takes a savant-level intellect just to stick with a project on this scale, let alone produce something coherent and even, often, beautiful. Wallace-Wells writes of “a human dusk”; of abundant, “creamily frictionless” lives; of “dreamtime weather”, in which our mistakes play back to us, over and over. Scanning the hundreds of footnotes and references at the back of the book, I pictured his desk as a calving glacier, the odd tranche of paper suddenly sliding to the floor.
Wallace-Wells refers often to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, characterising the most recent as saying “it is okay, finally, to freak out”.
That report only considered what would happen if the planet warmed by two degrees as opposed to 1.5. That’s optimistic almost to the point of folly, in Wallace-Wells’ book. The United Nations has us on track for four degrees by 2100; he hopes we might just pull up closer to three or 3.5, which in conjunction with carbon-sucking or planet-cooling innovations could leave us in a state “merely grim, rather than apocalyptic”. Reminder: “The optimists have never, in the half century of climate anxiety we have already endured, been right.”
Very good. So: solutions? Yeah, nah. There’s no section where Wallace-Wells sets out a viable escape route – rather, in the second half of the book he slams a series of doors shut. Decamping into space is a delusion. Solar? It’s not replacing fossil fuels, only “buttressing” them. That nifty carbon-sucking tech is not in fact so nifty, yet: there are machines that can pull carbon from the air, but we would need to cover the planet in 100 million of them to match our current outputs, at a cost of about 40% of global GDP. He makes it sound inevitable that we’ll reach a point where deliberately pumping our atmosphere full of heat-reflecting pollution, probably a “red umbrella” of sulfur dioxide, will look like a wise move. Plus it’s cheap. Paging Elon Musk: “An environmentalist billionaire, going rogue, could make it happen on their own.”
What about us plebs? Choosing not to have kids is unhelpfully fatalist. Fretting over plastics and bees is pointless, in a climate context. Conscious consumption – that is, making purchasing choices that are better for the planet – is a “cop-out” compared to political action. He doesn’t even bother to recycle.
Here’s the single thing I gleaned from this book that I could usefully do: prioritise climate above all else when I vote. We have “the tools that we need, today, to stop it all”, he asserts – and these are presumably the policies we should be looking for: carbon taxes with bite, aggressive phase-outs of dirty energy, public investment in clean energy and carbon-capturing tech, a new approach to agriculture (I don’t think he explains what he means by this). Right, so that’s taken up half an hour of my time once every three years. What else?
Another “obvious” solution he includes in the toolbox is to shift the global diet away from beef and dairy. Yet there’s no call to action over veganism. The words “vegetarian” and “vegan” don’t even appear in the index.
It’s frustrating. Nope, not strong enough. It’s infuriating to be left this scared, this sad and guilt-ridden and panicked, by a man who clearly has an excellent grasp of the science and our situation, and the rare ability to communicate it clearly. He’s written a blinder, a book that could actually prompt people to push through their complacencies and cognitive biases and act – if only they knew what that meant. It’s not enough to pump us up full of fear and then just leave us there, bumping around like so many useless balloons. Tell us what to do, dude.
In the absence of any better-informed answers I’ve muddled through to my own. Do my best and hope, is what it comes down to. Cut down on red meat and dairy, keep bloody well recycling (who doesn’t recycle?!), keep choosing wool over polar fleece and stainless steel over plastic.
I will walk to kindy whenever it’s not pouring and pick up chippy packets on the way. I will walk up Queen Street waving placards with the rest of you who are, likewise, doing your best.
I will vote, of course. And when our little girl joins us this winter, we’ll bury her whenua with her brother’s, and plant something native: mānuka, maybe, or harakeke. Something resilient.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.