Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth – a story of the future

This summer I planned to spend a whole heap of time with my boys working on the Rock Farm.  Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way.  Total fire bans and hot dry weather have caused us to stop working on our projects and nearby bush-fires have created a toxic smoke haze that has limited our ability to get out of the house.  This has created an opportunity to catch up on some reading.

This title comes from my professional book-club, however has an application to the Rock Farm.  Indeed it has an application to all of us, and it is one of the most important books I have ever read.

David Wallace-Wells approaches an enormous topic with his book The Uninhabitable Earth – a story of the future.  It is the product of his two year immersion in the science of climate – and he attempts to make sense of it all in a way that we can understand.

It isn’t comfortable reading.

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It has been thirty years  since Al Gore published his “Inconvenient Truth”.  In that thirty years, humans have emitted as much carbon into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels as in the entire history of mankind up until that point!  Wallace-Wells bemoans our indifference to the threat of climate change and wants to spurn us into action

Wallice-Wells breaks his book into two main sections.

The first section addresses the elements of chaos.  This section looks at the physical manifestation of climate change.  What an increase of temperature will mean.  How it will affect the oceans, the air we breathe, the behaviour of wildfires, the production of food.

The second section looks at the impacts of a changing climate on society. It examines how society may be shaped through the challenges of climate change.  Wallace-Wells asks will we find solutions in technology, or will humanity descend into some post apocalyptic Mad Max type scenario?

To address these issues, Wallace-Wells has collated the best science from around the world and turned it into a non-technical book accessible to most readers. By trying to keep the book non-technical, I feel that Wallace-Wells has cherry-picked the figures that best support his case – and this makes me feel he is often overstating his argument.  One example about sea-birds reads: “one researcher found 225 pieces of plastic in the stomach of a single three-month-old chick, weighing 10 percent of its body mass“.  I found this example of one bird particularly odd, especially when Wallace-Wells is arguing that the entire sea-bird population is declining rapidly due to plastics in the ocean.

One of Wallace-Wells arguments is that disasters will no longer be considered ‘natural’.  Severe weather events will be of higher intensity and occur more frequently than in the past.  The impacts of these events on  infrastructure and human population will be greater.  Wallace-Wells puts forward that societies will get to a point where it will be uneconomic to repair the damage.  This introduces the concept of climate refugees.

Climate refugees are people displaced by climate change.  Wallace-Wells asks whether the current ongoing crisis in Syria and the rest of the middle east has its roots in climate change and pressures on food supply?  Perhaps the combination of climate change and poor agricultural practices has led to the desertification of what was once the Garden of Eden.

Heat from a global temperature rise will affect food production – drought will become a huge problem for agriculture attempting to feed an increasing population.  Wallace-Wells states that at 2 degrees warming, “droughts will wallop the Mediterranean and much of India“.  At 2.5 degrees warming, we could enter a global food deficit.  Due to the nature of drought, many of his claims are difficult to accept directly, however the overall message that drought will impact food supply is terribly important.

I found parts of the book frustrating in the way the science is collated and presented.  Wallace-Wells uses a lot of numbers to make his points- and deliberately chooses the numbers that sound the worst.  When talking about the threat of micro-plastics to the ocean, he uses absolute numbers: “in one square mile of water near Toronto, 3.4 million micro-plastic particles were recently trawled“.  It is hard to understand what this means, especially when we are told that each washing machine cycle can release 700 000 of these microscopic bits.  By trying to use specifics, I find the numbers almost meaningless, despite the overall message being very important.

I found the predictions as to the future shape of societies and ethics in the future concerning.  The book is intentionally alarmist – and I find that sometimes it is hard to understand the claims behind the figures presented as facts.  At least Wallace-Wells has a comprehensive notes section with references to most of his claims, and there is no denying he has done a mountain of research to base this book on.

One story that I found particularly concerning and highlights how little we know about the climate feedback loops concerns the central Asian Saiga – a dwarf like antelope.  In May 2015 over a few days 60 percent of the global population of Saiga died in what is termed a “mega death” event.  Their deaths were caused by a bacteria, pasteurella multocida which lives naturally in the animal’s tonsils.  Suddenly it proliferated, entered the animals’ blood stream, then liver, kidneys and spleen.  The cause was an extremely hot and humid weather pattern – with the highest humidity ever recorded in the areas where the deaths occurred.  Wallace-Wells described the scenario in this case as: “Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet.”  We are entering uncharted territory and many of the feedback loops remain unknown at this time.

So what does it all mean for us at the Rock Farm.

As many of you know, we are trying to establish a woodland type setting with deciduous trees providing a shade, shelter and food source for our grazing stock.  We have sections of native trees and plants for habitat, however we want to make sure that we can protect our pasture from the buffeting winds and drying sunshine, to give us more capacity to deal with drought.  We want to offset the carbon emissions of our car travel.  We want to understand the research that suggests that holistic pasture management with cattle is actually a net carbon sink.

When looking at what plants we want to grow, we are looking at plants that thrive not just in our local area, but also further west of us, where the climate is more ‘Mediterranean’ tending arid.  We want to set our farm up to deal with the changing climate.  The current drought and bush fire crisis has sharpened our focus, and whilst it has made it hard this year to get our trees established, we remain committed to trying to improve this patch of earth we have the responsibility to care for.

It worries me that the debate about climate change and the cause of the fires on social media (and even in the mainstream media)  is increasingly binary.  I see friends using the internet not to open their minds and see different perspectives, but rather to seek other’s opinions that match their own, and then argue that because someone doesn’t share their opinion, they’re an idiot.  The internet was invented to share information, not to watch cat videos and argue with strangers.

We only have one world.  Surely it is too precious to get it wrong. I am the first to admit we live a life of extreme privilege.  It is fair to ask whether it really too hard to make a difference?  Bear in mind, that if the top 10 percent of energy consumers dropped their consumption to just the EU average, total global emissions would fall by a staggering 35 percent.   Now that is something we probably can do, and once we start, I am sure the groundswell of humanity will get on-board!

As Lydia Dotto asked in her piece Storm Warning, Gambling with the Climate of Our Planet twenty years ago

Imagine for a moment you’ve been diagnosed with a serious medical condition.  The diagnosis was difficult but the doctors think they have caught it early.  The prognosis is uncertain:  they can’t fully predict what’s going to happen, but they do know you face difficult choices because this condition gets worse before it gets better.”  

Do you wait for the proof of your condition to become undeniable, before you start treatment, even though it may be too late for that treatment to be effective? Do you take treatment that may drastically reduce your quality of life now, whilst other people say that you’ll barely notice the effects?

I think we all have a responsibility to try to make a difference – and it starts at home.  We can’t afford to wait for the politicians to catch up with us. I am an optimist, and I know that there are many wonderful people working hard to help our world solve its many challenges.  Books like The Uninhabitable Earth remind us how important it is that we stay focused on making the future a better one, for our children’s sake.

 

The Uninhabitable Earth, a story of the future by David Wallace-Wells  ISBN 978-0-141-98887-0

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth – a story of the future

  1. You are right about the declining numbers of sea birds, plastic is not the only element but then all of the other factors are also related to things we humans do, there has been some very disturbing research of late on bird populations, one recent Australian book is Geoffrey Maslen’s An Uncertain Future but you only have to do a quick search for research in the last two years to see the disturbing trend.
    I have not read this book but have added it to my list, and thank you for such an intelligent and balanced post. I am surprised by how hard it is to have a calm reasonable discussion about these issues. How did things get so polarized?
    I hope the fires stay at bay and things start to improve.

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