The Uninhabitable Earth | Reflections & Notes

David Wallace-Wells. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Tim Duggan Books, 2019. (310 pages)


This may be one of the most important books I’ve read recently. It is also one of the most surprising.

In the first half, we face the stark and terrifying projections of our planetary irresponsibility, a disquieting read for sure. What looms on the not-too-distant horizon is horrifying, and if we care at all about the scope of human suffering, we are implored to act, and act now. As Wallace-Wells writes, fear can be a great motivator. For this crisis, we need both stories of hope and prophetic utterances of doom, the twin engines of human motivation.

But this book goes far beyond the mere facts of climate change (and facts they are), the need for panic (which is fully justified), and the promise of rapid innovation and systematic change (which is completely achievable). Wallace-Wells ultimately attempts to explain what climate change means, and, in my opinion, accomplishes a tremendous achievement to that end. In,…no, within the context of our greatest environmental challenge in the history of our planet, we discover the intersection of the most poignant and powerful aspects of our existence; the power and necessity of stories and narratives to inform our thinking and ethics, the hindrances of psychological biases that distort and distend our perceptions, and the triumphs and failures of our human systems such as politics. Most poetically, though we are called Homo sapiens, “wise man,” we are as a species that is paradoxically delinquent in being wise and somehow aware enough at times to denounce our delinquency. And this is what climate change means. It is not just threatening our material stability and eventually our physical existence. Climate change calls into question everything we know about what life is, how it is to be conducted, the relationship between our minds and the physical world, what mental or physical tools are necessary to leverage in these new realities, and whether or not survival is even a possibility. All this and more is found in the crisis we face with climate change.

Which leads me to the most surprising moment part of this book.

The closing chapter on the Anthropic Principle as the ideological framework for our thinking about climate change was astounding. The Anthropic Principle is such a philosophical conundrum that it seems quite out of place for a book on climate change. However, the articulation of our exceptionality as just the right concoction of ego and humility was extremely persuasive, reasonable, and doable. In the Anthropic Principle we find the humility to question ourselves in perfect harmony with the mythology to believe ourselves the center of the universe. It is to come as close as we can, philosophically, to being the manifestation of the divine. And, it is the only story I know, currently, that is religious and secular, and neither at the same time. Put audaciously, the Anthropic Principle is the intersection of all the explanations of universe. I was deeply compelled to consider it the starting point for truly solving our climate crisis.

I urge you to trust the science, consider the implications, and find your role in advancing the solutions. Reading The Uninhabitable Earth is a great place to start for all three.


I. Cascades

It is worse, much worse, than you think. (3)

…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. … The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. … The story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime–the planet brought from seeming stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral. (4)

…if the planet was brought to the brink of climate catastrophe within the lifetime of a single generation, the responsibility to avoid it belongs with a single generation, too. We all also know that second lifetime. It is ours. (6)

…there are so many aspects to the climate (10) kaleidoscope that transforms our intuitions about environmental devastation into an uncanny complacency that it can be hard to pull the whole picture of climate distortion into focus. But we simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or anyway didn’t look squarely in the face of the science. (11)

This is not a book about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet. But what does that science say? It is complicated research, because it is built on two layers of uncertainty: what humans will do, mostly in terms of emitting greenhouse gases, and how the climate will respond, both through straightforward heating and a variety of more complicated, and sometimes contradictory, feedback loops. (11)

Climate change is fast, much faster than it seems we have the capacity to recognize and acknowledge; but it is also long, almost longer than we can truly imagine. (12)

This is part off hat makes climate change what the theorist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”–a conceptual fact so large and complex that, like the internet, it can never be properly comprehended. There are many features of climate change–its size, its scope, its brutality–that, alone, satisfy this definition; together they might elevate it into a higher and more incomprehensible conceptual category yet. But time is perhaps the most mind-bending feature, the worst outcomes arriving so long from now that we reflexively discount their reality. (13)

There is nothing stopping us from four degrees other than our own will to change course, which we have yet to display. Because the planet is as big as it is, and as ecologically diverse; because humans have proven themselves an adaptable species, and will likely continue to adapt to outmaneuver a lethal threat; and because the devastating effects of warming will soon become too extreme to ignore, or deny, if they haven’t already; because of all that, it is unlikely that climate change will render the planet truly uninhabitable. But if we do nothing about carbon emissions, if the next thirty years of industrial activity trace the same arc upward as the last thirty years have, whole regions will become unlivable by any standard we have today as soon as the end of this century. (15)

The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has battered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in preview. It would be more precise (18) to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia. There is no longer any such thing as a “natural disaster,” but not only will things get worse; technically speaking, they have already gotten worse. Even if, miraculously, humans immediately ceased emitting carbon, we’d still be due for some additional warming from just the stuff we’ve put into the air already. And of course, with global emissions still increasing, we’re very far from zeroing out on carbon, and therefore very far from stalling climate change. The devastation we are now seeing all around us is a beyond-best-case scenario for the future of warming and all the climate disasters it will bring. (19)

…global warming is not “yes” or “no,” nor is it “today’s weather forever” or “doomsday tomorrow.” It is a function that its worse over time as long as e continue to produce greenhouse gas. (19)

Some of those watching from afar wondered, incredulously, how a mudslide could kill so many. The answer is, the same way as hurricanes or tornadoes–by weaponizing the environment, whether “man-made” or “natural.” (23)

This is one of the many historical ironies of climate change that would better be called cruelties, so merciless is the suffering they will inflict. But disproportionately as it will fall on the world’s least, the devastation of global warming cannot be easily quarantined in the developing world, as much as those in the Northern Hemisphere would probably, and not to our credit, prefer it. Climate disaster is too indiscriminate for that. (24)

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it–the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances–recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other. That collapse of trust is a cascade, too. (25)

In just the last forty years, according to the World Wildlife Fund, more than half of (25) the world’s vertebrate animals have died; in just the last twenty-five, one study in German nature preserves found, the flying insect population declined by three-quarters. … The zoos are already natural history museums, the children’s books already out of date. (26)

But we have for so long understood stories about nature as allegories that we seem unable to recognize that the meaning of climate change is not sequestered in parable. It encompasses us; in a very real way it governs us–our crop yields, our pandemics, (26) our migration patterns and civil wars, crime waves and domestic assaults, hurricanes and heat waves and rain bombs and mega-droughts, the shape of our economic growth and everything that flows downstream from it, which today means nearly everything. (27)

There is nothing to learn from global warming, because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons; we are after all not merely telling the story but living it. That is, trying to; the threat is immense. (28)

That we know global warming is our doing should be a comfort, not a cause for despair, however incomprehensibly large and complicated we find the processes that have brought it into being; that we know we are, ourselves, responsible for all of its punishing effects should be empowering, and not just perversely. Global warming is, after all, a human invention. And the flip side of our real-time guilt is that we remain in command. …we are all its authors. And still writing. (30)

The thing is, I am optimistic. (31)

I know there are climate horrors to come, some of which will inevitably be visited on my children–that is what it means for warming to be an all-encompassing, all-touching threat. But those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action can stop them. Climate change means some bleak prospects for the decades ahead, but I don’t believe the appropriate response to that challenge is withdrawal, is surrender. I think you have to (31) 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, and acclimating yourself to a dreary future brought into being by others less concerned about climate pain. The fight is, definitively, not yet lost–in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less. (32)

…”climate nihilism” [Stuart Parker] is, in fact, another of our delusions. What happens, from here, will be entirely our own doing. The planet’s future will be determined in large part by the arc of growth in the developing world–that’s where most of the people are, in China and India and, increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa. But this is no absolution for the West, where the average citizen produces many times more emissions than almost anyone in Asia, just out of habit. (33)

…the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics. (34)

II. Elements of Chaos

Heat Death

…every inhabitable planet out there is a reminder of just how unique a set of circumstances is required to produce a climate equilibrium supportive of life. No intelligent life that we know of ever evolved, anywhere in the universe, outside of the narrow Goldilocks range of temperatures that enclosed all of human evolution, and that we have now left behind, probably permanently. (43)

| How much hotter will it get? The question may sound scientific, inviting expertise, but the answer is almost entirely human–which is to say, political. … Climatologists can, today, predict with uncanny accuracy where a hurricane will hit, and at what intensity, as much as a week out from landfall; this is not just because the models are good but because all the inputs are known. When it comes to global warming, the models are just as good, but the key input is a mystery: What will we do? (43)

It has become commonplace among climate activists to say that we have, today, all the tools we need to avoid catastrophic climate change–even major climate change. It is also true. But political will is not some trivial ingredient, always at hand. We have the tools we need to solve global poverty, epidemic disease, and abuse of women, as well. (44)


Climates different and plants vary, but the basic rule of thumb for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. (49)

The academic term for the subject of this debate is “carrying capacity”: How much population can a given environment ultimately support before collapsing or degrading from overuse? … Global warming, in other words, is more than just one input in an equation to determine carrying capacity; it is the set of conditions under which all of our experiments to improve that capacity will be conducted. In this way, climate change appears to be not merely one challenge among many facing a planet already struggling with civil strife and war and horrifying inequality and far too many other insoluble hardships to iterate, but the all-encompassing stage on which all those challenges will be met–a whole sphere, in other words, which literally contains within it all of the world’s future problems and all of its possible solutions. (53)

| Curiously, maddeningly, these can be the same. The graphs that show so much recent progress in the developing world–on poverty, on hunger, on education and infant mortality and life expectancy and gender relations and more–are, practically speaking, the same graphs that trace the dramatic rise in global carbon emissions that has brought the planet to the brink of overall catastrophe. This is (53) one aspect of what is meant by the term “climate justice.” Not only is it undeniably the case that the cruelest impacts of climate change will be borne by those least resilient in the face of climate tragedy, but to a large degree what could be called the humanitarian growth of the developing world’s middle class since the end of the Cold War has been paid for by fossil-fuel-driven industrialization–an investment int he well-being of the global south made by mortgaging the ecological future of the planet. (54)


But sea-level rise is different, because on top of the basic mystery of human response it layers much more epistemological ignorance than governs any other aspect of climate change science, save perhaps the question of cloud formation. When water warms, it expands: this we know. But the breaking-up of ice represents almost an entirely new physics, never before observed in human history, and therefore only poorly understood. (64)

“albedo effect”: ice is white and so reflects sunlight back into space rather than absorbing it; the less ice, the more sunlight is absorbed as global warming; and the total disappearance of that ice, Peter Wadhams has estimated, could mean a massive warming equivalent to the entire last twenty-five years of global carbon emissions. (67)

All of this is speculative. But our uncertainty over each of these dynamics–ice sheet collapse, Arctic methane, the albedo effect–clouds our understanding only of the pace of change, not its scale. In fact, we do know what the endgame for oceans looks like, just not how long it will take us to get there. (67)


In California, a single wildfire can entirely eliminate the emissions gains made that year by all of the state’s aggressive environmental policies. (76)

Disasters No Longer Natural

This (79) is among the scariest features of rapid climate change: not that it changes the everyday experience of the world, though it does that, and dramatically; but that it makes once-unthinkable outlier events much more common, and ushers whole new categories of disaster into the realm of the possible. (80)

Freshwater Drain

Seventy-one percent of the planet is covered in water. Barely more than 2 percent of that water is fresh, and only 1 percent of that water, at most, is accessible, with the rest trapped mostly in glaciers. Which means, in essence, as National Geographic has calculated, only 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is available to fuel and feed its seven billion people. (86)

Globally, between 70 and 80 percent of freshwater is used for food production and agriculture, with an additional 10 to 20 percent set aside for industry. (86)

We frequently choose to obsess over personal consumption, in part because it is within our control and in part as a very contemporary form of virtue signaling. But ultimately those choices are, in almost all cases, trivial contributors, ones that blind us to the more important forces. (90)

As long as it has advocates, climate change has been sold under a saltwater banner–melting Arctic, rising seas, shrinking coastlines. A freshwater crisis is more alarming, since we depend on it far more acutely. It is also closer at hand. But while the planet commands the necessary resources today to provide water for drinking and sanitation to all the world’s people, there is not the necessary political will–or even the inclination–to do so. (92)

There is a saying in the water community. “If climate change is a shark, the water resources are the teeth.” – Peter Gleick

Dying Oceans

…globally, seafood accounts for nearly a fifth of all animal protein in the human (94) diet,… (95)

It has become quite common to say that we are living through a mass extinction–a period in which human activity has multiplied the rate at which species are disappearing from the earth by a factor perhaps as large as a thousand. It is probably also fair to (96) call this an era marked by what is called ocean anoxification. (97)

Unbreathable Air

With CO2 at 930 parts per million (more than double where we are today), cognitive ability declines by 21 percent. (100)

Globally, one out of six deaths is caused by air pollution. (104)

Plastic panic has a strange relationship to climate change, in that it seems to draw on premonitions about he degradation of the planet while focusing on something that has very little to do with global warming. But it’s not only carbon emissions that are tied up in climate change. Other pollution is, too. One of the connections is relatively attenuated: plastics are produced by industrial activity that also produces pollutants, including carbon dioxide. A second is more direct but, in the scheme of things, trivial: when plastics degrade, they release methane and ethylene, another powerful greenhouse gas. (106)

| But a third relationship between non-carbon pollution and the temperature of the planet is far more horrifying. This is not the problem of plastic but of “aerosol pollution”–the planet term for any particles suspended in our atmosphere. (106)

Plagues of Warming

Rock is a record of planetary history, eras as long s millions of years flattened by the forces of geological time into strata with amplitudes of just inches, or just an inch, or even less. Ice works that way, too, as a climate ledger, but it is also frozen history, some of which can be reanimated when unfrozen. There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years–in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them. Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice. (109)

cf. Anatoli Brouchkov; Bacillus F (

cf. Worms Frozen for 42,000 Years in Siberian Permafrost Wriggle to Life

cf. Anthrax Outbreak In Russia Thought To Be Result Of Thawing Permafrost

What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming. (110)

As it happens, Zika may also be a good model of a second worrying effect–disease mutation. (111)

More than 99 percent of even those bacteria inside human bodies are presently unknown to science, which means we are operating in near-total ignorance about the effects climate change might have on the bugs in, for instance, our guts–about how many of the bacteria modern humans have come to rely on, like unseen factory workers, for everything from digesting our food to modulating our anxiety, could be rewired, diminished, or entirely killed off by an additional few degrees of heat. (113)

The places where the saigas died in May 2015 were extremely warm and humid. In fact, humidity levels were the highest ever seen the region since records began in 1948. The same pattern held for two earlier, and much smaller, die-offs from 1981 and 1988. When the temperature gets really hot, and the air gets really wet, saiga die. Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet. – Ed Yong, Why Did Two-Thirds of These Weird Antelope Suddenly Drop Dead?: The mass death of 200,000 saiga provides a dark omen for what might happen to wildlife in a changing world.

This is not to say we now understand what precisely about humidity weaponized Pasteurella, or how many of the other bacteria living inside mammals like us–the 1 percent we have identified, or perhaps more worryingly the 99 percent we house without any knowledge or understanding–might be similarly triggered by climate, friendly, symbiotic bugs with whom we’ve lived in some cases for millions of years, transformed suddenly into contagions already inside us. That remains a mystery. But ignorance is no comfort. Presumably climate change will introduce us to some of them. (114)

Economic Collapse

But in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a number of historians and iconoclastic economists studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have started to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the eighteenth century, is not the result of innovation for the dynamics of free trade, but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power–a onetime injection of that new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by unending subsistence living. This is a minority view, among economists, and yet the précis version of the perspective is quite powerful. (115)

Oil is the patrimony of the planet’s prehuman past: what stored energy the earth can produce when undisturbed for millennia. (116)

You do not have to believe that economic growth is a mirage produced by fossil fumes to worry that climate change is a threat to it–in fact, this proposition forms the cornerstone around which an entire edifice of academic literature has been built over the last decade. (117)

…we do know that, globally, warmer temperatures do dampen worker productivity. (120)

…as the cost of adaptation in the form of green energy has fallen so dramatically, the equation has entirely flipped: we now know that it will be much, much more expensive to not act on climate than to take even the most aggressive action today. … In 2018, one paper calculated the global cost of a rapid energy transition, by 2030, to be negative $26 trillion–in other words, rebuilding the energy infrastructure of the world would make us all that much money, compared to a static system, in only a dozen years. (122)

Climate Conflict

Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria. They want you to know that while climate change did produce a drought that contributed to the country’s civil war, it is not exactly fair to say that the conflict is the result of warming; next door, for instance, Lebanon suffered the same crop failures and remained stable. (124)

| But wars are not caused by climate change only in the same way that hurricanes are not caused by climate change, which is to say they are made more likely, which is to say the distinction is semantic. (124)

…as nearly every climate scientist I’ve spoken to has pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change, the Pentagon issuing regular climate threat assessments and planning for a new era of conflict governed by global warming. (125)

But for the military, climate change is not just a matter of great-power rivalry executed across a transformed map. Even for those in the American military who expect the country’s hegemony to endure indefinitely, climate change presents a problem, because being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles. …from 1980 to 2010, a 2016 study found, 23 percent of conflict in the world’s ethnically (126) diverse countries began in months stamped by weather disaster. (127)

Like the cost to growth, war is not a discrete impact of global temperature rise but something more like an all-encompassing aggregation of climate change’s worst tremors and cascades. (127)

But most (128) wars throughout history, it is impossible to remember, have been conflicts over resources, often ignited by resource scarcity, which is what an earth densely populated and denuded by climate change will yield. Those wars don’t tend to increase those resources; most of the time, they incinerate them. (129)

Heat frays everything.

[via: Why we use the phrase “cool off” as the metaphor for “calming down.”]


What I call cascades, climate scientists call “systems crises.” These crises are what the American military means when it names climate change a “threat multiplier.” (131)

…the impacts will be greatest in the world’s least developed, most impoverished, and therefore least resilient nations–almost literally a story of the world’s rich drowning the world’s poor with their waste. (132)

The system in crisis is not always “society”; the system can also be the body. (134)

The effect on the personal decisions of the consumer class is perhaps a narrow way of thinking about global warming, though it demonstrates a strain of strange ascetic pride among the well-to-do. (“The egoism of child-bearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country,” the novelist Sheila Heti writes, in a representative passage from Motherhood, her meditation on the meaning of parenthood, which she chose to avoid.) But of course further degradation isn’t inescapable; it is optional. Each new baby arrives in a brand-new world, contemplating a whole horizon of possibilities. The perspective is not naive. We live in that world with them–helping make it for them, and with them, and for ourselves. The next decades are not yet determined. A new timer begins with every birth, measuring how much more damage will be done to the planet and the life this child will live on it. The horizons are just as open to us, however foreclosed and foreordained they may seem. But we close them off when we say anything about the future being inevitable. What may sound like stoic wisdom is often an alibi for indifference. (135)

In a world of suffering, the self-interested mind craves compartmentalization, and one of the most interesting frontiers of emerging climate science traces the imprint left on our psychological well-being but he force of global warming, which can overwhelm whatever methods we devise to cope–that is, the mental health effects of a world on fire. Perhaps the most predictable vector is trauma: between a quarter and a half of all those exposed to extreme weather events will experience them as an ongoing negative shock to their mental health. … This may be why so many [climate scientists] seem concerned with the risks of crying wolf about warming: they’ve learned enough about public apathy to worry themselves into knots about just when, and precisely how, to raise alarm. (136)

And then there are the more surprising mental health costs. Climate affects both the onset and the severity of depression, The Lancet has found. Rising temperature and humidity are married, in the data, to emergency-room visits for mental health issues. (137)

Heat produces violence and conflict between people, we know, and so it should probably not surprise us that it also generates a spike in violence against oneself. Each increase of a single degree Celsius in  monthly temperature is associated with almost a percentage point rise of the suicide rate in the United States, and more than two percentage points in Mexico;… (138)

If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader. Any one of these twelve chapters contains, by rights, enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic of those considering it. But you are not merely considering it; you are about to embark on living it. In many cases, in many places, we already are. (138)

These sketches may feel exhaustive, at times even overwhelming. But they are merely sketches, to be filled in and fleshed out over the coming decades… (139)

The pace of that scholarship [about climate change] is exhilarating, but it also counsels humility; there remains so much we do not know about the way global warming affects the way we live today. (139)

Which all means that these twelve threats describe in these twelve chapters yield a portrait of the future only as best as it can (139) be painted in the present. What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible. The map of our new world will be drawn in part by natural processes that remain mysterious, but more definitively by human hands. At what point will the climate crisis grow undeniable, un-compartmentalizable? How much damage will have already been selfishly done? How quickly will we act to save ourselves and preserve as much of the way of life we know today as possible? (140)

III. The Climate Kaleidoscope


It should be no great prize to be right about the end of the world. But humans have told those stories incessantly, across millennia, the lessons shifting with each imagined Armageddon. You’d think that a culture woven through with intimations of apocalypse would know how to receive news of environmental alarm. But instead we have responded to scientists channeling the planet’s cries for mercy a though they were simply crying wolf. Today, the movies may be millenarian, but when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. This is climate’s kaleidoscope: we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly. (143)

What does it mean to be entertained by a fictional apocalypse as we stare down the possibility of a real one? One job of pop culture is always to serve stories that distract even as they appear to engage–to deliver sublimation and diversion. In a time of cascading climate change, Hollywood is also trying to make sense of our changing relationship to nature, which we have long regarded from at least an arm’s length–but which, amid this change, has returned as a chaotic force we nevertheless understand, on some level, as our fault. The adjudication of that guilt is another thing entertainment can do, when law and public policy fail, though our culture, like our politics, specializes in assigning the blame to others–in projecting rather than accepting guilt. A form of emotional prophylaxis is also at work: in fictional stories of climate catastrophe we may also be looking for catharsis, and collectively trying to persuade ourselves we might survive it. (144)

“climate existentialism.” (145)

But the scope of the world’s transformation may just as quickly climate the genre–indeed eliminate any effort to narrativize warming, which could grow too large and too obvious even for Hollywood. You can tell stories “about” climate change while it still seems a marginal feature of human life, or an overwhelming feature of lives marginal to your own. But at three degrees of warming, or four, hardly anyone will be able to feel insulated from its impacts–or want to watch it on-screen as they watch it out their windows. And so as climate change expands across the horizon–as it begins to seem inescapable, total–it may cease to be a story and become, instead, an all-encompassing setting. (145)

…when we can no longer pretend that climate suffering is distant–in time or in place–we will stop pretending about it and start pretending within it. (146)

Global warming isn’t something that might happen, should several people make some profoundly shortsighted calculations; it is something that is already happening, everywhere, and without anything like direct supervisors. Nuclear Armageddon, in theory, has a few dozen authors; climate catastrophe has billions of them, with responsibility distended over time and extended across much of the planet. This is not to say it is distributed evenly: though climate change will be given its ultimate dimensions by the course of industrialization in the developing world, at present the world’s wealthy possess the lion’s share of guilt–the richest 10 percent producing half of all emissions. This distribution tracks closely with global income inequality, which is one reason that many on the Left point to the all-encompassing system, saying that industrial capitalism is to blame. It is. But saying so does not name an antagonist; it names a toxic investment vehicle with most of the world as stakeholders, many of whom eagerly bought in. And who (148) in fact quite enjoy their present way of life. That includes, almost certainly, you and me and everyone else buying escapism with our Netflix subscription. (149)

evilness is not the same as responsibility, and climate denialism has captured just one political party in one country in the world–a country with only two of the world’s ten biggest oil companies. American inaction surely slowed global progress on climate in a time when the world had only one superpower. But there is simply nothing like climate denialism beyond the U.S. border, which encloses the production of only 15 percent of the world’s emissions. To believe the fault for global warming lies exclusively with the Republican Party or its fossil fuel backers is a form of American narcissism. (149)

That narcissism, I suspect, will be broken by climate change. (149)

…the “pathetic fallacy” still holds: it can be curiously easier to empathize with them, and perhaps because we would rather not reckon with our own responsibility, but instead simply feel their pain, at least briefly. In the face of a storm kicked up by humans, and which we continue to kick up each day, we seem most comfortable adopting a learned posture of powerlessness. (151)

It’s natural, so to speak, to anthropomorphize animals–our whole animation industry is built on it, for starters. But there is something strange, even fatalistic, about such vain beings as ourselves identifying this strongly with creature who operate so entirely without free will and individual autonomy that many experts in the field aren’t sure whether we should think of the been or the colony as the organism. …the more you read about colony collapse, the more you are filled with a kind of awe for just how much the internet is a divining rod by which we choose to intuit an end of days. (152)

When Bill McKibben declared “The End of Nature,” in 1989, he was posing a hyperbolic kind of epistemological riddle: What do you call it, whatever it is, when forces of wilderness and weather, of animal kingdoms and plant life, have been so transformed by human activity they are no longer truly “natural”? (153)

| The answer came a few decades later with the term “the Anthropocene,”

That we reengineered the natural world so sufficiently to close he book on an entire geological era–that is the major lesson of the Anthropocene. … Twenty-two percent of the earth’s landmass was altered by humans just between 1992 and 2015. Ninety-six percent of the world’s mammals, by weight, are now humans and their livestock; just four percent are wild. We have simply crowded–or bullied, or brutalized–every other species into retreat, near-extinction, or worse. E. O. Wilson thinks the era might be better called the Eremocine–the age of loneliness. (154)

| But global warming carries a message more concerning still: that we didn’t defeat the environment at all. There was no final conquest, no dominion established. In fact, the opposite: Whatever it means for the other animals on the plane, with global warming (154) we have unwittingly claimed ownership of a system beyond our ability to control or tame in any day-to-day way. But more than that: with our continued activity, we have rendered that system only more out of control. Nature is both over, as in “past,” and all around us, indeed overwhelming us and punishing us–this is the major lesson of climate change, which it teaches us almost daily. (155)

For decades now, there have been few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change. (155)

alarm is not the same as fatalism, that hope does not demand silence about scarier challenges, and that fear can motivate, too. …there is no single way to best tell the story of climate change, no single rhetorical approach likely to work on a given audience, and none too dangers to try. Any story that sticks is a good one. (157)

The thing that was new was the message: It is okay, finally, to freak out. (157)

Crisis Capitalism

The scroll of cognitive biases identified by behavioral psychologists and fellow travelers over the last half century is, like a social media feed, apparently infinite, and every single one distorts and distends our perception of a changing climate–…

anchoring, which explains how we build mental models around as few as one or two initial examples, no matter how unrepresentative… (158)

ambiguity effect, which suggests that most people are so uncomfortable contemplating uncertainty, they will accept lesser outcomes in a bargain to avoid dealing with it. In theory, with climate, uncertainty should be an argument for action–much of the ambiguity arises from the range of possible human inputs, a quite (158) concrete prompt we choose to process instead as a riddle, which discourages us. (159)

anthropocentric thinking, by which we build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that some especially ruthless environmentalists have derided as “human supremacy”… (159)

automation bias, which describes a preference for algorithmic and other kinds of nonhuman decision making, and also applies to our generations-long deference to market forces as something like an infallible, or at least an unbeatable, overseer. (159)

…the bystander effect, …our tendency to wait for others to act rather than acting ourselves… (159)

confirmation bias, by which we seek evidence for what we already understand to be true, such as the promise that human life will endure, rather than endure the cognitive pain of reconceptualizing our world;… (159)

…the default effect, or tendency to choose the present option over alternatives, which is related to… (159)

the status quo bias, or preference for things as they are, however bad that is,… (159)

…the endowment effect, or instinct to demand more to give up something we have than we actually value it (or had paid to acquire or establish it). (159)

We have an illusion of control, the behavioral economists tell us, and also suffer from overconfidence, and an optimism bias. We also have a pessimism bias, not that it compensates–instead it pushes us to see challenges as predetermined defeats and to hear alarm, perhaps especially on climate, as (159) cries of fatalism. (160)

That climate change demands expertise, and faith in it, at precisely the moment when public confidence in expertise is collapsing, is another of its historical ironies. That climate change touches each of these biases is nota  curiosity, or a coincidence, or an anomaly. It is a mark of just how big it its, and how much about human life it touches–which is to say, nearly everything. (160)

You might begin the B volume with bigness–that the scope of the climate threat is so large, and its menace so intense, we reflexively avert our eyes, as we would with the sun. (160)

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. – Fredric Jameson

Frankenstein problem, …we are more intimidated by the monsters we create than those we inherit. (161)

cf. Juliana v. the United States [60 minutes; Wikipedia; CaseStudy]

If we do succeed, and pull up short of two or even three degrees, the bigger bill will come due not in the name of liability but in the form of adaptation and mitigation–that is, the cost of building and then administering whatever systems we improvise to undo the damage a century of imperious industrial capitalism has wrought across the only planet on which we all can live. (169)

| The cost is large: a decarbonized economy, a perfectly renewable energy system, a reimagined system of agriculture, and perhaps even a meatless planet. In 2018, the IPCC compared the necessary transformation to the mobilization of World War II, but global. It took New York City forty-five years to build three new stops on a single subway line; the threat of catastrophic climate change means we need to entirely rebuild the world’s infrastructure in considerably less time. (169)

The Church of Technology

Should anything save us, it will be technology. But you need more than tautologies to save the planet, and, especially within the futurist fraternity of Silicon Valley, technologists have little more than fairy tales to offer. (171)

For Bostrom, the very purpose of “humanity” is so transparently to engineer a “post humanity” that he can use the second term as a synonym for the first. This is not an oversight but the key to his appeal in Silicon Valley: the belief that the grandest task before technologists is not to engineer prosperity and well-being for humanity but to build a kind of portal through which we might pass into another, possibly eternal kind of existence, a technological rapture in which conceivably many–the billions lacking access to broadband, to begin with–would be left behind. It would be very hard, after all, to upload your brain to the cloud when you’re buying pay-as-you-go data by the SIM card. (175)

…it is perhaps a sign of our culture’s heliotropism toward technology that aside perhaps from proposals to colonize other planets, and visions of technology liberating humans from most biological or environmental needs, we have not yet developed anything close to a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. (175)

…anyone proposing space travel as a solution to global warming must be suffering from their own climate delusion. (176)

…the market has not responded to these developments by seamlessly retiring dirty energy sources and replacing them with clean ones. It has responded by simply adding the new capacity to the same system. (177)

We think of climate change as slow, but it is unnervingly fast. We think of the technological change necessary to avert it as fast-arriving, but unfortunately it is deceptively slow–especially judged by just how soon we need it. This is what Bill McKibben means when he says that winning slowly is the same as losing: (179)

If we don’t act quickly, and on a global scale, then the problem will literally become insoluble. The decisions we make in 2075 won’t matter.

According to the IPCC, we have just twelve years to cut [carbon emissions] in half. The longer we wait, the harder it will be. If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another (179) decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year. (180)

The scale of the technological transformation required dwarfs any achievement that has emerged from Silicon Valley–in fact dwarfs every technological revolution ever engineered in human history, including electricity and telecommunications and even the invention of agriculture ten thousand years ago. It dwarfs them by definition, because it contains all of them–every single one needs to be replaced at the root, since every single one breathes on carbon, like a ventilator. (180)

Politics of Consumption

cf. David Buckel

…the climate crisis demands political commitment well beyond the easy engagement of rhetorical sympathies, comfortable partisan tribalism, and ethical consumption. (186)

On perhaps no issue more than climate is that liberal posture of well-off enlightenment a defensive gesture: almost regardless of your politics or your consumption choices, the wealthier you are, the larger your carbon footprint. (187)

| But when critics of Al Gore compare his electricity use to that of the average Ugandan, they are not ultimately highlighting conspicuous and hypocritical personal consumption, however they mean to disparage him. Instead, they are calling attention to the structure of a political and economic order that not only permits the disparity but feeds and profits from it–this is what Thomas Piety calls the “apparatus of justification.” And it justifies quite a lot. … Eating organic is nice, in other words, but if your goal is to save the climate your vote is much more important. Politics is a moral multiplier. (187)

[via: “Our technologies extend, amplify, and atrophy our selves.]

…”carbon outsourcing” means that a large slice of China’s emissions is produced manufacturing goods to be consumed by Americans and Europeans. Whose responsibility are those gigaton of carbon? (194)

All of these scenarios, event he bleakest, presume some new political equilibrium. There is also, of course, the possibility of disequilibrium–or what you would normally call “disorder” and “conflict.” (195)

The idea of a “global order” has always been something of a fiction, or at least an aspiration, even as the joined forces of liberal internationalism, globalization, and American hegemony inched us toward it over the last century. Very probably, over the next century, climate change will reverse that course. (196)

History After Progress

…perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so agitated about such problems, in other words, since history is “moving int he right direction” and the forces of progress are, to indulge the mixed metaphor, “on the right side of history.” On what side is climate change? (197)

| Its own side–its own tide. There is no good thing in the world that will be made more abundant, or spread more widely, by global warming. (197)

If you strip out the perception of progress from history, what is left? (200)

But climate change isn’t likely to deliver a neat or complete return to a cyclical view of history, at least in the premodern sense–in part because there will be nothing neat, at all, about the era ushered in by warming. The likelier outcome is a much messier perspective, with teleology demoted from its position as an organizing, unifying theory, and, in its place, contradictory narratives running uncorralled, like animals unleashed from a cage and moving in all directions at once. (201)

Man-made weather is never made in the present – Andreas Malm

Ethics at the End of the World

If the climate crisis unfolds as it is scheduled to, our taboos against doomsaying will fall, as new cults emerge and cultish thinking leeches into sectors of establishment culture. (205)

…the unmistakable degradation of the planet will invariably inspire many more prophets like [Guy McPherson], whose calls of imminent environmental apocalypse will start to seem reasonable to many more reasonable people. (206)

But for most who perceive an already unfolding climate crisis and intuit a more complete metamorphosis of the world to come, the vision is a bleak one, often pieced together from perennial eschatological imagery inherited from existing apocalyptic texts like the Book of Revelation, the inescapable sourcebook for Western anxiety about the end of the world. In fact, those ravings, which Yeats more or less translated for a secular audience in “The Second Coming,” have so predominated the Western dreamscape–becoming something like the Gnostic wallpaper of our bourgeois inner lives–that we often forget they were originally written as real-time prophecies, visions of what was to come, and what would become of the world, within a single generation. (208)

“inhumanism”; the belief, in short, that people were far too concerned with people-ness, and the place of people in the world, rather than the natural majesty of the nonhuman cosmos in which they happened to find themselves. the modern world, he believed, made the problem considerably worse. (209)

cf. The Dark Mountain Manifesto

In fact, it is almost hard to think of anything that won’t be changed by just the perception of onrushing change, from the way couples contemplate the possibility of children all the way up to political incentive structure. And you don’t have to get all the way to human extinction or the collapse of civilization for true nihilism and doomsdayism to flourish–you only have to get far enough from the familiar for a critical mass of charismatic prophets to see a coming collapse. (210)

cf. Dark Ecology Pseudo-Manifesto

…one threat of climate catastrophe is that their strains of ecological nihilism might find a home in the host of consensus wisdom–and that their premonitions may seem familiar to you is a sign that some of that anxiety and despair is already leeching into the way so many others think about the future of the world. (212)

And how widespread alarm will shape our ethical impulses toward one another, and the politics that emerge from those impulses, is among the more profound questions being posed by the climate to the planet of people it envelops. (213)

“toxic knowledge”

“Mathusian tragic” [Kris Bartkus]

“eco-nihilism” [Wendy Lynne]

“climate nihilism” [Stuart Parker]

“climatic regime”

“climate fatalism”


“human futilitarianism” [Sam Kriss and Ellie Mae O’Hagan]

The problem, it turns out, is not an overabundance of humans but a dearth of humanity. Climate change and the Anthropocene are the triumph of an undead species, a mindless shuffle toward extinction, but this is only a lopsided imitation of what we really are. This is why political depression is important: zombies don’t feel sad, and they certainly don’t feel helpless; they just are. Political depression is, at root, the experience of a creature that is being prevented from being itself; for all its crushingness, for all its feebleness, it’s a cry of protest. Yes, political depressives feel as if they don’t know how to be human; buried in the despair and self-doubt is an important realization. If humanity is the capacity to act meaningfully within our surroundings, then we are not really, or not yet, human. – Sam Kriss, Ellie Mae O’Hagan; Tropical Depressions.

We have to un-blind ourselves to human exceptionalism. That’s the real challenge. Unless forest-health is our health, we’re never going to get beyond appetite as a motivator in the world. The exciting challenge [is to make people] plant-conscious. – Richard Powers

In their aspirational grandeur, all these terms suggest the holistic prospective of a new philosophy, and new ethics, ushered into being by a new world. (215)

“climate apathy”

…one way we might manage to navigate that path without crumbling collectively in despair is, perversely, to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it, as we have so much human pain our centuries, so that we are always coming to terms with what is just ahead of us, decrying what lies beyond that, and forgetting all that we had ever said about the absolute moral unacceptability of the conditions of the world we are passing through in the present tense, and blithely. (216)

IV. The Anthropic Principle

What if we’re wrong? Perversely, decades of climate denial and disinformation have made global warming not merely an ecological crisis but an incredibly high-stakes wager on the legitimacy and validity of science and the scientific method itself. It is a bet that science can win only by losing. And in this test of the climate we have a sample size of just one. (219)

The emergent portrait of suffering, is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. (220)

These are the disconcerting, contradictory lessons of global warming, which counsels both human humility and human grandiosity, each drawn from the same perception of peril. … If humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it. We have an idiomatic name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do: gods. But for the moment, at least, most of us seem more inclined to run from that responsibility than embrace it–or even admit we see it, though it sits in front of us as plainly as a steering wheel. (220)

[via: It is blatantly obvious to me that exhortations like this validate the Genesis narrative as the philosophical framework for solving our most desperate challenges. It is here that we see the critical importance of our faith, and its direct implications on, quite literally, the world.]

Cf. Enrico Fermi, and the “Fermi paradox”…also called “the Great Silence”–we bellow out into the universe and hear no echo, and no reply. The iconoclastic economist Robin Hanson calls it “the great filter.” Being filtered, the theory goes, are whole civilizations, enclosed by global warming like bugs in a net. (221)

Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly. – Peter Ward

Cf. the Drake equation

Cf. the “zoo hypothesis”

Cf. Adam Frank, Light of the Stars.

…however unlikely it may seem that intelligent civilization [sic] arose in an infinity of lifeless gas, and however lonely we appear to be in the universe, in fact something like the world we live on and the one we’ve built are a sort of logical inevitability, given that we are asking these questions at all–because only a universe compatible with our sort of conscious life would produce anything capable of contemplating it like this. (225)

| This is a Möbius strip of a parable, a sort of gimmicky tautology rather than a truth claim based strictly in observed data. And yet, I think, it is much more helpful than Fermi or Drake in thinking about climate change and the existential challenge of solving it in just the few decades ahead. There is one civilization we know of, and it is still around, and kicking–for now, at least. Why should we be suspicious of our exceptionality, or choose to understand it only by assuming an imminent demise? Why not choose to feel empowered by it? (225)

But reasoning from first principles is reasonable when it comes to climate; in fact, it is necessary, as we only have a first shot to engineer a solution. This goes beyond thinking like a planet, because the planet will survive, however terribly we poison it; it is thinking like a people, one people, whose fate is shared by all. (226)

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  1. Pingback: A Life on Our Planet | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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