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The Strange Optimism of Climate Alarmist David Wallace-Wells

The author of The Uninhabitable Earth on having children in a warming world, the danger of complacency, and why there is reason for hope (sort of)

The Camp Fire burns along a ridgetop near Big Bend, Calif., on . Crews working to contain the blaze overnight faced deteriorating weather conditions according to CalFire as winds picked up and humidity droppedCalifornia Wildfires, Big Bend, USA - 10 Nov 2018

David Wallace-Wells' "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming," presents a terrifying portrait of where civilization is headed.

Noah Berger/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For decades, scientists and journalists have been ringing the alarm on climate change, but few forced people to sit up and take notice like New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, whose alarming article  “The Uninhabitable Earth” caused a bit of an uproar in climate and environmentalist circles when it was published in 2017. But Wallace-Wells, 36, was (sadly) validated last autumn when a major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released that more or less argued people had until 2050 to get their shit together — or face trying to forge a life through a man-made hell-on-earth. Suddenly, climate alarmism was everywhere. Even thinkers who derided the framing of his original piece have since come around, praising his new book, which follows up and expands upon the information he compiled in the article.

That book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, presents a terrifying portrait of where civilization is headed. (Opening line: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”) Boiling cities, burned-out forests, acidic oceans, increasing pandemics, fertile soil transmuted into deserts and ever-increasing extinctions. [Find the book here]

But this time around, the audience was ready for Cassandra’s warnings. “I think in general the mood and strategic perspective of people who work on this stuff closely have changed,” says Wallace-Wells. “My article came at the end of a long period in which scientists, science journalists and activists all felt a bit constrained in the way they were talking about these issues — always feeling it was important to be emphasizing optimism and hope — sometimes even at the expense of honesty about what the state of the science was.” The piece was, at the time, the most popular story his magazine had ever run, and it was “proof that a different kind of climate story could reach a different audience and engage a different type of reader,” he says.

That alarmist outlook may soon be the new normal. “I think that the psychology of everyone on the planet in, say, 2075, will be shaped by these forces,” he says. “This is something that I see impacting absolutely every aspect of our lives in the decades ahead unless we change course somewhat dramatically.” But Wallace-Wells is actually a pretty optimistic person, all things considered. His first child was born while he was writing the book, which has only increased his resolve to address these problems. “The scale of suffering that is possible…can be so overwhelming that it feels paralyzing, but, ultimately, the size of those impacts are a measure of our own agency. We have the power to stop them from happening entirely if we take the necessary action.”

Wallace-Wells spoke with Rolling Stone about what life — and raising new lives — will be like in our unrecognizable home, the Uninhabitable Earth, as well as some of the mythologies and stories that we will tell about our place within it.

Rolling Stone: Your first child was born during the course of writing this book. There have been a few articles by yourself and others about raising a family during an era of ecological crisis. How should society approach this delicate subject?
David Wallace-Wells: My main feeling about why I considered having kids at all is that it’s important — especially in regards to climate — to try and fight to make the world accommodate the sort of life that you want to live, and that you want your family and community to have going forward. The struggle around climate change is huge — almost impossible-to-imagine obstacles to overcome that stand in our way — but it is also really important to remember that absolutely anything that could happen will only happen if we let it. If we get to the climate hellscape that is four degrees [warming above pre-industrial temperatures], which is the path we are on now if we don’t change course, that will be because of what happens starting now and heading onward. That story is entirely up to us to write. I mean, it is basically impossible that we avert two degrees with conventional decarbonization — but those are human obstacles. They are not scientific obstacles. If we really mobilize, we will be able to avert some of the most dramatic impacts. That’s really how I sort of think about the dilemma, or paradox, of child-rearing. The challenges are all human and we can rise to them if we choose to.

The environmental philosopher David Orr once noted that, “we continue to educate the young…as if there were no planetary emergency.” How should we raise our kids during these times?
The basic lesson, or central value, that I’d like to pass along to my daughter is actually the same one that I would want to impress upon her if we were not in this situation: human empathy. The one great risk of the next few decades is that many of the climate horrors that I write about in the book do come to pass. When looking back on this in about 30 years, we might say, “Oh, my God, that way of life was horrifying, unconscionable, unforgiveable, and impossible to endure.” Yet we will likely find ourselves doing exactly that: still living in it, enduring it, and probably doing so through psychic compartmentalization and denial — in the same way that we in the West discard and overlook the huge amounts of suffering that currently exists. We think we couldn’t possibly be living in a world where we’re killing millions each year with air pollution, and yet we already are. So my main hope for my daughter and her generation would be that they don’t look away — that they are motivated and mobilized by these atrocities enough to do something about them.

The book touches a bit on despair and nihilism, but what you just said sounds pretty optimistic.
I don’t think there is much chance that we’ll avert this two-degree threshold — I think it is almost certain that we will surpass it — unless we get some extraordinary technological inventions. So from the perspective of today, you’d have to say that I’m really a panicked alarmist.

David Wallace-Wells by Beowulf Sheehan

David Wallace-Wells
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

But I also know that we’re on course for over four degrees of warming this century. For me, that is a much more relevant anchor for expectations than focusing on the world we live in today. And so if you start from a perspective of “we’re on track for four degrees,” well, there’s a lot of reason for optimism there! [Laughs] It’s basically foolish to make predictions, but I feel very confident that by the end of the century we won’t be at four degrees because we will have taken some amount of action. If that means that we land at, say, 2.7 degrees or three degrees or 3.2 degrees, well, these are all variations of suffering. Each tick upward brings more of it. But compared to what would be unleashed at four degrees, things are looking good. I basically base all of my expectations on that path of four degrees. And from that point of view, yeah, I think I’m pretty optimistic.

That’s an interesting way to view it.
Hey, I mean, like everyone else, I oscillate between these feelings. I feel tragedy. I feel sadness. I feel cockiness at times about what we can do. I feel despair about our political inertia. I feel angry.

But when I look around at the world I just see so much more complacency than I see fatalism. It seems intuitively obvious to me that at least some of those people can be shaken of their complacency with climate alarm. I look back on environmental activism over the generations and see a lot of success using tools of alarm in moving people for the cause. I also see quite a lot of exciting activity among climate activists that would have been almost impossible to believe a couple of years ago. When I look at activists like Greta Thunberg and the Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and the Green New Deal’s impact on establishment politics, I feel it is really an incredible amount of political progress that’s been made in just the last couple of years. I do think that alarmism is a big part of that — the people who are making those demands are alarmed. But it is also a reason for incredible optimism and encouragement. I think the next question is how quickly that motivation can be channeled into actionable politics.

The book makes a few references to climate change and mental health, such as grieving after a natural disaster, or how peoples’ connections to cosmologies can be damaged as the landscape is destroyed. What are the connections between place and identity, and how do you think that could be affected by climate change?
I think these are some of the more profound questions about climate change that we haven’t really begun to ask yet. It is worth keeping in mind, say, the monsoon season in South Asia: This is something that produced a whole mythology — beyond that, you can say even a whole culture. That is part of the way that everyone in that section of the world thinks about their place in time, in their nation, in history and in nature. And here in the West — especially in the last half century or so — we’ve often felt that we’ve managed to entirely build ourselves out of nature and build fortresses around modern life such that we were no longer vulnerable to those forces. That is part of the mythology of our time.

What are the cultural mythologies of our time? How do they cloud our ability to think through these issues?
The notion that history encodes progress, however erratic, is something that may appear to future generations a projection of impossible naivety and narcissism. Our sense that every generation is going to live differently, let alone better, is really a projection of the last couple hundred years in the West. I think it is quite possible that we will look back on it – as soon as 50 years from now – as a really weird anomaly, this strange idea that we ever expected that the world could continue providing ever more abundance for us.

Considering the converging ecological problems, does collapse appear inevitable in at least some areas?
I think there are already parts of the world that we would probably describe as something like suffering from climate-driven collapse. The most common example to point to is Syria, which was pushed into its civil war through drought and related food shortages — not to say that this was the only cause of — but it was an important aspect.

I think that, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, there will be many more situations like that just in the next couple of decades. The science suggests that many of the biggest cities in that part of the world will be unliveably hot during the summer, within our lifetimes. Given that, we should absolutely be planning for a major resettlement of people. In order to do that responsibly we need a very different geopolitics than we have today, in order to imagine a world that is welcoming to hundreds of millions of climate refugees, which is just on the low end of the UN estimate regarding what is possible by mid-century. I think there are reasons to think that might happen. But it is also the case that just a million Syrian refugees completely destabilized European politics, and through Europe, global politics. That doesn’t give you much faith about how we could deal with this issue going forward.

Can these issues be solved under capitalism’s constant need for growth?
It’s a complicated question to answer. There are countries in the world that are organized around very different models in relationship to economic activity and basically all of them are also behaving poorly when it comes to climate and carbon. I think we do need a somewhat radical rethinking and reimagining of the way that we organize ourselves as a society. But I also think that it may be possible within some system that does seem slightly recognizable, capitalistic, to what we have today.

If we had a national government or an international order that really, really did prioritize carbon emissions as the main objective of how we organize public policy, I think that we could conceivably work our way out of this crisis without totally overturning the whole apple cart. Now, whether that apple cart deserves overturning on other points is a whole other question! [Laughs] I have a lot of sympathy for the sort-of anticapitalistic rhetoric of the New New Left, but I would probably define my own politics as something more like social democratic rather than socialist. I do think that there have been things about the market that we should be thankful for, that we would not have if it weren’t for market forces. I think my own instinct would be to cultivate and develop a system that allowed for some of that while still securing a livable future for all of us.

Honestly, I think some of the biggest problems are in terms of political economy rather than economics per se. The way that the fossil fuel business has organized our politics around its own interests is really, really problematic. There are estimates that globally we are subsidizing fossil fuels to the tune of $5 trillion dollars per year. But is that an economic problem? Is it a problem of political economy? Is it a problem of corruption? There are a lot of ingredients to the system that we find ourselves in.

In the book you describe feeling a bit anthropocentric in your personal outlook. Do you think that these types of worldviews will change as we move forward?
I think that we will lose the idea that we live outside of nature, for sure. We will understand ourselves to be living under its reign, in a way that we haven’t very much for the past 50 or 75 years.

I think most people have more sympathy for animals than I do, I think most people have a more direct appreciation for nature and its majesty than I do. But I am not sure that it makes sense to rally our politics around those values when most people move politically out of self-interest. And the logic of self-interest on climate change is really quite clear: the lives of you and your children will be damaged if we do not take action. The fate of insects or coral reefs may be useful in generating some emotional response and, therefore, activity. But, personally, I am more focused on the human costs and I see political wisdom in that focus. I think that we want to preserve as much of the natural ecosystems of the world as we can, for many reasons, certainly including their own integrity and dignity. But also because they are part of the framework of life at which we find ourselves sitting very comfortably and happily on the throne. [Laughs] I don’t, personally, want to see a world in which we’ve had that narcissism destroyed by climate change because that would mean a level of suffering and horror has occurred that I really don’t ever want to see unfold. I’d rather see a world in which we are much more sensitive to all of the ways that we understand how life and well-being depends on the forces of nature. And so we then take aggressive action to defend that nature.

But my sense of public opinion may be off about that. There may be many people who are more moved by the more-than-human world. I am all for mobilizing on that front too. It is really kind of an all-hands-on-deck, whatever-story-works type of situation. I think in general too much energy has been spent within the world of climate writing and activism on the questions of “What is the way to tell the story? What is the way to mobilize?” There is no one way – it is every way. This story is too big for one story, too big for one political approach. We should embrace all perspectives when dealing with this crisis.

[Find the book here]


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