The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells is the only book that I’ve ever read that I think everybody—and, yes, I mean everybody—should read. Reading it could literally—and this is the correct use of the usually misused word—save the planet.
The book catalogues in beautiful, lyrical, readable writing how we are destroying the planet. A friend who has been concerned about climate change for 30 years told me that the book “doesn’t contain anything new,” but I’ve convinced him, who had only scanned the book, that he’s wrong. My friend was familiar with the general picture of the horrors that Wallace-Wells describes—heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, unnatural disasters, loss of freshwater, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse, and systems failure—but he did not know all the detail. The book is extremely well-researched and referenced.
This is the most comprehensive and best written account of how we are destroying the planet and ourselves that I know.
Plus the most original part of the book might be the second half discussing how we are failing to respond, why we are failing and what we might do.
“Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves.”
Wallace-Wells repeatedly makes the point that the most unpredictable part of climate catastrophe is how we will respond. We may not know exactly what will happen if we allow the world to warm by 3C, as we are currently on track to do, but we do know it will be awful, killing billions, making the earth uninhabitable for most, and opening up the probability of species extinction. What we don’t know is how humans as a species will respond.
The response so far has been hopeless—promises but insufficient action. But in Britain in the past few weeks there have been positive signs: the direct action and civil disobedience of Extinction Rebellion; the visit of Greta Thunberg; David Attenborough’s programme giving the facts of climate change on peak-time television; the House of Commons voting in favour of declaring a climate emergency (pointless if action does not follow; and the government’s scientific advisory committee recommending that Britain achieve net carbon zero by 2050.
Wallace-Wells’s book is mostly painful to read, but he ends on a positive note: “Personally, I think that climate change itself offers the most invigorating picture, in that even its cruelty flatters our sense of power, and in so doing calls the world, as one, to action.”
Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.
Conflict of interest: RS is an unpaid professor in the Institute of Global Health Innovation.