From Dissident Voice by Mallory Wournos
A Pessimist’s Review of The Uninhabitable Earth
Soon people will be coming here to make documentaries about how we’ve been forgotten, about how nothing has been done.
— survivor of the Brumadinho dam collapse
Some call them ‘mountains of doom.’ Dotting the landscape of once-green Wales to this day are the stygian slag heaps resulting from centuries-old collieries, mammoth piles of debris that tower above the mining towns. They are cheerless sights, which one writer likened to “spiritless cathedrals of the industrial age.” As was proven in horror at Aberfan on October 21, 1966, these looming giants are killers.
— from the entry on the Aberfan landslide in Darkest Hours
I’ve been a disaster enthusiast since I was young enough to read. That might sound strange and gruesome, but I somehow got my hands on a massive tome of despair called Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters by Jay Robert Nash. I was mesmerized by the horror, more visceral and terrifying than the movies that my Grandpa was the only one who would let me watch late at night; pictures of tangled metal cutting through flesh, searchers balancing precariously on rubble searching for survivors, grief on their faces, and rows of bodies covered in white sheets laying on cracked and crooked roads after an earthquake. The first entry is the tragic landslide in Aberfan, Wales, where a slagheap 800 ft. high was weakened, “releasing a two-million- ton torrent of rock, coal, and mud, which cascaded onto the Pantglas Junior and Infants School and 17 other buildings… crushed to death and buried alive were 145 persons, of whom 116 were children.” Stories like this profoundly shaped my view on the disasters we inflict upon the world and therefore ourselves, more than any statistics on things like carbon levels; I had no concept of that then and no use for them now.
I still harbor a passion for these stories, so when I heard about The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, billed by one critic as “a terrifying polemic that reads like a cross between Stephen King and Stephen Hawking” (I hoped for more of the former than the latter), I was excited to see what the latest in climate change literature had to offer, and what it offers is an overwhelming accounting of humanity’s sins.
The book is divided into chapters that, like Dante, take us through different hells we are already experiencing, and describe punishments we can only begin to appreciate: heatwaves, famine, floods, wildfires, pollution, disease, economic collapse, and conflict. We’re talking destruction on such a scale that it is considered a hyperobject; a “conceptual fact so large and complex that, like the internet, it can never be properly comprehended.” That climate is something we have no control over is the cause of epidemics of distress and depression, which this book will not alleviate. Nor should it.
Anybody in the United States who has gone to see a therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional has inevitably heard the positivity spiel. It goes like this: you go in for terrible depression, anxiety, or any number of conditions that are branded abnormal or deviant. Sometimes this is because of personal problems—grief over the death of a loved one for instance—or visual and auditory hallucinations, things that in the past been were the realm of shamans and witches, but are now efficiently exorcised through pharmaceuticals. However, more and more people are seeking help because of a deep existential crisis, which at its root is the state of the world.
The response of these experts is to dismiss your concerns as something to avoid thinking about (perhaps using behavior modification), something holding you back (from reaching your potential), and something that can be fixed (with the right medications). Becoming an empty shell is better, apparently, than feeling an emotional connection to the world, which in these times can only distress you. The last thing this society wants is for people to stop participating, by which they mean going to work each day and contributing to society. Panic attacks? There’s a pill for that. Nightmares? There’s a pill for that as well.
But maybe nightmares are real, and none of us can ultimately escape them. Everybody will be touched by the consequences of humanity’s hubris and ecocidal ways. Ultimately, this acknowledgment is what lies at the core of The Uninhabitable Earth.
Each climate-related event can be expanded on to reveal the terrifying details of what we have faced, are facing, and will face. It would have been nice for Wallace-Wells to get even more detailed with his descriptions. Perhaps it’s my penchant for the morbid, but the best example of this may be Luis Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, which tells the story of a group of Mexican migrants who were found dead after being ditched by a coyote in the Sonoran desert. Tracing their path to disaster, Luis does not spare the reader, as the migrants weren’t spared on their trek to seek out a better life in a country hostile to their dreams. The description of their fate is stomach-churning. Here, he describes all six stages of heat death: heat stress, heat fatigue, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. He describes each in detail. Consider the following, which is just one stage, the final one:
Your blood is as low as it can get. Dehydration has reduced all your inner streams to sluggish mud- holes. Your heart pumps harder and harder to get fluid and oxygen to your organs. Empty vessels within you collapse. Your sweat runs out.
With no sweat, your body’s swamp-cooler breaks. The thermostat goes haywire. You are having a core meltdown.
Your temperature redlines—you hit 105, 106, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilates all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blish. Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson.
Your skin gets terribly sensitive. It hurts, it burns. Your nerves flame. Your blood heats under your skin. Clothing feels like sandpaper. Some walkers at this point strip nude. Originally, BORSTAR rescuers thought this stripping was a delirious panic, an attempt to cool off at the last minute. But often, the clothing was eerily neat, carefully folded and left in nice little piles beside the corpses. They realized that walkers couldn’t stand their nerve-endings being chafed by their clothes. The walkers stripped to get free of the irritation.
Once they’re naked, they’re surely hallucinating. They dig burrows in the soil, apparently thinking they’ll escape the sun. Once underground, of course, they bake like a pig at a luau. Some dive into the sand, thinking it’s water, and they swim in it until they pass out. They choke to death, their throats filled with rocks and dirt. Cutters can only assume they think they’re drinking water.
Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream.
Proteins are peeling off your dying muscles. Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs, to clog your other organs. The system closes down in a series. Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart. They jam shut. Stop. Your brain sparks. Out. You’re gone.
Wallace-Wells doesn’t see himself as an environmentalist, or even, as they say, a “nature person,” having grown up in cities “enjoying gadgets built by industrial supply chains I hardly think twice about.” He truly represents the average person in the West today and this is exactly who this book is for, because presumably none of this will be new for anybody reading this paper, who are already critical of civilization. That some pretty fringe ideas are being presented to a mainstream audience is what makes it important. Some of the names he drops will be familiar to many of you—James C. Scott, Robinson Jeffers, and Paul Kingsnorth to name a few. But to most these will be new names and new ideas, perhaps in a paradoxical way providing comfort—in a time where we can find little—by guiding us to new paths secreted away. That is, if you see the coming chaos and revenge of the wild to be comforting, with minds unclouded by the delusions identified by Wallace-Wells:
The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an arctic saga unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the ‘natural’ world, not the human one; that those two are distinct and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.
For each of these narratives, the author provides ample evidence to chisel them apart, using science and statistics to back them with examples from both micro and macro catastrophes. It’s a laundry list of climate horror you can’t ignore; readers are strapped down with their eyes pried open, forced to look at what we have brought upon ourselves. Nature’s ultraviolence, in the form of hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters.
Again, readers of the anarchist publication, the Black Seed, may feel this is tedious. More of interest to green anarchists is what Wallace-Wells has to say further into the book, where he talks about “the climate kaleidoscope,” beginning with a chapter on storytelling—one of the most important things that can be done by those of us hurting, fighting, and struggling to survive in this doomed society. Writing our own myths to counter those of the world-eaters is imperative, but no easy task considering our scant resources versus the vast majority of the global media.
One of the most damaging myths that haunts the new man, Homo industrialis, is the idea that surroundings of concrete, strip malls, air-conditioned cars, and heated homes have insulated mankind from the dangers of the natural world. We have not moved farther away from nature, on the contrary. In his brilliant and harrowing book, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, Brett Walker describes this well:
the pain and suffering that remind us of our relationship to nature is caused by the modern technologies and engineered environments that are meant to shelter us from certain kinds of pain, meaning that, paradoxically, the more technologically driven modern life becomes, and the more alienated from nature it thus appears, the more we are reminded in painful ways of our timeless connection to nature…Our bodies are porous and easily insulted—easily industrialized—inescapably tied to the environments we inhabit; not only the food we eat but the air we breathe and the water we drink can prove dangerous. In this respect, modernity and its technologies and engineered landscapes have not distanced us from nature…
The stories in The Uninhabitable Earth also remind us that we are intricately linked to our surroundings. Poison the land, and we too are poisoned. Modern medicine will do everything it can to discover the resulting human diseases and treat them (as long as they can afford it, or to stem the tide of a cataclysmic epidemic). Scientists all over the world devoting their lives to discovering how to cheat death. From individual mortality to human extinction we are taught to fear non-existence, so people tighten their blinders until they can’t see their intimate relationship with the wild, and choose instead to continue believing they have overcome the kinds of problems other animals face, up to and including death. These ideas have played a large part in leading us to where we are today. There will always be consequences for our actions, and there’s no way to beat nature when we are part of it. Each new technology brings with it new possibilities for frightening events: consider a future in which it’s commonplace to hear about another electric vehicle exploding, or another self-driving car plowing through a crowd, adding to the already massive numbers of yearly vehicle deaths. One doesn’t need to think of nanotechnology and AI to see that where we’re headed isn’t going to be pleasant, especially when things already look so bleak.
Humans lost when they began dismissing omens of doom, and instead turned to numbers and experts. These numbers might tell us, for instance, that this many whales turned up with plastic in their stomachs, the weight of that plastic, and all the information that can be garnered from the corpse before it explodes spectacularly, cold reason masking the suffering of the magnificent creature. The 40 lbs of plastic is more than enough evidence that we have crossed the point of no return, and yet we collect and search through more and more data in a desperate attempt to find an answer that will magically fix the state the world is in. Why are people afraid to look? An article written by Wallace-Wells posted on the NY Mag website addresses this:
Why can’t we see the threat right in front of us? The most immediate answer is obvious:
It’s fucking scary. For years now, researchers have known that ‘unrealistic optimism is a pervasive human trait,’ one that, whatever you know about how social-media addicts get used to bad news, leads us to discount scary information and embrace the sunnier stuff.
And the generation of economists and behavioral psychologists who’ve spent the last few decades enumerating all of our cognitive biases have compiled a whole literature of problems with how we process the world, almost every single example of which distorts and distends our perception of a changing climate, typically by making us discount the threat.
So many remain optimistic, even though governments show no signs of implementing their own regulations. Even the extremely moderate proposal of the Green New Deal, a bill that was more symbolic than anything, was killed before ever being seriously considered by lawmakers (see the now infamous speech overflowing with memes by Senator Lee of Utah). By now we should know that these green energy solutions mean nothing except fatter wallets for those who invest in these scams. Ask the villagers in China who militantly resisted the building of solar panel factories. They know better than anyone that there’s nothing “green” about it. They are simply new technologies that don’t replace old tech running on fossil fuels, but are merely placed adjacent to them, creating an even larger footprint.
If you’re a pessimist, don’t expect to make any friends. It’s more likely you will be dismissed outright—slandered as defeatist or worse—when presenting someone with evidence that challenges their sunny dispositions about what humanity is and what it is capable of (we as a species have proven plenty capable of destruction). This is just more reason to push back against the crack of the activist whip that demands everybody do something, even though most of us realize that changes in, say, individual consumption, would have to be on a worldwide scale. If the hippies failed to conjure their worldwide awakening (proto-wokeness), what chance to these idealists have in this much more fragmented society that just can’t stop consuming at a rate unprecedented in human history? Their answers only rearrange the same logic of capitalism that created and supports these massive but unstable states to begin with.
There is a reason for the cult of optimism: it keeps people going. In an effort to prevent burnout you must have hope that you can make a change. Usually optimists, curiously, have no concrete solutions to the worst of the problems on the horizon, only judgement for those who they see as apathetic. Wallace-Wells distances himself from pessimism many times (e.g. “Each of us imposes suffering on our future selves every time we flip on a light switch, buy a plane ticket, or fail to vote. Now we all share the responsibility to write the next act.”) Not only does he describe himself as an optimist, he makes the claim that to be pessimistic about humanity’s prospects is to be apathetic to human and non-human suffering. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Brett Walker’s Toxic Archipelago begins with a horrific story of a pod of orcas becoming trapped between fast moving thick ice and the rocky coast. A mother, desperately, vainly, trying to protect her calf, was the only one to be rescued by locals. The remaining 11 were crushed, slashed and ripped apart by the jagged rocks, the sound of their screams breaking through the howling wind. Of course, when scientists performed necropsies, they found the PCBs and mercury detected in the blubber to be eleven times higher than normal for whales in Japanese coastal waters. He goes on to reflect on choosing this story to open the prologue:
I must confess that, partway through writing this book, when I heard the story of this destroyed orca pod, a darker tone began to permeate parts of my analysis and narrative. The image of a mother orca trying in vain to protect her deformed calf was hard to shake, particularly because I assume some blame, as a member of Homo sapien industrialis, for their destruction… I tried to exorcise the darker side of this book during later editing and rewriting, but I was unable or, quite possibly, unwilling to do so. No doubt, when they read the pages ahead, some of my colleagues will cry out, ‘He narrates environmental declension!’ And rightly so, I should add. But I remain unapologetic: I am a historian and I am calling it as I see it, and I see environmental decline and deterioration everywhere.
Unfortunately in the end, Wallace-Wells, even in the face of his growing collection of similar horror stories, suggests if we really cared we’d run to the voting booths posthaste. His point isn’t about purity, but about a sober assessment of the scale of change necessary, and I agree with Wallace-Wells that the only thing that would make even the smallest impact (using human suffering as the barometer here), is massive political engagement that would put enough pressure on the jugular of corporations and other profiteers of industry to choke them out, as no regular person on the street has any power to force the issue at all.
Is all this negativity just a sad and desperate plea to act now before its too late (as if it already isn’t)? For the pessimist, the answer is no. Pessimism has no solutions or answers to these disasters. However things change it won’t be for the better. Even places seemingly out of reach will one day face the wrath of the wild forces. Nature will cause more destruction than anarchists could ever dream of achieving, and she shows no remorse, no discrimination. Anybody is a potential victim. While some in the direct path at this juncture are most vulnerable, even the well-off—who can simply rebuild or move entirely—will suffer. There might not be any perilous journeys for them across deserts and oceans to reach safer land, but rest assured they won’t be able to evade the inevitable cataclysms to come.
Most people have no time, or are unwilling to listen to prophets of doom these days, being stuck in front of glowing screens and working to survive. And when people finally leave their jobs they want to come home to binge Netflix, not read about the latest climate horrors. Hell, they know if they wanted to there’s no reason to even check the headlines. One can simply walk out into the city and see that suffering and death is all around us, and that we suffer ourselves, every day, from civilization’s debilitating effects, both psychological or physical.
Calamity and its “invisible undermining of self,” also undermines our ideas of reality. Charles Darwin, after experiencing an earthquake in Concepcion, Chile, wrote: “A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of society, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a liquid; one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced.” This is what can be called “nature’s agency;” a reminder that Homo industrialis, despite seeming omnipotence as it builds skyscrapers higher and higher, is actually pitifully weak in the face of nature’s strength. Ultimately, we aren’t in charge. Is this fatalism? Perhaps, but maybe that is better than being in denial of the storm on the horizon. Coming to accept this means giving up control to the chaotic forces of the wild, where we will drop to our knees in awe of its power, relinquishing our stolen crown.