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British Wildlife is the leading natural history magazine in the UK, providing essential reading for both enthusiast and professional naturalists and wildlife conservationists. Published eight times a year, British Wildlife bridges the gap between popular writing and scientific literature through a combination of long-form articles, regular columns and reports, book reviews and letters.

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Good Reads  Environmental & Social Studies  Climate Change

The Uninhabitable Earth A Story of the Future

Nature Writing SPECIAL OFFER
By: David Wallace-Wells(Author)
320 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Penguin Books
Sure to divide opinions, The Uninhabitable Earth presents a no-holds-barred picture of what our near future might look like if climate change is allowed to run unchecked.
The Uninhabitable Earth
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  • The Uninhabitable Earth ISBN: 9780141988870 Paperback Sep 2019 In stock
    £7.50 £10.99
  • The Uninhabitable Earth ISBN: 9780241355213 Hardback Feb 2019 Out of Print #244324
Selected version: £7.50
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

The signs of climate change are unmistakable even today, but the real transformations have hardly begun. For a generation, we've been taught that warming was a problem of Arctic melting and sea levels rising, but in fact it promises to be all-enveloping, driving dramatic changes at every level of our lives, from everyday matters like the supply of chocolate and coffee (likely to dry up) to public health (tens of millions likely to die from pollution) to climate migration (hundreds of millions fleeing unlivable, overheated homelands). We've been taught that warming would be slow – but, barring very dramatic action, each of these impacts is likely to arrive within the length of a new home mortgage signed this year.

What will it be like to live on a planet pummeled in these ways? What will it do to our politics, our economy, our culture and sense of history? What will it mean for our collective appetite for climate action? And what explains the fact we have done so little to stop it? These are not abstract scientific questions but immediate and pressing human dramas, dilemmas and nightmares. In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells undertakes a new kind of storytelling and a new kind of social science to explore the era of human history on which we have just embarked.

Please note, not to be confused with Nathaniel Rich's book Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, who garnered attention with a 2018 long-read in New York Times Magazine.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Lyrical and urgent, but not without its flaws
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 29 Mar 2019 Written for Hardback

    “It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don't think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.

    The Uninhabitable Earth expands on the essay published in New York magazine in July 2017. The piece quickly attracted criticism from climate scientists for being rather cavalier with its facts. Amidst the many responses, a useful summary is the piece published by science education NGO Climate Feedback in which 17 prominent climate scientists evaluated the essay. To its credit, New York magazine was quick to publish an annotated edition.

    The near future sketched in the first half of The Uninhabitable Earth is one of a planet tortured by epic wildfires, rising sea levels, megadroughts, famines, acidifying oceans, polluted air, and rising temperatures amidst which hundreds of millions of climate refugees wander a planet in the throes of collapsing economies and emerging conflicts. In short, Wallace-Wells would like you to know that, unless urgent action is undertaken to combat climate change, we are all doomed.

    He is not the first to sound a desperate alarm, and his book joins a budding subgenre that some critics disparagingly label “climate porn”. The well-known climate scientist James Hansen has done so before (see Storms of my Grandchildren), while others have declared the fight over (see Too Late or Reason in a Dark Time). Some climate scientists are annoyed by what they perceive as scaremongering, arguing that frightening people will result in fatalism rather than galvanizing them. I guess people will respond in different ways, and recent climate protests suggest that his approach certainly works for some. Either way, Wallace-Wells does not mind being called alarmist, his (touché) defence is that he is alarmed, and you should be too.

    Now, Wallace-Wells openly states he calls on predictions, on science that is in flux as new findings come to light. Even if he gets some of the details wrong, the overall pattern is pretty clear. As I have written elsewhere (see my reviews of The Ends of the World and The Oceans), the findings from palaeoclimatology leave little doubt as to what happens when you keep pumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

    The author brings together many poignant observations. Global warming is not a moral and economic debt that has been accumulating since the Industrial Revolution – about half of all fossil fuels have been burned in only the last three decades. And our epoch could very well be a blip on the timeline, the result of a gigantic one-off injection of fossil fuel into our economy, allowing us to live in a temporary mirage of “endless and on-demand abundance for the world’s wealthy” (I told you he was poetic).

    The Uninhabitable Earth is not a book of solutions though, and Wallace-Wells spends a good part of the second half of the book railing against what he thinks will not work. Against the hallucinatory fantasies of Silicon Valley who hope to escape into a virtual reality, uploading their consciousness into computers. Against as-of-yet hypothetical technofixes such as carbon capture and storage or negative emissions technology. Against ecological nihilism by burned-out environmentalists such as Paul Kingsnorth (see Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist). If you want practical advice, you are better off reading There Is No Planet B.

    I can appreciate his in-your-face polemic style. This is why I am surprised he overlooks one vital aspect: overpopulation. As soon as this topic comes up, Wallace-Wells seems blindsided. Part of him is excited for his daughter and the world she will inhabit, one which will be “doing battle with a genuinely existential threat”. This seems mildly perverse given the litany of terrors he lays out in this book. And those who abstain from having children over their concerns for a world ravaged by climate change “demonstrate a strain of strange ascetic pride”.

    One problem I have with this line of argumentation, that our lifestyle and economy are wrecking the planet, is that it ignores numbers. Yes, our ancestors were not despoiling the planet, but I would argue it was not for want of trying, but for want of numbers. Now, I have no data to back this assertion up with, so I am going out on a limb here, but how much damage do you think a population of 7 billion stone age hunter-gatherers would have inflicted on the planet? Or 7 billion people trying their hand at farming some ten thousand years ago? I would not at all be surprised that if you work out the numbers, the reason our ancestors did not bring about climate change has more to do with their lack of numbers than with a lack of impact of their lifestyle.

    And Wallace-Wells comes so close when he observes that most emissions have only happened in the last three decades. Could it be that the doubling of our world population has something to do with this? For a book that prides itself on its fierce frankness, not addressing overpopulation feels like a serious omission. It is a thorny topic (see my review of Should We Control World Population?), but if you want to talk solutions, addressing it should be a vital part of a multi-pronged approach he envisions to avoid the bleak future sketched here.

    The Uninhabitable Earth is lyrical and stirring, but also controversial and not without its flaws. Is taking the predictions of climate change impacts to their logical extremes a valuable exercise? I am left feeling conflicted. I can sympathise with the urge to want to grab people by the scruff of the neck, but whether it ultimately is constructive is something I am not fully convinced about.
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David Wallace-Wells is deputy editor of New York magazine, where he also writes frequently about climate change and the near future of science and technology. In July 2017 he published a cover story surveying the landscape of worst-case scenarios for global warming that became an immediate sensation, reaching millions of readers on its first day and, in less than a week, becoming the most-read story the magazine had ever published – and sparking an unprecedented debate, ongoing still today among scientists and journalists, about just how we should be thinking, and talking, about the planetary threat from climate change.

Nature Writing SPECIAL OFFER
By: David Wallace-Wells(Author)
320 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Penguin Books
Sure to divide opinions, The Uninhabitable Earth presents a no-holds-barred picture of what our near future might look like if climate change is allowed to run unchecked.
Media reviews

"In crystalline prose, Wallace-Wells provides a devastating overview of where we are in terms of climate crisis and ecological destruction, and what the future will hold if we keep on going down the same path. Urgently readable, this is an epoch-defining book."
– Matt Haig, 'The Book that Changed My Mind' The Guardian

"Clear, engaging and often dazzling"
The Telegraph

"A masterly analysis"

"Relentless, angry journalism of the highest order. Read it and, for the lack of any more useful response, weep [...] The article was a sensation and the book will be, too."
– Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times

The most terrifying book I have ever read [...] a meticulously documented, white-knuckled tour through the cascading catastrophes that will soon engulf our warming planet."
The New York Times

"A must-read. It's not only the grandkids and the kids: it's you. And it's not only those in other countries: it's you."
– Margaret Atwood, Twitter

"I've not stopped talking about The Uninhabitable Earth since I opened the first page. And I want every single person on this planet to read it. [...] Riveting [...] Some readers will find Mr Wallace-Wells's outline of possible futures alarmist. He is indeed alarmed. You should be, too.
The Economist

"Skipping the scientific jargon and relaying the facts in urgent and elegant prose, the magazine editor crafts a stirring wake-up call to recognize how global warming will permanently alter every aspect of human life."
– Best Nonfiction Books of 2019, So Far Time

"Wallace-Wells is an extremely adept storyteller, simultaneously urgent and humane [...] [he] does a terrifyingly good job of moving between the specific and the abstract."

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