‘Climate change is a woodchipper into which metaphors are fed’

David Wallace Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming puts forward a radical pessimism toward climate breakdown that encourages action and mobilisation, but shies away from any sustained critique of neoliberalism. Jack Pickering reviews.

‘There is no good thing in the world that will be made more abundant, or spread more widely, by global warming. The list of the bad things that will proliferate is innumerable’

This year, two major things happened that really brought the realities of climate change home for me in a personal way. In February, as Storm Dennis was letting up, I went to look at the damage to Bute Park in Cardiff, which the River Taff flows through on its way to the Severn Estuary. At a bridge and weir combination known as the Blackweir, a torrent of muddy water crashed over the concrete weir in confused masses. Above the weir, the water slid with incredible speed towards the bridge, which it almost reached at either end. The playing fields on the other side reflected the morning light, as they still held water from the floods the previous evening. I had seen the river in spate numerous times, but this was a gorged monstrosity, unrecognisable as a river. It was simply water crashing down from the valleys towards the sea. I felt physically sick and horrified. I later read about the ruination of hundreds of homes and businesses in Rhondda Cynon Taff and the surrounding area, one of the poorest areas in the UK.

Later in the year, I witnessed an extended electrical storm above my parents’ house in the Midlands. We had experienced regular thunderstorms throughout the summer, and they often happened on an almost daily basis for half a week or so before the weather pattern would change. This wasn’t too abnormal, but this electrical storm felt different. Huge anvil-shaped structures of cloud moved around overhead, with arcs of lightning illuminating them from within and without. It was a quiet evening otherwise with little wind, meaning the claps and rolls of thunder stood out starkly.  My family and I stood barefoot on the grass, watching as the different formations slid past in the darkness, and the forks cluttered up the sky with flashes of pink and white. We all agreed that we had never seen anything like it.

That climate change feels more real for me now is a very odd thing to say considering that I have been thinking, talking and writing about it for around six years. I even did a short-lived series of podcasts about various forms of environmental damage – you would think I’d be familiar with it already. One thing that David Wallace Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth has driven home, however, is that language appears to be poorly equipped to describe and understand climate change. 

Even referring to the effects of emissions as ‘climate change’ seems to imply that the climate will change from one state to another, when this is a misconception. Wallace Wells spends a significant amount of time contradicting the idea that there is a steady-state climate that can be reached. He contends that even if the global average rise in temperatures could be halted today, that the knock-on effects and feedback loops from the emissions and warming would lead to continuing climate change for the subsequent century, if not longer. (This is argued with reference to notoriously conservative scientific modelling, the conservatism of which he explores in the later stages of the book.) This period would entail not simply a new climate involving new weather patterns, or more frequent increasingly extreme weather events, but an intensification in the unpredictability of increasingly extreme changes in weather patterns. In short, things are already bad, will continue to get worse under all scenarios, and will continue to do so in the form of increasingly unpredictable individual weather events alongside the general deterioration of earth’s habitability. 

Wallace Wells’ exploration of this great worsening takes up the first half of the book. Reading sections of this part of the book feel like being beaten repeatedly about the head, or it at least has a significant disorientating effect. Most of the information will come as no surprise to those who follow the news cycle, but presented externally to this cycle it has an impressive cumulative effect. Statistics and analysis of ‘cascades’ are joined in short chapters that cover the various effects of climate change, such as wildfires, sea level rise, the impact of warming on oceans, agriculture and other areas. In the latter chapters of part one of the book, the author engages with the effects of climate change on more concertedly human elements of our civilization. Various contradictions between the current model of economic development and the natural environment that support it are explored with significant force, if not always rhetorical skill or clarity.

Towards the end of the book, the author begins to engage substantially with questions of climate metaphor and narrative, especially concerning the notion of human progress, the dubious role and myths of technology in providing solutions to climate change, and the meaning of suffering. One of the most significant conceptual efforts in the book is an argument for a pluralist conception of the climate as ‘kaleidoscope’. The metaphor emerges from the acceptance that the sheer scale and complexity of climate change makes a mockery of unitary metaphors. 

As someone who has in the past been both drawn to and repulsed by the ascetic tendencies of withdrawal from confrontational activist struggles as represented by Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project and similar, I particularly welcome the significant criticisms of this tendency made by the author. Rather than understanding pessimism as necessarily involving withdrawal from trying to change the course of climate history, Wallace Wells draws upon a range of recent work to argue for mitigating the effects of climate change without shying away from acknowledging, disclosing and exploring the full range of climatic horrors to come.

Despite its criticism of those that advocate for withdrawal from activism, the book lacks clear prescriptions for action, and Wallace Wells avoids overtly committing to any particular political analysis. The first part of the book seems to function as a climate movement radicalization tool in concert with the later sections on the various inadequacies of mainstream understandings of climate change and how we should respond to it, but Wallace Wells is often deferential to neoliberal economic epistemologies, which is unfounded and confusing considering the disdain reserved for predatory capitalists elsewhere in the book. Economic growth as a concept is not really engaged with or questioned, for example, and decreases in production are accepted as clearly detrimental to general wellbeing, despite the acknowledgement that growth (as generally measured in GDP) is closely linked to carbon emissions. Whilst the author would no doubt be interested to learn about Steve Keen’s recent demolition of conservative neoliberal assumptions about the impact of climate change on growth figures, the book’s neglect of degrowth economics and politics is a significant oversight. 

I began this review with two personal vignettes because this book has helped me to think about what will be coming in the near future in a more concrete way. In other words, we should work on the assumption that things will continue to worsen, and should expect more spectacular and disruptive weather events that have profound and sometimes devastating effects on human society. I think that this particular brand of radicalizing pessimism is the most significant contribution this book has to offer. Wallace Wells does a good job of communicating the consequences of climate change in a way which foregrounds the cultural-epistemic consequences of our derailment of the earth’s life support systems. In other words, he communicates very well the disruption that climate change will bring to our shared understanding of the natural world and our relationship to it. However, he leaves little space for the exploration of non-rhetorical or activist responses to the current situation, which I would argue is more urgent and demanding.

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