BOOK REVIEW- The Uninhabitable Earth
April last year a terrifying, apocalyptic oeuvre took the literary world by storm. It describes the doomsday scenario should human civilisation neglect the problem of man-made climate change for too long – the rising sea levels inundating major cities and seriously reducing cultivatable land, the increasingly destructive weather patterns, the extra heat destroying many species of plant and animal life, the dying oceans, the unbreathable air. The scariest thing about it is that it is not based on science fiction, but scientific facts! This book is called The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Penguin Random House, Great Britain, 2019).
The author appeared in a television programme a few months ago in which he focused solely on the imminent dangers of global warming, a subject we consider needs to be taken extremely seriously and which therefore commended this author to us, as a result of which we purchased his book in order to learn more. Unfortunately this book, though it does give admirable details regarding the facts of climate change, turned out to be a real let-down when it comes to advising what needs to be done to avert catastrophe.
Whilst we will start by touching on a select few of the many catastrophic consequences of climate change, this is not the purpose of this review. The review does not attempt to repeat the science and facts of climate change on an exhaustive level, but to comment on the politics of the author and add our thoughts on how we engage the movement of climate justice.
According to Wikipedia (accessed on 18 June 2020), “The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change”. Anthropocegenic climate change describes the scenario of an Earth totally devastated by the effects of human activity. The etymology of the word is used to describe Earth being re-created in man’s own image. Indeed it is through mankind’s doing that the Earth is becoming less and less habitable not only for human beings themselves, but all other life forms – plant-based and animal-based alike.
“Over the past few decades, the term ‘Anthropocene’ has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination—a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature, even echoing the biblical ‘dominion’” (p.20).
Wallace-Wells analyses the potential situation we may face, should we continue to neglect the climate crisis too long, by citing historical examples of five historic mass extinctions, but the one that earned particular citation was:
“The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization.
“In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades” (pp. 3-4).
Unless we change course, we may well be looking at another wave of mass extinction.
The problem of human inaction
Ignorance is no longer an excuse, and acknowledging the existence of manmade climate change is vital step in making a meaningful contribution to creating a solution to the crisis. Wallace-Wells points out that:
“…The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers the gold-standard assessments of the state of the planet and the likely trajectory for climate change—gold-standard, in part, because it is conservative, integrating only new research that passes the threshold of inarguability. A new report is expected in 2022, but the most recent one says that if we take action on emissions soon, instituting immediately all of the commitments made in the Paris accords but nowhere yet actually implemented, we are likely to get about 3.2 degrees of warming, or about three times as much warming as the planet has seen since the beginning of industrialization” (p.11).
Wallace-Wells offers a staggering polemic against the so-called ‘international community’ at the scandalous inaction on their part despite its knowledge of just how perilous the effects of climate change are:
“The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance.
“That is the course we are speeding so blithely along—to more than four degrees Celsius of warming by the year 2100. According to some estimates, that would mean that whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding.
“…The Kyoto Protocol achieved, practically, nothing; in the twenty years since, despite all of our climate advocacy and legislation and progress on green energy, we have produced more emissions than in the twenty years before. In 2016, the Paris accords established two degrees as a global goal, and, to read our newspapers, that level of warming remains something like the scariest scenario it is responsible to consider; just a few years later, with no single industrial nation on track to meet its Paris commitments, two degrees looks more like a best-case outcome, at present hard to credit, with an entire bell curve of more horrific possibilities extending beyond it and yet shrouded, delicately, from public view” (p.9).
So the question arises as to why governments worldwide have been so reluctant to tackle the scourge of climate change. The reason is attributed to the economy, but unfortunately the author’s understanding of economics and the politics arising therefrom is at best rudimentary, with the result that a large proportion of the book consists of him groping in the dark and failing to find his way. He declares:
“Recent work by the Nobel laureate William Nordhaus suggests that better-than-anticipated economic growth means better than one-in-three odds that our emissions will exceed the UN’s worst-case ‘business as usual’ scenario. In other words, a temperature rise of five degrees or possibly more” (p.14).
In other words, economic growth is the cause of deleterious climate change.
He bemoans the rise of China and India as industrial behemoths with people gradually being freed from poverty (see p.54) because of the thesis that industrialisation necessitates uncontrollable emissions that lead to climate change, and prosperity means higher levels of consumption driving a growth in production. The point, however, is that industrial emissions are not uncontrollable – except in an economy driven by the profit motive that is necessarily disincentivised from undertaking the expense of cleaning up after itself, i.e., a capitalist economy.
In his delusion, he is even driven to mention a theory put forward by some lunatic named Jared Diamond to the effect that the Neolithic Revolution, i.e., the domestication of animals and the development of cultivation, is “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” (p.198). Wallace-Wells even claims “we are still now, in much of the world, shorter, sicker, and dying younger than our hunter-gatherer forebears” (p199). Nevertheless, he is careful not to express either agreement or disagreement with Diamond’s absurd concept, and we can only surmise that constant conflict between prehistoric tribes over the limited availability of natural resources, often accompanied by cannibalism, does not much appeal to him.
Out of his line of sight on the question of economic growth is the fact that its primary purpose is to cater to human need. It is only under capitalism economic growth is driven by the profiteers who control most of the world economy, and the author therefore fails consistently to recognise the obvious, i.e., that it is profiteering to which the health of the planet is sacrificed (as indeed the health of much of its population), not economic growth as such. It is true, even if the author is unaware of the fact, that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall does inexorably drive the capitalist class to expand production as the best means of keeping up the amount of profit available (leading to periodic market crashes when the produce of this expanded production fails to find effective demand), but it is not the expanded production that causes climate damage but the fact that in the interests of profit the welfare of the planet is disregarded. No attempt is made by individual producers to harness green energy, for instance, because invariably that would add to the costs of production and reduce profit.
The reactionary thesis that economic growth is per se the cause of global warming leads him inexorably effectively to deny to countries like China and India the right to develop since in doing so they must, according to him, inevitably contribute disastrously to global warming: referring to the fact that millions of people have become better off in recent times because of the industrial development of their countries, joining a “global middle class expanding by the hundreds of millions”, he goes on to say:
“ … that story is about the wealth brought by industrialization and the transformation of societies by newfound wealth powered by fossil fuel. It is a story written largely by China and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the developing world, which has developed by industrializing. And the cost of much of that progress, the balance come due for all that industrialization that made middle-class-ness possible for the billions of people in the global south, is climate change …” (p.128).
However, he holds back from spelling out the necessary inferences from this analysis which one can only describe as Malthusian.
He does recognise dimly that capitalism does have a negative role to play, insofar as businesses will not adopt ‘green’ technology if it reduces its profits to do so, but he then tries to argue that the costs of climate change will be so great that they will hugely outgrow the cost of taking protective measures:
“… Every degree of warming, it has been estimated, costs a temperate country like the United States about one percentage point of GDP, and according to one recent paper [unidentified], at 1.5 degrees the world would be $20 trillion richer than at 2 degrees. Turn the dial up another degree or two, and the costs balloon – the compound interest of environmental catastrophe. 3.7 degrees of warming would produce $551 trillion in damages, research [unspecified] suggests; total worldwide wealth is $280 trillion …” (p.27).
In other words, he has fabricated a causal link between global warming and falling GDP simply because they coincide in time, unaware as he is of the economic laws of capitalism that account for falling GDP quite independently of global warming.
Even if it were true that measures to hold back global warming could lead to greater national economic benefit, the individual capitalist and imperialist concerns that make the decisions of what to produce and how to produce it are only driven by their own bottom line, not by the ‘national interest’. As far as they are concerned, ‘What is good for General Motors is good for the US of A’.
Not only does he blame global warming for economic decline, he even blames it for America’s wars:
“Beginning in 2011, about one million Syrian refugees were unleashed on Europe by a civil war inflamed by climate change and drought …” (p.7). The role of US imperialism in training and financing jihadis, most of them non-Syrians, as a means of trying to topple a Syrian government that (a) sat on huge oil reserves and (b) refused to obey the American diktat to the letter, simply doesn’t get a mention.
Precisely because of the need of capitalism to expand continuously, those countries that developed early could not but seize the opportunity presented to them to become imperialist and to seek domination of weaker powers at the expense of its rivals and of the wellbeing of the people in the countries concerned. The imperialist countries are dependent for their maintenance on deepening their super-exploitation of the weaker countries. This economic necessity is the motive factor behind the Syrian war and other wars conducted by the US either with its own military or through proxies. The imperialist looting of weaker countries, that is nowadays mostly effected through the extraction of interest payments on loans and through loan conditions that impose unequal exchange and sacrifice local producers in favour of imports from imperialism, is what causes the mass poverty that drives millions out to try to find their livelihoods elsewhere.
Regrettably the author is blind to imperialism and its evils and, that being so, he ends up wallowing in confusion and even parroting imperialist prejudices and lies. He is even prepared to absolve the imperialist energy monopolies from responsibility for global warming, even though he is prepared to concede they are “evil”:
“… Modern morality plays need antagonists … The natural villains are the oil companies – and in fact a recent survey of movies depicting climate apocalypse found the plurality were actually about corporate greed. But the impulse to assign them full responsibility is complicated by the fact that transportation and industry make up less than 40 percent of global emissions [presumably these are the main consumers of fossil fuels]. The companies’ disinformation-and-denial campaigns are probably a stronger case for villainy … But evilness is not the same as responsibility … To believe the fault for global warming lies exclusively with the Republican Party or its fossil fuel backers is a form of American narcissism” (p.149).
If what he meant by this paragraph were that the blame for global warming should not be attributed solely to the energy monopolies but must be shared by other imperialist concerns such as the arms industry, the agribusiness monopolies, and the profiteering of the capitalist system as a whole, we would be happy to agree with him. However, his meaning is that those really at fault are the world’s middle class consumers and the poor, the Oliver Twist characters who insist on demanding more, the people he refers to as “we”:
“This is why this book is also studded so oppressively with ‘we,’ however imperious it may seem. The fact that climate change is all-enveloping means it targets all of us, and that we must all share in the responsibility so we do not all share in the suffering—at least not all share in so suffocatingly much of it” (p.220).
See how neatly he confuses “our” ‘responsibility’ for bringing global warming under control with “our” ‘responsibility’ for its existence. We accept that we must take it upon ourselves to deal with the very severe problem that has arisen, which means to recognise the culpability of capitalism and imperialism and the imperatives of market mechanisms that make it impossible to solve the problem as long as capitalism and imperialism remain dominant in the world – something Wallace-Wells absolutely refuses to see. We would even go so far as to accept that we only deserve an equitable and sustainable future insofar as we are willing to fight for it. Nevertheless, the bulk of humanity are not the primary instigators of climate change – as opposed to those who funnel money into burning fossil fuels to keep up with demand in the capitalist economy and those who wage imperialist wars of aggression. Wallace-Wells makes no mention of the contribution to global warming of these incessant wars promoted by imperialism and provisioned by its arms industries!
Without advancing any coherent argument against there being an urgent need to overthrow capitalism and establish centrally planned non-market economies in order to be able seriously to deal with the apocalyptic problem of global warming, Wallace-Wells goes out of his way to pooh pooh the very idea: “… global income inequality … is one reason why many on the left point to the all-encompassing system, saying that industrial capital is to blame” (p.148). Poor fools! Don’t they know that the real culprits are those including “you and me” who along with “most of the rest of the world as stakeholders” have “eagerly bought” into “a toxic investment vehicle”, and who “in fact quite enjoy their present way of life”? (p.149-149).
The author goes even further, actively maligning communism, e.g. by repeating malicious imperialist lies about the Great Leap Forward in China that he alleges killed 50 million people. He also takes every opportunities to malign China, for instance by claiming, a propos de rien, that it is taking an aggressive stand in the South China Sea (p.126) when actually it is merely building up its defences in case of need against a truly aggressive United States imperialism. If here and there he mentions the progress China is making in various aspects of helping retard climate change, he immediately pours cold water on its achievements. It has developed farming methods that minimise the use of fertilisers – good, but too expensive (p.56). It has cleaned up polluted cities – good but still a million Chinese die every year from air pollution (no authority give for this assertion – needless to say!) (p.104). It has made major commitments to combating climate change – but of course at this stage they are “just rhetorical”! (p.45). He later goes on to refer to “the climate authoritarianism of Xi Jinping” (p.212).
His purpose can only be to rule out of court the incontrovertible idea that only communism can save the planet. Instead he calls for people to use their votes to elect governments who will force “us” drastically to downgrade our standard of living, for instance by making everybody go vegan: “… the climate change calculus is such that individual life style sources do not add up to much unless they are scaled by politics” (p.34). And “We won’t get there through the dietary choices of individuals, but through policy changes … Eating organic rice is nice … but if your goal is to save the climate your vote is much more important” (p. 187). We in the rich countries need use our votes to impose sacrifices on everybody because we are benefitting so much more from a carbon-fuelled life style than the vast masses of other people in the world and therefore must sacrifice much more – though of course they will have to make sacrifices as well! He then toys with the idea of some kind of world government or authority to impose this kind of regime, while sighing that none of the existing international institutions is up to the task, and that international cooperation is currently breaking down rather than improving (pp. 24-25).
Having thus sketched out a hopeless vision of the way forward, he claims he remains upbeat:
“…because humans have proven themselves an adaptable species, and will likely continue to adapt to outmaneuver a lethal threat; and because the devastating effects of warming will soon become too extreme to ignore, or deny, if they haven’t already; because of all that, it is unlikely that climate change will render the planet truly uninhabitable” (p.15).
“The thing is, I am optimistic. Given the prospect that humans could engineer a climate that is 6 or even 8 degrees warmer over the course of the next several centuries—large swaths of the planet unliveable by any definition we use today—that degraded muddle counts, for me, as an encouraging future” (p.31).
We agree – there is every hope for the future, but not because anybody will take Wallace-Wells’ theories seriously but because communism will provide it! Wallace-Wells more than once expresses his horror at the hordes of dispossessed people that would be forced to flee their homes because climate change makes these uninhabitable. Though he pays lip service to sympathy for their suffering, his horror is at the possibility of an influx of refugees destabilising the societies into which they are forced to flee. Anybody who fears an influx of refugees to their country is betraying a bourgeois mindset that fails to see the inestimable value of people. They see proletarians whom market conditions prevent the bourgeoisie from exploiting as vermin, the undeserving poor, the parasites living on society. A communist society, however, freed from the tyranny of the market, sees nobody in such terms other than the handful of exploiters. Those who under capitalism would be unemployed or under-employed, whether native-born or incomers, will be set to work for the good of society. The more brain and brawn that is deployed tackling the climate change emergency, the faster will be the planet’s recovery. An estimated 172 million people worldwide were unemployed in 2018. An even larger number are underemployed. Can anybody doubt that with millions taking the task of climate protection in hand, be it by the physical work of building appropriate infrastructure, or the mental work of creating solutions, every step necessary will be taken in double quick time? Or that this can and will be done while the rest of the world’s workforce continues to produce what is necessary to secure a decent lifestyle to all the world’s people! How forcefully history is now placing before the proletariat of the world the choice between revolution or barbarism!
You have to be red to be green!