Unflinching Truth, Unwavering Hope

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
David Wallace-Wells
Penguin Random House, 2019, 320 Pages
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out
Bill McKibben
Henry Holt and Co, 2019, 304 Pages

The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, the newbie. Falter, by Bill McKibben, the elder. These are the two exemplary climate crisis books of the current moment.

photo of california drought
Two books published this year — ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ and ‘Falter’ — manage to acknowledge our current climate crisis without counseling despair. Photo by Live Once Live Wild / Flickr.

There are other books on the stands, but these two best plumb the depths of the canyon we’re now passing though. They not only remind you of what you already know — that we’re in trouble — but also allow you an opportunity to reflect more deeply and productively upon our shared predicament. In other words, they aren’t defeatist.

Notice, please that I did not include Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice, or Roy Scranton’s We’re Doomed. Now What? in this brief review. This is because, I agree with political scientist Yascha Mounk. Mounk’s beat is the crisis of liberal democracy rather than the crisis of the climate system, but his wisdom — he says he’ll take either optimism or pessimism, but that defeatism is the enemy — is entirely appropriate to the climate literature.

Wallace-Wells and McKibben, notably, are trying to be helpful, and thus they make the cut, the one you have to pass before your climate book can possibly qualify to be judged to be, well, good. Which also makes their books markers of “the coming second wave of climate literature,” this in the words of Nathaniel Rich, who has himself, unfortunately, penned a book named Losing Earth that does not, in my opinion, clear the bar.

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Why single out Wallace-Wells and McKibben for praise? Because they both, each in their own way, and with different degrees of success, attempt the big feat, which is to face the truth of our predicament without counseling despair.

There are two parts to this feat.

The first is facing the truth. It’s not easy, though oddly, the truth itself is simple enough to state: We are in extremely serious danger, but not yet doomed. To be doomed is to be fated, to be beyond hope. Our tragedy, if it comes to that, is rather that we may not save ourselves even though we can, for the simple reason that we can’t do so without deep and sustained cooperation, which is more or less impossible under conditions of extreme economic inequality.

Both Wallace-Wells and McKibben do well on this challenge, and indeed both clearly finger the immediate culprit, the vicious species of no-holds-barred, winner-take-all capitalism that has remade the world in the last 40 years.

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The second is advising us, the readers, on the way forward, and here I have to say that McKibben, the elder, has done the better job. Wallace-Well’s ruminations can be confused as well as insightful, and in at least one case, I would claim, the confusion is serious. Falter, though, is unambiguously solid, perhaps the best McKibben book since The End of Nature. What makes it so good is the combination of topics, and the often startling, illuminating ways in which they are melded.

Falter not only fingers neoliberalism, it traces the definitional American strain back to Ayn Rand. As a former Randite (I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 14), I can with some authority say that he nails it. Moreover, he does not restrict his gaze to climate. McKibben has for many years been interested in the dangers posed by human genetic modification, and here he weaves his ruminations on the topic, along with others on techno-utopianism and “artificial intelligence,” together with his dark thoughts about the climate reckoning in a manner that allows for a bit of paradoxical but almost convincing hope.

I say almost because McKibben doesn’t really have a plan. He speaks for nonviolent protest, and for mass civil resistance in general, and he calls upon us to keep our humanity, even as we face the great reckoning, but that’s about as far as he goes. It’s not far enough, but it’s helpful, and that’s a lot these days. He refuses despair, and he is anything but defeatist. It’s just enough.

Read both of these books. They both matter.

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