An open letter to David Wallace-Wells

Wildfire in Yosemite National Park, 2013
Best-selling book The Uninhabitable Earth focusses attention on unprecedented climate breakdown - but places false hope in geoengineering.


As a group of British academics and others who think and write about dangerous anthropogenic climate change, we have been impressed by your new book The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

This already best-selling book, like the viral article in New York magazine from which it grew, states with passion and eloquence the hard truths of our current global plight. Far from being irresponsibly alarmist, as some have alleged, your straight look at oncoming disaster offers a vital stimulus to realistic understanding and action.

We are so pleased that your book is receiving the mass attention it deserves, and is thereby making  the very real risk of an unprecedented climate breakdown and consequent societal collapse comprehensible to the general public. 

Against geoengineering

As one of us has stated in a published review, however, we also fear that your book may lead people to believe that the unprecautionary deployment of geoengineering is the answer to our predicament.

We are unconvinced by your claim  that because we engineered this mess, so we must be able to engineer an escape from it. While that may be a neat journalistic turn of phrase, it is a logical nonsense.

Climate change was not intentionally engineered by humanity. The self-reinforcing feedbacks that are further heating our world show us how the complex living system of Planet Earth is beyond direct human control. So, we have no precedent for humanity intentionally engineering global change. 

We understand you may wish to offer your readers some hope. However, your argument offers a continuing license for the hubris which has led humanity into climate-peril in the first place.

You point out that since “a decarbonised economy, a perfectly renewable energy system, a reimagined system of agriculture and perhaps even a meatless planet” are in principle possible, we have “all the tools we need” to stop tragedy in its tracks. And yet that would require us, as you also sardonically note, to rebuild the world’s infrastructure entirely in less time than it took New York City to build three new stops on a subway line.

Deep adaptation 

It is dangerous to hang on to such an unrealistic hope while not making adequate preparations for the likelihood that it will prove groundless. 

Really facing up to climate reality, by contrast, means giving up all hope of solutions — without giving up on hope itself.

Instead of fantasies of one-world command-and-control salvation, we believe that The Uninhabitable Earth should wake us all up to the need for what one of us has recently and influentially named a ‘Deep Adaptation agenda’.

This involves building resilience, both physical and psychological, learning to relinquish long-held beliefs and aspirations (such as that od uninterrupted ‘progress’), and the attempted restoration of attitudes and practices which our carbon-fuelled way of life has so dangerously eroded.

Such an approach, while recognising the certainty that the civilisation which has brought us to this pass is finished, accepts also that we cannot know in advance what fine human and societal possibilities may emerge from the crucible of this very recognition.

Transformative change 

The irony of your starkly-titled book is that it ends up being, from our perspective, too ‘optimistic’. This may blind readers to the greatest new need now: for Deep Adaptation – that is, for accepting that some kind of eco-induced societal collapse is now not merely possible, but likely, and preparing honestly for it; for recognising that - while it is absolutely vital to continue to seek to mitigate our society’s climate-deadly emissions - the time is past when it was credible to fixate on doing this while ignoring the increasingly-urgent need for Deep Adaptation.

What we draw, and should like others to draw, from your urgently necessary book is a difficult but - we believe - a genuinely realistic message of hope.

It is not that acknowledging the hard truths which you present so starkly might still enable us to avoid climate disaster. For that it is, as in practice you so clearly demonstrate, now too late. Rather, it is the hope that through accepting the inevitability of such disaster for our present civilisation, we may yet find our way to genuinely transformative change, capable of avoiding terminal catastrophe for humanity and the biosphere.

The sooner we realise that humanity won’t have a Hollywood ending to climate change, the more chance we have to avoid ours becoming a true horror story.

We invite you to think with us about what facing up to climate reality now really means, and in particular to enter into the Deep Adaptation agenda. We look forward to your response.

These Authors 

Rupert Read is a reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia; Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, and author of the paper “Deep Adaptation”; John Foster is co-chair of Green House, and author of After Sustainability

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