David Wallace-Wells (2019)

A view of the climate crisis that clearly aims to instill fear – and succeeds – but which clearly also aims to be a call for action, in which it’s a lot less successful.

The author is precise about his goals and limitations, presenting the science and implications of global heating without himself being a scientist. He does an excellent job of doing so, in all the terrifying glory. But beyond that it’s hard to see what the book is for. It tries to be motivational, but can’t help ending up characterising all the efforts as doomed either on technical or political grounds. That may in fact be true. But by making all action seem futile, it risks either inducing a state of learned helplessness or invoking a spirit of “eat, drink, and be merry”, neither of which is helpful especially if the specific claims or predictions of the science are wrong.

And that’s a vitally important point. The science all points in the direction of human-caused climate heating with disastrous consequences. But the mechanisms, rates, feedback loops, and other factors are all filled with uncertainty. That’s not an excuse for inaction: far from it, it’s potentially a huge motivation, because – unlike the impression one might get from books like this – the endpoint isn’t certain and it’s still completely possible for action on a large enough scale to tilt the balance in positive directions, at least towards lesser or shorter-duration consequences.

2/5. Finished Tuesday 17 December, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)