Metamorphoses: The Uninhabitable Earth and The Overstory

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If you, like me, live far away from the areas most routinely hit by climate disaster, you may think of global warming as something reassuringly distant—a horrible phenomenon confined to a vague “over there.” You wake up, scan the news, shake your head at the latest famine or wildfire, and then move on to your muesli, visions of apocalypse banished with the rush of the day.

Exposing the danger of this delusion is among the primary aims of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells. Climate change isn’t discrete acts of God, Wallace-Wells argues in this riveting jeremiad, but something so total, so all-enveloping, so unsparingly transformative as to implicate every person on the planet—even those of us who mistakenly think we’re in the clear.

The Uninhabitable Earth began as a 2017 cover story for New York magazine. That piece was an unvarnished—and, some critics insisted, needlessly alarmist—sketch of the baked landscape we may soon call home. Forget uplift: Wallace-Wells offered no can-do optimism, no hopeful urges to stop using plastic straws. His was instead a relentlessly grim portrait of where we are today, and where, barring mass mobilization, we’re headed.

Wallace-Wells’s book deepens and expands the ideas presented in his magazine piece. Every page presents a horror show of facts and figures. To cite one shocking statistic: “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.” Or another: “Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic sheets.” Or yet another: “In just the last forty years, according to the World Wildlife Fund, more than half of the world’s vertebrate animals have died.”

While some climate journalists tend couch gloomy statistics within the softening context of narrative—poor fishermen! sad polar bears!—Wallace-Wells gives us the goods, neat. The resulting book is refreshingly clear-eyed: Wallace-Wells respects his readers enough not to scrub his message of its bleakness, and lets the facts speak for themselves. (His claims are backed up in a voluminous and surprisingly engaging notes section.) At times the prose collapses under its own weight, but mostly the sentences gust and howl, holding the reader with the hurricane-like force of their terrifying beauty. Former deputy editor of The Paris Review, Wallace-Wells is a true rhetorician, and in climate change he has found a subject well suited to the incantatory power of his voice.

Much of the book is broken into sections addressing the threats posed by warming. (Among the chipper chapter titles are “Heat Death,” “Drowning,” “Dying Oceans,” “Economic Collapse,” and “Unbreathable Air.”) The great victory of The Uninhabitable Earth, however, is its synthesis of these threats, in how it casts them not as separate and distinct, but as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. To look at a tornado or a drought in isolation is to miss the bigger picture, Wallace-Wells demonstrates, and The Uninhabitable Earth manages to hold this double focus—to see not just the grotesquerie of the particulars, but also the broader feedback loops of “cascading violence” within which they exist.

The book’s final third takes a more theoretical posture, as Wallace-Wells considers how the environment of the future will shape our emotional, technological, economic, and artistic lives. What will it mean to live on an earth where the potential for progress is greatly diminished? How will proximity to environmental Armageddon shape the culture? To these questions, Wallace-Wells answers that global warming will soon overtake “our stories and inner lives, making what may seem today a culture suffused with intimations of doom look like a comparatively naive season.”

For now, however, there persists a broad resistance to narratives about climate change: “Today, the movies may be millenarian, but when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination.” Novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, and other storytellers have avoided global warming, says Wallace-Wells, because “almost everything about our broader narrative culture suggests that climate change is a major mismatch of a subject for all the tools we have at hand.” We like stories of uplift; global warming is eminently depressing. We like clear heroes and villains; climate change is about mass culpability and collective action. Unlike stories of nuclear apocalypse, the best precedent for our current catastrophe, the fate of the world is not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all of us.

“How,” Wallace-Wells asks, “do you narrativize that?”

 

Richard Powers offers something of a response to Wallace-Wells in his newest novel, The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Overstory is about a lot of things, but it’s most essentially about trees and the people who love them: an Iowa artist who photographs a majestic chestnut on the twenty-first of every month; a scientist who discovers that trees can communicate; a Vietnam vet who sets out to plant thousands of seedlings across America. Though these stories remain separate for the first third of the book, everything changes one hundred and fifty pages into the novel, when several threads converge into a heady, breathless narrative about a group of anti-deforestation activists.

Powers has here managed to turn the liabilities of climate change—its vastness, its resistance to decisive heroes and villains—into assets. We get not an isolated story, but a forest of them; not one or two main characters, but a whole thicket. This delirious sense of sprawl serves both as a formal mimicry of climate changes—everything implicates everything—while also allowing Powers to address global warming from a thrilling variety of perspectives. By following wildly different people on their various storylines, we get a vivid sketch of how climate touches every inch of the Earth—not just the “natural” parts, but also human pursuits like marriage, painting, and even video games.

The book even has a sense of humor about its capaciousness, its Whitmanian appetite for more, more, more. One character, a woman who “never had the patience for nature,” considers how she once dismissed the outdoors for having “no drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. Branching, tangled, messy plots. And she could never keep the characters straight.” Here, Powers is playing with us, daring us to think of multiplicity as an asset rather than a fault: What if branching, tangled, messy plots are exactly what we need to address the scale of what’s happening? What if a big, confusing cast of characters is actually a good thing, a way of enacting the idea that “being alone is a contradiction in terms,” as Powers so beautifully puts it? To be sure, there are places where The Overstory becomes a bit much. If the book is an overstuffed buffet, sometimes you find yourself longing for a more rigorously curated dish: a cube of meat, a sprig of parsley.

Still, so much of the book is fantastic precisely because of its hugeness, its gleeful spilling-over. What fun it is to watch Powers to indulge in what he calls “full-out, four alarm, symphonic narrative mayhem.” In his near-purple (green?) prose, Powers is like a giddy dinner host foisting food on his guests: You want seconds? Have seconds. Have thirds! Have fourths! Have fifths! What about dessert? Don’t forget dessert! And so on.

Powers also finds a way to address another narrative liability Wallace-Wells raises: hope. It’s not that he has any illusions about the extent of destruction currently unfolding across the planet. “Look at the life around you,” says one character. “Now delete half of what you see.” There is no conditional “if” in this prose, only anguished certainty: “The fires will come,” Powers declares, “despite all efforts, the blight and windthrow and floods.”

And yet, there is also a small shoot of hope to be found in The Overstory, one that sprouts from an Ovid quote repeated throughout the novel: “Let me sing to you now, of how people change into other things.” In this line The Overstory displays a kind of faith—a faith that global warming will force humans to change into other things, not because we want to, not because it is the right thing to do, but because we will have no other choice. There will be hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of pain and suffering. And then, from this scorched landscape, transformation.

“The Earth will become another thing,” writes Powers, “and people will learn it all over again.”


Harrison Hill's writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and American Theatre Magazine. He received his MFA from Columbia University, where he taught undergraduate writing. More from this author →