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Uncertainty on an Uninhabitable Earth: David Wallace-Wells Reflection

By Esther Mathieu

The world will be what we make it.


David Wallace-Wells is not a writer known for his optimism; his book, after all, is called, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He is known for a bluntness sometimes read as alarmist, a direct engagement with the definite and potential harms climate change will impose that often feels pessimistic, almost antagonistic, if not towards us as readers than at least towards our shared wishful delusions about climate change as it is and will be.

Over the course of two days, Wallace-Wells spoke multiple times; I attended four of the events: first at a dinner at the Natural History Museum, where he and Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of the Humanities discussed his work; second in conversation with an undergraduate climate communications course; third in his Tanner Lecture; and finally in a Hinckley Panel co-sponsored by the Sustainability Office, in conversation with Chris Ingraham, director of graduate studies for communication.

“The Uninhabitable Earth,” as well as the rest of Wallace-Wells’ writing, and his talks on campus all describe the impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable, the certain challenges we will face based on actions we have already taken and actions we have left undone. But, like the writers compiled in “All We Can Save,” Wallace-Wells has an urgent and realistic take. Everything we do now stops the future from getting worse than it already will be, everything we do now protects actual human lives, everything we do now is uncertain in its particulars but absolutely certain in its contributions to future planetary wellbeing.

More than once, in print and out loud, I heard Wallace-Wells claim not to be an environmentalist. Here, finally, I heard him explain that this stance is one he takes because he feels like a newcomer, not someone who can claim a long history of this research or advocacy, but a reporter arriving now, arriving in alarm and with a sense of urgency, taking the work that is being done and making it visible. In each of his lectures whether by diversity of question or considered arrangement of answers, Wallace-Wells was able to make different visibilities, to shape attention with congruent but distinct perspectives.

In the conversations with Robbins and with the environmental communications class, there was a loose expansion on an array of topics, from the sources Wallace-Wells trusts with his own news (and the loss of reliable networks of information on the Twitter of old) to the role of capitalism. In both settings Wallace-Wells was patient; the care he took seemed the same care he takes with data. This is part of his method: to him, data is narrative, and contains the drama of stories. This commitment to data as both form and content is part of what makes his writing both so abrupt and so effective; rarely is there any cushion to put between yourself and the discomfort of whatever number you are forced to consider.

The Tanner Lecture itself was framed by concepts of uncertainty, the discomfort as well as the hope that it offers us. He had cases to cite of instances in which reality wasn’t as bad as models predicted, a moment of hope in the ways in which the future is unknowable, sometimes in our favor. But uncertainty is not just about the arrival of large-scale climate phenomena. Wallace-Wells focused too on the uncertainty of what we will do, stating early in the talk that he was interested, in this lecture and in the immediate future, in “the warming world and how we might live on it.” The question was not one of destruction or extinction, for the human species, but one of trial and care, unknown variables and how we will face them, what we can do to offer care for each other, including by acting to eliminate the necessity of some of that future care.

In the afternoon conversation with Ingraham, the questions and answers emphasized a willingness to reassess old information and perspective, maybe a reflection of the uncertainty Wallace-Wells considered. If so much is uncertain, there is a constant adjustment, an always-obligation to reinterpret the world and one’s place in it. More than once Wallace-Wells mentioned that in the years since “The Uninhabitable Earth” was released, progress on climate change has been substantial enough to reshape the way he thinks about possibility. He has rewritten his framework to accommodate a greater degree of hope; his book, he says, would no longer begin, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

Ingraham asked Wallace-Wells about the role of the arts and humanities as complements to science and Wallace-Wells talked about the ways in which climate events are emergent in literary and visual culture, showing up in the plots of novels and television; the ways in which big questions, about how we survive as community, respond to disaster or help each other recover, necessitate further engagement with the arts and humanities; the ways in which climate, sometimes, is maybe becoming a way for us to talk more broadly about what he referenced as “the sickness of the world.” The humanities offer tools to answer questions about identity and relationship, and part of the uncertainty, now, is what the new answers to those questions will be.

It would be hard to accuse Wallace-Wells of alarmism or even pessimism after encountering him at the sequence of events at the U. Looking around at the attendees of the sold-out Tanner Lecture, seeing the faces of grad students and undergrads and alumni, of community members and local activists, of faculty and of many people unknown to me, I was grateful to dwell for a while in uncertainty, uncomfortable phase though it may be. There is both hope and courage in admitting we do not know, and we are lucky to have voices like Wallace-Wells’ to meet us there.



Missy Weeks, Tanner Humanities Center |801-581-8879

Published December 01, 2023

Last Updated: 12/1/23