Review: The End of Ice and The Uninhabitable Earth

[1] How to face up—theologically—to climate change?  And in particular, how to interpret the literature which deploys science to predict the Anthropocene future of our species?  Two Biblical terms come to mind: “spirit” and “apocalyptic.”   “Spirit” is that aspect of our whole selves which, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s concise formula, has the capacity of indefinite transcendence (The Nature and Destiny of Man, I:13).  It is our capacity to reach for, and understand, the whole by which we are enlivened—or crushed.  While our bodies will be overheated by rising temperatures, battered by storms, drowned by floods, and scorched by wildfires, it is our spirits which yearn to grasp the totality of what climate change means for us.

[2] Then our spiritual selves likely will turn to “apocalyptic”, that genre of literature which grasps a future of travail leading right up to the approaching end of history.  Christians recurrently invoke apocalyptic accounts of global trends in order to understand hazards they face and to find comfort.  By now the apocalyptic imagination is so deeply embedded in Western culture that it needs no specifically religious warrant.  Indeed, climate change offers the first apocalyptic scenario with unimpeachable scientific standing.  So it seems particularly suited to explaining the work of journalists who use science to help us imagine the unrecognizably degraded world we are creating.  Bill McKibben’s Eaarth (New York: Times Books, 2010) perhaps inaugurated the apocalyptic trend in journalism, and the literature is growing.

[3] In effect, such journalists are following a path first beaten two thousand years ago.  They invoke feedback loops and the other conceptual apparatus of intersectional scientific thinking to project where we are headed as a species.  In so doing, they go beyond the inductive logic of the scientific method, and here is where spirit is involved.  Exacting measurements, whether in parts per million or increments of degrees Centigrade, inspire dire portents of the End–now predicted for the year 2100 or earlier.  And so journalists cannot and do not suppress their own imaginings of the End, for they are as much engulfed in the grim flux of climate change as anyone else.  Spirit absorbs the accumulation of scientific facts and trends, and infers that nature has been provoked into cascading responses which threaten the survival of human civilization.  And so the apocalyptic genre is revived again in the crisis-driven history of Western civilization.  Only now it is truly global in scope, and all but inevitable.

[4] What can our spirits do with scientifically validated imaginings of our End?  One Biblically validated pathway of response lies inlament.  Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who has faithfully tracked the outworkings of climate change for years, devotes The End of Ice (New York: New Press, 2019) to reporting and mourning the melting of the cryosphere—the world of glaciers and icy mountains—and other signature environments.  His view is geocentric rather than anthropocentric, although he acknowledges that “…we are setting ourselves up for what I believe will ultimately be our own extinction.”   He responds by grieving.  Indeed, his grief cannot be assuaged by hope, for hope has become impossible.  The signs of impending collapse are too dire.  Rather, “my acceptance of our probable decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself… “, which spurs him to make amends with the earth by continuing his reportage “wholeheartedly, knowing that it is unlikely to turn anything around” (219-220). He quotes Vaclav Havel approvingly: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”  If you want the latest reportage from the frontlines of climate change—and particularly, if you are an armchair mountaineer as I am–I commend Jamail’s book for an attractively readable account—certainly suitable for undergraduates and adult forums.  He invites us to grieve in a most heartfelt way.

[5] Other journalists pursue a tangent suitable for spirits more susceptible to guilt than to grief—those of us who need a prophet banging on our braincases.  David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019 resembles ancient prophets in demanding metanoia—a thoroughgoing reform of our perception, understanding and expectations.  His first words are: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.  The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale”(3).  His indictment of our blindness is unrelenting, and his language sears in a most economically expressive way.  This is a book to be absorbed in small bursts, for the argument wanders quickly and unpredictably along its polemical path.  His argument is more complex than that of Jamail, and will occupy the rest of this review.

[6] For Wallace-Wells, we humans refuse to consider the consequences of a world which warms past 2 degrees Centigrade, even though scientific indicators suggest that we easily will shoot far beyond, to 5 or even 8 degrees.  We are hooked on continuity, but whatever we postulate as the “new normal” is a figment of our denial-oriented mentalities, for there will never be a “normal”.  The effects of climate change will “cascade” (his term for feedback loops and other intersecting factors), perpetually upsetting any new equilibrium.  “In fact, we are only just entering our brave new world, one that collapses as soon as we set foot on it.”(19)  He follows this prophetic declaration with twelve chapters reporting the science of twelve particular horrors (“Heat Death”, “Hunger”, “Drowning”, etc.) to instantiate his vision of cascading destructions.   Not all are launched by climate change, to be sure, but the convergent totality of their compounding effects all but suffocates a spirit grasping for hope.  Each alone presents an all but insurmountable challenge to civilization; taken together, they seem to portend inescapable doom after 2050, if not before.

[7] So, then, are we back to Dahr Jamail’s grieving as the only appropriate response?  How indeed does spirit cope with scientifically validated hopelessness?  Here I find his answer puzzling from within my religious frame.  The Biblical (and Lutheran!) answer is paradox.  Traditional prophetic discourse crushes the reader in a dialectic of guilt-ridden despair only to relieve that despair with a promise of undeserved grace granted by God.  Wallace-Wells pursues this dialectic, but in unsatisfying and even defective way.  While Dahr Jamail has renounced hope, Wallace-Wells proclaims himself an “optimist” (31-34).   He claims that since we created climate change mainly in the past thirty years—as measured by the quantity of anthropogenic carbon released into the atmosphere–we therefore have the capacity to stall its destructive momentum in roughly the same timeframe.  His claim rests not upon science but upon an unexamined logical equivalence: since we created the problem, we must have the power to resolve it.  “If humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it”(220).   To this end, we as a species need to claim our potency.  In his concluding chapter, Wallace-Wells invokes the (long-discredited) Anthropic Principle of human grandiosity in the cosmos as a means of bracing ourselves for the prodigious work of reversing climate change.

[8] I find his optimism unpersuasive, even though I am unreservedly sympathetic with his effort to bolster our change-battered psyches.   His turn to human potency and potentiality is understandable, since no outside grace is available in his cosmos without a god.  But his optimism seems at odds with the first half of the prophetic dialectic.  If climate change is proceeding through a terrifying series of feedback loops and intersecting ‘force multipliers’, how much can be accomplished simply by zeroing out the initiating problem—the leakage of carbon into the atmosphere?   At the very least a supporting scientific argument is needed.  His Promethean optimism seems less appropriate than, say, the rueful realism of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where a bumptious and ignorant Mickey Mouse accidentally multiplies mops and buckets beyond counting, being unable to turn off the magic.  What sorcerer can we long for, to snap his fingers and reverse the “cascade” of climate disasters?  In the absence of a God willing to come to our rescue, there is none.   Wallace-Wells turns to technology as savior, but he offers a thin prescription for bringing down carbon levels: carbon capture and nuclear power, with just a nod to renewables (170, 181).   What Wallace-Wells offers, in sum, is a magnificent prophetic polemic, but a poor functional substitute for grace.

[9] His argument would be far more robust if he first projected out the perverse synergies of the twelve tangents of disaster in all their interactive complexity, and only then proposed ways for humanity to address them.  That task admittedly may be beyond the brain of a supercomputer, and so unfair to ask.  Fortunately there is more to his book than sketchy optimism.  In the final two sections he offers some creative forward thinking for spirits anxious to grasp what the future portends, and this is where I find his book most original and helpful.  He asks what future there is for “storytelling” and finds that climate change effectively destroys the basic elements of story-telling genres: individual agency, responsibility, complicity, villainy, and the other juicy aspects of fiction.  Next he asks what future there is for capitalism, and finds that it is likely to be subverted as climate change trashes the cognitive biases that have supported a sense of its inevitable growth and power.  He asks what future there is for technology as savior, concluding that it will seduce us into seeking escape through virtual reality.  He asks what future there is for the neoliberal promise of growth and happy consumption and finds the neoliberal global order is likely to collapse.  He asks what future there is for a progressive view of history, and argues that not even a cyclical view of history will survive coming political convulsions.   All theseprobings merit further exploration.  Finally, Wallace-Wells asks what future there is for ethics, and here he falters.  He focuses on culturally marginal figures who propose nothing better than withdrawing, wallowing in despair, or acclimating ourselves to the suffering that will occur by shrinking our circles of empathy.

[10] Ouch.   Is that all we can hope for?   Here we need to let our spirits hear the main message of apocalyptic.  At first blush, the apocalyptic genre seems not to be of help, for from its origin in intertestamental times it is explicitly devoid of hope in human initiative; rescue must come from outside.  But precisely that is the weird genius of apocalyptic.  By cutting us loose from optimism and other human constructions, it frees our spirits to imagine the impossible—deliverance.  And that can liberate remarkable energies.  Perhaps only when we know (not just think) that all is lost that we run the hardest.  Human societies have survived all previously predicted “Ends”—not only survived, but undergone transformations unimaginable from within any given apocalyptic frame.  To put the matter in a nutshell: I have no idea where in hell our civilization will end up in response to climate change.  The current revival of apocalyptic gives us clues.  Lament is certainly appropriate (thank you, Dahr Jamail), as is prophetic unveiling of our perverse and dysfunctional ignorance (thank you, David Wallace-Wells).  But what we need is hope, rather than optimism.  When we know all is lost, we are freed to go far beyond what we thought we can do, even when we have no clue how it will end.  Running like hell towards that unknowable future, I someday hope my spirit will be able to recognize the future that is coming at me—and God’s hand in it.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a (remote) visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, retired from teaching ethics in the Religion Department at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN.  In 2019-2020 he was first drafter of the social message on government and civic engagement for the ELCA.