David Wallace-Wells Explains Himself

Wallace-WellsI have recommended episodes of the Longform Podcast plenty of times, because its guests invariably help us appreciate clear explanation, especially for the better understanding of danger. Today’s recommendation is in the spirit of that last consideration, to put it mildly. But it is also a very personal explanation of how he came to this task, and how it sits with him.

The Power Of Panic

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Ms. Cohen favors vendors who don’t use plastic. Credit Adam Amengual for The New York Times

When I started my Saturday morning reading it was just prior to our weekly visit to the farmer’s market and there was visual resonance with our own experience eliminating, or trying to eliminate plastic:

You’re Addicted to Plastic. Can You Go Cold Turkey?

Going plastic free starts with cloth bags and straws. Suddenly, you’re … making your own toothpaste?

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Reusable cloth bags are a must. Credit Adam Amengual for The New York Times

Like most people, resonance is always welcome in my reading. But like a second cup of coffee to really get the day going, there is nothing like cognitive dissonance. I can think eliminating plastic from our lives is a big deal one moment, and then the next it is clear that it is not enough, that it is like tinkering. Or as the punchy cliche puts it, like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. David Wallace-Wells is a skilled dissonance artist in this vein. He can make your best efforts suddenly seem pathetic; not in a snarky way and if you listen to him explain his work you will realize resistance is futile; you cannot look away from what he is saying, even if you want to.

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‘A profound book, which simultaneously makes me terrified and hopeful about the future’ Jonathan Safran Foer
A Times and FT Most Anticipated Book 2019

His book will not likely be damned by faint praise; its look at our future prospects will more likely draw extreme responses in favor of the intensity of his alarm, and claims of alarmism from the usual suspects. He is catching up to Elizabeth Kolbert in balancing our preference for optimism with extreme realism. His op-ed on Saturday tipped the balance for me quite like a second, maybe third cup of coffee:

The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization. Continue reading

Doomsday Discussion

Each day we scan the news for stories that will help make sense of the environmental challenges facing humanity, with special attention to potential solutions and collective action taken to rise up to those challenges. Earlier this year we declined to link out to this story that was a collection of doomsday scenarios:

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The Uninhabitable Earth

Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.

By David Wallace-Wells

This article reporting on a recent panel at Harvard University has caused us to reconsider the decision:

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Nikhil Advani (from left), David Wallace-Wells, Elizabeth Wolkovich, Nancy Knowlton, and Campbell Webb.

…Unfortunately, that vision isn’t fiction, but rather Wallace-Wells’ summation of climate change’s little-discussed worst-case scenario for the year 2100.

“I think there’s real value in scaring people,” the journalist said Wednesday during a panel at the Geological Museum, sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

The event, “Hope and Despair: Communicating an Uncertain Future,” explored whether doom and gloom are more effective than hope in spurring climate action. Panelists agreed that fear is a potentially powerful lever, but also insisted on the importance of covering success stories. Progress is an important motivator, keeping people from succumbing to despair in the face of bad news. Continue reading