JUNE 3, 2019
MANY YEARS AGO, when I was a college dropout with bad credit, having defaulted on my student loans, I worked briefly as a phone psychic. There was some training involved: how to use the system that routed callers to your home phone, for instance, but also how to keep callers on the line and, even more important, keep them coming back. On some level, of course, one’s success as a psychic depended on one’s supernatural abilities: either you have the gift or you don’t. The business side, however, depended a lot more on telling the right story. Asking open-ended questions and having a sympathetic ear helped, but the key was in reading the tarot spread in such a way that you crafted a compelling narrative of struggle and overcoming. “Basically, you tell them things will be hard,” my trainer instructed me, “then you tell them things will get better.”
I wasn’t a phone psychic long. The people who called had real problems — cancer, family members in prison, abusive relationships, drugs and alcohol — and my simple story of struggle and overcoming seemed not only inadequate but unethical, a comforting sop to make the unbearable bearable, especially given that my goal was to get them hooked on paying several dollars a minute to hear me interpret the relationship between the seven of wands and the Wheel of Fortune. The stories these people were living didn’t match the story I was being paid to tell them, and deceiving them with happy-ending fables seemed wrong. But the narrative insight my psychic trainer offered was important, and came in use a few years later, when I worked as a door-to-door grassroots canvasser for the largest progressive nonprofit fundraising organization in the United States.
The basic tool of the door-to-door canvasser is “the rap.” It’s a concise, punchy narrative that always follows the same five-part formula: introduce yourself, describe the problem, describe the solution, identify the opposition, and solicit engagement. It’s a subtle variation on the narrative my psychic trainer taught me, in that it adds a villain and ends with an appeal to action. I would learn later that it closely resembles classic Ciceronian structure. Best of all, it worked. Not every door, not every time, but reliably over the long haul. If you knocked on 75 doors and talked to 40 people, which was an average night, you could usually get four or five people to contribute, which was enough to make quota.
I turned out to be pretty good at canvassing, regularly beating quota by significant margins, which was a shock to me, since I’d never really thought of myself as a “people person.” I was quickly promoted to field manager, then assistant campaign director, and soon found myself training canvassers, writing raps for new campaigns, and troubleshooting problems in the field. Any time a canvasser seemed to be flailing, the first and best advice was to have them focus on the rap. It was a sturdy and dependable tool, an effective rhetorical framework for presenting any problem as solvable and for convincing people to write checks and sign petitions — not someday, but right now: “We need your help tonight.”
The last campaign I worked on was a WashPIRG summer campaign to stop the Olympic Pipeline Company from building a petroleum pipeline across the Cascade mountains. It was a noble fight against a dastardly villain, and I brought all my working-class rage to bear on the struggle. Who makes a better enemy than oil executives? What starker conflict could there be than the one between rapacious greedheads and sacred wilderness? By June, the campaign was going great: our canvas was expanding, our canvassers were building powerful esprit de corps, and donations were rolling in. Then something terrible happened.
Or rather, an underground gas pipeline exploded in Bellingham, Washington, and killed three people, two of them 10-year-old boys. That pipeline was owned by the Olympic Pipeline Company, which prudently withdrew the cross-Cascades proposal we’d been fighting. It was something of a crisis, since we weren’t even halfway through the summer campaign: we still had thousands of postcards, flyers, posters, and factsheets, all urging Washingtonians to “Stop the Pipeline.” The decision WashPIRG leadership made was to count this as a victory and go on the offensive. Our campaign shifted from “Stop the Pipeline” to “No New Pipelines.” The trouble came when we designed the new rap, which didn’t talk about the dead boys at all and gave WashPIRG credit for stopping the pipeline.
There can be no doubt that the pressure WashPIRG put on the Olympic Pipeline Company contributed to that company’s sense that it couldn’t go forward in the wake of the explosion. Yet to claim that WashPIRG was primarily responsible dishonored the memory of those dead boys and deceived the people we were asking to support us. What had happened wasn’t a victory, but a tragedy. The problem was, there’s no room in the rap for tragedy. It’s not that kind of story.
There are few periods in my life as dispiriting as were the last weeks of that campaign, when I went out every night and lied in the service of a good cause. I trained canvassers to dissemble and evade, to downplay tragedy in favor of a story with a happy ending, and to unscrupulously prey on the good faith of well-meaning people because we believed that what we were doing was right. My numbers slipped, and my passion evaporated. I couldn’t even depend on the rap.
The slippage turned into a full-blown ethical crisis, which opened my eyes to the power of institutional inertia and to the dangers of finding yourself trapped in the wrong story. It made me question whether any real social change was possible within the constraints of the system we lived in. If the only stories we could tell had to have happy endings, what else were we lying about? And if our fight was based on lies, what the hell were we fighting for?
I left the Fund and spent some time in Mexico, then came back to Washington for the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Participating in that protest, an experience at once chastening and sublime, crippled what faith I had left in protest-based social movements. The WTO protestors were adaptable, passionate, and cunning, but divided, incoherent, and critically weakened by a lack of discipline. The Seattle police and the National Guard were slow and reactive, but they also had all the resources, including time. All they had to do to win was to keep us from winning, which turned out to be relatively easy. The next two years I remember as a complicated search for a way forward. In the spring of 2002, I enlisted in the US Army, in large part for the GI Bill and Army College Fund, but also to understand how the world had changed after 9/11, and soon found myself in a new narrative: protecting America from WMDs by bringing democracy to the people of Iraq in what would be, we were promised, a short and easy war.
The stories we tell ourselves matter. As beings whose social existence is structured by symbolic reasoning, we comprehend our lives through collectively-agreed-upon narratives about what is important, what to attend to, what reality itself is and means. These narratives undergird our politics, inform our notions of identity, and give shape to our desires. They tell us what is possible and what is not, what is known and what is inconceivable, what must be true and what cannot be. It is therefore essential that we always keep testing our narratives against reality, and always be willing to edit, revise, or even wholly rewrite them in light of new information.
Indeed, there are moments when changing the stories we live within is the only way to keep going. Today, facing worldwide ecological collapse, we find ourselves in such a moment. Two new books illustrate and embody this challenge: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben and The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells.
The first, Falter, is journalist-turned-activist Bill McKibben’s 15th book. In it, he presents climate change, economic inequality, artificial intelligence, automation, and genetic engineering as threats to human existence and human identity. McKibben sees the “human game” as risking “playing itself out” primarily because of what he calls “leverage,” by which he means the scale of changes humans are causing. For McKibben, the “human game” is “the entirety of our ceaseless activity,” a game which “has no rules and no end,” but goes “well when it creates more dignity for its players, and badly when that dignity diminishes.”
The threats McKibben discusses are real enough, though his discussion of them tends toward shallow recapitulations of trendy think pieces and internet journalism. The bigger problem is that McKibben never bothers to clarify why it makes sense to think of the sum total of human existence on the planet Earth as a “game,” especially one that has no rules and doesn’t end, since the very definition of game is that it is a structured form of play. The idea of a game with neither rules nor boundaries makes no sense. And while thinkers such as John von Neumann, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roger Caillois, and Johan Huizinga have all used the idea of games to explore what it means to be human, McKibben doesn’t seem to care much about how games actually work. Rather, he seems to want to use the idea of the “human game” as a secular framework for conceptualizing human values.
McKibben has always been a particularly American kind of public intellectual, in the tradition of Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, the historian Richard White once described Bill McKibben’s style as a combination of Emerson and Walt Disney, a comparison White made not “glibly or mockingly,” but rather because of Disney’s “great influence on how Americans […] think about nature.” According to White,
McKibben can so readily bring to mind both Emerson and Disney because a common Protestant sensibility unites all of them. For each, a common religiosity pervades the natural world. Humans learn […] that there is a power that made all of them and is greater than all of them. It must be acknowledged and obeyed.
Thus, McKibben’s notion of the “human game” begins to come into focus, as does the problem it means to solve. Climate change poses such profound challenges to the ways that we conceive of human existence that we are compelled to rethink what that existence means. In some sense, this was apparent from McKibben’s first book, The End of Nature, published in 1989. Since then, he has been a leading voice in framing the problems climate change poses, yet his solutions lean always toward the homiletic. The story McKibben knows best is one in which our mission in the wilderness has foundered but can be saved by spiritual renewal. When he turns to face the future, he does so dressed in a faded patchwork of Protestant confessionalism, Disneyfied Romanticism, and faith in human redemption.
Bill McKibben’s worldview is steeped in the spiritual dregs of ’60s hippie optimism. David Wallace-Wells is of another generation; he was seven when Bill McKibben pronounced the “end of nature,” and belongs to one of the first cohorts that grew up knowing it lived in a world transformed by global warming. “I am not an environmentalist,” he writes, “and [I] don’t even think of myself as a nature person.” Indeed, Wallace-Wells asserts that he wouldn’t mind losing “much of what we think of as ‘nature’ […] so long as we could go on living as we have in the world left behind.” The reason this self-described gadget-loving, beef-eating, bitcoin-buying human chauvinist has written a book about climate change is that we can’t.
The Uninhabitable Earth expands on Wallace-Wells’s alarming and controversial 2017 New York magazine article of the same name and takes a close look at the likely effects of climate change over the next several decades. Wallace-Wells begins with an introductory overview that seeks to dismantle what he calls the “comforting delusions” of climate-change complacency: that it is happening slowly, that it is happening far away, that it is primarily about sea level rise, that wealth can defend against it, that we can expect an easy technological fix, or “that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.” He then spends the next hundred pages or so taking each consequence of global warming in turn, from “Heat Death” to “Dying Oceans” to “Economic Collapse.” These first two sections of the book are the strongest: while occasionally repetitive, sometimes overwritten, and often mind-numbingly abstract (what, for instance, would it mean that 3.7 degrees of warming could cost the world $551 trillion?), Wallace-Wells paints a compelling, comprehensive, solidly researched, and genuinely terrifying picture of our future.
Wallace-Wells also does justice to the limits and obstacles we face in addressing the problem, which he explores in the book’s last third, building a thorough and convincing argument that we moderns, especially and specifically 21st-century Americans, are prodigiously ill-equipped for coping with or even really understanding the global cataclysm we’ve unleashed. As the reader closes in on the final 30 pages, a dizzying narrative suspense takes hold: the problem Wallace-Wells presents is so overwhelming, so comprehensive, so frightening, and so far beyond the grasp of current political institutions that you wonder how the author will confront the abyss toward which the story seems headed. Disappointingly, Wallace-Wells flinches.
The book’s last two chapters are the least persuasive. In the penultimate chapter, “Ethics at the End of the World,” Wallace-Wells engages in a weak argument with several writers he misleadingly lumps together under the pejorative “ecological nihilism.” While the chapter’s title suggests some discussion of the problem of ethics in a world shaped by climate change, perhaps with reference to the work of thinkers such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Stephen Gardiner, Donna Haraway, Dale Jamieson, Bruno Latour, Samuel Scheffler, Eugene Thacker, or Anna Tsing, Wallace-Wells instead beats up on a straw man. He starts with the fringe scientist Guy McPherson, who makes an easy target: McPherson’s paranoid style, his outrageous confidence in his predictions (such as that climate change will cause human extinction by 2030), his polyamorous homestead, and his goofy mustache all scream “crank.” And yet as Wallace-Wells himself points out, many of McPherson’s fears are legitimate. Even among McPherson’s mistakes, Wallace-Wells writes, “there is enough real science to give rise to real alarm: a good summary of the albedo effect, a convenient assemblage of rigorous readings of the Arctic ice sheets.” McPherson’s biggest bugbear, Arctic methane emissions, remains poorly understood and controversial, but a recent study shows a surge in atmospheric methane strong enough to negate even the most rigorous plans for CO2 reduction outlined in the Paris Agreement, were they to be enacted. More to the point, McPherson’s ethical quietism is a legitimate philosophical position, not one that can be waved away with a sneer, as Wallace-Wells attempts. It’s easy to dismiss McPherson, less so Epictetus, the Buddha, St. Benedict, and Voltaire.
Wallace-Wells seems to have decided that anyone who takes seriously the possibility that climate change has slipped out of our control isn’t worth seriously considering. It’s not a great loss with McPherson, but it is disappointing to see Wallace-Wells treat Paul Kingsnorth, a provocative and original writer, with condescension and misunderstanding. While McPherson believes he can tell the future, Kingsnorth’s pessimism is grounded in the past, founded on “a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction […] built on little more than belief,” as he writes in Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. Such a skeptical, historically informed pessimism has substantial force, and deep literary and philosophical roots. It can be argued against, as can McPherson’s quietism, but not the way Wallace-Wells does here, by implying it’s merely a kind of moral cowardice, then dishonestly mislabeling it “ecological nihilism.” Believing that humans are fallible and that the universe has meaning above and beyond human existence is not nihilism; it is rather the opposite.
In his conclusion, Wallace-Wells writes:
The emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment — collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.
Here’s the crux: climate change is our choice, for we have all the tools we need to stop it. The solutions Wallace-Wells offers are familiar ones (carbon tax, investment in green energy and carbon capture, changing the ways we produce and eat food), but he doesn’t spend much time thinking about the practical steps such policies would require. He doesn’t think much about how politics and governance work. He doesn’t look at history to see how humans in crisis have handled such challenges before. He doesn’t even follow through the implications of everything he’s written in the rest of his book. In spite of his own evidence, Wallace-Wells ends on a note of hope, choosing to see climate change as an “invigorating picture” that “flatters our sense of power, and in so doing calls the world […] to action.”
Whereas McKibben’s book is breezy and rambling, Wallace-Wells’s is more tightly constructed, more focused, and relies more substantially on primary scientific research, but ultimately both adhere to the same basic narrative: things are bad, but they can get better if we’re good. Both books convey alarming visions of the near human future, as temperatures and seas rise, crops fail, diseases spread, refugees suffer, fires burn, conflicts erupt, and the oceans die; yet both books emphasize the power of human agency in deciding our collective future, insisting that in spite of such dire prognostications, we have the capacity to avert the worst and bend the course of human history back from the abyss.
In this way, both authors adhere neatly to the genre of the monitory ecological sermon, which found archetypal form in Theodor Geisel’s 1971 story The Lorax: industrial capitalism has wrought total ecological devastation upon the Earth, denuding it of Truffula Trees, brown Bar-ba-loots, Humming Fish, and Swomee Swans, which devastated world is fated to be our grim gray home forever … unless. Unless, that is, we heed the Lorax who speaks for the trees. The future depends upon cultivating the right feelings: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Which implies that if you do care, things will get better — a kind of magical thinking to which Americans seem especially susceptible.
Both The Uninhabitable Earth and Falter swerve in their final pages into this “unless,” in equally desperate and unconvincing ways. Wallace-Wells insists that “[i]f humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it,” which assertion is false in two ways. First, I may be responsible for knocking a glass of wine onto the floor, but I cannot simply undo the shattering. George W. Bush was responsible for the American invasion of Iraq, but no executive order could unbomb Baghdad and resurrect all the children he killed. Both ecological thinking and human history teach the same lesson: actions have complex, unforeseeable, and often irrevocable consequences.
Second, Wallace-Wells’s assertion attributes conscious deliberation to an abstract entity — “humanity” — which has shown no evidence of having any such quality. At the global scale, we act not as rational agents making individual decisions, but as a concatenation of competing actors. Even at the level of the individual, we often face limitations when it comes to doing what we think we ought. Simply because someone is responsible for drinking too much, losing their temper, or making a fool of themselves does not mean that they are necessarily capable of doing otherwise, much less of undoing the consequences of their actions.
While Wallace-Wells subscribes to the standard checklist of proposals to fight climate change, he neglects to present a convincing case for how policies such as the Green New Deal, a carbon tax, or massive global investment in direct air capture technology might be enacted and put into practice. Any environmental studies undergrad can tell you what we need to do; the problem is doing it. Wallace-Wells’s personal exhortations that we “choose to feel empowered” and “take responsibility” for climate change ring as hollow as the self-help slogans they so resemble.
McKibben’s “unless” relies less on contemporary language of empowerment than on a mashup of 1960s social activism and 1970s techno-utopianism. He argues that “two new technologies” offer us the chance to save the Bar-ba-loots: “One is the solar panel, and the other is the nonviolent movement.” To support this claim, McKibben first turns to Thomas Friedman–style anecdotes about poor families in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and rural Vermont relying on solar panels for home power generation, then descends into a stupefying mix of cheerleading, moral hectoring, and small-is-beautiful nostalgia.
Solar panels, on their own, cannot meet global energy needs, and will not solve the problems caused by CO2 currently in the atmosphere and oceans, the catastrophic collapse of the biosphere, imminent crises in industrial agriculture, and accelerating climate feedbacks. And at this point — after the 2003 protests against the Iraq War, the “largest anti-war rally in history,” which saw millions of people in hundreds of cities across the world protesting the American invasion of Iraq and which utterly failed to stop the war — after the “People’s Climate March” in 2014, the “largest climate change march in history,” which utterly failed to have any noticeable effect on global climate policy — after decades of failed protests against institutional racism, gun violence, sexism, nuclear weapons, abortion, war, environmental degradation, and a raft of other issues — only the deluded and naïve could maintain that nonviolent protest politics is much more than ritualized wishful thinking. In the end, McKibben’s argument falls into the same vague preaching as does Wallace-Wells’s. Human beings are special, McKibben insists, because we have free will: “We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing.” Asking hard questions about who that “we” is, how “we” make decisions, how power works, and the limits of human freedom are beyond the reach of both writers, because such questions lie outside the narrative they’re both trapped in.
Unluckily for us, climate change is not a moral fable, a point Wallace-Wells makes but then seems to forget. “There is nothing to learn from global warming,” he writes early on, “because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons; we are after all not merely telling the story but living it.” And therein lies the problem with both books. The story we’re living is one of failure, catastrophe, suffering, and tragedy: an out-of-control car careening off a dark road. The story Wallace-Wells and McKibben wind up telling, however, is that we’re in control and the skid is manageable, if only we choose to take the wheel. It’s a story I’ve heard before:
Things are hard but they’re gonna get better … Our enemies are strong but we can defeat them … The odds are long but we can do it … The problem is solvable if we have the political will … We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace … We’ve reached a turning point … The movement is growing … We need your help tonight …
The lag time between carbon emissions and consequent warming means that even if humans stopped emitting CO2 worldwide today, we would still face levels of warming over the next several decades that will not only put colossal political and economic stress on poor and wealthy nations alike, but also have a good chance of initiating runaway climate change, presuming such a tipping point hasn’t already been passed. Climate feedbacks such as permafrost melt, ice collapse, and wildfires are accelerating. The oceans are both dying and rising, like some Lovecraftian sea monster. Absent a Herculean effort devoting trillions of dollars to building direct-air-capture carbon scrubbers, none of this can be changed.
Despite the unconvincing cheer for human empowerment with which he ends his book, however, David Wallace-Wells understands the seriousness of our predicament. And despite his atavistic Protestant optimism, even Bill McKibben can see that the odds are not in our favor. The challenge these two capable, intelligent writers struggle with so powerfully, and which they so disappointingly fail to meet, is a challenge that anyone who thinks seriously about climate change confronts: the danger we face is utterly unlike anything humanity has ever faced before. Their moral fables don’t really fit our situation, but neither does the traditional narrative of apocalypse, nor the story of wartime mobilization, nor the story of innovation and progress, nor narratives of heroic overcoming.
Climate change is bigger than any individual moral choice. It’s bigger than the New Deal, bigger than the Marshall Plan, bigger than World War II, bigger than racism, sexism, inequality, slavery, the Holocaust, the end of nature, the Sixth Extinction, famine, war, and plague all put together, because the chaos it’s bringing is going to supercharge every other problem. Successfully meeting this crisis would require an abrupt, traumatic revolution in global human society; failing to meet it will be even worse. This is the truth we struggle to comprehend in narrative, the reality our stories must make sense of. The all-too-real possibility we must confront — and which David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben notably refuse — is that the story we’re living is a tragedy that ends in disaster, no matter what.
Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, among other books, including the forthcoming novel I Heart Oklahoma! and the forthcoming monograph Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature.