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Clarifying the scale of the crisis

The title of David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth is succinct, deadly, and the contents of this book do not pull any punches. Never has there been a more highly publicised book to underscore the seriousness of global warming and the impacts that are already evident.

The book is split into four readable parts: an introduction on how severe and complex climate breakdown is; an overview of 12 aspects of climate change, from ‘climate conflict’ to ‘unbreathable air’; analyses of how we got into our present climate trajectory and what we might be able to do about climate breakdown; and finally, a philosophical take on humankind’s arrogant self-centredness that has led to this climate situation.

For most readers, including policymakers interested in learning about climate change, the first two sections are the most important, but do not make for comfortable reading. For ACP agricultural development policymakers and practitioners, the book is an essential read. Wallace-Wells references the World Bank estimate that by 2100, the coolest months in tropical Africa and the Pacific will be hotter than the warmest months of the 20th century. The book also highlights the estimate that under (the not unrealistic) 5°C of warming by 2100, the world will have 50% more people to feed, with 50% less grain to feed them, with the tropics already inhospitable to efficient crop production. This chapter also highlights the staggering levels of arable soil erosion – estimated at 75 billion t a year – and nutrient loss in plants.

The author covers the 2018 water-shortage in Cape Town, revealing that, rather than being an issue of excessive individual consumption as highlighted by the media – it is an ever-present systemic issue. Agriculture and industry account for 70-80 and 10-20% of global freshwater use, respectively. Furthermore, 4 billion people already face water shortages for 1 month of the year and 500 million all year round; and the situation will only get worse. The book also highlights the dramatic fact that “reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food and income for half a billion people”, yet, due to ocean warming and acidification, 90% of all reefs will be threatened with extinction by 2030.

Reading any part of the book makes it clear that we really have run out of time, prevaricating is no longer an indulgence, and radical solutions are now a necessary comprehension.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future
By D Wallace-Wells
Penguin, 2019; 336 pp.
ISBN: 9780141988870

In this issue


"Youth should be part of the conversation about rural development"

Assistant vice-president of the strategy and knowledge department of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Paul Winters, highlights the factors that need to be in place for rural youth to prosper.



Three new reports focus on food systems and production in Africa to achieve food security and end malnutrition and poverty. Digital technologies, better policies and new farming approaches are all highlighted as means to achieve these aims.