In the science fiction film The Matrix, the global environment has been destroyed. But most people don’t know it, because their minds are caught up in a software program and all they see is a beautiful, computer generated reality while their bodies lie in metal and glass capsules.
To David Wallace-Wells, the movie is a good analogy for what advancing technology is doing to people’s ability to see, and therefore care about, the ecological damage we are inflicting on the earth. His new book: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explores the intersection between people’s growing obsession with iPhones and digital images and the widespread lack of concern about the very real floods, wildfires, pollution and plastic trash all around us in the real world.
Here’s Wallace-Wells discussing how people respond to climate change. “The Matrix is absolutely right that one way we may respond it to try to concoct, or enact, false bubbles in which we can continue to live or pretend to live in a kind of time of plenty and paradise, when – in fact, in reality – we are living in a much, much more degraded landscape,” he said in an interview.
Technology, in the form of the industrial revolution and the burning of coal and oil, is what triggered climate change in the first place. And now, faced with political gridlock over the need to regulate greenhouse gases, technology offers a tempting and seemingly easy escape route through what is called geo-engineering.
As Wallace-Wells describes in his book, geo-engineering is the idea that we can solve the climate problem -- while continuing to burn fossil fuels – through high-tech fixes such as pumping a blanket of sulfur dioxide pollution into the atmosphere to shade the sun and cool the earth.
The only problem would be, if Earth’s governments ever stopped pumping the coolant into the sky – perhaps because of war, or because it became too expensive -- our protective umbrella would suddenly vanish, greenhouse gas concentrations would have meanwhile intensified, and the planet would cook.
In the end, Wallace-Wells argues, technology alone won’t save us.
“We’ve sort of been led to believe – or allowed ourselves to believe – that because we now live in the modern world that we are somehow protected from the forces of nature. We are led to believe that things like modern amenities, modern civilization, are a kind of a fortress that will protect us from what blows are possible from real climate degradation.”
The good news, according to the author, is that governments in the U.S. and around the world already have all the tools required to stop climate change. All they need is the political will to impose the regulations needed, Wallace-Wells writes, including a tax on carbon dioxide pollution; a phasing out of coal and oil in favor of solar, wind and other clean energy sources; and a shift in the global diet from meat to vegetables to reduce pollution from factory farms.
The danger, Wallace-Wells argues, is that we’ll ignore all this, if we continue to be distracted by the latest Twitter outrage from the White House or video of baby pandas on our iPhones.
“We’re sort of entertaining ourselves to death, is sort of one pointed way of saying it,” Wallace-Wells said. “We are so engaged in sort of intoxicating pleasures of the world on our iPhones that we are not really thinking about the material aspects of our lives are being degraded by the forces of climate change, today, already in 2019.”
So unplug from the Matrix and enter into combat with the ugly, but very real, political world – the only world in which we can solve our problems. And we solve these problems, Wallace-Wells concludes, through voting, democracy, and changing not only our consumer habits, but our government.