ISBN 978-0-231-53795-7 (ebook). “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway was published by Columbia University Press in 2014. [Like our review of John Michael Greer’s “After Oil” this sees us examining a work of fiction via the Kindle edition.] This is a very short book – nothing more than an essay brought to us by the team that gave us “Merchants of Doubt“. Unlike “Merchants” this is intentionally a work of speculative fiction being written from the viewpoint of historians reviewing the collapse of western civilization from a Chinese perspective in the year 2393. Readers should be warned that this is not a dry work of academia. In fact this is proper venomous as the authors seem to be working through their angst at climate change denial. This essay is somewhat of a big finger wag saying “this is what will happen”. Sadly, we reckon, it won’t make any difference.
Now I have to say there is nothing in this book that I disagree with. Most of us who have read around this topic will be resigned to a sad future like the one described here. However it is preaching to the converted. This is not a genuine effort to change the minds of conservatives who reject climate change science. It is termed more as a warning to western civilization of how events could unfold if it doesn’t mend its ways. Its “ways” being the dogmatic adherence to quite extreme neo-liberal attitudes that avoid Government intervention in markets at all costs. These authors predict that the dangerous impacts of climate change can only lead to the rise of authoritarian regimes. Going further they realistically assume that it will centralised-governments (such as that in “Communist” China) who will prevail whilst weaker western Governments will fall. This is clearly an attempt to show that a misplaced love of “free markets” will NOT keep the commies out. In fact, entirely the opposite, trying to preserve this fiction of western civilization will doom it.
The events of the next 100 years as described here may be a little pessimistic but they are reasonable outcomes. Even if it is half as bad then this is worrisome. This does turn itself into the ultimate form of climate change porn even if it doesn’t predict the end of the world for humanity. What it does focus upon is the inadequacies of the western mainstream response. This will be our undoing warn the authors. They also have the scientific community in their sights for it is them that they blame for not being adequately alarmist. Our “historians” describe the era of climate change denial in the West as the “Penumbral Period” – literally a dark ages, a retreat from the Enlightenment. The results will see nations fall and new alliances form as the climate goes crazy.
The authors predict a “frenzy of fossil fuels” driven by an alliance of interests dubbed the “carbon-combustion complex” that leads to wholesale irrationality being driven into democratic structures of governance. Although quite a realistic reading of the worst case scenario circa 2012 this does seem overly doom-laden given the second term of the Obama Government and more recent developments in China. There is far more hope around in 2014 than there has been in a long time. For this “history” to get back on track we will have to assume that the American Republicans can bring back the bad old days of the Bush years. Although this is still possible it is still pretty hard to believe that the USA will enshrine such extreme denial legislation as the “Sea Level Rise Denial Bill” into governance. It is also a hard press of the imagination to believe that climate scientists will be rounded up by the hundreds and incarcerated for being too “alarmist”. But, heck, fiction can be fun can’t it?
This projects a rather North-American-centric paranoid-view of world affairs as if the World is the USA. What is more, whilst the authors deride the response of politicians they reserve a great deal of their venom for scientists themselves. No doubt the science community already feels itself under siege from the politicians and deniers without being attacked from the other perspective. It seems doubtful that historians 400 years from now would be so concerned with the minutiae detail of such arcane scientific arguments. Again this seems more like an obsession of the authors in the here and now. Is it really such a big deal?
“By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm. Control measures—such as water and food rationing and Malthusian “one-child” policies—were widely implemented. In wealthy countries, the most hurricane- and tornado-prone regions were gradually but steadily depopulated.. Then, in the Northern Hemisphere summer of 2041, unprecedented heat waves scorched the planet, destroying food crops around the globe. Panic ensued, with food riots in virtually every major city.”
Oreskes and Conway see our reckoning as coming quite soon. In this timeline the breakdown of our civilisation is scheduled for the 2050s. It leads to desperation & an attempt at geo-engineering which ultimately fails. Next the great ice sheets collapse leading to a rapid rise in sea level in the period before 2100. This leads to 1.5 billion displaced people in search of a home and fears of a run-away greenhouse effect. At this moment the authors choose a peculiar plot device – a miraculous photosynthesising fungus as our saviour. This seems entirely unnecessary to the point of being silly. It seems that the wiping out of western civilisation might not be enough to cut emissions back to sustainable levels? It gives the essay a sort of happy ending that maybe none of us deserve. Some were less lucky
“The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”
At least that was predictable.
The following chapter of the essay then dissects the “market failure” that lead to this catastrophe.
“The thesis of this analysis is that Western civilization became trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism. [..] A key attribute of the period was that power did not reside in the hands of those who understood the climate system, but rather in political, economic, and social institutions that had a strong interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels.”
This lead to the ultimate undoing of market fundamentalism:
“The idea of managing energy use and controlling greenhouse gas emissions was anathema to the neoliberal economists whose thinking dominated at this crucial juncture. Thus, no planning was done, no precautions were taken, and the only management that finally ensued was disaster management. [..] The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention. [..] And so the development that the neoliberals most dreaded—centralized government and loss of personal choice—was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place.”
…and that basically is it for this essay. Short and bitter. The anger of the authors is manifest but this is not an argument to be won through pointing out the obvious paradox in our governance. The nature of this denial is that the paradox itself cannot exist hence its premise is denied. Hence this essay itself will barely prick the consciousness of the denial bubble – and it does then it will be held up as an example of the sort of anti-capitalist climate alarmism that these brave heroes reject. This is a clash of one world view versus another and there is no common ground to explore here. Oreskes and Conway might as well be howling at the moon.
So how does this sort of post-apocalyptic vision weigh up against Greer’s “After Oil”? Greer’s is a post-peak oil fantasy that sees the collapse of energy supplies as the slow undoing of industrial civilisation. This is expected to happen well in advance of catastrophic climate change. However the pendulum has now generally swung against this perception. It is generally accepted that we have access to enough fossil fuels to fry the planet. Hence the climate-change-induced collapse of western civilisation [as implied here] is the most realistic outcome – if quite pessimistic and chilling. Certainly it would be interesting to read a work of science fiction based upon the post-climate-change-apocalypse world rendered by the authors. What role would energy depletion have upon a world devastated by climate change? We dread to think.
Best to avoid this nightmare. A lesson to us all. But who will heed it?