The Collapse of Western Civilization
A View from the Future
by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
Columbia University Press 2014 89 pages
Humble in appearance, this little book packs a wallop. Purporting to be written in 2093, the premise poses the question: why did the Western world early in the century fail to act on its knowledge of imminent environmental collapse?
Authors Oreskes and Conway do a wonderful job of invoking the bewildered voice of their fictional historian. They answer the question, too: the “uncertainty” perpetrated by the fossil fuel companies and their cohorts (“the carbon combustion complex”) took hold of the imagination of a public addicted to conspicuous consumption.
Organized in three chapters, the book includes an Epilogue, a Lexicon of Archaic Terms, and an interview with the authors (Oreskes is professor of the history of science at Harvard; Conway is a historian of science and technology at the California Institute of Technology). Also included are four future maps showing the disappearance of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, New York City, and Florida.
Chapter 1 studies how people knew what was happening but were unable to stop it. International talks and funding of the EPA for example were countered by a backlash of denial. “It is clear that in the early 21st century, immediate steps should have been taken to begin a transition to a zero-net-carbon world. Staggeringly, the opposite occurred.”
Chapter 2 covers the persecution of climate scientists, and the obstacles presented by narrow disciplines impeding “investigation of complex systems.” Social order begins to break down beginning in 2041, when “unprecedented heat waves scorched the planet, destroying food crops around the world.”
Chapter 3 directs blame at “positivism and market fundamentalism.” Scientists’ traditional insistence on empirical knowledge had little impact on economic and technical policies. Market fundamentalism resulted in the dominance of the carbon combustion complex and the public’s “quasi-religious faith” that free markets were the only thing not threatening personal freedom. “The idea of managing energy use and controlling greenhouse 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.”
You will have to read this brilliant, intense little book twice—it is that rich.