Book review: The collapse of western civilization


So having just finished a post on climate futures and argued that we should look to climate fiction (cli-fi) for inspiration, last week I read the excellent fictional future history, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Both authors are probably well known to readers for their outstanding 2010 non-fiction treatise on the history of climate change denial, Merchants of Doubt, which explored how a number of contrarian scientists served the interest of tobacco companies and later the fossil fuel industry in promoting public skepticism and denial over the dangers of their sponsors’ products.

In this latest book, Oreskes and Conway explore the fundamental question of why Western liberal democracies at the apogee of their technological and scientific mastery have failed to respond to the greatest threat facing our species; anthropogenic climate change. Rather than a more traditional social science analysis, Oreskes and Conway frame their analysis as an essay written by a future historian from the year 2349 seeking to answer the question of why western civilization failed to respond to man-made climate change despite full awareness of the threat. This voice from the future is a narrative device that was also used to good effect in the film Age of Stupid where Pete Postlethwaite’s ‘archivist’ replays videos of our current hubris in the face of climate catastrophe. As the fictional author in The Collapse of Western Civilization explains:

To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame. Historical analysis also shows that Western civilization had the technological know-how and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy, yet the available technologies were not implemented in time. (p.35)

In analyzing the future demise of Western civilization, the authors draw on many present-day facts in addressing this paradox of inaction. A key source of blame is the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism in Western nation states during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Here, emphasis is placed on neoliberalism’s hostility to any form of government regulation and planning (despite the fact that founding neoliberal theorists such as Friedrich von Hayek recognized the need for government regulation of issues such as pollution and environmental degradation). However since climate science clearly reveals the need for dramatic government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, so current neoliberal advocates are convinced that climate science must be wrong, corrupt or a hoax, since markets should not and cannot be allowed to be regulated! Ideological certainty thus trumps rational scientific analysis. As our future historian opines in analyzing the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries:

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. Historians have labeled this system the carbon combustion complex: a network of powerful industries comprised of primary fossil fuel producers; secondary industries that served fossil fuel companies (drilling and oil field service companies, large construction firms, and manufacturers of plastics and other petrochemicals); tertiary industries whose products relied on inexpensive fossil fuels (especially automobiles and aviation); and financial institutions that serviced their capital demands. Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening. (p.37)

Flowing from this analysis there are some pretty grim outlines of what happens ‘next’! The Great Collapse plays out across the 21st century – with worsening extreme weather events, heat waves of increasing severity, disease outbreaks as social structures fracture, and then emergency geoengineering interventions which ultimately worsen the situation – culminating in the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and sea level rises of as much as 20 meters (bye bye Florida, Bangladesh and the Netherlands!). This results in catastrophic human losses of many billions and the demise of the nation states of twenty-first century Europe and the United States. Indeed, for Australian readers, our historian grimly notes:

The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out (p.33)

The Collapse of Western Civilization is a very readable and effective way of communicating the catastrophic implications of where we are heading under the climate crisis. That said, I had a couple of minor quibbles. First, it is quite short. I would have liked a more fleshed out account of the fictional future and perhaps an account of the more surprising implications of extreme global warming. For instance, the geopolitical implications of societal collapse will likely result in heightened conflict and war. In a situation of nuclear armed states, this could result in even grimmer outcomes (see for example Glynn Dwyer’s excellent book Climate Wars for some possible scenarios here).

Added to this, there is a lack of character engagement. We never really get any insight into our future historian – she remains a cypher, revealed only through her calm, clinical historian’s gaze. Of course, this is perhaps precisely how such an account would be written, but one hankers for more detail of life in this fictional future having survived the Great Collapse.

Overall, there is much to recommend in this short fictional account of our climate future. It also has some nice humorous touches despite the very grim issues it addresses. Watch out for the reference to the fictional ‘Sea Level Rise Denial Bill’ (based on North Carolina’s recent attempts to outlaw sea-level rise projections!), the critique of neoclassical economics and the concept of ‘externalities’, as well as the irony of neoliberal attempts to prevent government regulation resulting in the ultimate imposition of authoritarian government control. As the historian notes in closing her analysis of the contradiction of inaction in the face of clear knowledge of the climate crisis:

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. (p.48)

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