“The Collapse of Western Civilization”

In 2014 Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway published a 52-page book called The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. This fictional narrative, ostensibly written centuries from now, reflects on why civilization was unable to come to grips with climate change despite a robust scientific understanding of the problem.

The book’s flyleaf reads, “The year is 2393 and the world is almost unrecognizable. Clear warnings of climate catastrophe went ignored for decades, leading to soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought and – finally – the disaster now known as the Great Collapse in 2093, when the disintegration of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet led to mass migration and a complete reshuffling of the global order. Writing from the Second People’s Republic of China on the 300th anniversary of the Great Collapse, a senior scholar presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment – the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies – failed to act, and so brought about the collapse of Western civilization.

Why would Oreskes and Conway, who are respected scholars, turn to writing fiction, albeit science-based fiction? In part they knew that their earlier writings, and those of hundreds of scientists, had not yet persuaded policymakers and the public of the urgent need for action. They speculated that fiction might be a more effective communication vehicle than writing additional scientific books, articles, and reports.

Fiction also offers authors opportunities to speculate more freely than research. Looking back from the future, what were the major stumbling blocks preventing effective action on climate change? What were the catastrophic results and on what time scale did those results unfold? The Collapse of Western Civilization presents the authors’ answers to these questions.

Naturally, multiple answers are provided in the book; however, the most central reason offered by Oreskes and Conway why civilization failed to respond quickly enough to climate change is that so many policymakers have an ideological fixation on – almost a religious faith in – so-called free markets. That blind fixation is a reminder of Alan Greenspan’s admission in 2008, after the recession rocked world finances, that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting nature of free markets. “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It is shocking, indeed, that Greenspan or anyone else could have believed that extreme “market fundamentalism” is always self-correcting and a good thing.

Unfortunately, most conservative politicians in the U.S. and elsewhere still believe all or nearly all regulations and taxes stifle economic growth and personal freedom and must be resisted. This ideological bias causes many conservatives to deny that human beings are the major causes of climate change, as is documented in an earlier book by Oreskes & Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Too often the public shares this attitude; for example, increasing gasoline taxes to fight climate change would almost certainly be highly unpopular despite the fact that a carbon tax would harness competition—a mechanism central to capitalism and dear to conservatives—to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, The Collapse of Western Civilization says that the arbitrary selection by scientists of a 95% confidence level as the appropriate threshold for judging virtually all research as accurate has been a significant barrier to combating climate change. Many scientists, according to the book’s fictional narrator, waited far too long before publicly declaring that humans were causing catastrophic changes in the climate.

Other aspects of psychology are also explanatory factors identified in the book, which points, for example, to “human adaptive optimism” as a reason why civilization delayed any meaningful response. (See my recent post about optimism as a barrier to action.) Nonetheless, I believe the authors might productively have focused even greater attention in the book on the many ways human psychology acts as a barrier to combating climate change.

Like Merchants of Doubt before it (now a movie), The Collapse of Western Civilization is carefully researched and well written, and presents information that will be new to many readers. For example, I had not known that by 2012 more than half of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases were emitted after the mid-1970s; “that is,” the book’s narrator writes, “after scientists had built computer models demonstrating that greenhouse gases would cause warming” (p. 18).

Dystopias like The Collapse of Western Civilization are intentionally disturbing yet they have their place; consider George Orwell’s long-lived novel 1984. But imagining a positive impact for dystopian books one must assume that they are widely read and stimulate influential readers to think and act more thoughtfully. Time will tell if that happens with this book.