"The Collapse of Western Civilization – A View From the Future,” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, 2015.
Another cheery take on climate change. Two scientists got together and tried to explain what is happening, and what is going to happen if neo-liberal economic polices continue to control decision-making in the ‘west’ regarding the environmental crisis. Unusually, they did so via ‘science fiction’ - from the view of an historian in the far future, looking back on the primitive period when humanity knew what was going on and yet didn’t act. As a result, ‘Western’ civilization – and capitalism – collapses in 2093.
This science fiction view from 2393 is both humorous and downright sad. The story's view is a ‘holistic’ scientific approach that includes both society and political economics – otherwise no one can really understand how to deal with global warming or what is causing it.
The historian calmly describes the 6th Extinction, the decimation of Africa, South Asia, Australia and many parts of Latin America from heat or flooding; famine, mass human displacement and death; the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets; the monumental failure of natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’; a second Black Death in Europe due to the spread of insect-born diseases; the final release of methane from the arctic tundra; ocean acidification and temperature elevation; sea level rises of 9 meters; temperature rises of 11 degrees Celsius. This event is christened “The Great Collapse” by history. The historian lists the events in a distant way, much as we would look dispassionately on the wars of the Middle Ages or some other period of human folly, and wonder at the crudity of humanity.
The key in this short book is not some environmental crisis that came out of nowhere, as proffered by some apocalyptic writers. The authors clearly identify runaway world capitalism – market fundamentalism - as the culprit. Environmental costs are external to present market mechanisms, hence the future cannot be understood via the market. The market is blind. This is similar to what Naomi Klein does in her book, “This Changes Everything.” They call it the market failure of the ‘carbon-combustion complex,’ borrowing from Eisenhower. The authors call the ‘invisible hand’ of traditional capitalist theory a ‘form of magical thinking.’ They are not Marxists of course, but have been forced in this direction by events.
The book is peppered with maps of areas that are underwater – Amsterdam, Antwerp, Dahka, New York, Miami and Tampa. They point out that Carl Sagan was the first to identify the ‘greenhouse effect’ way back in 1959. They describe a fanciful “Sea Level Denial Bill” passed in 2012 in North Carolina, US. (which actually did pass, but not under that name.) They slyly mention that nature is not just for recreational or scenic purposes, as humans are inextricably bound up with nature. It is odd that this even has to be explained but most people connect with nature only in a romantic or utilitiarian sense. Ultimately global warming slows because of the illicit development by a Japanese scientist of a black lichen fungus that coats the world. The lichen absorbs CO2 at a large rate, thus stabilizing the temperature at ‘only’ 11 degrees Celsius above the threshold for irreversible climate change.
As scientists the authors discuss the pre-cautionary principle, the failure of logical positivism as a philosophy, the isolation in silos of typical scientists, the inability of scientists to understand or intervene in the political side of society; Fisherian statistics, Type 1 and Type 2 errors and so on.
The authors make typical liberal – and hence untrue - statements attacking ‘formerly existing socialism,’ which is predictable. Oddly enough, they also make an appeal to conservatives by quoting Freidrich von Hayek to the effect that even Hayek understood there was a role for the state in mitigating pollution, deforestation or bad methods of farming. As if logical discussions of Hayek were going to change minds! Their biggest point for conservatives (and liberals) is to argue that failure to act on global warming will lead to the victory of ‘neo-communism,’ as expressed by a future ‘2nd People’s Republic of China’ and by extension, similar governments across the world who finally dispense with unplanned market societies based on mass consumerism. They note that China was the only society that was able to plan and handle ‘The Great Collapse” due to its centralized government and planning system.
Like good history, science fiction is also really about the present, and not merely escapism. This book is a quick read and will sober up anyone who is unable to think ahead.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
April 10, 2015
Commune de Cortona, Toscana, Italia