Our Climatic Fate? Oreskes and Conway’s “Collapse of Western Civilization”

Civilization as we know it is gone. Rising from the ashes is the Second People’s Republic of China. A meticulous historian of the reborn nation-state has reconstructed the folly, confusion, and deceit that led to the Great Collapse and the Mass Migration, both late in the 21st century.

So two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, introduce us to an “imaginary future,” styled as science fiction and scrupulously built on current climate change research.

The 52-page long and footnoted narrative, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Futurelays out both the future of our physical world and the actions that led to its degradation—all as viewed by a fictional historian, 300 years in our future, who serves as narrator for the book. The careful focus on current facts and models makes Oreskes and Conway’s story a strong tool for teaching what we may expect of our future.

The essay paints a stark vision of the rest of this century. Humans disappear from Africa and Australia. Democratic governance disappears everywhere. And, most disturbingly of all, the book argues that we have brought catastrophe upon ourselves through faith in the market and a narrow scientific vision.

There we find the core message of Oreskes and Conway’s book: the story of our downfall wrought by two ideologies. One ideology is what the narrator terms “market fundamentalism,” a limited and specific reading of the theories of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. Market fundamentalism requires us to accept market solutions for all problems—even though von Hayek himself accepted the need for some government regulation. Most importantly in this case, markets fail to account for the future damage of carbon emissions, discouraging global leaders from taking action to limit emissions.

The second ideology relates to how we understand the role of science. The future historian describes our society as one that insists on scientists being impartial and emotionless. As a consequence, she notes, our scientists are reluctant to passionately call for action on climate change. Moreover, the scientific community refuses to accept the links between weather events and climate change that do not meet “excessively stringent” statistical standards. Scientists’ insistence on linear understandings of causation and their dispassionate recitations of findings blind us to how we are already being affected by climate change.

Oreskes and Conway tell their story lucidly, without providing too much technical detail for the lay reader. Still, the essay reads far more like the historical report it purports to be than an engaging work of science fiction. Characters are tropes: “physical scientists,” “neoliberals,” and “citizens [in] passive denial.” It is a fable in which the animals are human stereotypes. It is a treatise on where our choices will lead us. It is not fun bedtime reading, even for fans of climate science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson.

The fact that you might not pick it up just for kicks, however, is no reason to rule it out. It is a story we all need to know if we are to prevent its materializing. And it is not depressing or debilitating; rather it inspires thinking on how we might create a different future.

The inclusion of footnotes lends the story some of its authority. If you read it with an eye to questioning the tale Oreskes and Conway create, the footnotes are enlightening. The need to tell stories about climate change that direct us to thoughtful action rather than depression is key, as noted geographer Diana Liverman and environmental scientist Faith Kearns have pointed out. So, we critical readers really want the authors to get it right. We want a story based on the reality of what science is predicting, so the book’s footnotes on climate models’ predictions and the actions of climate deniers lend the narrative credibility.

Now and then the authors let you down, however. Some of the controversial claims do not have footnotes—like the claim that hurricanes are intensifying. Oreskes and Conway say that the claim was made, but scientists backed down. A news report or journal article backing that up would lend more credibility to the story at that point.

One other issue to give the reader pause was the resurgence of the Black Death in the narrative. The authors, however, never offer any explanation as to why Yersinia pestis is suddenly not treatable by antibiotics. Did social disruption destabilize health care that much? Was the mutation of the bacterium so extreme? The authors do not explain, and the oversight leaves you wondering what else they may have overlooked in the science.

Despite its drawbacks, however, the essay is a valuable device for spurring thinking about climate change. Its coherence and brevity make it a great teaching tool for examining the implications of continued carbon emissions. The extras at the end, including a glossary and an interview with the authors, are good additional prompts for questions and discussion. The tale’s resonance with current news stories and ongoing political inaction on climate change makes it very believable.

It is rare to encounter a purportedly non-fiction narrative of our future that does not assume either the loss of all human life or the climate deniers’ business-as-usual. The tale brings together diverse elements of research on physical changes to the Earth as well as current social social research. With its reliance on the best modeled predictions, the story is honest both about what we might lose and what will likely remain.

The essay provides a great resource for undergraduate and even high school courses teaching climate change, as well as for lay readers interested in what the future could hold. It provokes a useful discussion of our choices and how we prevent the profound misfortunes the story’s narrator recounts.

Cathy Day is a PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Geography Department. She researches how climate change influences the already complex choices farmers make. As an educator at the university level and previously as a science teacher in public schools, she is passionately interested in how to better transform academic information into useful knowledge for every learner. She has recently returned to blogging and can be reached here.

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4 Comments

  1. Greg Garrard

    Thanks for this illuminating review, Cathy. I’ve been teaching it this term on a climate fiction course, and I must say the overwhelming response has been negative. There are a few reasons: its gloomy prognosis (albeit as a cautionary tale); its apocalyptic framing; its simplistic treatment of climate change scepticism. The snowball of worst-case scenarios (pp23-33) isn’t constructively alarming; it’s just ridiculous, like the king in Monty Python whose castle catches fire, falls over, and sinks into the swamp.

    The problem here is that climate scepticism is not just caused by motivated reasoning on the part of fossil fuel addicts. It’s also provoked by exaggeration of *probable* climatic risks. Oreskes and Conway actually make that worse by compounding a wholly implausible (though scientifically possible) series of climatic disasters into full scale collapse.

    • Cathy Day

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Greg. I have not yet had an opportunity to use the text in my own teaching, so it is very helpful to hear from someone who has. In addition, I am a social scientist, not a specialist in climate literature, so I appreciate having your expert reaction. Certainly, I believe that one of the most important elements of teaching about environmental change is inspiring energy, optimism, and the belief that every person can be a force for positive change. Too heavy an emphasis on dire prognosis may lead students to heavy pessimism or flat rejection of the science behind the climate change narrative.

      Your response led my thinking in a number of different directions, regarding both the book itself and the opportunities to salvage it as an effective teaching tool. Although I do think the book has some value for teaching on climate, I would be very interested in your thoughts on whether there are, in fact, examples of climate fiction that do a better job of avoiding extreme scenarios. Having some more effective options at hand would be useful for many reading this blog.

      First, my thoughts on approaches to teaching the story. You make a good point regarding the worst case scenarios (the paperback and hardcover numbering must be a little different, but I believe you are referring the scenario beginning in the year 2041?). With the story’s speculative outcomes in mind, I might ask students to pair up to write dual critiques of the story. One student would measure the tale’s climate science against current climate modeling, and the other compare the predicted social and governmental outcomes to historical outcomes under similar pressures in the past. Each would then read and write a brief reaction to the other’s paper. I think this would be the sort of assignment that would require a certain number of provided sources from the instructor, depending on the level of the course.

      That said, there are elements of the downward spiral that seem quite realistic to me, based on experiences in recent history. The rapid instigation of mass migration, for example, reflects an already existing phenomenon expanded drastically under more extreme conditions. After living in Niger in 2005 and seeing how rapidly conditions deteriorated for many, I certainly find it believable that the decreased yields predicted for the Sahel could have far more dire and far-reaching consequences. While migration in 2005 was largely based on annual patterns, with most migrants heading for the coastal regions, high temperatures are likely to have substantial impacts on crop production, leading to a much expanded need for migration in an area where much of the population depends heavily on subsistence crops. Since impacts on the savanna are expected to be more severe than in the Sahel, the very regions that Sahelians often depend upon in bad years could see major migration. Thus, a larger scale migration might be likely. Certainly, countries like Niger have already seen substantial longer-term migration to countries like Libya and Algeria. With North Africa likely to see substantial impacts to its wheat crops, the whole region could foreseeably be increasingly destabilized. Similarly, the spread of what we have thought of as tropical diseases is already on the rise.

      There are a few elements that seem exaggerated and perhaps unrealistic. I think I would like to draw some historians into a discussion of historical parallels to know what they might predict. For example, the overthrow of governments in African and certain Asian countries is entirely plausible, as several such overthrows have occurred in the last five years (e.g. Thailand, Mali, Niger). The ultimate effect of such overthrows substantially changing lives of most citizens is probably unlikely to be substantial, however, at least in the case of Sahelian states with which I am most familiar. The overthrow of European governments seems more far-fetched–and here is where I would be most interested in historians’ input. Which past conditions do they consider as having precipitated major governmental changes in Europe? Did the Little Ice Age cause any such changes, for example? Or, perhaps a better question, which natural and social events have together brought major changes like those illustrated in The Collapse of Western Civilization? Are there any parallels, or is it, indeed, comical relative to our available examples?

      Questionable to me now seems the “discredit[ing] and disband[ing]” (paperback p. 26) of the U.N. based solely on the failure of the UNFCCC. There is certainly plenty of skepticism about the U.N. within the United States. A substantial number of Americans have been polled as believing that forces behind Agenda 21 or some similar “new world order” is set to take power. More broadly, however, considering all the different activities the U.N. undertakes, it seems unlikely that the failures of the UNFCCC would be its undoing.

      Finally, the expansion of drought in the “Great North American Desert” is quite plausible based on the experiences of 2012. On the other hand, so much of current agricultural production in the zone is centered on feeding livestock and providing ethanol that food riots resulting seem a rather unlikely scenario–at least until we take into account similar changes in other agricultural zones. There is a good possibility of drastic diminishment of food provision from California, where a sizable portion of foodstuffs meant for direct human consumption originates, if conditions similar to those in recent years return (as is possible). Moreover, major losses in meat production could conceivably cause riots, even though they would not necessarily represent shortages in food overall. But, again, increased production in Canada is a good possibility that could offset some losses elsewhere.

      I have a few more thoughts on teaching with the text as it is, with its faults. As my earlier example demonstrates, my tendency would be to present the text as one that students can both learn from and also critique. Perhaps in a literature class, Kim Stanley Robinson’s vision of the planet from 2312 could be excerpted for the contrast of its somewhat more hopeful vision. Excerpts from his Science in the Capitol Trilogy could also be useful in that regard. Its vision can sometimes be as dark as that in Collapse, but it includes some hopeful outcomes. A debate regarding the merits of each vision might help students establish which facts to draw from the readings and which elements of the authors’ vision of the future have real merit. I have read Malthus with students while encouraging their critique of oversimplifications and missing pieces. Perhaps Collapse can be read in a similar spirit–although I think it takes on far more of the complexity of reality than Malthus’s work did.

      I do think that Collapse has value in that it pushes us to consider some worst-case scenarios. I would definitely not want to end a course immersed in its dark view, but I would like to use it as a startling point of departure for discussing how we can achieve alternative visions. Most of all, however, I do want to have access to texts that realistically approach the possibilities of severe climate change under the worst warming scenarios. Even those with a more optimistic social view would need to account for much changed realities in agriculture, human health, and ecosystem services. For that reason, I see Collapse as a useful starting point, but hope to be introduced to other rigorously scientific visions soon.

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