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 Future, lays 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.