2.01.2015

Climate Change and The Collapse of Western Civilization

To anyone living in Europe, it is truly puzzling that Americans continue to deny Climate Change.  The anger, recklessness and vehemence displayed by American "climate deniers" are something of a mystery. And their favorite argument is that there is no scientific "evidence" of global warming - in spite of the rising number of "extreme" weather events, the floods, the fires and the melting ice, and some of it happening right on their doorstep.

Now, finally, two American scientists - one from Harvard, the other from the California Institute of Technology - have given us the key to the mystery.  Naomi Oreskes who is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University and Erisk M. Conway,  an award-winning historian of science and technology at the California Institute of Technology, have used in their latest book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, a remarkably effective dramatic device. Instead of writing a standard analysis, they have set it in the future, giving it the detached, objective tone of scholarly work. It is intended as the fruit of research by a future scientist looking back on our time and trying to figure out the factors that "explain" how global warming caused the collapse of Western civilization. The year is 2939, and what bothers our future scientist is how the United States, the most powerful country on Earth, was, in spite of its power, unable to reverse climate trends.

Don't be put off by the dramatic subject. This is a book packed with humour that will make you smile (or perhaps snigger?) and the book description in the Kindle Store perfectly captures the spirit of it:
 "a senior scholar of the Second People's Republic of China 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, entered into a Penumbral period in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a time when sound science and rational discourse about global change were prohibited and clear warnings of climate catastrophe were ignored. What ensues when soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, drought, and mass migrations disrupt the global governmental and economic regimes? The Great Collapse of 2093."

 The book is clearly a success on Amazon. This is the ranking (as of February 1, 2015):
And it has already garnered 178 Amazon customer reviews. On Goodreads it got 305 rankings (average 4 stars) and 91 reviews. The mainstream media also paid attention to it, in Nature, Scientific American, the New York Times and probably many more that I missed.

Maya site: Palenque
I particularly liked this comment from Elizabeth Kolbert, the author whose The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History I've reviewed in an earlier post. This is what she has to say: "Provocative and grimly fascinating, The Collapse of Western Civilization offers a glimpse into a future that, with farsighted leadership, still might be avoided. It should be required reading for anyone who works -- or hopes to -- in Washington."

Yes, can we sway our politicians  or are we destined to perish like the Maya civilization? A few decades of drought, causing an economic collapse and internecine fights, were enough to turn the once-splendid Maya cities into ghost towns by the time the Spanish conquered Mexico. Of course, our civilization is global and it will take much more than a few decades of drought to kill it off. But then, Climate Change is a much more massive event...

I was so moved by this read that I wrote a review (now on Amazon) that I'm happy to share here:

5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Read and a Wake-up Call, January 20, 2015

Delightful read if one may be allowed to use that particular adjective when the subject is so grim. And the authors, two science historians coming from the best universities in America (Harvard and the California Institute of Technology), managed the feat of making serious analysis read like fiction. A real page-turner. Yet it's not fiction, far from it. The book is in fact reviewing what's wrong with our society, pin-pointing with deadly accuracy the reasons why we are unable to stop our "civilization" from rushing to "collapse". This is a book that should be taken seriously by anyone concerned with our future, and in particular by our political leaders.

The idea of analyzing what is happening in the climate change debate from the standpoint of the future (the book is purportedly written by a future historian located in China in 2393) is particularly effective as it gives a neutral, balanced voice to the whole account. And it is refreshingly novel. The fact that it is short (a mere 100 pages) no doubt also helps. This is both a powerful read and a wake-up call. I found the arguments particularly convincing and being an economist, I especially liked the twist they put on economic concepts, for example, Hayek's and Milton's "neo-liberalism" calling it "market fundamentalism" (indeed, those theories are ideologies rather than scientific) or "gross national product" amusingly described as an "archaic" concept.

The humor is there but it is ultimately very dark humor. The message is clear. If we don't do anything, if we don't reverse engine and control gas emissions, we are doomed and why this is so is masterfully demonstrated. Many factors are at play and the authors pull them together in a compelling way, using the detached tone of a future historian who is puzzled by the fact that Western Civilization could not avoid collapse in spite of its remakable advances in science and technology.

The reasons for our failure to address climate change are clearly analyzed and deconstructed - and suddenly, reading this brilliant essay, I began to feel like the Mayas must have felt when decades of unexpected drought destroyed their civilization, causing economic collapse, local wars and social chaos. Just like in the case of the Mayas, the reasons we are failing are all linked to each other - to global warming of course, but more importantly, to the way we handle it (or rather do not handle it - we simply deny it's there).

The book is at its best in explaining exactly why we deny climate change, in pointing to the "internal" causes, things that lay at the heart of our civilization, things that made it once great and that are now causing its fall - like, for example, "reductionism" which is the idea (that began in Descartes' time) of solving large problems by breaking them down into smaller, more "tractable" elements. The approach has proved powerful to advance knowledge but as the narrator coldly remarks "reductionism also made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climate change, since many experts did not actually know very much about aspects of the problem beyond their expertise." As a result, scientists did not speak in a single voice, climate change continued to be denied, fueled by the interests of the "carbon-combustion complex" - another witty take on Eisenhower's famous "military and industrial complex" - and political leaders thought they had more time to address it than they really had.

Other contributing factors are also identified, such as over-reliance of scientists on the concept of statistical significance (also termed an "archaic"!) - something that had never occurred to me before and yet totally makes sense. And this is yet another reason why I loved this book: the authors managed to shed new light and come with new insights on an argument, climate change, that I tend to consider "closed", in the sense that I can't imagine what more could be added.
Actually, although I gave it 5 stars, I don't think the book is perfect. It falls in two areas, as I point out here:
There are only two aspects I regret, one, is the reference to just one climate fiction novelist (there are many, climate fiction is a brand new genre and rapidly rising with the likes of Margaret Atwood) but of course, the authors have a right to their own likes and dislikes in fiction; the other, is the premature burial of the United Nations following the collapse of international talks on climate change at some point in the mid-21st century. Personally, I view such a collapse totally unlikely - the United Nations are here to stay, they are indispensable and most likely to preside over the collapse of our civilization rather than being buried before...But those are minor details and don't detract from the main strengths of this excellent book, which is to unravel the puzzle of climate denial.

Highly recommended.

Yes, regarding the United Nations, I do think the authors got it wrong. The road is long and difficult, but the United Nations could well be the one institution that will help to wake up the world to the danger and save Western Civilization from collapse! But I do take it on board that the authors were writing a worse case scenario and therefore had to somehow delete the UN from the equation.

As to the idea that we will experience Global Collapse as soon as 2093, why not? I suspect it is a little early, but I could be wrong on that one. In any case, in my own book about the future (Gateway to Forever), the story starts in 2222 and global warming is not longer a subject of debate, it's a fact. Why did I chose that date? Because I rather like the numbers that repeat themselves (!). And I didn't want to fall in the error Orwell made with his 1984 which was far too close to his publishing date (1948)... But then, he too liked to play with numbers and simply reversed them!

Naomi Oreskes rock climbin at Jackson Hole 2011 (photo Andy Tankersley)

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