The Collapse of Western Civilization – a review

This little book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway fully titled The Collapse of Western Civilization: a view from the future (Columbia University Press 2014) is a strange mix. Ostensibly ‘science fiction’ the fiction part is only 52 pages – in reality a long essay – and contains maps of future sea level rise for the year 2300 where much of the Netherlands, Bangla Desh and New York have disappeared under the waves. As well it contains a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms”, notes and an interview with the authors comprising a further 37 pages. All in all most unusual for a work of fiction.

The Introduction notes that “Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. In this essay we blend the two genres to imagine a future historian looking back on the present and (possible) future.” The difference between the collapse of western civilization and earlier civilizations was that the consequences were known and predicted. The book then goes on to outline the greenhouse history and the sorry fate of all the warnings of science and identifies crucial years when “immediate steps should have been taken to begin a transition to a zero-net-carbon world. Staggeringly the opposite occurred.”(p.9)

This ‘opposite’ is encapsulated in the chapter heading “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” most of which we are in the middle of and already well informed. The collapse – technically ‘not a collapse’- of the West Antarctic Ice sheet brings about rapid sea level rise and ‘social disruption”. Mass migration occurrs with more than 20% of the earth’s population being affected and this dislocation “contributed to the Second Black Death” and consequently the “Human populations of Africa and Australia were wiped out.”(p.33)

In the third chapter entitled ‘Market Failure” the future historians dissect the various inhibiting ideologies of western civilization. They conclude that the “ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention” and that the “development the neoliberals most dreaded – centralized government and loss of personal choice – was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place.” (p.48, 49) A much depleted humanity however survives into the future. Though some of the more pessimistic amongst us are not even so sure of that.

Generally as science fiction I feel the work is unsuccessful although it has its moments. I much prefer the straight science history of the authors like their Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury 2011) a copy of which I have on my shelves. Their most recent work Discerning Experts on how science tends to underestimate the pace of climate change (See the Scientific American) sounds far more interesting and perhaps will ultimately be more successful.

*copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library