How would a historian in 2393 write about this century if we continue self-destructively ignoring climate science — and as a result modern civilization as we know it had collapsed 300 years earlier?
That’s the question answered by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their excellent and unique new entry in the emerging Climate-Fiction genre, “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From The Future.”
Even so, Oreskes and Conway don’t spare the apocalypse: “The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.” But they aren’t trying to portray the impact of the climate apocalypse on individuals.
Part history, part science fiction, the book grapples with what I expect will be the greatest puzzle to the countless future generations who will suffer terribly — and needlessly — for our greed and myopia:
To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame. Historical analysis also shows that Western civilization had the technological know-how and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy, yet the available technologies were not implemented in time.
So why didn’t knowledge lead to action — or, rather, to the relatively low-cost actions that could have averted centuries of misery? The authors offer several reasons. They blame a rigid adherence to “free-market fundamentalism” — the notion that the market will solve all problems and that government can’t play a positive role. They blame scientists for being too reticent to spell out the dangers clearly.
And, you won’t be surprised that the authors of the now-classic book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” also blame the group they label the “carbon combustion complex”:
A key attribute of the period was that power did not reside in the hands of those who understood the climate system, but rather in political, economic, and social institutions that had a strong interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels. Historians have labeled this system the carbon combustion complex: a network of powerful industries comprised of primary fossil fuel producers; secondary industries that served fossil fuel companies (drilling and oil field service companies, large construction firms, and manufacturers of plastics and other petrochemicals); tertiary industries whose products relied on inexpensive fossil fuels (especially automobiles and aviation); and financial institutions that serviced their capital demands. Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening.
One of the central ironies of the book is that the freedoms enjoyed in modern Western civilization are destroyed by our failure to prevent catastrophic climate change, a failure caused in large part by those neoliberals, conservatives, and libertarians who placed personal freedom (and hence anti-government laissez-faire capitalism) above all other values. Climate Progress has been discussing this tragic irony for many years.
In the future Oreskes and Conway lay out, climate change leads to widespread drought, food shortages, rapid sea level rise, riots, civil strife, a migration of more than a billion people and widespread use of martial law — all things that require a strong-centralized government. They write:
The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention.
As an aside, that is an “irony” and not really a “paradox.” There are a handful of such miscues in the book. For instance, the book ends with a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms,” which cleverly includes “capitalism” and “cryosphere,” but, puzzlingly, also includes “greenhouse gases,” which is a term I would expect to become far more commonly understood in a super-warm future.
But overall the book is well done. My biggest complaint is that it is too short, a little over 50 pages in the main text. Since it is derived from a Winter 2013 paper in Daedelus, it could have been fleshed out more.
For instance, the authors write:
… In 2023, the infamous “year of perpetual summer” lived up to its name, taking 500,000 lives worldwide and costing nearly $500 billion in losses due to fires, crop failure, and the deaths of livestock and companion animals.
The loss of pet cats and dogs garnered particular attention among wealthy Westerners, but what was anomalous in 2023 soon became the new normal.
Why exactly did so many pet cats and dogs of wealthy Westerners die in 2023? The authors don’t say, but the implication seems to be that there wasn’t food for them. But if so, that really needed to be spelled out since it isn’t obvious that would happen in real life. At least in this country, we have such an abundance of food — and we waste nearly half of it (and burn 40% of the corn crop in our engines) — so I’m inclined to think that people would make fairly simple changes to their diet and to the food/ethanol production system rather than let a substantial number of pets die, at least through this kind of one-year event.
But this is really a quibble — the book is so thought-provoking, I’d like to see more of it. Indeed, the issue of if and when most Westerners might abandon pets as we destroy the planet’s ability to feed the human population is just the kind of thing science fiction should make us think about.
We already feed much of the world unsustainably — using (up) ground water for irrigation in large parts of the world, for instance. We are in the process of Dust-Bowlifying (or inundating) some of the world’s richest agricultural land, as the authors discuss. So if continue on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions then post-2050 we will have a population of 9 billion or more and a planetary carrying capacity far below even current levels. Would we really maintain 180 million (!) cats and dogs in this country alone under such circumstances? For that matter, would we still convert a large fraction of our crops into fuel for our cars, and would we maintain the same kind of meat-based diet even though that can require 10 times as much acreage and water as a vegetarian (or insect) based diet?
The only thing that is certain about the future is death and taxes and multiple, catastrophic impacts on humanity if we continue on our current greenhouse gas emissions path. How humanity might deal with all those terrible impacts hitting at once is something we all need to think about.
What is science fiction today will someday be the history of real, live people — billions of them. Kudos to Oreskes and Conway for finding a creative way to talk about the immoral choice we are making today and how those billions of people will suffer for it.