The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From The Future

by Bryan Walker on July 3, 2014

Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, co-authors of the acclaimed Merchants of Doubt, have joined forces again to produce a striking short fictional work The Collapse Of Western Civilization: A view From The Future. It purports to be an essay written by a Chinese historian three hundred years after the collapse of western civilisation towards the end of the 21st century when untrammelled climate change took its full effect.

The period of the Penumbra (1988-2093) ended in the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2073-2093). That’s the scope of our Chinese historian’s survey. He (or she)records the dawning scientific realisation of the effects human activities were having on the planetary climate, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the first manifestations of the change in the intensification of fires, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves. Thus far he writes of matters familiar to us.

He then moves on to recount the rapidly mounting disasters as the century proceeds. It’s somewhat unnerving to read of what we know as predictions as if they had already become the stuff of history. All the more unsettling because anyone who follows climate science will recognise that the chain of disaster he traces, from failing food crops in intense heat waves to unmanageable sea level rise as the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets begin to disintegrate is entirely possible if greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere by human activity. The resultant human suffering and death the historian records may be more speculative from our end, but his calm account of the human consequences has a dismaying ring of likelihood to it.

The startling aspect of this rapid decline to the historian is that the people caught up in it knew why it was happening but were unable to act upon what they knew. “Knowledge did not translate into power.” In fact, in full contradiction to what was known, a “fossil fuel frenzy” developed just when the urgency of a transition to renewable energy was becoming undeniable. The frenzy was exacerbated by the expansion of shale gas drilling and as gas became cheaper it supplanted nascent renewable energy industries.  Oil from tar sands also became an attractive commercial prospect and developed apace.

There were notable exceptions. China, for instance, took steps to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources. The West didn’t like population control and didn’t notice that the rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions in China masked the renewable energy revolution taking place at the same time. China’s emissions fell rapidly by 2050. “Had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have been very different,” comments our Chinese historian, perhaps a trifle smugly.

A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment. “It is for this reason that we now know this era as the Period of the Penumbra.”  A second Dark Age, in other words.

How did it happen? Perhaps surprisingly the scientists themselves get some of the blame. They failed to recognise how much was required of them in communicating the broad pattern of climate change. They concentrated on their specialist areas. They were too concerned to demonstrate their disciplinary severity by setting unnecessarily high standards for proof that various phenomena were linked to warmer temperatures. They were culturally naïve in the face of the powerful societal institutions determined to continue to use fossil fuels.

…it was the dominating ideology of market fundamentalism which prevented the West from coming to grips with the threat of climate change…

However it was the dominating ideology of market fundamentalism which prevented the West from coming to grips with the threat of climate change, although the technological knowledge and capability to do so was available to them. Even when some scientists realised that they needed to be more urgent in communicating the full implications of their knowledge to the public they could make no headway against the neoliberal economic theory which prevailed. The ideology suited those who wanted to continue with fossil fuels and who were quite prepared to jettison the science which pronounced the folly of doing so. And so the protagonists of neoliberal economics blocked a managed transition to a low-carbon economy. They were left in the end with only disaster management, and ironically with the centralised government and lack of personal choice which they most dreaded.

Is this, or something like it, really going to be our future? The authors are not being fanciful in the scope and grimness of their future historian’s record and analysis. There is no reason to suppose our civilisation can avoid the massive translocations and severe human suffering that will ensue if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their present trajectory. And there is little enough evidence of a political will to avoid that path and manage a rapid transition to non-carbon energy systems. Indeed denial is still on the rampage in many circles of government and industry. Think of Tony Abbott or Stephen Harper and their cohorts, or of the madness that is abroad in the utterances of some US Republican politicians.

The tepid and ambiguous climate concern which characterises governments such as our own in New Zealand is no more reassuring. Being hell-bent on further fossil fuel discovery and exploitation is hardly compatible with action to rein in climate change. The “fossil fuel frenzy” of the book is in full operation here.

Oreskes and Conway do justice to the full seriousness of climate change. That seems to me prime among the many values of their book. The consequences of unrestrained climate change will surely be shattering. Their sheer magnitude is hard to appreciate and few seem to grasp it. The historian the authors have imagined writes in the unimpassioned and analytical language proper to his profession. We can’t and shouldn’t match him in that regard. The future reality the book portrays is fearful. It must be our spur to insistently demand that our governments throw off the shackles of ideology and take the pragmatic steps which can yet avoid the worst that climate change will bring. For all its dispassion the book is a call to arms.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Bingham July 3, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Today’s problems in the middle east are typical of the future. Drought results in food shortage and higher prices and this leads to civil unrest. It is compounded by an unequal distribution of wealth and privileges but once it gets started you never know where it is going to end. Leaders who are rich and in command suddenly find them selves fighting for their lives.
Todays problems in Israel are not separated, in that borders are melting away and major regional, religious and national alliances are becoming more important. The current tragic events in Palestine are part of a wider balance of power and the USA is dependant on oil from Muslim countries and the disturbances are testing allegiances. .If they survive this one another will come along.

Thomas July 3, 2014 at 9:24 pm

And as seen on the TV1 news tonight, the US mid west is entering the state of the “Dust Bowl” that was seen in the 1930ties:

nigelj July 4, 2014 at 9:20 am

Humanity is in the position of the frog being slowly boiled alive. We are not so great with dealing with gradual changes. We are programmed by evolution to deal best with immediate threats, like the caveman being attacked by some animal. Those that can see further ahead have to help people understand the consequences and processes of climate change.

nigelj July 4, 2014 at 11:59 am

This article from today is relevant and rather interesting. The main things in the public debate that really annoy climate scientists. Comments from Michael Mann and others.

bill July 4, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Thanks Bryan – you inspired me – and not for the first time! – to nip out and buy it.

Whereupon I discovered a nice articulation of one of the warnings I’m inclined to make:

To many survivors—in what might be viewed as a final irony of our story—China’s ability to weather disastrous climate change vindicated the necessity of centralized government, leading to the establishment of the Second People’s Republic of China (SPRC) (also sometimes referred to as Neocommunist China) and inspiring similar structures in other, reformulated nations. By blocking anticipatory action, neoliberals did more than expose the tragic flaws in their own system: they fostered expansion of the forms of governance they most abhorred…

The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention.

I’d only add that neoliberalism was only nominally meant to ensure individual freedom – this was basically an elite ruse designed to get the plebeian turkeys clamouring for Christmas. Neoliberalism is a philosophy of greed, pure and simple – greed for riches, and greed for power. For the 1%. In fact, it’s become evident to all but the most deluded that it’s a form of institutionalized sociopathy…

Rob Taylor July 4, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Agreed, Bill. Here is a recent article by Noam Chomsky that makes that point:

As we are all surely aware, we now face the most ominous decisions in human history. There are many problems that must be addressed, but two are overwhelming in their significance: environmental destruction and nuclear war. For the first time in history, we face the possibility of destroying the prospects for decent existence — and not in the distant future.

For this reason alone, it is imperative to sweep away the ideological clouds and face honestly and realistically the question of how policy decisions are made, and what we can do to alter them before it is too late.


nigelj July 6, 2014 at 11:45 am

Neoliberalism is the same as “market fundamentalism,” which says that totally free markets are the answer to all life’s problems. This is an immensely stupid ideology. Apparently governments should only provide a police force. Apparently governments should not try to regulate the economy or environment, provide services like education, or directly help the poor.

This is of course a stupid theory proven dramatically wrong by the global financial crash, but appeals to certain groups that stand to gain above others. A few people stand to gain even if the price is the total destruction of the planet.

Make no mistake they literally don’t care about outcomes or if the planet is destroyed. To them Ideology and process is more important than outcomes. Greed must be the guiding light. They are like demented robots.

andyS July 6, 2014 at 1:26 pm

I am unaware of any “neo liberals” or free market capitalists that think there should be no regulations.

None at all

nigelj July 6, 2014 at 2:24 pm

AndyS, well the neoliberal creed promotes very “minimal” regulation. I think it’s too minimal to be workable.

ACT would be a good example or people like Milton Freidman or Ayn Rand. ACT have voted against the vast majority of regulatory bills, at one stage they voted them all down. This is silly behaviour really.

I’m a pragmatist that looks for a combination of market based and government regulatory solutions. I have no big ideological axe to grind, but when it comes to the environment free enterprise and the free market “self regulation” ideology is clearly insufficient on numerous grounds especially when you look at the appalling historical record.

I hope this isn’t something else you are in denial about.

andyS July 6, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I’m a pragmatist that looks for a combination of market based and government regulatory solutions

…as am I. In fact one of the biggest market failures in NZ is the electricity industry

Regulation both hinders and enables trade (the latter by keeping people away from litigation)

Ayn Rand is somewhat different to Milton Friedman. Rand wasn’t an economist ,for a start

nigelj July 7, 2014 at 12:25 pm

AndyS, the electricity market is a nightmare. I sometimes wonder if it should have stayed state owned as in the 1970s. NZ is rather small to try to create a market.

The current electricity market features large players (pun not intended), difficulties for new entrants into the system, and the spot pricing issue. This is all a reason for strong regulation and this would outweigh any of the difficulties you raise regarding trading in assets.

Milton Freidman and Ayn Rand both singing from the same song book. Their ideology can be applied to anything, and is quite capable of wrecking everything.

bill July 6, 2014 at 3:28 pm

No regulations that apply to them.

It’s like libuuurty; it’s not a transferable value. The concept only applies to them; it’s outrightly dangerous if granted to their opponents, who are, ipso facto, the enemies of liberty.

Scratch a ‘libertarian’ and you get an authoritarian.

nigelj July 7, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Ayn Rand was indeed very authoritarian. She liked to rule how her little in group behaved, even down to petty details like their clothing style. They all had to smoke cigarettes. So much for freeeedom.

However the more extreme forms of libertarianism seem to me more like spoilt child syndrome. Don’t tell me how to behave!

Rob Taylor July 7, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Ayn Rand was also a notorious hypocrite, both in her love life and in her acceptance of Social Security when she grew older and chose to become a moocher

RW July 7, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Shh – you’ll upset Perigo! I remember hearing during one of his radio rants years back that population growth was no issue at all – just shove everyone in a massive collection of 4-story buildings that could be fitted into an area no bigger than New South Wales.

nigelj July 8, 2014 at 10:01 am

Thanks for the article Rob, it was pretty interesting. I have read several of Ayn Rands books, but wasn’t aware of all of this.

Ayn Rand seems to emphasise the self interest instinct, and wants us to turn off cooperative or egalitarian instincts. She is coming at it as though behaviour is always a choice, but recent science is showing these things are in our genes in one great mixture of different things.

In any event I feel the libertarian ideology makes it hard to deal with self evident long term threats like climate change. The ideology is fanatical and restrictive.

Thomas July 7, 2014 at 9:08 pm

A really brilliant website:
As we walk on our path to the future….
Mesmerizing to watch and listen to the simulation of Humans consuming the planet….

Rob Taylor July 7, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Thanks. Thomas – the link is wonderful and frightening, in equal measure.

Thomas July 7, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Yea, roll over the various countries and stats are displayed. Click and a short list of useful Climate Change educational links for that country are displayed. For NZ nothing yet but suggestions can be made on the site! Perhaps get in fast before ‘certain others’ put up a link to an organization we shall shame but not name….. ;-)

andyS July 8, 2014 at 10:39 am

I get NaN (not a number) for a lot of the CO2 metrics

I’m not sure why people being born is “frightening” though

Beaker July 8, 2014 at 11:15 am

Ask someone who has given birth.

Mnestheus July 7, 2014 at 11:34 pm

Orestes and Conway forgot to mention that civilization collapsed a generation ago after Ronald Raygun dismissed Helen Caldicott as a science fiction writer badly rattled by reading On The Beach, and launched his missiles at the Evil Empire.

nigelj July 8, 2014 at 10:13 am

Mnestheus I read something a couple of years ago somewhere mainstream, might have been Time Magazine. America had relaxed it’s official information legislation a few years ago, and some interesting material had been made public.

One item showed that in the 1950s America came very close to a pre emptive nuclear strike on Russia. America believed it had supremacy, with hindsight they were actually about even at that stage. Fortunately sanity prevailed and the strike was cancelled, although I can’t recall the specific reason.

Bob Bingham July 8, 2014 at 11:37 am

Hans Rosling (look him up on you tube) has convincing presentation that shows that the population growth is due to old guys like me living too long. The nations with big families have high mortality rates and few get to maturity.

andyS July 8, 2014 at 11:44 am

NZ is breeding at approximately replacement rate. Most OECD countries are breeding at less than replacement rates, so their native populations are in decline

Bob Bingham July 8, 2014 at 12:02 pm

But their populatiobs are growing because the old folks hang around too long. Statistically I shoid be making room for a younger person.

andyS July 8, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Older people may be living longer, but unless young people breed then the population will be in decline overall.

This is becoming a particularly big problem in Japan. Some cities don’t even have permanent maternity wards in their hospitals any more. They have to fly in the staff for the big day

nigelj July 8, 2014 at 4:16 pm

How does populations growing equate to people living longer? Aren’t these different things?

People living longer is a big issue, but people will have to work longer. I don’t see living longer creating significantly more environmental pressures unless we start living forever. However I’m not sure I want to live until I’m 110 doddering around half senile.

andyS July 8, 2014 at 4:21 pm

I’m half senile already. I plan to be fully senile at 110

Bob Bingham July 8, 2014 at 5:32 pm

The point is that the population growth is not always due to the birth rate but in most countries it is due to people living longer. Its not necessarily poor people breeding like rabbits as many conservatives would like you to believe.

nigelj July 8, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Bob, I never take people seriously when they start scapegoating poor people. Population growth is mainly in countries that have not gone through the demographic transition, like Africa. Blame doesn’t achieve anything only spreading contraception, knowledge and assistance or good economics can help.

Bob Bingham July 8, 2014 at 6:16 pm

With the effects of climate change in the mid century I would be very surprised if there were not a collapse of life as we know it. People do not take kindly to shortage of food or even price increases and the disruption of farming is what climate change is all about.

Bob Bingham July 8, 2014 at 8:58 pm

That last comment should have been posted to the Guardian. How it ended here I do not know.Hope it has nothing to do with age.

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