By Rae Padilla Francoeur
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“The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future,” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Columbia University Press, New York, 2014. 104 pages. $9.95 paperback. Also available as an e-book.
In the fictional essay “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future,” authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway take us 379 years into the future. A scholar in the Second People’s Republic of China enumerates the reasons why scientists failed to avert the catastrophic environmental crisis that redrew the world and annihilated millions.
The scholar does not dwell on the scope of the disaster that dates back to 2093. We do learn that rising sea levels overtake some countries, while others, like the United States, reduced in size and resources, regroup with lesser clout and fewer resources. China, we discover, emerges as a world leader.
On the tercentenary anniversary of Western civilization’s demise, the scholar searches for reasons why scientists didn’t act when data gathered, analyzed, published and shared at conferences all but guaranteed the disaster. The scientists, who require at least a 95 percent confidence level in their work, are too reticent in the face of ever-alarming data.
A neoliberal stronghold in Western civilization — particularly the United States and Canada — is also to blame. Opposed to any governmental involvement in free enterprise, ideologues thwart any centralized attempts to intervene in the degradation of the environment. The absence of an empowered government means that it cannot quickly respond to the growing climate crisis in the same way that China, with its traditionally strong centralized government, can. China, which had already enforced environmental controls, slides into a more autocratic role when it quickly builds new cities and evacuates those doomed to flood. The powerful communist rule that the United States so avidly feared now holds a commanding role in the world order.
Also responsible is the “carbon-combustion complex” — that conglomeration of fossil fuel companies, the automobile industry, utilities, and the many others that want to support and maintain their obscenely profitable status quo and who, of course, lose everything in the collapse of culture as they know it.
This short read, like “California,” the book I reviewed last week, speculates on a near future that’s imagined from the facts at hand. The authors of “The Collapse of Western Civilization” are historians with strong science backgrounds. Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and professor of earth and planetary sciences. Conway is a historian of science and technology. Their book includes a joint interview with Oreskes and Conway, a lexicon of archaic terms and extensive notes.
The book is based on existing science and posits a strong point of view — global warming is real and dangerous; thus, there are those who may find it objectionable. It will preach to the proverbial choir. Or it may land with a quiet thud. Or it may live on to taunt us with an “I told you so” that falls on defeated ears.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.
Book Notes: An environmental what if?’
By Rae Padilla Francoeur