Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 105 pp. $9.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-53795-7.
Reviewed by Mike Hulme (King's College London, email@example.com)
Published on H-HistGeog (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Robert M. Wilson (Syracuse University)
The Collapse of Oreskes and Conway
Historians are not known for telling stories about the future; they are much more interested in constructing stories about the past. Historical “facts” are woven together to provide convincing accounts of how one thing led to another, seeking insights into why people acted the way they did and with what consequence. But there are no “facts” about the future for historians to discover or construct. The future is usually left to the imagination of novelists, the secret knowledge of seers, or the predictive models of scientists.
So this mini-book from established science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway is unusual to say the least. Their story about the collapse of Western civilization is written from a doubly privileged stance: they first write the future and then as imaginary historians of the future pass judgement on the future they have written. It is a trope that is not history, fiction, or science fiction. Perhaps it can be characterized as prophecy written as history. The authors write as Chinese historians in the year 2393 CE, in the era of the Second People’s Republic of China, recounting and explaining the climatic events of the twenty-first century. These events culminate in what became known as the “second Dark Age,” prompted by the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2074.
I am not sure what the rules are about writing futurist histories, but one of them might be what science fiction writers are advised to adhere to: you can be as imaginative as you want about the future, but the story that you tell—in the case of Oreskes and Conway, the future history of the present—must be coherent on its own terms and not be self-contradictory. If so, then The Collapse of Western Civilization certainly adheres to the first exhortation, but falls down on the second.
First, let me turn to facts, predictions, and imaginaries. Contrary to what the authors claim in their extended interview appended to the end of the narrative, this novelette is not “extremely fact-based” or “true to the facts” (pp. 79, 66). It cannot be since there are no “facts” about the future to draw on. Instead there are predictions, scenarios, visions, hopes, judgments, imaginaries, etc., and Oreskes and Conway mobilize all of these resources in crafting their story. What emerges is an imaginative tale about the future, a historical account—written from the far future—of humanity during the twenty-first century. It is a tale of accelerating climatic chaos, social disruption, and human catastrophe. The mass fatalities of the domestic cats and dogs of wealthy Westerners in 2023 is only the start.
By 2042, the global average surface air temperature has risen nearly 4°C (a rate of 1.4°C per decade from today, would you believe) and solar climate engineering commences in 2052—and stops again in 2063. This cessation of sulphate aerosol injection leads to the greenhouse effect reaching a “global tipping point” by the mid-2060s (p. 28). Massive releases of Arctic methane push global temperature a whopping 11°C higher than today. What follows combines Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic America in The Road (2006) with the Noahian flood. The sea level rises seven meters between 2074 and 2093; 1.5 billion people are made climate refugees; and 60-70 percent of species are extinguished. The entire human populations of Africa (over 4 billion according to the latest United Nations projections) and Australia are wiped out. I suppose these things might happen, but then again they very well might not. They most certainly are not “fact-based.”
But these fictive scenarios are not the real problem I have with The Collapse of Western Civilization; they make for good science fiction after all. What is more troubling for me is the incoherence of Oreskes and Conway’s revealed attitude toward science itself. Throughout the book, there is curious vacillation in how they think (or is this how they think future Chinese historians will think?) about the validity and public value of current science. In their futurist history, they simultaneously vilify and valorize twenty-first-century scientific practice, scientific knowledge, and scientists.
Oreskes and Conway are explicit about the root historical causes of civilizational collapse as seen from the Second People’s Republic of China—the “two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism” (p. 35). My interest in this review is with the former. We get hints of their dismay about present-day scientific practice early on. Science in the twenty-first century was, they claim, too reductionist, too gendered, and distorted by disciplinary practices. Physical scientists practiced “intellectual self-denial” and were in thrall to constricting conventions of false statistical rigor or else embarked on “arcane arguments” about weather event attribution (pp. 16, 7). And science appropriated too many public resources to the detriment of public investment in the arts.
And yet these imaginary Chinese historians writing from the year 2393 also valorize this very same twenty-first-century science. Michael Mann is one of their science heroes; later, survivors of the Great Collapse name their children after him and other such heroes. It was the warnings of physical scientists (presumably not the same physical scientists who practiced self-denial) that were lamentably ignored by the public and politicians alike; it was a Japanese scientist (a genetic engineer: not much more reductionist than that!) who finally brought rampant global warming under control through her development of a lichenized fungus; and in their post-narrative interview Conway reveals his confidence in this same science to tell us what “could really happen” (p. 66). So not artists then?
We are left unsure how to interpret Oreskes and Conway’s view of science. The system seems flawed in their eyes and yet certain heroic individuals seem to be able to escape these flaws and offer true and trustworthy predictive knowledge of the future through which to guide political action in the world. Their vacillation about the validity and public value of science as currently practiced is therefore accompanied by a much less ambiguous account of how these sagacious Chinese historians believe (this same) scientific knowledge should relate to political life. They were startled that “these Western people” did not translate knowledge into power, lamented that power was in the hands of political institutions and interests rather than in the hands of scientists (is not this the nature of democratic politics?), and remarked that “the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] had trouble speaking with a clear voice” (pp. 2, 36, 15). It was again only heroic individual scientists who did their best to overcome these nefarious and obstructive Western politicians and citizens. It seems that these neo-Communist historians, ventriloquizing for Oreskes and Conway, prefer centralized power guided by clear-sighted scientists over an “open democratic society.” As the world’s great survivors they are entitled to their view, I suppose.
Like science fiction, futurist history would therefore seem to be an explicitly imaginative literary trope that can be used to entertain, to speculate, or to offer moral instruction. In The Collapse of Western Civilization , Oreskes and Conway are clearly engaged in this latter pursuit. In weaving together science, moralism, and the human imagination, they offer an excellent example of how our thinking about the climatic future is always culturally shaped. They wear their deep antipathy to positivist science (even while lauding its public authority) and market neoliberalism on their sleeves, and this shapes the way they write scientific knowledge into this declensionist account of Western civilization.
In reading this story I was reminded of Lynda Walsh’s excellent recent book, Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy. Walsh seeks to make sense of the cultural role that scientists have been granted in contemporary Western societies. For her, this role is prophetic not in scientists’ ability to forsee the future or to “speak truth to power,” as in the linear model that Oreskes and Conway appear to espouse. Rather it is that scientists have been granted public status “to engage us in a dialogue that goads us to recall our covenant values.” In her epilogue, Walsh concludes: “we are the people who both love and fear science; we are the people who value industry and capital and yet want our natural environment to remain pristine; we are the people who prize solidarity and yet cannot bring ourselves to silence the voices speaking from the margin. And so, although our science advisors cannot tell the future or tell us what to do, they do—and will continue to—help us to know ourselves.”
So maybe this is the redeeming feature of The Collapse of Western Civilization. In revealing their preferences and contradictions, which may also be our preferences and contradictions, Oreskes and Conway help us—help the American people at least—to know ourselves better.
. Lynda Walsh, Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2.
. Ibid., 198.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-histgeog.
Mike Hulme. Review of Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M., The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future.
H-HistGeog, H-Net Reviews.
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