How Did Western Civilization End? A Noted Historian Of Science Looks Back -- From 2093

08/04/2014 07:07 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

"Nature always bats last."

That old warning about our degrading environment no longer seems to apply. Now Nature bats every day. Drought, storms, melting ice and rising oceans -- the bad news is relentless.

Where is the global effort to save the planet? Stalled. And we all know why: In Congress, 133 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 30 Republicans in the Senate -- and, in our civilian population, many evangelical Christians, Republicans and Red State conservatives -- are "deniers." It doesn't matter to them that, of 2,000 peer-reviewed papers on climate change, 97% cited human activity as a primary cause. The unholy marriage of Big Money and Big Energy has bought the political process. Politicians get paid now; later, we'll all pay.

In Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and science journalist Erik M. Conway delivered news that shocked me: how the same "experts" who once said that cigarettes don't cause cancer are now telling us that people aren't a primary cause of climate change. That book is now a documentary film that will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

So how does a Harvard professor -- Oreskes, a longtime professor at the University of California, San Diego, is now Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences -- follow up a groundbreaking book?

With science fiction.

In "The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future," Oreskes and Conway tell the story of the next 80 years. It's a short story -- just 52 pages, plus another 50 of definitions and a Q&A -- and it's fiction only in the sense that it's speculation.

Or... is it?

The authors describe their essay as a blend of science and fiction; they "imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and (possible) future." This is not a trick: "By the early 2000s, dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system was under way. Fires, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves began to intensify. Still, these effects were discounted." The children of the Enlightenment had the facts. They knew what was coming. But they failed to act.

This book tells how Western culture (1540-2093) ended.

Start with carbon. About 365 billion metric tons of carbon was released into the atmosphere by 2012 -- more than half of that after the 1970s, when scientists built the first computer models connecting greenhouses gases to warming. In 2005, the U.S. Energy Act exempted shale gas drilling from regulation. Massive drilling followed. Canada began exploiting oil fields in Alberta. The results were predictable: accelerated loss of Arctic ice. In 2007, the Northwest Passage completely opened. "In business and economic circles it was viewed as creating opportunities for further oil and gas exploration."

And after that? Rock and roll. "By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm." And then... but you can guess that life-as-we-know-it dramatically changes.

"The Collapse of Western Civilization" is the clearest, shortest explanation of the science of climate change and its consequences I've seen. That it's a slam dunk on denialism doesn't matter; the deniers will never concede. What it just might do is activate informed but defeatist Americans to join with causes like Moms Clean Air Force, a national movement of more than 380,000 mothers (and fathers) founded by Dominique Browning to protect our children's right to clean air as politicians and lobbyists conspire to gut the Clean Air Act and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency.

I underlined a great deal of the book. And then I had the kind of questions for Naomi Oreskes that you might want to ask.

Jesse Kornbluth: You're an academic. Why write this as science fiction?

Naomi Oreskes: It wasn't so much science fiction, as the idea of writing from the future, that captured my imagination. I spend my professional life thinking about other people: "What were they thinking?" So it was an obvious step to ask: "What will future historians say about us?"

JK: In science fiction we often find descriptions of the future. In "The Space Merchants," for example, by 2050 only the fortunate can enjoy "hundreds of acres of rooftops where men and women could walk around in the open air, wearing simple soot-extractor nostril plugs instead of a bulky oxygen helmet." You don't present the change in our lives in such vivid descriptions. I think the worst you say is that, by 2040, the droughts are so intense that animals die and the rich in the West mourn their pet cats and dogs. Could you predict how we might be forced in to live in 2040?

NO: We were careful not to offer details that might be refuted in the near future. I hope to still be around in 2040 (just). And Erik's a few years younger than me, so he expects to be around too.

JK: You write: "Knowledge did not translate into power." You write from the perspective of 2093, but many of us feel this now, and not just about climate change. You don't deal with this, but on a human level, how do you suggest we deal with this impotence -- I mean, beyond self-medicating?

NO: Indeed. Much of this story is what meteorologists call "persistence forecasting" -- assuming that present trends will continue. How do we deal with it? Well, since our first book was about denial, it's natural for Erik Conway and I to think that a first step is to talk about what is going on. The second step -- solutions -- well, I guess I think that has to operate on two levels. One is personal: we do what we can, whether it's writing about the problem, becoming active in our communities, or putting solar PV on our roof. (Yes, I've done all three). The other is political. We have to start thinking about this as a larger political problem. I think the organization "Green for All" is quite interesting in this respect. Also former Congressman's Bob Ingliss's group. They have some interesting things to say. I'd love to see Bob Ingliss and Bill McKibben get together for a conversation about the politics of climate change.

JK: In your history of the future, the first big breakthrough doesn't come until 2090, when a Chinese scientist develops a fungus that efficiently eats CO2. Why so late?

NO: Well, that's sort of the point, isn't it? The "techno-fix" comes too late.

JK: You write that "Books are like a message in a bottle." What message will your ideal reader take away?

NO: That is it's time to act? But I don't like to tell my readers what to think. One of the really neat things about writing is the ideas your readers come up with on their own.

JK: You write of the awesome power of "market fundamentalism" -- the dogma that the "invisible hand" of unregulated markets is always the best path. Given the omnipotence of this idea in politics, business and media, is it possible that we'll ever have a President who is not the bitch of Big Energy and Big Money?

NO: If I continue on the "persistence forecasting" metaphor, I'd have to say no. But stranger things have happened.

JK: Why is the narrator Chinese?

NO: Someone had to survive to tell the tale. But the most important reason is really the key message of the book: that centralized, authoritarian governments are going to be more prepared to deal with serious climate disruption. So if you care about democracy, you ought to be very motivated to do something now to prevent disruptive climate change. This is the point that the "merchants of doubt" got completely backward, and that folks at the CATO Institute and places like that still don't seem to comprehend.

JK: If you were president -- or, better, omnipotent ruler -- what three changes in our energy and social policy would you change first?

NO: Easy. A hefty carbon tax to put a real price on the external cost of carbon, and create a market signal that would encourage efficiency and innovation. Return half of that money directly to the American people. Use the other half to fund serious research into energy storage, carbon capture and storage, improved transportation system, and a host of other small and medium scale solutions that already exist, but aren't economic or don't yet operate on the scale we need. We don't need a technological miracle to solve this problem, but we do need to stop dithering, stop denying the problem, and stop the wishful thinking that says that "the magic of the marketplace" will somehow solve this without any investment on our parts.

JK: Who are the 10 people who most need to read this book -- and then be tested on their comprehension?

NO: Ah. I think the Head Butler should answer that question. The downstairs staff always knows best what the folks upstairs don't know. Wasn't that the lesson of all those British costume dramas?

JK: I like to think that culture, not politics, creates change. If every artist made just one piece of art about impending climate disaster, would that make a difference? Or is there something we, as individuals, can do -- like urging universities and others to divest their portfolios of investments in oil companies -- to tip global opinion toward action, rebellion, whatever?

NO: I think we need an all of the above strategy -- but that means all forms of social and political action, not all forms of fossil fuels! I would very much like to see more artists get involved in this issue. Culture and politics are of course inter-related. And economics. I support divestment. See this piece.

[Cross-posted from]