Oreskes and Conway: Days of Future Passed

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway strike again, with a wonderful and terrifying history of the recent past and near future as told from the far future, entitled “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” in Daedalus.

A View from the Future” is available online and sums up the situation almost perfectly. I only wish the bit about “the fortuitous change in the earth’s orbit” had been left out – even if defensible in a sense, it makes the whole seem less serious in intent than it is. Otherwise (*) it is, sadly, all too plausible.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has thought of doing such a thing, but it would be hard to top this effort.

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.34As with all great historical developments, there is no easy answer to the question of why this catastrophe occurred, but key factors stand out. The thesis of this analysis is that Western civilization became trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: namely, positivism and market fundamentalism.

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 carboncombustion 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 ½rms, and manufacturers of plastics and other petrochemicals); tertiary industries whose products relied on inexpensive fossil fuels (especially automobiles and aviation); and ½nancial 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. Newspapers often quoted think tank employees as if they were climate researchers, juxtaposing their views against those of university-based scientists. This practice gave the public the impression that the science was still uncertain, thus undermining the sense that it was time to act. Meanwhile, scientists continued to do science, believing, on the one hand, that it was inappropriate for them to speak to political questions (or to speak in the emotional register required to convey urgency) and, on the other hand, that if they produced abundant and compelling scienti½c information (and explained it calmly and clearly), the world would take steps to avert disaster

When scientists discovered the limits of planetary sinks, they also discovered market failure. The toxic effects of ddt, acid rain, the depletion of the ozone layer, and climate change were serious problems for which markets did not provide a spontaneous remedy. Rather, government intervention was required: to raise the market price of harmful products, to prohibit those products, or to finance the development of their replacements. But because neoliberals were so hostile to centralized government, they had, as Americans used to say, “painted themselves into a corner.” The American people had been persuaded, in the words of President Reagan, that government was “the problem, not the solution.” Thus, citizens slid into passive denial, accepting the contrarian arguments that the science was unsettled. Lacking widespread support, government leaders were unable to shift the world economy to a net carbon neutral energy base.

(*) – Another quibble is that, as a habitual science fiction reader, I question that readers three centuries after the cataclysm would need a definition of “think tank” but not of “newspaper”. Even if we avoid the disaster the concept of “newspaper” will be unfamiliar in the not too distant future. (**) This sort of mars the conceit a little. But that’s hardly the point.

(**) – Unless they are still watching Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel in “His Girl Friday”, which would be some consolation.


  1. Another quibble:

    By 2050, Arctic summer ice was completely gone.

    I suspect this is a subtle joke. More plausible would be 2020. I would dare bet on 2015. The ice system has reached a tipping point. Watch images on Neven's blog and forget about any ice models. Early and total ice cracking this year, all ice cubes meanwhile. A new record low "dwarfing" last year's is to be expected. Remaining multi year ice has lost stability. We just have to see how long it takes to flush out all the ice cubes.

  2. don't know about that, there are some, not jyyh to be sure, who think winter ice might also be gone by then.

  3. I haven't read it (though I will) but, in reading your extract, I'm left hoping that the think tanks, talking heads, political sector, etc. aren't painted as being the primary source of the problem. The fact is, they are telling us exactly what we want to hear. I'd speculate ("speculate" is likely a bit of an overstatement, but like Mr. Spock, I like to say "I never guess") that, of the Earth's 7 billion people, 6.9 billion of them envision and desire the kind of life made possible by the burning of fossil fuels. I'm certainly in that category - my use of fossil fuel energy is legendary (though not as extreme as Al Gore's) and documented extensively on my own little blog and I KNOW THE PROBLEM. So, while the think tanks, etc. grease the skids, we all (and I speculate you as well Michael - the last time I saw you face to face we'd each driven a long way down a Texas interstate to meet) want to maintain or to achieve a lifestyle made possible by the burning of fossil fuels.

    "Oh, I blame myself..."

    <We have met the enemy and he is us

  4. I remain unconvinced that we need to make ourselves uncomfortable in any significant way.

    I am not sure how long the economic growth paradigm can continue at all - it certainly urgently needs urgent tweaking at best. And this has major implications for politics, banks, retirement plans.

    But the fuel problem itself doesn't, except for the holders of reserves. I see no technical reason we can't enjoy the great majority of modern conveniences. We just have to have some sensible constraints on how we do it. The marketplace will adjust rapidly.

    The lightbulbs were lousy for a couple of years, and now they are better than the ones we started out with. That's the pattern to expect.

  5. So.. are you saying that, were it not for the think tanks, etc. that scientists presenting data would suffice to mobilize people to force their representatives to make the necessary changes? Are there such think tanks in India and China? Do the fossil fuel industries have the Chinese and Indian governments captive? I honestly don't know.

    But (still not having read it) your position seems to differ quite significantly from what I understand to be the sentiment of the Oreskes & Conway piece. Especially based on your final sentence above.

    I agree, the future needn't involve a few million survivors huddling around wood fires in caves. But I still think the most fundamental problem is that those who stand to benefit from the status quo in the short term are telling the vast majority of people what they (we) want to hear.

  6. I used this paper in the final seminar of my climate models graduate class this week. The students found it thought provoking, but on the whole didn't really like the paper, for a number of reasons.

    The paper identifies two main ideologies as the explanation for the collapse, or, more specifically, as the answer to the question of how a civilization could collapse despite having detailed knowledge about what was happening and how to stop it. The two ideologies are positivism and neo-liberalism. I think the discussion about positivism is interesting and thought-provoking, but the bit about neo-liberalism seemed woefully naive.

    The issue here is that nowhere on the planet do we have genuinely free markets; what we have instead are markets that are thoroughly manipulated by powerful vested interests. Hence, the real culprit here is the way that rich powerful corporations are allowed to get away with manipulating markets and political systems. Neo-liberalism is merely an ideological cover that allows this to happen. One of my students pointed out an analogy between christianity and imperialism. The two are connected, and the christian ideology was often used to justify the imperialist adventures of European nations (and more recently, the US). But christianity is not by any stretch of the imagination the cause of the imperialism. Similarly, it isn't the ideology of the free markets that will cause the collapse, but rather unfettered use of wealth and power to maintain that wealth and power. [Of course, this does not imply that genuinely free markets could save us either].

    A second problem with the paper is the idea that China, with its centrally planned economy and without the constraints of democracy, was much better able to plan for and adapt to the impacts of climate change than the western economies. Given the nature of the events (and especially the episode where global geoengineering is tried and ultimately fails), it's hard to imagine any nation state surviving, let alone one so vast and populous as China.

    There are minor quibbles too, for example the idea that four years of stratospheric sulphate deployment is long enough to build up that big a temperature bump when it is stopped.

    But ultimately, we felt that we'd have much preferred to have read a very different paper - the one where the apocalypse is avoided, where we manage to bring emissions down to net zero towards the end of the century, and hence where we keep warming to be not much more than +2C. In other words, the most optimistic future. It will have harrowing moments, and it's own share of failures (after all, that's still a heck of a lot of climate change to adapt to), but it will have heroes too. Most importantly, envisioning a political and technological path that could get us there would make fascinating reading. We need such inspiration much more than we need more post-apocalyptic fiction.

  7. There's a valuable insight into the question of 95% statistical significance on p44 of the essay that I think deserves wider attention and publicity.

    What do you think of it? Is 95% really a childlike form of religious asceticism? Should we do away with it?

  8. I need a list of pending topics! This one has been on my mind for a very long time.

    There is an important substantive issue to be discussed here. Watch the video I just posted of a talk by Eric Chivian to understand some of the many circumstances in which it is flatly inapplicable.

  9. the 95% significance threshold is a simple heuristic designed for experimental studies, in which you know little or nothing a priori, and want to protect yourself from false positives. Over the years it has become an article of faith. However, there are two problems:

    1) The system that drives our choices of what to research, how to publish the results, and how to reward scientists for their output has gradually worn away the protection that the 95% was supposed to give us (see for example Ioannidis on "Why most published research findings are false" http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/)

    2) In many areas of research, false negatives are much more important than false positives, and so the entire logic of statistical testing ought to be inverted, or preferably replaced wholesale with something more sophisticated, presumably based on bayesian reasoning.

    So now we have a scientific enterprise that trains young scientists to focus their creativity on the question of how to get achieve a 95% confidence level so they can publish something, rather than the more important question of understanding how the world works. No wonder we're failing to solve real world global problems.

  10. I watched the video. So far as I could see, he only cited the Precautionary Principle and gave one example - that of an infant admitted to hospital with a fever.

    What other circumstances were you thinking of?

  11. I agree that 95% as a threshold is somewhat arbitrary, and there are times when you'll want to change it.

    "...has gradually worn away the protection that the 95% was supposed to give us..."

    There are problems, certainly, but there is also the point that published research findings are not supposed to be that well protected, so this is to some degree the process working as it should.

    Research published in journals is tentative work in progress, put out to the community for them to challenge it, replicate it, debunk it, extend it, check it, refine it, etc. It only has to be strong enough to be worth other researchers' time looking at it. The real requirements for scientific acceptance are much higher than 95%, journal literature was never intended to be the final word, and so it isn't actually that serious a problem if most of it is wrong.

    It becomes a more serious problem if the community stops doing that, and starts taking the published literature on trust. But we do what we can to avoid that.


    "In many areas of research, false negatives are much more important than false positives, and so the entire logic of statistical testing ought to be inverted"

    You can always set the test thresholds differently, so long as you're clear about how they're different to the usual approach and how they should be interpreted.

    Take that question about inverting the null hypothesis, for example. The null hypothesis is what a successful experiment is trying to disprove. If the null hypothesis is not rejected, that doesn't mean it has been shown to be true, or even necessarily that there is any more evidence in its support.

    So, for example, if you want to prove there's warming, you start with a null hypothesis of no warming and try to reject it. A failure to do so doesn't mean that there is no warming, it means that you don't know. Success in rejecting it is progress. Conversely, if you want to try to prove there's no warming, you have to set the null to be the case of warming, and try to reject that. If you succeed, then you *have* positively shown there to be no warming. But if the null is not rejected, that doesn't mean you've confirmed it to be warming, it means that you haven't proved anything, and the experiment hasn't told you anything you didn't already know.

    If it's more important that we shouldn't falsely believe there to be warming than that we shouldn't believe there to be no warming, then we should take warming as the null, because then there is *no possibility at all* that we would ever decide it was warming. Even if it is warming, we'd never draw that conclusion.

    So I do agree that we need a more sophisticated understanding of what hypothesis testing shows, and to perhaps use Bayesian frameworks to get a clearer understanding. We should also incorporate the costs of errors into setting thresholds - it's a well-established procedure in decision theory. But we ought to bear in mind that if we set high standards on both Type I and Type II errors, there is a region in the middle where no decision can be reached. The probability of *both* sorts of errors is high. And if the costs and error probabilities are uncertain and disputed too, there may be no one good answer. It's a difficult situation.


    However, Oreskes and Conway seemed to be arguing not that we raise our standards of evidence, but that we lower them. Is this the message you want to be sending?

  12. Rob nailed it. I bought a hybrid car, that gets a whole 10 mpg more than my previous one, but I still commute 72 miles daily so I can live "in the country." My contribution to solving the problem has been, not to make substantive changes in my own lifestyle, but simply to remain childless. I can say only "The buck stops here."

  13. Having vs not having kids is the single largest determinant of environmental impact by a very large margin. Having a third child (barring the occasional multiple birth) is in my opinion antisocial. So I support (and share) your decision, even if the environment wasn't the main factor.

    Still a 72 mile commute is something that needs fixing.

    How would you feel about commuting by rail?

  14. I agree to unusual level with this comment. Maybe over 95%.

    I'm glad they wrote it, but it's too flawed to be really useful. The real challenge is coming up with a transition story that we actually believe.

    Also agree on the neoliberalism as ideological wash point.

    Cheers, toma

  15. Ah! Statistical significance at last!

    I agree we need the apocalypse avoided story far more urgently than we need the apocalypse expected story, but you can't tell that story to people who have no idea what we are avoiding!

    That's what "beyond sustainability" means. The words were lifted from a Bruce Sterling essay (on "blobjects") that sadly seems to have disappeared from Boing Boing of all places! It means we need a story of the future wherein things are better than they are now AND the ecosystem is not destroyed; better than they are now BECAUSE the ecosystem was not destroyed; better than they are now because our species transitioned from parasitical to symbiotic.

    We only have the rudiments of that language. But the language of market determinism is with us now, and we have to point to where that determinism is inevitably leading us.

    An even harder concept, which Joe Romm mentions frequently but I'm not sure how many people understand, is that the longer we delay getting off the present track, the more drastic and uncomfortable the adjustment will be. I'm not sure Joe accepts, though, how much of the ideological underpinnings of the modern social contract will have to be rewritten.

    Which brings me to my defense of the science fiction piece - ideology is not window dressing. In a complex society ideology is pervasive because it is upon that shared ideological structure that the rules of engagement are built.

    We have now come to the point, which might have been avoided, that a tremendous amount of wealth now on the books will have to be written off. That has never happened under the dominant ideology, and consequently the political process has no avenues for implementing it and no strategies to achieve it. We quibble endlessly about scientific and technical issues.

    Tom, you and Paul at least focus on the deeper problem of how to structure a treaty that every important party will acknowledge. This alone seems impossible, and it's closer to the core problem. But I'd argue that we have a new and deeper core problem. We have now got to destroy wealth that is on the books. In the end this is an ideological issue. It's not really "wealth" after all. If it were not delivering ill rather than good why would we need to ensure that it is never used?

    But on the corporate books it's wealth. I would argue, and I think Naomi and Erik are arguing, that that error is ultimately the expression of an ideological constellation.

  16. Pingback: Another Week in the Planetary Crisis, April 7, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  17. We were fortunate to have Naomi on campus for a talk last week, so I looked around for her recent writings and came across this paper and thread from last year, both of which I'd missed.

    An alternative view to Steve (and Tom) on neoliberalism: All political/economic/social regimes gain traction through the path dependent processes of increasing returns. Thus, "genuinely free markets" will create wealth and power disparities, through institutional reproduction, as will any form of economic regime. In such a "success to the successful" world, there will always be a need for a jubilee or potlatch or safety net or what-have-you as balancing feedback, in order to avoid pressures for regime change.

    Here's my read of Pierson (2000) and Mahoney (2000) on political entrenchment as path dependence.

  18. Steve, you seem to be level headed, as well as your students. After all they are the ones who will have to face the disaster coming. Unfortunately the "Collape..." book seems too wordy and esoteric to make the impact I was hoping for.

    OR THE SAKE OF THE PLANET - LET'S GET OUR ACT TOGETHER! We need world leaders to quit posing and start shouting at every moment - "stop polluting, find solutions now" and devote real resources to the quickest changes and most effective alternatives. It may not be too late to forestall total disaster but it's going to be a bumpy ride for those that live though it.

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