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.