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The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

The Collapse of Western Civilization purports to be a scholarly analysis of the Period of the Penumbra, “the shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.” Ostensibly written by a Chinese historian in 2393, the forty-two page paper offers a historical perspective on the climate change mistakes and missteps taken throughout the Western world some four hundred years earlier. I don’t normally care for science fiction, but this brief novella will pique anyone’s intellectual interest. It certainly left me with a lot to ponder.

Naomi Oreskes is a history of science professor at Harvard, while Erik M. Conway is a historian of science and technology whose best-known book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming, was written in collaboration with Oreskes. Taking a cue from noted sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson, they decided that a fictional account of their concerns would reach a broader audience. I would say that their scheme has succeeded admirably in communicating exactly how politics have come to dominate the dissemination of solid science

The Collapse of Western Civilization is not an apocalyptic novel in the ordinary sense of the word. Although maps accompany the text, the reader doesn’t actually read the details of the damage wrought by global climate change. We hear no life stories; we experience no actual events. Rather, we learn about preliminary lapses, some made by scientists whose expertise was too narrow and others made by public figures whose careers were financed by moguls with vested interests. Pointing no fingers and naming no names, Oreskes and Conway instead argue conceptually, pinpointing ideological errors such as positivism and market fundamentalism. Our generation trusted its abilities to scientifically and capitalistically overcome cataclysmic problems. According to this treatise, looking back at our century from the wisdom of the future, we were naïve.

This book is witty as well as somber, making fun of scholarly tomes while pretending to be one. Tongue-in-cheek, it refers to a “carbon-combustion complex” and it makes fun of an all-too-real 2012 piece of Georgia legislation “Sea Level Rise Denial Bill.” The text is followed by a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms” and a set of footnotes, just as a scholarly address might contain. The footnotes are real, but the lexicon includes a number of fanciful concepts that make sardonic sense of the novella’s themes. It reminds me, in fact, of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Such fun! Fascinating, too, is an accompanying interview with the two authors, who stretch the parameters of their arguments with more facts and figures and life-sized examples.

As someone who has been fretting about recent trends toward discounting the value of scientific inquiry, and someone who does believe in and worry about our responses to global climate change, I appreciated the intellectual argument of this fictional enactment. But I also applaud its creativity. The Collapse of Western Civilization is a quick read, but a profound read, too. It’s a book to be read more than once, and a book to share with friends. That’s how I discovered it, because a friend mailed multiple copies to a cadre of like-minded people. I plan to reread it soon. You, too, I hope.   – Ann Ronald

Also available by Naomi Oreskes: Merchants of Doubt (with Erik M. Conway); Plate Tectonics; The Rejection of Continental Drift.

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