Looking Backward Again

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, 2014

Since I wrote fiction before I became an academic historian (and still do, from time to time), it always interests me when academics cross the big canyon separating these two genres and try their hands at fictions that illustrate important contemporary themes. Once upon a time, this happened a lot more than it does now. Edward Bellamy’s 1889 novel,
Looking Backward, was the second most popular American book in the nineteenth century (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin). George Orwell and H. G. Wells also came to mind while I was reading this, but they lived in a time when the separation of disciplinary silos maybe wasn’t as severe as it is now.

Unlike a classic science fiction tale such as
1984 or The Time Machine, The Collapse of Western Civilization doesn’t have any characters (except the narrator who occasionally exhibits a bit of personality), and it doesn’t have a plot. It’s all setting. This is a very little book, whose point is simply to suggest that there is a crisis at hand. The future world the narrator speaks from could easily be the scene of any number of stories. But sometimes setting gets lost behind story. Like Environmental History, this book puts setting front-and-center.

The Collapse of Western Civilization
is basically a fictional retrospective on what went wrong in our present, and what happened as a result. The physical consequences are all the ones predicted by the scientific consensus on climate change. Their timing and future societies’ reactions are fictional, but plausible. In a nutshell, the authors blame runaway climate change on the inadequacies of Western scientific culture and the power of neoliberal politics. They are both historians of science, so their choice of emphasis is not surprising. And they make some important points.

Scientific institutions, the authors say, are rigidly locked in a disciplinary silo system “in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry” (14). Scientists also impose on themselves an “excessively stringent standard” of proof, they say, perhaps to distinguish their search for truth from common experience or authority-based religious belief. The authors compare the “disciplinary severity” of science to earlier, monastic asceticism (16). I think there’s a lot left unsaid here, about the ways scientific institutions have embraced religious organizational paradigms even while they argue for a standard of truth that is fundamentally different from the authority of sacred texts. But in any case, scientists in this scenario were undercut by their own refusal to abandon 95% statistical significance, by their ignorance of what was happening in adjacent disciplines, and by a huge PR campaign promoting climate change denial.

The most interesting criticism of science, to me, comes in an off-hand remark of the narrator’s, when she criticizes the “archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” (2). This is the same, in my mind, as the convention that allows economists (neoliberal or otherwise) to ignore “externalities” until (and sometimes even after) they become “market failures.” As the authors suggest, ignoring externalities was much easier when the environmental “sink” seemed infinite. But even in light of our current knowledge, the argument seems only to have shifted from “not a problem” to “not
our problem.”

And maybe that leads to the element of
The Collapse of Western Civilization’s approach that didn’t work so well for me. There are no people in it. Even though the authors blame the “carbon-combustion complex” for financing a campaign of denialism at the beginning of the 21st century (and it’s very important to note that climate change denialism was manufactured — up until very recently, Americans pretty much believed what the scientists were saying), the only time it gets remotely personal is when they mention that Exxon-Mobil did a deal with the Russian government to exploit the Arctic in 2012. This would have been a great opportunity to say a little more about extra-national corporations and power. Or even, perhaps, to examine why scientists were so respected while their efforts were enabling the military-industrial complex’s profits during the Cold War, but were jettisoned when their science turned against its patrons. Maybe science has never really, independently held the esteemed position the authors claim it lost in American culture. But in any case, the authors shy away from talking about the climate disaster as an abuse of power by people. So it becomes the story of two impersonal historical forces that ruined the world. Not about people who had choices to make, and made the wrong ones.

But then again, I’m the guy who wrote a revenge-tale based on the 2000 water wars in Cochabamba (too violent, so it remains unpublished). The story needs to be personal, for me. And these people are historians, not science fiction authors. And they’ve tried to do something important here. If
The Collapse of Western Civilization gets read and discussed, then it’s a huge success. Maybe it will help more academics cross that canyon, and start writing books (fiction or non) that can be read by the general public. And maybe it will inspire people to think more about the actual people making — or evading — the important decisions that will lead us into this disaster or help us bypass some of it.