THE COLLAPSE-OF-WESTERN-CIVILISATION Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway (2014) Columbia University Press

Scientific evidence ignored 

Purporting to be written in 2393 AD this describes how western civilisation ignored the scientific evidence for global warming at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st and, by allowing the market forces of rampant capitalism to liberate increasing emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, caused its demise.

Up to 2013 events described are as we know them:  thereafter the authors engage in careful speculation based on extrapolation from today.

For example, amazingly, in 2012 the government of North Carolina in the US passed into law what became known as the “Sea Level Rise Denial Bill”.

The Penumbral Age

Oreskes and Conway describe the period 1988-2093 as the Penumbral Age that ended in the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2073-2093.  “A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment.”

This is their scenario for the second half of the 21st century

“By 2060, Arctic summer ice was completely gone. …  The ultimate blow for Western civilisation [was] … the collapse of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet …  [by 2093] driving up sea level approximately five metres across most of the globe.”  Then the Greenland Ice sheet disintegrated “adding another two metres to mean global sea level rise.”

“Mass migration of undernourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever and viral and retroviral agents never seen before.”

“Dislocation contributed to the Second Black Death …[and] killed as much as half the population of Europe.”

“Total losses – social, cultural, economic,, and demographic – were greater than any in recorded human history.  Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.”

Recovery after 2090

“However, around 2090, something occurred whose exact character remains in dispute.  Japanese genetic engineer Akari Ishikawa developed a form of lichenized fungus in which the photosynthetic partner consumed atmospheric CO2 much more efficiently than existing forms and was able to grow in a wide diversity of environmental conditions.  This pitch-black lichen, dubbed Pannaria ishiwaka, was deliberately released from Ishiwaka’s laboratory, spreading rapidly throughout Japan and then across the globe.  Within two decades, it had visibly altered the visual landscape and measurably altered atmospheric CO2, starting the globe on the road to atmospheric recovery and the world on the road to social, political, and economic recovery.”

“Survivors in northern inland regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to begin to regroup and rebuild.  The human populations of Australia and Africa were wiped out.”   

Why it happened

In two chapters entitled “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” and “Market Failure” these historians (writing in 2393) try to ascertain why western civilisation collapsed.

“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 civilisation had the technological know-how and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy, yet the available technologies were not implemented in time. … The thesis of this analysis is that Western civilisation became trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism.”

Science bedevilled by positivism

“Scientists felt it necessary to prove to themselves and the world how strict they were in their intellectual standards.  … While the pattern of weather events was clearly changing, many scientists insisted that these events could not yet be attributed with certainty to anthropogenic climate change. … More important, political leaders came to believe that they had more time to act than they really did.”

“Historians [have identified] the carbon-combustion complex – a network of powerful industries comprising fossil fuel producers, industries that served energy companies, manufacturers whose products relied on inexpensive energy, financial institutions that serviced their capital demands, and advertising, public relations, and marketing firms who promoted their products.  Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked the fact behind a network of ‘think tanks’ that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening.”

 “When environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by what ever means necessary.   Science … became the target of scepticism, scrutiny and attack.”

Economics bedevilled by market fundamentalism

Oreskes and Conway (writing apparently from the future but actually reflecting powerfully on today) go on to show how market fundamentalism underpinned the carbon-combustion complex as a two-pronged ideological system.

“The first prong held that societal needs were served most efficiently in a free market economic system.  Guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of the marketplace, individuals would freely respond to each other’s needs, establishing a net balance between solutions (‘supply’) and needs (‘demand’)”

“The second prong (neoliberalism) maintained that free markets were not merely a good or even the best manner of satisfying material wants:  they were the only manner of doing so that did not threaten personal freedom.  The crux of this point was the belief that marketplaces represented distributed power … preventing its undue concentration in centralized government.”


“Most important for our purposes, neoliberal thinking led to a refusal to admit the most important limit of capitalism: market failure.  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 these products, or to finance the development of their replacements.  [But the neoliberals were hostile to centralized government and said that] government was ‘the problem, not the solution’.  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.”

Wow!  What a book!  In a brilliant and powerful way it describes the political situation of the world today.  I hope it is widely read – and acted on.  But I fear for the worst.  Neoliberalism is very powerful and the voices of reason weak. 


This book review posted on 28 April 2016