“The Collapse of Western Civilization”

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. 2014. The Collapse of Western Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press).
In this work of science-based fiction, the authors imagine a future world devastated by climate change. Dramatizing the science in ways traditional nonfiction cannot, the book reasserts the importance of scientists and the work they do and reveals the self-serving interests of the so called “carbon combustion complex” that have turned the practice of science into political fodder. Based on sound scholarship, this book provides clarity amid the cacophony of climate change literature.

The historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, authors of the widely acclaimed book on the politics of global warming, Merchants of Doubt, have just published a fictional story dealing with some of the most important epistemological issues surrounding climate science and climate politics. In the book, a historian four centuries in the future looks back on our age, the period before “the Great Collapse of 2093,” when the Antarctic ice sheet finally gave way. That event transformed the earth’s geography and precipitated widespread global chaos.

This future account focuses on the strange puzzle of our own time: namely, how Western Civilization, made up of “people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment,” succumbed to “a shadow of ignorance and denial” (p. 9).

The consequences of its actions were not only predictable, but predicted…. While analysts differ on the exact circumstances, virtually all agree that the people of Western civilization knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it. Indeed, the most startling aspect of this story is just how much these people knew and how unable they were to act upon what they knew. Knowledge did not translate into power. (pp. 1-2)

At one point, the authors pose the puzzle even more precisely: “At the very time that the urgent need for an energy transition became palpable, world production of greenhouse gases increased. This fact is so hard to understand that it calls for a closer look at what we know about this crucial juncture” (9).

That problem is at the center of this book. Oreskes and Conway are theoretically sophisticated historians of science who have drawn on much recent work in the area of science studies to explore these problems. Science studies scholars can be highly theoretical when they use intellectual tools in history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and the like, but the two authors of this book put theory to practical use by showing what it might be like if some of these insights about science became part of scientific and social practice.

The authors point to two areas in which conventions in science and politics make it very difficult for scientific knowledge of global systems to penetrate to the political will. First, they point to positivism, a widespread conception that scientific knowledge should be compartmentalized, narrowly defined, and value-neutral. They contend that this idea may be inadequate to provide for resources that will allow scientific knowledge to flow more surely to the political decision-making apparatus. In their view the positivist framework for science may not be suitable for dealing with interdisciplinary issues like climate change. Scientists are too easily straightjacketed by this ideology and cannot adequately debate their opponents.

Second, much of the book also deals with economic and political forces that have come to dominate the Western outlook, especially in America. They criticize radical free-market ideology, which has such enormous power today, because it seems structurally unable to deal well with social and environmental concerns. The capitalist free market ideology (also called neo-liberalism) allows for dramatic market failure in these areas. It cannot factor in long-term future predictions. Moreover, it too easily obscures the real limits of planetary environmental systems.

In the end, this book presents a thoughtful epistemological and political criticism of the way we inadequately handle scientific knowledge of big global and human systems like climate change. For those of us interested in habitability in the anthropocene, this short text has some challenging ideas to consider.

Looking at the discussion in this blog, it should be clear that we are trying hard to transcend the boundaries that we’ve each been trained in. Also, our interdisciplinary discussion makes it possible to consider whether we might be playing around with some new epistemological models that blend the sciences with the humanities in order to get a larger scope of vision on our problem. Moreover, the very medium of the blog allows us to try to reach out beyond our usual audience of academics.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury Press). (Publisher site: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/merchants-of-doubt-9781408824832/) (Website: http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/) This book by the same authors tells the the political history of the global warming denial movement. 
Spencer R. Weart. 2008. The Discovery of Global Warming. Revised and Expanded Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). (Permalink: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674031890) (Website: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm) This is one of the most complete short histories of the science behind climate change from the 19th century to the early 21st century. 

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