Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. The Collapse of Western Civilisation – A View From the Future

The Collapse of Western Civilisation, Columbia Press, NY, 2014

In their previous work Merchants of Doubt (2010) Oreskes and Conway provided a factual, cogent and, in the end, damning analysis of how, beginning in the US, corporate interests successfully took on the scientific community, undermined their work and impeded humanity’s best chances of avoiding severe climate change. Indeed, the results of these disastrous interventions can be seen all around us in the many varieties of denialism and avoidance that continue to muddy the waters to this day.

They’ve followed up with a work of fiction that’s ostensibly a history of the near term future. It’s written from within the Second Republic of China three centuries after the great collapse and consequent great migration of 2073-93. Working in a fictive mode, the authors explain, provides them with greater latitude to outline vast changes without resorting detailed time lines. It’s a short book – less than 100 pages – and yet sufficient to characterise the process of decline and fall as it occurred in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

They outline some of the characteristics of ‘the penumbral age’ (or ‘age of darkening prospects’) that led to this dismal result. These include:

  • The undermining of science and its practitioners.
  • The ‘false hope’ of a ‘bridge to the future’ though, e.g., shale gas;
  • The role of positivism (serving to atomise knowledge, not integrate it).
  • The power of market fundamentalism and neoliberalism.
  • The denial of market failure and its global consequences.

The multiple impacts and long-term implications of neoliberalism are clearly one of the key themes and the authors put forward some cogent comments. First: ‘that the crucial “neo-” component … (is) the idea that free market systems were the only economic systems that did not threaten individual liberty.’ Second, that ‘neoliberal thinking led to a refusal to admit the most important limit of capitalism (was) market failure.’ And finally what they call the ‘ultimate paradox’ was that: ‘neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention’ (pp. 42-8). Which explains why the history originates from within 23rd century China, not the long diminished remnants of the USA that was.

Included in the book are three maps showing expected sea level rises plausibly expected to occur by 2300 from a baseline in 2000. One is of ‘the nation formerly known as the Netherlands,’ another is of Bangladesh reduced to a fragment of its earlier territory. Finally the greater New York area is shown reduced to narrow slivers of higher land. Naturally images of this kind will be dismissed as alarmist by those still in a state of denial. Within this history, however, the collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet occurs by the end of the present century. It is the ‘final straw’ leading to mass migration and a complete upheaval of the international order.

Clearly this diminutive book is intended as a coda to ‘Merchants.’ In some ways one could say that it’s an ‘easy read’ in that it can be read in an hour or two, leaves theory aside and sticks to the main issues. What some may find less amenable is that it’s also a very explicit and timely warning. It asks those of us in the here-and-now to take stock of our situation, get out of our comfort zones and take back a sense of involvement in the present and responsibility for the future. It’s entirely possible of course that the warning, like many others, will fall upon deaf ears. In which case it’s intriguing to consider how future historians might view this book. Here is a history to avoid so far as that remains possible. The Collapse of Western Civilisation is a fine example of a Dystopian vision intended to shock, to motivate, to inspire.

Let us hope that it does exactly that before we are caught up in a real world collapse that sweeps away most, if not all, of our remaining options.