One of my high-school teachers - Brother Leahy, I think - would always mutter something about the 'impending collapse of Western civilization' whenever we'd screw up in physics lab. Little did he (or I) know.
This is quite the book to be reviewing, what with COP20 ongoing in Lima, Peru, 1-12 December 2014. It doesn't paint an especially hopeful vision of Earth's future. The book, that is, not COP20.
Some might argue this should be called a 'pamphlet review'. More on that later.
The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future is a provocative (understatement) book of science-based fiction by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, who formerly collaborated on The Merchants of Doubt.
CWC, as it is sometimes called, was published this past summer.I learned of it just a month or two ago when Conway spoke here at OSU (I missed him). The description of the book intrigued me, to say the least. One thing for sure: this book won't make Sean Hannity's best books of 2014 list.
The text is brief - 52 pages, then a ten-page 'Lexicon of Archaic Terms' (carbon-combustion complex, cryosphere, Fisherian statistics, environment, communism, physical scientists), 17-page interview with the authors, and some notes. Total: 92 pages in a small format.
Want more? Here is the verbage on the flyleaf:
The year is 2393, and the world is almost unrecognizable. Clear warnings of climate catastrophe went ignored for decades, leading to soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought and -- finally -- the disaster now known as the Great Collapse of 2093, when the disintegration of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet led to mass migration and a complete reshuffling of the global order. Writing from the Second People's Republic of China on the 300th anniversary of the Great Collapse, a senior scholar presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment -- the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies -- failed to act, and so brought about the collapse of Western civilization.
Surprise! We humans screwed up big-time in this tale of what the next 300+ years will bring. According to Oreskes and Conway, The Great Collapse was brought about by a failed geoengineering experiment promoted by Switzerland and India (go figure, but it'll make sense when you read about it). The experiment initially works, but then things go south (no pun inteneded) and there's a 'rebound effect' causing temperatures to rise faster than they would have without geoengineering. The Great Collapse would likely have happened without the experiment, but that literary device made for a better tale, I suppose.
I should note at this point that a few climate scientists have told me that such an effect would not occur as a result of this particular geoengineering scheme, but it seems to me that the law of unintended consequences may operate here. I am resisting telling you exactly what was done so as to not be too much of a spoiler.
So did I like CWC? Yes, very much so. Is it realistic? I'm afraid so. I can see the events described happening.
My stream-of-consciousness thoughts:
1) Oreskes and Conway add some realism by including four maps that have some basis in reality: The Netherlands, Florida, Bangladesh, and New York City. All have a very watery future in the cards.
2) Politicians and capitalists don't get a lot of love and neither do physical scientists, many of whom worked in their silos and didn't care to try to fathom the interplay between physical systems and living systems. (Gees, I hear that from some of my collegaues these days!)
3) Depiction of free-marketeers who promoted the carbon-combustion complex - development of fossil-fuels and associated industries - and decried government intervention. But when things started tanking, then of course big government was needed to try to fix things. Interesting that 'the last one standing' is China.
4) The (faulty) logic behind the need for more economic development (= more GHGs): development would produce the capital necessary to adapt to global warming. How'd that work out? I am actually hearing that from someone on NPR right now.
5) The triumph of denial and self-deception on the part of 'The Children of the Enlightenment' (us). We knew what was happening, we knew how to correct it, yet we did nothing.
7) Not much character development, plot, sex, or romance. Yes, some comments (best taken with a grain of salt, I imagine) on Amazon mention such shortcomings.
8) What about those 95% confidence limits? The authors opine on 'Fisherian statistics' and related topics.
9) Great intervioew with the authors - that added a lot.
10) Insects, diseases, food shortages.....Check!
11) Movie rights?
Read the book...
I will leave you with a few choice words from Jared Diamond, the author of the excellent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in which he examined why some societies succeeded and some failed (Easter Island, early Norse in Greenland, et al.). At a lecture in Albuquerque about 10 years ago he was asked if there was some common thread that linked those societies that failed. His reply: there was a failure to reexamine and change their core values in the face of change.
Think I'll do something light now. Maybe go see Interstellar. I like sci-fi.
"Will you write fiction next?" - question asked of one of the authors at the Sydney Writers' Festival