Review of “The Collapse of Western Civilisation”: Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Columbia University Press (UK publication date is 29 July 2014, but the Kindle version is available 24 June 2014)

The authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, are both historians of science, and are best known for their book “Merchants of Doubt”. In that book they looked at the people behind climate scepticism and found that they were largely the same as those who cast doubt on the dangers of smoking. Their new book is on a related topic, but “Collapse” is a fairly short essay, and they changed genre to fiction.

A Chinese historian writing in 2393 looks back on our century trying to make sense of what went wrong. Why did we not take appropriate action to avoid a climate meltdown when we knew it would happen? For a short book Oreskes and Conway pack in a lot of material: science, economics, politics, philosophy and psychology are all there if you look. The Chinese historian is not afraid to tackle really difficult controversial issues as he/she seeks to understand why “The Great Collapse” happened in 2093. I will choose just three topics for illustration.

Our historian is not a great fan of fracking and sees it as one of the major reasons for the Collapse. Fracking was involved in the fallacy of “the bridge to renewables”. This was the argument suggesting that we could use gas provided by fracking to replace the apparently dirtier coal while renewable sources were developed. Four reasons are given why this was a serious error: “fugitive emissions”, leakage of methane from fracking wells had a very significant effect on warming; that gas became cheap and was used for home heating and transport where the losses in distribution networks cancelled out the gains in not using coal; that it did not lead to decreased burning of coal in many countries, and just added more to emissions; and that the burning of coal produced aerosols, which were bad for human health, but had a role in reducing the warming effect. The problem with fracking was that it locked humanity into using fossil fuels well into the future when we really needed to rapidly move on to renewables.

Some scientists will be worried by the attack on the 95% confidence limit. This had become a kind of “gold standard”, but it meant we only saw something as “significant” if there was a greater than 19/20 chance of it happening. Not surprisingly the concept was confusing for politicians and the general public, and this was often exploited by those seeking to deny climate change.

But what was the root cause of “The Great Collapse”?? The Chinese historian sees extreme neoliberal capitalism as the biggest problem. The desire to avoid “big government” and regulations, and to promote “free” markets may or may not be a good idea in some areas, but where the climate was concerned it was (is?) a disaster. Quite simply we needed to regulate carbon emissions and to do so very quickly. But extreme “free” market economics saw all regulations as bad, even those designed to safeguard our planet.

Of course many will disagree with some points in this fictional account of our possible future, but the overall argument is a compelling one. We are approaching the very important COP21 meeting in Paris in December 2015 where a global agreement on carbon emissions is on the table. It will not happen, but it would be great if all those involved in COP21 read this book before they went. It might help focus their minds on the task ahead. For the rest of us reading Collapse will give us a very good update on the issues we should be concentrating on whether we are scientists, environmentalists, politicians or members of the general public. Highly recommended- do read it!

Dr Martin J. Hodson
JRI Operations Manager