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15th June 2014

The Collapse of Western Civilization:
A View from the Future

A new book written by Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes paints a chilling picture of our possible future.

 

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Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science at Harvard University who in 2010 co-authored Merchants of Doubt. This book highlighted parallels between the climate change debate and earlier controversies – such as the link between tobacco and lung cancer, the causes of acid rain, the ozone hole and the effects of DDT. The Christian Science Monitor called it "one of the most important books of the year" and praised its exhaustive level of research in uncovering the many organised attacks on science by a small group of lobbyists.

Now, Oreskes is back with her latest title, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, again co-authored with Erik M. Conway. This time, they have dramatised the science of climate change in ways traditional nonfiction cannot. Set in the year 2393, the book is presented in the form of a Chinese scholar who provides a historical analysis of the 21st century. This "future historian" delves through surviving electronic records to reconstruct the events leading up to a "Great Collapse" that occurred during the 2090s. It is revealed that – despite clear warnings of an impending catastrophe – political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies failed to act. This led to an insurmountable environmental crisis triggering the decline of modern civilisation and a new Dark Ages.

 

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Much like Future Timeline, the story combines fact with fiction, using current trends and the latest available science to produce the most likely scenarios. The book reasserts the importance of scientists and the work they do and reveals the self-serving interests of a so-called "carbon combustion complex" turning the practice of science into political fodder.

Merchants of Doubt tried to explain why so many people think that scientists are still arguing when the reality is quite different,” Oreskes comments in an interview with the Guardian. “This time, we took thousands of pages of IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports and distilled them into a parable about what climate change really means and what it would mean to ignore it, which is more or less what the world has been doing.”

“It’s not as if the fossil fuel industry is a free market. The subsidies for it are massive and have been documented by the World Bank. But it’s important to realise this isn’t an obvious conspiracy. And it’s not the fact that they are coordinated that is nefarious, it’s the ends to which they put that coordination: confusion, disinformation and potentially fraud, to stop action on a serious, real problem that potentially affects all of our lives.”

The book has already garnered praise ahead of its launch next month.

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of 2312 and the Mars trilogy: “Oreskes and Conway's startling and all-too-plausible history of the century to come is in the spirit of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and all the writers who have turned to prophecy in the attempt to ward off an oncoming disaster. Witty in its details and disturbing in its plausibility, this is an account of the Long Emergency we're entering that you will not soon forget.”

Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company: “Regret – Oreskes and Conway argue – is an equal-opportunity employer. Yes, climate change will be a nightmare for environmentalists. But global warming also threatens free marketeers – because unabated, it guarantees big government intervention. And that's the great service of this short but brilliant parable: it creates bipartisan empathy for our future selves. From that gift, perhaps we can summon the will to act today.”

Timothy Wirth, United Nations: “A chilling view of what our history could be. Ignore it and it becomes more likely. Read this book, heed its warning, and perhaps we can avoid its dire predictions.”

 

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