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Book Review: The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway is a look back at the planet earth from the year 2393. Oreskes is the professor of History of Science at Harvard and previously served as professor of history and social sciences at the University of California San Diego. She holds a PhD in Geological Research and History of Science from Sanford University. In addition to the a great number of professional papers, she is also the author of Merchants of Doubt

How will history look back at the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning half of the twenty-first century? How will the future look on what we are doing today? The answer is not very favorable. Oreskes takes a look at civilization and the how we got where we are today by playing a thought game. What would a researcher in 2393 find when studying the century spanning roughly from 1950 to 2050?

To put things into perspective, I studied history as an undergraduate in the 1990s. To look back 400 years into the past as Oreskes is doing, we need to see what the was world like 400 years ago. In America, Jamestown was being settled and the first African slaves are being brought to British North America. In Europe, Galileo is forced to recant. In the British Islands, the English Civil War is being fought, and John Napier is inventing logarithms. Things look rather backward from today’s standard. But, at the same time it must be remembered that people are acting as they best saw fit. Even still, man should have been smart enough to know enslaving people was wrong and that the church should not dictate to science, but then man does something he does quite well; he rationalizes.

Today we have that same rationalization process, but our rationalizations have a far more serious effect on the entire planet. The warning signs are all around us, changing weather patterns, rising CO2 levels, glaciers and ice retreating, and species being threatened with extinction. We rationalize though. We have independent sounding think tanks tell us that it’s just normal change. What those think tanks don’t tell us is who funds them: those who have an interest in selling the very things causing climate change.

The first part of the book is filled with information that is all around us that we refuse to see. From 1761 through 2012, 365 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere. Half of that 365 billion tons has been released since the mid-1970s. The 1970s, we as a people, believed that the best way to deal with pollution was to dilute it. Soon taller smoke stacks were built to help spread the pollution away from the local area, but there is only so much dilution before you reach saturation.

The future did not have all the answers either, Attempts to correct the problems sometimes increased the damage. The look back did show some current examples, like natural gas. Using cleaner burning natural gas (fracking), as a clean alternative to coal would have helped. But rather than using natural gas to replace coal we use it in addition to coal.

An interesting study of political philosophy is included. Western thought from Classical Liberalism and Neoliberalism (conservatism in the US, Friedman and Hayek), which viewed individual rights and economic freedom as ideals, contributed to the problem. Unregulated industry and the idea that government is not the solution, but the problem contributes to burning through of resources without regard to the consequences. Communism is not the answer either; it proved its failure quicker than its opponent’s. The political tie in is important and interesting because it shows how we got to where we are and why we are choosing to do nothing about it.

The book concludes with Conway interviewing Oreskes. The Collapse of Western Civilization is sure to stir up some controversy and meet harsh resistance, much like Galileo did. Climate change remains a hotly debated subject in America, but, then so does evolution. I think we in the West refuse to see the writing on the wall. We want to use our resume as proof that we are right. We won the cold war. We create technology. We have a powerful military. We enjoy a very high standard of living. We cannot be wrong. Thirty years ago the adult population could ignore what we are doing to the planet. Chances are they would not live to see a catastrophe. But as we continue to burn through resources at an increasing pace with little regard to the consequences, that catastrophe moves closer and closer to the current generations. One day it will be here, and then nothing will stop it.


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