As evidenced by the title of my post, I was not endeared to Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, The Collapse of Western Civilization. I found the book’s tactics and approach to galvanization condescending to say the least. Written almost as a history book from the future, though obviously intended for a contemporary audiences because it was written in 2014 and not the future, the book attempts to outline the world’s ludicrous failure to act on climate change. This is a worthy task, but the two writers go about it in a curious way. I for example have never heard a scientist complain about having to be accurate before. In fairness to Oreskes and Conway, their illustration of the world requiring the science on climate change to be true beyond a reasonable doubt works to demonstrate how governments were able to discredit science that was essentially certain. However, the distance from the present that Oreskes and Conway voluntarily maintain in order to tell the story, skims the surface on what could be a reasonable, and damning indictment of the governments they seek to shame. Oreskes and Conway repeatedly mention that governments have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of fossil fuel dependence, but they fail to fully articulate why, which is both unfair to the governments they discuss and lets these governements off entirely too easily. Oreskes and Conway do not limit their book to the United States’ environmental negligence, but enough attention is paid to them that it would be reasonable for the two authors to discuss the millions and millions of dollars traded from oil companies to politicians in exchange for influence. Oreskes and Conway touch upon the power of fossil fuel companies, but delving into the issue more fully would illustrate how politicians were more interested in building their campaign war chests to stay elected than they were in dealing with impending catastrophe. This to me seems like a more damning portrait than Oreskes and Conway’s discussion of the “carbon combustion complex,” which treats climate change negligence as a conspiracy and scientists like the nerd being perpetually shoved into his or her locker by the popular kids (36-37). What’s more, in their discussion of the world economy’s dependence on fossil fuels, they fail to impart on the reader why exactly an economic dependence on fossil fuels matters. Oreskes and Conway often dismiss economics as archaic and almost quaint (capitalism and communism are both listed under their glossary of archaic terms in the back of the book, which I found only to be 80% condescending). A parenthetical early in the book tells the reader what Oreskes and Conway think of countries measuring success using their GDP; “At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state” (8). Their point is well taken, but they also don’t seem to care that a failing or faltering economy does not just take money out of big oil’s pocket: their employees would suffer as well. This may seem paltry in the face of environmental catastrophe, but as this book is written and read by a contemporary audience, it is not nothing. It is also at least why politicians are afraid to embrace renewable energy over fossil fuels: you can’t get elected in certain parts of Ohio if you don’t support coal miners.
Reading The Collapse of Western Civilization, I couldn’t help but to wonder what Oreskes and Conway’s game was. Their concern for the planet is undeniably justified, but their tactic, for me anyway, provoked anger at them rather than the institutions they were pointing at. They say we saw it coming, and we did. But they also give us a way out in the form of Akari Ishikawa (Girl power!). Why not make us lie in the bed we made ourselves? Why give us the comforting notion that science will eventually always swoop in to save the day? Perhaps they mean to show us that at the very least, the world that Akari saves will be exponentially different from our world now, in which case, why are the deaths of the populations of two entire continents (Australia and Africa) treated as cynical afterthoughts?