The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from Cassandra

There’s something very odd, tonally, about The Collapse of Western Civilization‘s textbook-from-the-future shtick. It’s an interesting, novel approach to the problem of making people care about climate change and understand that the consequences are, in all likelyhood, going to be much more severe and much more severe than we want to believe. Nobody can say for sure what’s going to happen or how exactly climate change is going to play out if we keep following the path we’re on, but Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway do their best to lay out a plausible series of events grounded in scientific predictions and our current understanding of how climate works. There’s a certain self-consciousness to the book’s approach, with a heavy reliance on events and revelations from the immediate actual real-life past and a much vaguer, more general approach to events that have not yet happened but might. They’re aware of the pitfalls of the kind of book they’re writing, and they go out of their way to minimize the amount of “oh, you didn’t get this right” nay-sayers can fuss over by setting the book farther out in the future and preferring to speculate about overall trends over periods of time rather than trying to pin down specific dates and events. It’s an informative, well-researched book that’s extremely incisive and on point about a major issue that affects the human race as a whole.

And yet, reading it I can’t help but feel like there’s something insufferably smug in the tone, even as someone who is 100% on board with the book’s ideology and what it’s trying to say. And that feeling is really something inevitable about what The Collapse of Western Civilization is trying to be. Because, ultimately, we can’t predict the future. We can make educated, informed guesses based on historical patterns, scientific evidence, and current trends, and that’s really all the book does, but something about presenting your speculation in the detached, objective voice of scientific literature lends the whole proceeding an air of “neener neener,” like you’re saying “I’m right and you’re wrong” before it’s actually been proven, taunting your opponents from beyond the grave except actually you’re before the grave. And, I mean, I really don’t think that’s the intent, and even if I’m picking up a weird air of smugness from the thing, the fact is that they’re pretty much right, at least in their analysis of the current trends.

When it comes to exactly how the climate is going to change in the future and what the human consequences are going to be, yeah, okay, who can say? I can’t, you can’t, and Oreskes and Conway can’t either, not with absolute certainty. But what we can say with absolute certainty is that the evidence of a looming potential disaster is there, that evidence is convincing, and the potential consequences are too grave to just ignore it. We can also say that we are ignoring it, and we can look at the conversation and the reasons why we’re ignoring it, and we can say “it’s these people and these interest groups and these ideologies that benefit from and actively encourage not dealing with the problem.” And then we can write a book about what this might all look like 100 years from now if the worst comes to pass, except we don’t have to because somebody already did.

And honestly, the sad truth about this book is that it doesn’t really matter that the arguments are on-point and how effectively it points the finger, because nobody’s going to listen. We already know that energy moguls are greedy, self-serving modern-day robber barons who put their own profit above any human or environmental cost, and who not only have no remorse about doing that but believe it makes them righteous. And we know that nobody is going to do anything about it because they’re in bed with the government and basically operate like Prohibition-era mob bosses. Like, the information is out there, and it really isn’t in question, and all of those things I just said are genuinely true (we’re talking about companies that flagrantly ignore environmental regulations because they’ve lobbied them into toothlessness and they make more money paying off the token fines than not breaking the law), but yet even I kind of roll my eyes and go “yeah, yeah, there’s Jesse up on his hippie liberal rich-folks-are-evil high horse again” after saying it because that’s how powerful the myth of American neoliberal capitalism is. So, you know, thanks for spreading the word, Erik and Naomi; it’s just too bad nobody’s going to listen.

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