Hear No Evil

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future is lacking something important. Sure, it has sound logic and makes a thought-provoking polemic against the glacial pace of global action towards minimizing climate change. Likewise, it provides a thorough analysis of the political and economic ideologies that particularly reinforce American climate inertia. But despite the validity of its assertions, the bluntness of CWC is likely to keep it from reaching an audience beyond its own already earnest supporters. Climate change activists will marvel at the plausibility of Oreskes and Conway’s premonitions; stubborn climate deniers will scoff at their frequent condemnations of the free-market and their triumphant approval of eastern philosophy over western principles.

CWC spins a remarkably credible tale about the future, but it fails to analyze people’s emotional responses to climate change. CWC’s purpose is questionable given that it exists within an elite vacuum where it will likely never benefit those who need its wisdom most. Indeed, dramatic visions of the future are fairly common in literature, and while CWC distinguishes itself with a future historian’s hindsight perspective, its attempts to construe the erroneousness of contemporary thinking by framing it into the bigger picture does little that will win a warm reception from skeptics; the same people who will disagree with CWC will also feel brunt of its critique most personally. There is already plenty of science available that can rationally explain away the doubts of climate deniers, despite the strict standards required by the scientific community to accept empirical data, standards that Oreskes and Conway happen to criticize. There is, however, a dearth of material that can emotionally impact skeptics without being overly politicized or written off as “alarmist,” and CWC’s hard facts approach fails to remedy this problem.

This failure can be better understood through a comparison to Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed, a graphic novel, which with varying degrees of success, seeks to connect to its readers in a way that CWC does not. While both works differ in their genres and precise functions, they share many of the same arguments and are especially keen to the problems of climate change that are already at work today. Squarzoni does what Oreskes and Conway struggle to do, however, as he is much more focused the emotional impact of climate change and his own individual coming to terms with its existential realities. His criticisms of the cultural, political, and economic systems that enable climate change are just as harsh and cynical as Oreskes and Conway’s, but he manages to make them while also sympathetically recognizing his own place within these systems. The reader then, through their connection with Squarzoni, is led to reflect upon their own role in climate change, which CWC never makes obvious. Oreskes and Conway’s construction of hindsight, in fact, may actually hinder their ability to connect with their readers, as it comes across in a condescending, “I told you so!,” sort of manner.

None of this is to say that CWC does not have a strong argument or that its key points are diminished because they do not compromise with readers who follow the same neoliberal ideologies that CWC argues against, but it is to say, however, that CWC only tells a part of the story. It is focused upon the academic disciplines of science, history, and political theory, but despite Oreskes and Conway’s emphasis on the virtues of interdisciplinary study, they fail to include a crucial humanities perspective. The goal of any good essay is to persuade its readers, not just with clear logic, but also through making a connection to the reader. Without this connection, however, Oreskes and Conway’s dire warnings may fall upon deaf ears.

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