I was surprised to read, in the interview with Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway at the end of the book, that they see The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future as merely an essay. I found the preceding chapters pretty literary in their writing quality and creative and even playful in form. While there is unmistakably a Big Idea underlying everything in the book (like there is a thesis in every essay), it is still a fun, relatively light read. What’s more: their Big Idea is important.
The authors offer a view of what the year 2393 might be like—not just based on their guesses or fantasies, but grounded in all kinds of science from chemistry to politico-sociology, with sources cited. So their predictions are all plausible. Their critiques of the modern world, seamlessly interlaced with their projections all throughout the book, ring truer and louder as a result. And they make us sound like we should feel guilty, here in the present, because of how knowingly we’re polluting the Earth despite known fact of what they call the “Penumbra,” which is Latin for something like “encroaching shadow.” This is their term for the fast-approaching mass extinction of many species worldwide, and the widespread disorder among human beings, as people will be dislocated from their flooded homes or their failing farms or otherwise climate-ruined lives, all because of unnatural changes to the climate that we are ultimately responsible for. It makes us look like like we’re all backwards, is what I’m saying. The Collapse of Western Civilization is about how we can solve our climate change problem, but don’t, and probably won’t.
I like to think of myself as more conscious than the average Westerner, but many of the insights that Oreskes and Conway reveal have never occurred to me before. They even challenge logical empiricism, a philosophy that I thought all scientists agreed was more or less sacred! This was off-putting for me at first, but after reading their argument—a very broad argument, but not obtuse—I see they make a lot of sense. Their point is that, sometimes, just sometimes, the 95% certainty criterion to declare causation (not just coincidental correlation) is too rigid. Sometimes, just sometimes—and in the “approaching shadow” of a man-made climatic apocalypse, now is definitely one of these times—we need to spring into action as if the uber-conservative nay-sayers (the doubt-sellers, who insist on dismissing masses of scientific evidence converging on the same conclusion from a thousand different approaches) did not exist.
However, Oreskes and Conway do not say this with even half the melodrama that I’m employing here. It is an understated book. Their just-the-facts narrative voice, like a history textbook, allows for a quick pace to the storytelling; but it’s like a very introductory textbook, not too unbearable to read because it doesn’t get into too much depth. They allow in-depth, topic-by-topic study, however, by referring readers to many real and available scientific, economic, and historical/political records. So they manage to craft a great piece of cli-fi that is at once summary and comprehensive and a good, shocking book.