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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Collapse of Western Civilization

Air Date: Week of

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway recently published a science-fiction book on the failure to act on climate change and its disastrous results. (Photo: Courtesy of The Collapse of Western Civilization promotional webpage)

Science historians Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Erik Conway of CalTech's new science fiction book, The Collapse of Western Civilization lays out how devastating our lack of action on climate change could be. Oreskes join host Steve Curwood to discuss how democracy, the free market and science are all failing humanity and the planet.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A slim paperback novel called “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” landed in our office the other day. Its cover art caught our attention: under a lowering sky, a red desert stretches to the horizon and a bottle with a message sticks out of the sand. Its authors are two science historians: Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Erik Conway of CalTech. Their 2010 non-fiction volume “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” was a best seller.

CURWOOD: This latest book switches to science fiction. It’s 2393. An historian living in the Second People’s Republic of China reflects on how science, democracy and the free market all failed to keep global warming from upending society and nearly driving humans extinct. Naomi Oreskes joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth.

ORESKES: Thank you.

CURWOOD: So why does a historian write fiction?

ORESKES: Well, Erik and I were struggling with some way to convey something important that we felt we had come to understand: people really weren't getting why climate change really mattered, and lots of people had the impression that climate change was something that was just about polar bears. So we wanted to write something that would convey why this is not just an issue about polar bears; this is an issue about us, about our way of life, and also about our institutions—about our economic and political and democratic institutions.

CURWOOD: Talk to me a little bit about how you decided what effects of climate disruption that you included in here in your description, and how likely those are.

ORESKES: This is a work of fiction because it's imaginary because it takes place the future, but everything that happens in the book up until 2013 has actually already happened. So we didn't have to make up any of the parts the story that take place up until the present, and everything that happens beyond 2013 is based on projecting outward the scientific evidence that already exists. So we already have scientific evidence that hurricanes are possibly becoming more intense. We already have very strong scientific evidence for sea level rise and the destabilization of the West Antarctic ice sheet. We already have scientific evidence for the role of climate change: things like droughts and crop failure. So we simply took all of the scientific information, both of things that have happened already or things that are very plausibly on the horizon, and then we wove a story around imagining that those things actually happen.

CURWOOD: So what you're saying is: If you see the boulder rolling down the hill, you don't have to wait to know that it's going to wind up someplace towards the bottom.

ORESKES: Exactly. That's exactly right. And we also wanted to say that although we don't want to disparage the work that we ourselves have done, it didn't take a lot of imagination to imagine what would happen when that boulder hit the bottom, especially if there were a town sitting at the bottom of the hill.

CURWOOD: One of the key parts of your novel is the notion that democracy fails and fails miserably. Why did you pick that theme?

ORESKES: Well this really fell out from our book "Merchants of Doubt". So in "Merchants of Doubt" we told the story about a group of men who fought the scientific evidence of climate change because they were afraid of its implications, that is to say, it would lead to the undermining of democratic systems and become a kind of invitation for authoritarian governments to take control of the marketplace, of the relocation of people, and other things like that, and so we felt that the profound irony of the story was that by denying the reality, they actually increased the likelihood that disruptive climate change would lead to the very outcomes that they most dreaded.

CURWOOD: So the one civilization that comes out comparatively well in your novel is China. Of course, China, in some respects, is the oldest civilization on the planet, they've been continuously operating for the last 5,000 or so years, but why did you pick China?

ORESKES: Well, there were two reasons. The first is the one you suggested: that China is the oldest continuously existing civilization on Earth. So just from a simple logical, practical point of view, it seemed most plausible that China would continue, even if other civilizations did not. But we also wanted to bring out this ironic point that if things really start to go bad, it's going to be the authoritarian countries that are more in a position to take control of the economy and relocate people, deal with food shortages and food riots. So we wanted to bring out that point: that if you really care about democracy, you want to be doing everything your power to stop climate change because disruptive climate change will not be friendly to liberal democracies.

CURWOOD: What of what China is doing today supports your thesis here?

ORESKES: Well, China's very complicated, and lots of people like to bash China because there's this in a huge pollution problem in China and just amazing, amazing emissions increases the last ten years that very few people anticipated. So it's very easy to look at China and to blame them, and to say, why should we take action on change when their emissions growths are so rapid? But at the same time China has actually made massive investments in solar energy, in fourth-generation nuclear power. There's a lot of talk in China about a carbon tax, so China's this complicated country where both good and bad things are happening at the same time. So in the optimistic scenario, the good side of what's happening in China, the carbon tax, the mass investment in solar power—those would be the places that prevail. We don't really take a position on whether that's what happens. We simply speculate that the authoritarian aspects of Chinese culture become resurgent again and those aspects then come to the fore as China remobilizes and moves hundreds of millions of people to higher, safer ground.

CURWOOD: Part of your book is really tough on the scientific method, the drive for scientists just to be absolutely sure that something is right. Why do you talk about that?

ORESKES: Well, one of the issues that's come up a lot in the last few years surrounding the whole issue of climate change is the question of scientific communication, and a lot of scientists have thought that this was simply a problem of people not really understanding the science. And Erik Conway and I have argued that that's not really true, that a lot of the resistance to climate change has to do with the political and economic issues that are at stake. But there is one element of it that we think is about scientists and scientific communication and that's the fact that scientists hold themselves to an extremely high bar before they're willing to say that they know something is true, so, an example that many people have heard about has to do with hurricanes.

We have tremendous amounts of evidence that extreme weather events are getting more extreme, and we know that when the ocean warms up you have more energy to drive hurricanes. So there's lots of good reasons to link climate change to hurricanes, and to say that as the world warms, we expect hurricanes to become either more frequent or more intense. And yet, the scientific community has been reluctant to make that link because it hasn't hit this high level of confidence, which is the so-called 95 percent confidence limit. So by setting the standard so extremely high, scientists sort of protect themselves against a certain kind of error, the error of thinking something's true that isn't, but they put all of us at risk to a different kind of error, which is the error of doing nothing—the error of thinking we're not sure about something that's actually taking place.

CURWOOD: So what you're saying is that science doesn't much like the precautionary principle, doesn't much like the majority of evidence, wants the overwhelming amount of evidence.

ORESKES: Yeah. I guess. I mean, I don't really like to talk about the precautionary principle in terms of climate change because we're way past the point of precaution. I mean, precaution would've been doing something about this 20 years ago. I guess the way I like to think about it is there's two metaphors that lots of people are familiar with: one is crying wolf and the other is fiddling while Rome burns. Scientists have been very, very afraid of crying wolf, and the consequence of that is that we've all been fiddling while Rome burns, or maybe I should say, we've been fiddling while Greenland melts.

Naomi Oreskes is a Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. (Photo: Department of the History of Science, Harvard University)

CURWOOD: Naomi, what about the trend in science to have scientists be highly specialized?

ORESKES: Yes, the specialization of science is a really important part of this problem; it's something we talk about in the book. So climate change is a very complicated issue in which the physical, the biological, the economic and political aspects of our world all come together, but climate change as an issue has mostly been understood by scientists as a question of the physical environment, the atmosphere and to some extent the ocean and the ice sheets. And scientists are very, very specialized; so even within the physical sciences you have people who specialize just in ice, and even within ice you have people who specialize just in ice cores, or just in ice modeling or, you know, just in the bubbles inside the ice. And this highly specialized aspect of science is partly why science is powerful, but at this same time it makes it hard for scientists connect the dots. On Twitter, a bunch of us have started using the hash tag “#connectthedots” because we're trying to make the point that it's true: no one hurricane, no one storm, no one flood proves that we have climate change, but the collection of all of these things, all of the different dots is making a very, very clear picture. And one of the strangest things that Erik Conway and I feel as historians is that in a weird way, we found ourselves in this position of connecting the dots, and we found ourselves talking about things and saying things that we felt confident we're true, things we felt were supported by scientific evidence, and yet which not that many scientists were actually talking about.

CURWOOD: Economics is called the dismal science by some; and in your book economists, well, they don't come out terribly well.

ORESKES: [LAUGHS] Well, of course nobody really comes out terribly well in the book; so we're equal opportunity historians in that respect. But the principal point we try to bring attention to in the book is not so much economics as a discipline, but economics as an ideology, the ideology that we call ‘free market fundamentalism’. And this has been an important theme for Erik and I since we first started working on this issue, which is nearly 10 years ago, that many of the people who are in denial about the reality of climate change have a kind of faith that the market will somehow do its magic, and that this problem will somehow be miraculously solved by the invisible hand of the marketplace moving all the pieces into place, and coming up with some kind of solution.

We've known about the reality of climate change for a long time now, and we've been watching the effects of climate change for at least 10, 15 years now. To think that the market on its own will somehow miraculously solve this problem is in my opinion just wishful thinking, and so we're trying to bring attention to the fact that while there are many good things about market-based economies, we face a really significant problem that's not going to be solved by the free market on its own. It hasn't been solved by today and there's no evidence to suggest that it will be solved. And so thinking about that wishful thinking, that kind of magical thinking is really, really crucial to understanding how to break the logjam and figure out what we really need to do about this issue.

CURWOOD: To what extent are you saying that catastrophic climate disruption is a market failure?

ORESKES: That's exactly what we're saying, and it's not just us. I mean, many economists have said this too. So in fairness to economists, it's not as if no one in economics community recognizes this. Nick Stern, who's the former chief economist of the World Bank, has said that global warming, climate change, is the greatest market failure ever seen, and I think that's exactly right.

CURWOOD: Now, let's face it: humans very often do things that aren’t good for us on an individual level: smoke cigarettes and drink too much, knowing full and well that it’s likely to kill us ultimately. So with that in mind, what you think are some potential solutions to the way that we are hurting ourselves by, you know, keeping our heads tucked in the sand about what's happening with the climate?

ORESKES: Well what you said is true, but it's also true that humans have great capacity to change, in particular when they work together and have good leadership. So since you mention tobacco, and that's something that Erik Conway and I wrote about in our previous book, we know that in the case of tobacco more than 75 percent of Americans smoked cigarettes back the 1950’s; today that number's down to only about 25 percent. Millions of lives have been saved in America and elsewhere around the world through tobacco control.

So how did that happen? Well, it was a combination of two important things: one was people understanding the scientific evidence that tobacco smoking can kill you, and the other was leadership, leadership from people like the U.S. Surgeon General who spoke to the American people about what the risks were. So this is why telling the truth about science, being articulate about the science, fighting against disinformation about the science is so important. We, the American people, need to have good information in order to make good decisions, and we've been denied good information on climate change because there has been so much disinformation, misinformation, false equivalence, and we’ve also been lacking leadership for all kinds of reasons that I think the American people kind of get.

CURWOOD: Well, let's talk about leadership. A key point of your book is that leaders really failed to act on a timely basis. What can we do now to change the scenario that you’ve made?

ORESKES: Well, this is of course a tricky issue. I feel like I've been waiting for a lot of years for a "Nixon goes to China" moment, but it hasn't happened yet. So when leadership fails, when a top-down approach doesn't work, then you have to think about bottom-up, and I think that's why increasingly were seeing signs of activism, especially among young people. So at my university at Harvard, at MIT, at Stanford, all across the United States, students all around the country are asking university leaders to think about their investments in the fossil fuel industry and to say that maybe the time has come where that's no longer an acceptable thing to do. So they are already starting to demand at their elders either fix it or get out of the away. [LAUGHS]

Erik Conway is a Historian of Science and Technology at the California Institute of Technology. (Photo: Courtesy of The Collapse of Western Civilization promotional webpage)

CURWOOD: You're a historian. Where have we had that kind of fundamental change in human history?

ORESKES: Well, many times. I mean, if you look at the history of the United States, the Civil War and the abolition of slavery is an extremely important example because slavery was a profound and tremendous evil and we abolished it, but it took a Civil War. And I don't think anybody wants to say that the Civil War was a good thing. The abolition of slavery was a good thing, but the Civil War was a huge human, political, and social tragedy. So the way I think about it as a historian is: can we please try to find a way to fix this problem, short of having some kind of terrible outcome like the Civil War?

CURWOOD: The view of some is that you don't get radical changes in leadership and behavior without revolution.

ORESKES: Well, see I don't agree with that though. I mean, again, if we go back to tobacco, we have seen very, very significant social change over tobacco and that didn't involve a revolution, that involved people working hard systematically on a lot of different levels. So we have models for social change that involve disruption; we have models for social change that involve progress without horrible disruptions.

So I think we have a choice here, and I think in a way that's why Erik I have written this book. We want to say to our readers, there is a choice here. And the choice is in our hands, but time is running out. We can’t sit on our hands indefinitely and expect this to come out OK.

CURWOOD: Naomi Oreskes is co-author of the new novel called “The Collapse of Western Civilization” along with Erik Conway. She teaches at Harvard University. Thanks so much for taking time with us today, Professor.

ORESKES: Thank you. It's been really great speaking with you.



More about Oreskes’ and Conway's The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

Oreskes’ and Conway's previous non-fiction book, Merchants of Doubt, depicts how scientists can distort scientific facts to advance a political and economic agenda.


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