Book review: The Collapse of Civilisation, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 11:17pm

The Collapse of Western Civilisation

by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

Columbia University Press

4 stars

David Wilson

Cast your mind forward to the year 2393. From that vantage point, a fictional scholar representing an imagined future China - the Second People's Republic - laments how the Enlightenment's children ditched reason during the early 21st century. With scientific discussion of climate change off the agenda, earth went into a tailspin.

"In 2010, record-breaking summer heat and fires killed more than 50,000 people in Russia. The following year, massive floods in Australia affected more than 250,000 people. In 2012, which became known in the United States as the 'year without a winter', winter temperature records, including for the highest overnight lows, were shattered - something that should have been an obvious cause for concern," says the scholar-narrator, by way of historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, who mix real events with unnerving projections.

The narrative tracks the impact of rising sea levels, soaring temperatures, drought, and mass migration, which derail the global economy. The speculative result is a kind of apocalypse: the Great Collapse of 2093.

Post-collapse, the nation that retains most clout and control is authoritarian, centralised China. As the sea surges, China builds new inland towns and shunts more than 250 million citizens to high ground. Cue the Second People's Republic of China, a bastion of efficiency amid the turmoil besetting liberal democracies, says the scholar.

His chronicle is touted as an attack on the greed of the neatly coined "carbon-combustion complex". Supposedly tied to free-market fundamentalism, the complex despises science, which it treats as a political game.

Scientists can't compete because of their obsession with certainty - their insistence on observing the "95 per cent confidence interval" before making a call on causation or urging public policy or action. Despite being right about the climate, they seem impotent.

The tale of folly runs to 104 pages including a glossary and an interview with Oreskes and Conway, whose previous tract, Merchants of Doubt, focused on market fundamentalism. Here, their theory that China can weather an environmental meltdown best seems plausible, because authoritarian states are well-set: during crises, they can commandeer resources.

A minor beef with the book branded "hard science fiction" is that the narrator is so obviously a thinly masked version of the authors - a slick vehicle for their ideas rather than a character. Also, the mixture of myth and fact can be confusing: try scouring the internet for insight into the "Sea Level Rise Denial Bill".