Winter 2013

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

Authors
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
Abstract

Authors' note: Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. In this essay, we blend the two genres to imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and (possible) future. The occasion is the tercentenary of the end of Western culture (1540 – 2073); the dilemma being addressed is how we – the children of the Enlightenment – failed to act on robust information about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to unfold. Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on “free” markets, disabled the world's powerful nations in the face of tragedy. Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind – even those involving imminent threats. Here, our future historian, living in the Second People's Republic of China, recounts the events of the Period of the Penumbra (1988 – 2073) that led to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2074).

NAOMI ORESKES is Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her publications include The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science (1999), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (with Erik M. Conway, 2010), and Science on a Mission: American Oceanography from the Cold War to Climate Change (forthcoming). Her latest project is Assessing Assessments: A Historical and Philosophical Study of Scientific Assessments for Environmental Policy in the Late 20th Century (with Dale Jamieson and Michael Oppenheimer).

ERIK M. CONWAY is a historian of science and technology based in Pasadena, California. His publications include Blind Landings: Low-Visibility Operations in American Aviation, 1918–1958(2006), Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History (2008), and Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (with Naomi Oreskes, 2010).

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