Historical Futorology

These days headlines often read like plot points in an apocalyptic science-fiction story: Fossil fuel use has reengineered the earth’s atmosphere and acidified the oceans. Polar ice sheets are ...

These days headlines often read like plot points in an apocalyptic science-fiction story: Fossil fuel use has reengineered the earth’s atmosphere and acidified the oceans. Polar ice sheets are melting. Coastal cities are flooding. The planet has entered the epoch of the sixth mass extinction. Scanning the outline of this drama over your morning coffee, you would be forgiven for failing to recognize yourself as an actor in it. After all, climate change exceeds direct human perception; on the scale of daily life, things still look fairly ordinary. You’re just a walk-on player in this cosmic epic.

Science fiction shares a deep-seated affinity with ecological awareness. In the 1950s, two decades before environmentalism became mainstream politics, classic sci-fi plots often hinged on the limits of planetary resources and the catastrophic consequences of technological hubris.1 As in science fiction, coming to terms with climate change today means taking an extraterrestrial perspective. Picture the human species as the force that will either preserve or destroy life as we know it on this fragile blue marble. Like science fiction, climate change shines an alien light on the habits we take for granted.

It is not merely our present and future that invite narration as science fiction, but also our past. The history of “Western Civilization”—the rise of industrial capitalism and of the dreams of liberation and enlightenment that depended on it—is part of the same story as that B-grade doomsday thriller. This is the premise of an ingenious new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, a surprising sequel to their scholarly best seller Merchants of Doubt (2010). There they demonstrated that scientific research on global warming had been systematically discredited by free-market ideologues using the same tactics that had earlier been applied to evidence of the carcinogenic effects of tobacco. In these cases and others (acid rain, ozone depletion, secondhand smoke, pesticides), sound science was cast into question by a campaign of denial, orchestrated by industrialists and the lobbyists and think tanks in their pay. In each case, the evidence was there, but regulation only came after a bitter and protracted legal and political battle. A related question drives The Collapse of Western Civilization: why would a society presented with evidence that it is poisoning itself continue to do so? In tone and form, however, the two books could not be more different. Merchants was based on years of painstaking archival research; its argumentation was necessarily cautious (libel suits were to be expected), and it was backed by 65 pages of footnotes. Collapse, at a mere 52 pages, is nominally a work of fiction—though fiction that is all too plausible.

Why would a society presented with evidence that it is poisoning itself continue to do so?

Note that Oreskes and Conway have not written “the collapse of civilization,” merely the collapse of Western civilization. In other words, this is not another story of a future earth returning to a “natural” state in the absence of its fiercest predator. Critics have invented the term “science faction” for such extinction stories, because, despite their mind-bending scenarios, they feign an objectivity and inevitability that more closely resembles science documentary than the world-building of science fiction. These critics condemn the science faction genre in particular for evading the question of how humans might be able to live peaceably with the non-human world.2

Oreskes and Conway are up to something altogether different. They are clear that human civilization is likely to endure. There is therefore no escape from the really hard questions—questions not about the mechanisms of global warming and mass extinction, but about the kind of social order that might be able to cope with such a crisis. Thus we are given a history of Western civilization narrated by a historian living in the Second People’s Republic of China in the late 24th century. Her treatise (the historian’s gender is not specified) marks the 300th anniversary of “The Great Collapse” of 2093, the break-up of the earth’s large ice sheets following two centuries of global warming. At that time, as a series of maps demonstrates, a two-meter rise in sea level submerged much of the inhabited world. The Great Collapse, we learn, was also a wholesale collapse of social order, as states fell throughout Europe and North America, and the southern hemisphere became uninhabitable. Only authoritarian governments like China’s proved able to protect their populations from decimation.

Not Another Climate Model

Our historian-narrator reconstructs the sequence of events that led to this worst of all recorded catastrophes. In the 21st century, global warming exceeded the predictions of scientists. The benefits from increased reliance on natural gas were never felt. It was applied in inefficient ways, and it edged out clean, renewable energy sources. Fossil fuel production rose rather than fell, and the planet began to heat up even faster. In desperation, a climate engineering project was launched and managed to reduce temperatures—yet it also inadvertently eliminated the Indian monsoon, inflicting drought and famine on hundreds of millions of people.

When this forced cooling was abruptly ended, the earth system experienced a rebound effect: global temperatures jumped, and the result was the Great Collapse. At this point the story genuinely turns to science fiction. In the absence of a coordinated international response, a Japanese scientist genetically engineers and secretly releases a carbon-dioxide-eating lichenized fungus that is black in color. The result, at last, is a cooler planet, but one on which natural vistas are no longer green but black.

This narrative bears an intriguing resemblance to current practices of climate modeling, despite the intervention of that fantastical fungus. Increasingly, computer models of the earth system factor in economic and social variables, such as future fuel use and population growth, in order to calculate coming concentrations of greenhouse gases. By telling the story of the Collapse as a contingent result of human decisions interacting with an imperfectly predictable natural world, Oreskes and Conway imply that such models can easily get the physics right and the outcomes drastically wrong. Future societal behavior is an inherently uncertain set of parameters, and a model’s predictions can be no more reliable than its initial assumptions. Modelers may hope that their own dire predictions will influence people to live in ways that will minimize future warming. But should they build such expectations into every model run from the start? Such questions about future behavior have already brought climate modelers to the brink of science fiction.

With The Collapse of Western Civilization Oreskes and Conway join a growing community of writers who believe it is time to supplement quantitative models with qualitative narratives, in order to communicate the probable outcomes of climate change in a more intuitive way to a broader audience. Or perhaps they are simply asking us to be more honest about the “science” of predicting a future that will be governed by ideology and politics as much as by knowledge and reason. Speculative fiction has a more honest relationship to this unpredictability.

The New Fundamentalists

The future they draw is determined, above all, by the force of unrestrained capitalism. We learn that social scientists of the 24th century will attribute our collapse in large part to the ideology of “market fundamentalism,” defined as the quasi-religious belief that the free market is the only solution to material needs that permits individual freedom. To our narrator it appears that this belief should have died a natural death before the year 2000. By then it had been undermined by the earth’s failure to absorb all the hazardous side effects of products like DDT and chlorofluorocarbons, both of which were finally regulated in the 20th century. Why not apply the same principle to greenhouse gases? Interestingly, recent research indicates that awareness of the environmental limits to economic growth emerged even earlier than our future historian suspects—in dialogue, in fact, with the early economic liberalism of the 18th century. What’s more, this awareness remained a force to reckon with throughout the 19th century, in the form of Malthusianism, the conviction that the earth’s finite resources require active intervention to limit population growth.3 In this sense, the predicament of simultaneously knowing and not knowing the natural limits of industry characterizes not merely the era of global warming but the whole of modern Western history.

We Learn that social scientists of the 24th century will attribute our collapse in large part to the ideology of “market fundamentalism.”

One aspect of neoliberal “fundamentalism” about which our 24th-century historian has surprisingly little to say is its hostility to international regulation. We might expect an observer from the future to attempt to explain the spectacular failure of global governance in the face of climate change. The modern Western ideal of national sovereignty—often traced to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the wars of the Reformation by permitting each prince to decide the religion of his own territory—has proved woefully unsuited to address a global problem like the greenhouse effect. Yet our narrator is notably reticent about geopolitics. We learn little about the forms that post-Collapse states take, and even less about the modes of international governance they engage in. (Has the term “nation-state,” which the narrator uses repeatedly to describe the pre-Collapse world, become archaic by the 24th century? And is this why she applies it to early modern kingdoms that were by no means nation-states?) Geopolitics, however, is ancillary to the authors’ concerns, which lie principally with the collapse of American civilization.

To the Americans of 2014 who continue to defend the free market in the name of liberty, Oreskes and Conway point out that liberty will be the first casualty of a major environmental crisis. They refer in passing to recent historical research suggesting that authoritarian states are better equipped than democracies to cope with climate change (the best example of which is Geoffrey Parker’s account of the resilience of Tokugawa Japan in the face of the “Little Ice Age”4). In other words, China is the natural victor of the “Great Collapse.” From the perspective of the 24th century, neoliberal resistance to environmental regulation destroyed the necessary conditions for democracy and may have discredited capitalism for good.

It is only in the final paragraph of Collapse that we learn our future historian’s true purpose in writing this narrative. There she invites a “reappraisal” of Western civilization, an analysis of what might remain to be salvaged of the democratic ideals that collapsed with the ice sheets. It’s a move that flattens the space between reality and fiction and plunges the reader back into the urgency of the present.

How We Know

For the authors, this semi-fictional form has some clear advantages. It allows them to connect suspicious dots, even when there is no hope of finding the corresponding paper trail in the archives. It also gives them free rein to be playful, provocative, and accusatory. Thus they can predict that future social scientists will speak of a 21st-century “carbon-combustion complex” much as we speak of the 20th-century military-industrial complex, referring to the alliance of industries, marketers, and politicians who conspire to expand fossil fuel production and use. They can suggest that the congressional bill of 2012 that proposed cuts in funding for climate change research will be known to posterity as the “Sea Level Rise Denial Bill.” To be sure, these are sooner the maneuvers of op-ed writers than historians. Yet the book also operates at a deeper intellectual level. After all, as historians of science, the authors are chiefly concerned with explaining how knowledge has been produced and how it has been evaded. Their futuristic perspective allows them to raise pointed questions about what it means to “know” in the 21st century.

“To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why.” The reader might well pause here to ask in what sense we “know,” when only 64 percent of Americans think that climate change is taking place.5 Psychoanalysts describe this condition as “disavowal”: a distortion that defends against a painful reality.6 For this reason, our own era is known to posterity as a second Dark Age, the “Period of the Penumbra.”

Although our historian-narrator is a subject of a totalitarian regime, she condemns the benighted qualities of the 21st century, with its gender discrimination, its “positivism,” and its arbitrary division between natural and social knowledge. Whereas in Merchants, the authors underlined the power of skeptics to cast doubt on science, here the emphasis is shifted to place more responsibility on scientists themselves. Their 24th-century proxy takes aim, first, at the Baconian notion that knowledge confers power. Modern Western scientists have been trained to believe that it is enough to produce good science; sound policy will follow. Hindsight brings a new and subtle judgment against the passive majority of scientists who have professed themselves helpless in the face of climate denial.

Modern Western scientists have been trained to believe that it is enough to produce good science; sound policy will follow.

It is no surprise that our future historian is scathingly critical of the epistemic conventions of the 21st-century sciences. Early reports by groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were roundly attacked for declaring anthropogenic warming merely “likely” and creating the misleading impression that the evidence was too uncertain to warrant action. What’s more, statisticians have been arguing against the conventions of statistical significance for as long as an academic discipline of statistics has existed.7 By the 24th century, we learn, these guidelines have come to be seen as no more than a “social convention rooted in scientists’ desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity,” thus as a throwback to religious asceticism.

Of course, these statistical conventions are not really medieval survivals. Rather, they took shape as democratic states began to hold scientists publically accountable for their government-funded research. As the historian Ted Porter has taught us, this is the political context in which the modern moral ideal of objectivity arose.8 The crux of the problem, from this perspective, is not the prudishness of a certain species of scientist, but the fundamental challenge of reconciling science and democracy, of opening up expert knowledge to public deliberation. We can’t get around this impasse merely by revamping our statistical toolkit. We need to stop taking our epistemic conventions for granted and start to see them as strange indeed.

Cognition and Estrangement

Critical distance from our everyday assumptions is what both the history of science and science fiction produce at their best. The critic Darko Suvin famously defined science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”9 In this respect, science fiction’s effects run parallel to the historical mode of inquiry. “Historical epistemology,” as Lorraine Daston has called it, recovers past “ways of knowing,” forcing readers to recognize the historical contingency of their own standards of truth, the peculiarities of their own “common sense.”10 The narrator of Collapse writes in this vein, seeking to convey what past actors knew along with the historically specific frameworks within which they knew it.

Like science fiction, history can make other ways of knowing seem more intuitive and our own less so. In this sense, historians are like the character in Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi classic The Left Hand of Darkness whose “business is unlearning, not learning.” In a similar if more modest spirit, Oreskes and Conway have carved out a new space for historians to use their knowledge of alternative pasts to help imagine alternative futures. icon

  1. Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson (Wesleyan University Press, 2014), pp. 40–55.
  2. Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman, “Life after People: Science Faction and Ecological Futures,” in Green Planets, pp. 192–205.
  3. Fredrik Jonsson, Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (Yale University Press, 2013); Alison Bashford, Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (Columbia University Press, 2014).
  4. Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 484–506.
  5. See the survey “Climate Change in the American Mind,” conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication in April 2014.
  6. See Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Sally Weintrobe (Routledge, 2013), p. 7.
  7. See, for instance, Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives (University of Michigan Press, 2008).
  8. Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 8.
  9. Quoted in Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), p. 16.
  10. “Historical Epistemology,” in Questions of Evidence: Proof, Practice, and Persuasion Across the Disciplines, edited by James K. Chandler, Arnold Ira Davidson, and Harry D. Harootunian (University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 284.