writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the
past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present.
—Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10)
In 2013, two
historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published a
speculative piece in Daedalus titled
“The Collapse of Western Civilization.” They subsequently expanded the piece
into a short book of the same time, and, in the process, added a subtitle “A View from the Future.” The book combines the science fictional
conceit of an imagined future with a rigorously thought historical document in
order to come to terms with the energy-ecology impasse. The text takes the
occasion of the fictional “tercentury of the end of Western Culture
(1540-2093)” to address the incredible failure to act on “robust information
about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to
unfold” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10). The look backwards from the imaginary
future of 2393, could be described as a kind of retroactive futurity, and it is through this device that Oreskes
and Conway attempt to re-invigorate scientific reportage and transparency. Through the synthesized modes of science fiction novel and history treatise, their
intervention offers one way to come to terms with the inertia of our energy
commitments in the present. In effect, they use a long durée as a narrative device, extrapolating the effects of a
global time elapse.
In their own
words, Orsekes and Conway have written a science fiction-historical novel. As a
great thinker of both science fiction and history, Fredric Jameson’s
description of the former seems entirely applicable here: “[Science fiction’s]
multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our
own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameson 2005,
288). The negotiation of time, especially the way it is presented as rapidly passing
before the reader’s eyes, has the effect of returning the reader to the
present. Oreskes and Conway’s text pushes the reader to imagine just what
energy commitments in the present mean for the future and precisely why it is
so urgent not only to rethink those commitments, but also to rethink the whole
network of scientific practice and economic doctrine that shore up oil-capital.
Conway use the device of the narrator to address an imagined future audience,
while they simultaneously target the present. For instance, they distance the
imagined future through the plain-spoken asides of the narrator. The narrator
explains the politico-geographic language he uses like this:
essay, I will use the nation-state terms of the era; for the reader not
familiar with the political geography of Earth prior to the Great Collapse, the
remains of the United Kingdom can be found in present-day Cambria; Germany in
the Nordo-Scandinavian Union; and the United States and Canada in the United
States of North America. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 15)
neutral narrative device teaches the reader how to understand and grapple with
the extrapolation at work in the text, in effect explaining the world of Oreskes
and Conway’s present, the reader’s present, from a scientific-political angle.
starts with a regional or continental map. These maps depict ocean levels in
one geographic space across two temporal planes. The reader will recognize a
map of his or her own present, and superimposed in a ghostly imprint is the
land that was—will be—swallowed by the rising oceans. At the start
of chapter one, the map of the former Netherlands places Brussels on the coast,
while it submerges The Hague, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, and the highlands around
Apeldoorn become an island. The map that adorns the title page of chapter two
swallows the floodplains of Bangladesh, and the map at the start of Chapter Three
depicts what is left of Manhattan and the Borrows of New York City as a new
string of thin islands. This device works to reinforce the temporal negotiation
of the text itself, hammering home the ecological imperative of the text.
Readers can look at the land that will be underwater and consider their own
relationship to those places, not only geographically, but also temporally. In
this way time becomes the central axis on which the political bid of The Collapse of Western Civilization
The book is
organized into three chapters, which separately take on the three
overdetermined limits of imagining a time after present of oil-capital. The
chapters are titled “The Coming of the Prenumbral Age,” “The Frenzy of Fossil
Fuels,” and “Market Failure.” The authors also include a “Lexicon of Archaic
Terms” and an Interview. The first chapter situates the reader within the
temporal frame of the text, while the second and third chapters outline the mutually
reinforcing cognitive limits of petromodernity and neoliberalism. The conceit
of the lexicon is that the imagined readers of 2393 will not be familiar with
terms prevalent during the height and collapse of Western civilization. The
lexicon works to introduce the actual readers of the present time with terms
that may be unfamiliar, despite their prevalence and accuracy. While the
lexicon provides a snapshot of the overall logic of the text, the arrangement
of the three chapters speaks powerfully to the inseparability of the problems
of anthropogenic climate change, the overreliance on fossil fuels as energy
source, and the dependence on the free mark to resolve these problems. Pursuing
these logics, The Collapse of Western
Civilization kindly but firmly insists that coming to terms with the
energy-ecology impasse is only one crucial step; we must use our knowledge to
The first chapter
works as a history of science leading up to the present of the narrator, which,
at the same time, is partially the reader’s history and partially the reader’s
future. The narrator tracks the development of anthropogenic climate change,
and people’s awareness of it, from the discovery of CO2 to the rise
of environmental movement, and from the foundation of the environmental
protection agency to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 16-18). Alongside the hard facts of scientific
discovery, the narrator tracks a problem the problem of climate change denial.
The narrator traces climate denial to the U.S. noting that “some countries
tried but failed to force the United States into international cooperation.
Other nations used inertia in the United States to excuse their own patterns of
destructive development” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 18). Further, the narrator
identifies the way scientists were—read are—stifled
by their own practices as one of the crucial factors that stands between
knowledge and action in the present.
Chapter two “The
Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” takes a step towards extrapolation as the narrator
describes events as they unfold in the twenty-first century. They mention a
series of artworks that endured through the heated debates that raged between
scientific truths and the cash spent to buy scientific opinions. For instance, in 2025 the U.S. introduced a National Stability Protection Act
(modelled on the Sea Level Rise Denial Bill) which “lead to the imprisonment of
more than three hundred scientists for ‘endangering the safety of and
well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats’” (Oreskes and
Conway 2014, 25). The narrator explains that this kind of response is described
in his time as a part of the psychological phenomenon known as “human adaptive optimism,” which could be
read as the mirror image of cognitive
dissonance—the making of choices against one’s own understood best
interests—or of what philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s calls fetishistic disavowal—‘I know very well what I do is wrong, but I
choose to do it anyway.’
The text traces
these explanations to their root in enlightenment thought. They call this
impasse the fallacy of Baconianism, where despite their knowledge of the
ecological threats generated by fossil fuel use they could not act on it.
Unlike the Roman and Mayan empires, where historians, archaeologists, and
synthetic-failure paleoanalysists are unable to agree on the engine of their
ruin, in the case of the twenty-first century nation-states that referred to
themselves as Western civilization
experts agree that people “knew what was happening to them but were unable to
stop it” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 14-15). The narrator refers to “the archaic
Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social
systems” as evidenced in the very title of the position “physical scientists.”
In this manner, they develop an enlightenment legacy—the impasse of knowledge
and action—while insisting on the need to bring physical scientists into
conversation with the social and humanistic sciences.
The turn to the
future, and the shift from history to science fiction in the text, hinges on
China’s decision “to control its population and convert its economy to
non-carbon-based energy sources” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 6). According to this document as of 2050 the
impact of these decisions were registered as China’s emissions rapidly fell.
However neat the separation of history and science fiction appears in the text,
their interplay is not so simple, as evidenced in the narrator’s declaration:
“Had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have
been very different” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 19). The use of history and
fiction here mixes truth about population control with speculation about carbon
emissions, resulting in a kind of imperative that is familiar in science fictional
environmental writing, but shows up here with a twist. Not, “if we continue on this path, this is
where we will end up,” but “had we done as we knew we should have, things would
have been different.” The first statement is familiar from what we might call catastrophism, using the threat of a catastrophe to spur action,
while the second seems to gain its affective punch from the careful generic
dance of the text.
“The Frenzy of
Fossil Fuels” grapples directly with the inertia of energy commitments. In it
the narrator asks, “How did these wealthy nations—rich in the resources that
would have enabled an orderly transition to a zero-net-carbon
infrastructure—justify the deadly expansion of fossil fuel production?”
(Oreskes and Conway 2014, 35). The first answer has already been explained:
denial. The second answer is that shale gas deposits could offer a bridge to
renewables. The narrator addresses this answer by outlining its fallacies:
fugitive emissions, the distribution system, it replaced clean rather than
dirty fuel sources, the aerosols from coal actually have a cooling effect, and
a sustained low price for fossil fuels prevented new energy sources from
emerging (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 36-37). The results of not breaking free
from this inertia are crippling heat waves, crop failure, rising ocean levels,
and changing weather patterns. Here the temporal device works in the favour of
the text as it avoids turning into an apocalyptic thriller. The narrator
claims, “there is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that
occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering” (Oreskes and
Conway 2014, 44). In a Hitchcockian move, Oreskes and Conway show the reader
more by leaving it up to his or her imagination. Fossil fuels, the path of
least resistance, are also the path that could prove humanity’s ultimate
failure to adapt to the world of their own making.
In the third chapter,
“Market Failure,” Oreskes and Conway return to the energy-ecology impasse from an
epistemological and economic vantage. The narrator expresses frustration, once
more, with Western civilization: “the victims knew what was happening and why...[and they]had the technological
knowhow and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy”
(Oreskes and Conway 2014, 48). In order to account for the lack of uptake of
alternate energy sources, the narrator turns to, what he calls, the carbon-combustion complex. The complex
is composed of fossil fuel extractors, refiners, and producers, manufacturers
(who have come to rely on inexpensive energy), and a whole matrix of firms
(advertising, financial, marketing, public relations) who promote and rely on
fossil fuels. The intense interest in maintaining economic growth based on
fossil fuels outweighs any desire to take up alternate, clean energy sources.
Underlying these interests are the infrastructures of petromodernity.
text, Oreskes and Conway deploy infrastructure
as both a limit and what needs to be changed in order to break free of impasse.
Infrastructure gets figured as something those in “passive denial”
cannot be convinced needs broad changes (Oreskes
and Conway 2014, 19-20). Further, it becomes a crucial term in the
fictionalized debates over moving beyond fossil fuels: “Many said the time had
come to make the switch to zero-carbon energy sources,” while, “others argued
that the world could not wait ten to fifty years required to alter the global
energy infrastructure, much less one hundred years it would take for
atmospheric CO2 to diminish” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 39). In this
way, infrastructure shapes the realm of possible secondary actions, so that
primary environmentalist action could only be targeted at staving off further
fossil fuel development, repurposing existing structures, and developing the
requirements for new zero-carbon energy sources. Indeed, the caption of the map
of New York City that adorns “Market Failure” reads,
financial capital of the world, New York began in the early twenty-first
century to attempt to defend its elaborate and expensive architecture against
the sea. But that infrastructure had been designed and built with an expectation
of constant seas and was not easily adapted to continuous, rapid rise. Like the
Netherlands, New York City gradually lost its struggle. Ultimately, it proved
less expensive to retreat to higher ground, abandoning centuries’ worth of
capital investments. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 47)
This history in
miniature acknowledges the way time itself becomes overtaken by space in the
development and construction of the hulking infrastructures of modernity. The
city is there. It grows and moves. In
order to abandon the commitment to fossil fuels, we must turn away from the
most energy intensive development in human history. As James Marriot and Mika
Minio-Paluello persuasively argue in the The
Oil Road, “The solution to the unsustainable extraction of oil and gas—from
both an economic and an environmental perspective—is simple: stop drilling for
oil and gas” (Marriot and Minio-Paluello 2013, 47). I would add to this, the
solution to breaking free of the inertia that comes along with energy
infrastructure is simple: stop building rigs, pipelines, and refineries and
start re-imaging what those structures can be and do.
Asimov, Isaac (1983). “The Nightmare Life without Fuel.” Science Fiction: The Future edited by
Dick Allen. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonavich. 34-36. Print.
Duggan, Jennifer (2014). “China pledges to cut
emissions at UN climate summit.” Available at: < http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2014/sep/24/china-pledges-to-cut-emissions-at-un-climate-summit>.
[12 October 2014].
--- (2013). “How China's action on air pollution
is slowing its carbon emissions.” Available at: < http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2013/nov/21/china-air-pollution-carbon-emissions>.
[12 October 2014].
Jameson, Fredric (2013). “The Historical Novel
Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” The
Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso. 259-313. Print.
--- (2005). Archaeologies
of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London:
Jansson, André and Amanda Lagervist (2009). Strange Spaces: Explorations Into Mediated
Obscurity. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing. Print.
Liley, Sasha, Editor (2012). Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.
Toronto: Between the Lines. Print.
Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New
York: Columbia UP, 2014. Print.
Marriot, James and Mika Minio-Paluello (2013). The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea
tot eh City of London. London: Verso. Print.
Labels: energy futures, energy humanities, post-apocalypse, science fiction, The Anthropocene