Addiction to Fossil Fuels, Arctic Ice Melt, Bill Maher, Capitalism, Climate Change, Climate Refugees, Climate Tipping Points, Collapse of Industrial Civilization, Corporate State, Corporatocracy, Eco-Apocalypse, Ecological Overshoot, Economic Collapse, Empire, Environmental Collapse, Extinction of Man, Financial Elite, Free Market Ideologues, Historian Erik M. Conway, Inverted Totalitarianism, Mass Die Off, Neoliberal Capitalism, Overpopulation, Privatization, Professor Naomi Oreskes, Regulatory Capture, Resource Wars, Social Unrest, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, The Elite 1%, unwashed public
I’m on my downtime right now, but a paper, entitled ‘The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future‘, came to my attention and deserves a blog post. It was written by Professor Naomi Oreskes and Historian Erik M. Conway. It is the chronicling of past events after the Great Collapse by a future historian in China:
…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)…
The paper starts off with a brief history of industrial civilization’s chemical and material pollutions overloading the Earth’s environmental sinks. The sheer volume of mankind’s activities, from the Ozone Hole created by CFC’s to the resource-depleting diet of industrial cattle-farming, became a force of nature unto itself threatening the very habitability of the planet. The scientific community began to recognize that man’s industrial activities were upending the earth’s life support systems; various organizations and institutions were created to try to ‘protect the environment’, but the interests of free market capitalism with its high-consumption lifestyle created a backlash against any restriction and attempts to recognize the limits of the human economy’s unending growth. The party had to continue no matter how dire the consequences. 1988 is said to have marked the beginning of the “Penumbral Period”, perhaps meaning a time of partial illumination where the threat was seen, but no effective action was taken. Indeed, we dug our grave faster with the building of evermore coal-fired plants and the destruction of the remaining ecosystems in the face of a series of extreme and ominous weather events which had the earmarks of manmade climate change.
By the early 2000s, dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system was under way. Fires, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves began to intensify, but these effects were discounted. Those in what we might call active denial insisted that the extreme weather events reflected natural variability, despite a lack of evidence to support that claim. Those in passive denial continued life as they had been living it, unconvinced that a compelling justification existed for broad changes in industry and infrastructure. Scientists became entangled in arcane arguments about the “attribution” of singular events; however, the threat to civilization inhered not in any individual flood, heat wave, or hurricane, but in the overall shifting climate pattern, its impact on the cryosphere, and the increasing acidification of the world ocean…
…what was anomalous in 2021 soon became the new normal. Even then, political, business, and religious leaders refused to accept that the primary cause was the burning of fossil fuels. A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment. For this reason, we now know this era as the Period of the Penumbra.
If you don’t like reality, then withdraw into fantasy and rewrite history; “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” said Karl Rove.
In the early Penumbral Period, scientists were accused of being “alarmist” in order to increase financial support for their enterprise, gain attention, or improve their social standing. At first, the accusations took the form of public denunciations; later they included threats, thefts, and the subpoena of private correspondence. Then legislation was passed (particularly in the United States) that placed limits on what scientists could study and how they could study it, beginning with the notorious “Sea Level Rise Denial Bill,” passed in 2012 by the government of what was then the U.S. state of North Carolina (now part of the Atlantic Continental Shelf ) and the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2012, which restricted the ability of government scientists to attend conferences to share and analyze the results of their research.
Though ridiculed when first introduced, the Sea Level Rise Denial Bill would become the model for the U.S. National Stability Protection Act of 2022, which led to the conviction and imprisonment of more than three hundred scientists for “endangering the safety and well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats.” By exaggerating the threat, it was argued, scientists were preventing the economic development essential for coping with climate change. When the scientists appealed, their convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court under the Clear and Present Danger doctrine, which permitted the government to limit speech deemed to represent an imminent threat.
Human adaptive optimism is one explanation for why humans failed to act in order to save themselves. People came to believe that technology and human ingenuity would solve threats of environmental collapse. From The tragedy of cognition: psychological biases and environmental inaction:
And I love this line…
…robust evidence shows that people systematically overestimate the probability of positive future contingencies, and underestimate the probability of negative ones — only those who are depressed or dysphoric come to accurate assessments…
Diogenes of Sinope must have practiced a sort of philosophical dysphoria.
Another cause for modern man’s downfall was the adoption of an excessively stringent standard for accepting causal links between climate change and human industrial activities:
…Historians have long argued about why this standard was accepted, given that it had no substantive mathematical basis. We have come to understand the 95 percent confidence limit as a social convention rooted in scientists’ desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity. Just as religious orders of prior centuries had demonstrated moral rigor through extreme practices of asceticism in dress, lodging, behavior, and food–in essence, practices of physical self-denial–so, too, did natural scientists of the twentieth century attempt to demonstrate their intellectual rigor through intellectual self-denial. This practice led scientists to demand an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind, even those involving imminent threats…
CO2 emissions continued to rise not only in developing countries, but also developed countries as fossil fuel production accelerated with shale gas extraction and Canadian oil-sand processing. The world was firmly in the grasp of the fossil fuel energy trap.
…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? Certainly, they fostered the shadow of denial that obscured the link between climate change and fossil fuel production and consumption. They also entertained a second delusion: that natural gas from shale could offer a “bridge to renewables.” Believing that conventional oil and gas resources were running out (which they were, but at a rate insufficient to avoid disruptive climate change), and stressing that natural gas, when combusted, produced only half as much CO2 as coal, political and economic leaders persuaded themselves and their constituents that promoting shale gas was an environmentally and ethically sound approach.
This line of reasoning, however, neglected three crucial factors. First, fugitive methane emissions–CH4 that escaped unburned into the atmosphere–greatly accelerated warming. (Again, scientists had foreseen this phenomenon, but their predictions were buried in specialized journals.) Second, the argument presupposed that net CO2 emissions would fall, which would have required strict restrictions on coal and petroleum use. Third, and most important, the sustained low prices of fossil fuels, supported by continued subsidies and a lack of external cost accounting, undercut efficiency efforts and weakened emerging markets for solar, wind, and biofuels (including crucial liquid biofuels for aviation). Thus, the bridge to a zero-carbon future collapsed before the world had crossed it. The bridge to the future became a bridge to nowhere.
The following scenario seems to me to be our most likely future under the current path of business-as-usual:
…The net result? Fossil fuel production escalated, greenhouse gas emissions increased, and climate disruption accelerated. In 2001, the IPCC had predicted that atmospheric CO2 would double by 2050. In fact, that benchmark had been met by 2042. Scientists had expected a mean global warming of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius; the actual figure was 3.9 degrees. Though originally merely a benchmark for discussion with no particular physical meaning, the doubling of CO2 emissions turned out to be significant: once the corresponding temperature rise reached 4 degrees, rapid changes began to ensue.
By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm. Control measures such as water and food rationing and Malthusian drills had been widely implemented. In wealthy countries, hurricane- and tornado-prone regions were depopulating, putting increased social pressure on areas less subject to those hazards. In poor nations, conditions were predictably worse: rural portions of Africa and Asia were already experiencing significant depopulation from out-migration, malnutrition-induced disease and infertility, and starvation. Still, sea level had risen only 9 to 15 centimeters around the globe, and coastal populations were mainly intact.
Then, in the Northern Hemisphere summer of 2041, unprecedented heat waves scorched the planet, destroying food crops around the globe. Panic ensued, with food riots in virtually every major city. Mass migration of under-nourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever, and, strangely, AIDS (although a medical explanation for the latter has never been forthcoming). Surging insect populations also destroyed huge swaths of forests in Canada, Indonesia, and Brazil. As social order broke down, governments were overthrown, particularly in Africa, but also in many parts of Asia and Europe, further decreasing social capacity to deal with increasingly desperate populations. The U.S. government declared martial law to prevent food riots and looting, and the United States and Canada announced that the two countries would form the United States of North America in order to begin resource-sharing and northward population relocation. The European Union announced similar plans for voluntary northward relocation of eligible citizens from its southernmost regions to Scandinavia and the United Kingdom…
World leaders convened to hastily put together a climate geoengineering scheme in an effort to halt the collapse, but unforeseen side effects occurred and the project was immediately stopped, resulting in even more dire consequences. Various feedback loops unleashed a “Venusian death” on planet Earth:
…This massive addition of carbon led to what is known as the Sagan effect (sometimes more dramatically called the Venusian death): a strong positive feedback loop between warming and CH4 release. Planetary temperature increased by an additional 6 degrees Celsius over the 5 degree rise that had already occurred…
The rapid melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Sheet resulted in massive sea level rise and more apocalyptic human and non-human suffering:
…Analysts had predicted that a five-meter sea level rise would dislocate 10 percent of the global population. Alas, their estimates proved low: the reality was closer to 20 percent. Although records for this period are incomplete, it is likely that 1.5 billion people were displaced around the globe, either directly from the impacts of sea level rise or indirectly from other impacts of climate change, including the secondary dislocation of inland peoples whose towns and villages were overrun by eustatic refugees. Dislocation contributed to the Second Black Death, as a new strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis emerged in Europe and spread to Asia and North America. In the Middle Ages, the Black Death killed as much as half the population of Europe; this second Black Death had similar effects. Disease also spread among stressed nonhuman populations. Although accurate statistics are scant because twentieth-century scientists did not have an inventory of total global species, it is not unrealistic to estimate that 60 to 70 percent of species were driven to extinction…
This doomsday narration then ends with a sort of “happy note” which seems to me to be wishful thinking, an improbable turn of events which saves mankind from total extinction. The last few pages discuss more the pitfalls that mankind fell into leading to such a dire fate: positivism or Baconianism and market fundamentalism.
…power did not reside in the hands of those who understood the climate system, but rather in political, economic, and social institutions that had a strong interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels. Historians have labeled this system the carbon-combustion complex: a network of powerful industries comprised of primary fossil fuel producers; secondary industries that served fossil fuel companies (drilling and oil held service companies, large construction firms, and manufacturers of plastics and other petrochemicals); tertiary industries whose products relied on inexpensive fossil fuels (especially automobiles and aviation); and financial institutions that serviced their capital demands. Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening…
…When scientists discovered the limits of planetary sinks, they also discovered market failure. The toxic effects of DDT, acid rain, the depletion of the ozone layer, and climate change were serious problems for which markets did not provide a spontaneous remedy. Rather, government intervention was required: to raise the market price of harmful products, to prohibit those products, or to finance the development of their replacements. But because neoliberals were so hostile to centralized government, they had, as Americans used to say, “painted themselves into a corner.” The American people had been persuaded, in the words of President Reagan, that government was “the problem, not the solution.” Thus, citizens slid into passive denial, accepting the contrarian arguments that the science was unsettled. Lacking widespread support, government leaders were unable to shift the world economy to a net carbon-neutral energy base. As the implications for market failure became indisputable, scientists came under attack, blamed for problems they had not caused but merely documented…
Watching the following video, we can see such a future, as describe above, being played out before our very eyes:
Real Time episode with Bill Maher – aired April 5, 2013: Bill Maher led an intense panel discussion on the reliability of science on his show tonight, with Maher, Abby Huntsman, Senator Bernie Sanders, and 19-year-old science education activist Zack Kopplin arguing with Wall Street Journal columnist Steve Moore over scientific consensus on global warming. Moore continually insisted the debate is not over, but Maher repeatedly explained how sound science is not up for debate and that Moore should “have the humility” to defer to actual scientific experts on the issue…
I was very surprised that there wasn’t an uproar when this paper first came out, because it is highly critical of scientific reticence. I guess that having been safely esconced in a fictionalized framework, people were enabled to ignore it. Then again Hansen resigned so he can testify against his former employer.
“The Age of Stupid” didn’t change anything either, and that was done in film media, a very palatable form for the digitally hypnotized masses to consume.
Good piece once again, and thank you for pointing to Oreskes’s and Conway’s paper.
BTW, it’s “Karl Rove,” not “Carl Rove.” You might want to change that, for credibility’s sake….
Kevin Moore said:
Love this site. Keep up the great work.
I’ve objected a couple of times, though mostly in passing, to the excessively stringent numerical evidence required to demonstrate what should be obvious even without such arbitrary stringence. Nice to see such thinking hoisted by its own petard.