The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Columbia University Press, 104 pages, $9.95 (paperback), $9 (e-book)
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I confided to Noah, of the Ark, that I was considering getting myself arrested.
Noah, played by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, took my hand in appreciation. We were just south of Central Park, participating in the largest climate demonstration in history, last month in New York. Signs dotted the crowd: “Invest in our future, not our demise,” “System change, not climate change,” “End oil,” “What is the ROI on a dead planet?”
But instead of getting arrested the next day at a climate sit-in on Wall Street, I decided, with a heavy heart, to board an El Al flight at JFK and return home to Jerusalem, a flight that was powered by heavy jet fuel. Thus I contributed, from seat 25G, 2.91 tons of harmful carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
My friends at Auburn, a Presbyterian seminary in New York, built a replica of Noah’s Ark for the climate march, which was tugged, ironically, by a 4x4 pickup powered on gasoline. That same week, oil had hit a two-year low of $90 a barrel, a price, of course, that does not factor in the oil subsidies, tax breaks and defense costs that the taxpayers dish out to maintain Western civilization’s addiction to this source of poison in our atmosphere.
“We Are All Noah Now” read the banner on the Ark. The bearded Waskow, a long-time peace activist, connected me to the group that was planning the next day’s civil disobedience, scheduled for right before the UN Climate Summit. I was willing to be taken into custody as part of an effort to increase pressure on world leaders to reduce emissions, but something about the proposed action didn’t sit right.
As if responding to a divine cue, Torah scrolls around the world this week will be rolled to Chapter 6 of Genesis, in which we read how “the earth was corrupt before God” (Genesis 6:11), and the destruction of the world by the rising waters is foretold. According to the midrashic text Bereisheet Rabbah, God gave Noah 125 years’ advance notice about his intention to destroy the world with a flood. Indeed, this gave Noah time to plant and tend to the very gopher trees that he would later use to craft the fabled Ark.
To his discredit, Noah didn’t think about the survival of more than himself, his family and his floating zoo; he knew the waters were coming, yet according to the Torah, he did nothing to prepare the rest of humanity or warn them to change their evil ways. The rabbis, in trying to redeem Noah a bit, say that just the act of building the ark elicited questions and thus Noah was at least able to give some people a warning, though it was ignored. The death sentence — or the collapse of Earth’s first civilization — hung in the biblical air for over a century.
How could it have happened?
The paradox of how the human race in modern times could have understood the significance of the effect of burning fossil fuels on climate change and not switch to renewables for power is the central question posed by “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future,” a book nearly as short as the first handful of chapters of Genesis and loaded with as much doom, caused by humanity’s unchecked evil inclinations.
The 52-page, science-based fictional narrative, with notes and appendices, is set in the year 2393, and consists of an imagined lecture being delivered by a historian of the “Second People’s Republic of China” to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the “Great Collapse.” While in the decades preceding 2093, we are told, millions were already affected by food and water shortages caused by climate change — as we are witnessing already today — the Great Collapse described by authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway was triggered when the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed into the sea, “And the waters became exceedingly powerful upon the earth” (Genesis 7:19). This, we are told, would raise ocean levels worldwide an additional 5 meters (10 cubits in biblical terms), to the point where Africa, North America and much of Europe and Asia endure climate-caused social and political chaos, leading to massive destruction, with billions dead, and another 1.5 billion people displaced.
Then the Greenland Ice Sheet, near the Earth’s northern pole, quickly plunges too, raising the waters worldwide an additional 2 meters. “Dislocation contributed to the Second Black Death,” our narrator says in sterile language. “Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.” Only China, with central command and control made possible by its autocratic government, was able to adapt. It phases out its use of fossil fuels, relocates 250 million of its people to higher ground, and loses “only” 20 percent of its population.
Biblical levels of destruction
The book lacks any characters other than the collective “children of the Enlightenment” — that’s us — whose folly is responsible for the Collapse. The “plot” of the Chinese historian’s talk rests on two pillars: the climate-related events of the 21st century, which snowball to biblical levels of destruction, and the ideologies that prevented the “children of the Enlightenment” from taking the necessary steps, particularly in the West, from anticipating or responding to those events so as to prevent the Great Collapse.
“To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil combustion was to blame,” says our Chinese narrator. She continues: “Historical analysis also shows that Western civilization had the technological know-how and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy, yet the available technologies were not implemented in time.”
The book’s science is strong, compelling and scary; the authors are both historians of science (like their fictional narrator), Oreskes at Harvard and Conway at the California Institute of Technology. The narrative references many of the recent climate events and studies, including the recent warnings about the danger from the increased pace of emissions from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But when it comes to explaining why civilization ultimately failed to act — and what could still turn the tide toward climate stability — the authors miss the boat.
Their analysis, delivered by the faceless Chinese official, gets tangled in the gobbledygook of the ideological battle between “neoliberals” — those arguing for the preeminence of individual freedoms and of no government intervention, and environmentalists — the academics and scientists who are sounding the alarm that government must intervene in the use of fossil fuels so as to prevent the world’s destruction. The authors, by use of their clever historical premise, are obsessed with responding to climate deniers and “neoliberals” of today, making this a sequel of sorts to their last book, “Merchants of Doubt” (2011), about what they called the “climate denial industry.”
The battle is real, to be sure, but it is overplayed here to the detriment of actually telling us what needs to happen now to alleviate climate change, and the critical role that citizens action could play in making that happen.
Oreskes and Conway’s argument is that if the government doesn’t intervene on climate — ending $600 billion in global oil subsidies, taxing carbon, encouraging renewables and fast — the chaos that will follow the inevitable catastrophic weather changes will lead to autocratic regimes coming to power in the United States and worldwide to quell the food riots, the flood of climate refugees, and the fall of the economic systems that currently allow the rich (yes, the “neoliberals”) to get richer.
The argument is essentially a strategic appeal to the long-term economic interests of the political elites, mostly in the United States. If government is not permitted now to stop the burning of coal and oil, tar-sand mining and fracking, goes the book’s logic, then the ruling classes will only be accelerating the moment of their own demise, when all markets will fail and it will only be possible to appreciate beachfront real estate from the window of a submarine.
The authors’ creative attack, ahead of the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, on those who today deny climate change and advocate a hands-off approach by government, is what makes this work a must-read in the politics of climate change. Its gift — the real reason everyone should read it — is that it gives us an opportunity to imagine the world as our grandchildren will encounter it. And as Noah saw it. The scenario it posits is damning. But also preventable.
Missing from the narrative is the role of the individual and what can happen when 400,000 people come together in New York, and millions more worldwide, to launch a climate revolution.
Capitalism the core evil?
The reason I didn’t get myself arrested last month in New York is that although I agree that the issue needs to be at the top of every nation’s agenda, I have come to disagree with the basic premise of the protesters — and, in a way, also of this book. The activist event was called “Flood Wall Street,” and the assumption behind it was that capitalism is the core evil of what drives the “carbon combustion complex,” as Oreskes and Conway refer to the industries that control and distort much of our economy and politics. While that is true enough, I reject the government-versus-capitalism dichotomy.
By blaming gargantuan systems, the authors disempower the reader at the very moment when they have effectively woken us up from our climate-complicit slumber.
Enlightened capitalism can move at the speed of light, in comparison to the typical pace of government action; it is, in fact, the only vehicle capable of offering a solution to our plight. Yes, government, pressured by citizens, needs to tax carbon and incentivize the speedy ramping-up of renewables, and the best way to do this is to create a level playing field that removes the $600 billion in global fossil-fuel subsidies. But the ultimate goal should be to make available massive amounts of green capital for the research and development that is needed to quickly ramp up renewables and electric vehicles. And these must and can be profitable.
The cost of solar power, for example, has dropped so dramatically that it’s already worthwhile economically on a third of the planet — and probably could be in more than half the planet, if fossil-fuel subsidies were to be phased out, especially in the Middle East. The children of the Enlightenment can actually make good money from the greening of our grids and roads.
True, the dividends to be earned from investing in ExxonMobil are still likely to be higher than those from any solar company today, but this is where our greed needs to be checked in favor of decent returns that promote sustainability rather than short-term profits that are accompanied by the rising waters that will ultimately wipe out the consumers of ExxonMobil oil.
On the same day as “Flood Wall Street” took place, 50 major foundations, led by the Rockefeller Brothers, who — don’t forget — made their money in the oil business, announced their intention to divest from carbon-related companies, primarily oil, and invest instead in green energy. Israel, which should be the world’s solar-power leader, still has not approved new solar quotas. Shamefully, today, only 2 percent of our energy comes from green energy. The Israeli government also undermined a national electric vehicle charge network.
Citizens and investors need to demand the opening-up of the local energy market to thousands of megawatts of renewables. And Jewish-communal pension funds and endowments need to divest from oil, gas, coal and car companies and reinvest in green alternatives, in Israel and around the world.
Along with the greening of investment capital, what is required of the sensitive reader of “The Collapse of Western Civilization” is to demand a low-carbon consumer revolution and a change to our own lifestyles. Putting billions of dollars in play from consumers for electric cars, solar chargers, solar home systems and more can slow emissions and incentivize businesses to make the switch as well.
When I arrived back in Jerusalem from the climate march, I went online and bought a carbon offset for my round-trip for $29.75, so that my participation would in effect be carbon neutral. I then realized that for several thousand dollars a year, our family’s entire carbon footprint — from the electricity we use to the public buses we ride — could be zeroed out. The offset is used to plant trees or engage in other actions that reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is one step we can all take so we can live carbon-neutral lives today.
Yet individual carbon offsets are no substitute for the outrage that is needed against all our complacent governments and the oil, coal, gas and car companies profiting from our march toward the Great Collapse. Government action is needed, fueled by citizens’ votes and economic power. For this time, tending to gopher trees, like Noah did, is not a practical or ethical solution.
Yosef I. Abramowitz, CEO of Energiya Global Capital and one of the founders of Israel’s and Africa’s solar industries, recently joined the Public Council for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. He was named by CNN as one of the world’s top six Green Pioneers and was the first private-sector candidate for Israel’s presidency, running on a green and pluralistic platform.