Friday, August 1, 2014

The Collapse of Western Civilization

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are science historians, and they are hopping mad at folks who deny that humans are the primary cause of climate change.  Their outrage inspired them to write The Collapse of Western Civilization, which has been selling furiously in its first month on the market.  It’s a 112-page science fiction rant.

The story is a discourse on the Penumbral Age (1988-2093), written in 2393 by a Chinese historian.  The Penumbral Age was a time of paralyzing anti-intellectualism, when humankind failed to take action on an emerging climate catastrophe, which ended up sinking western civilization.  In presenting this story, the authors are rubbing the denialists’ noses in the steaming mess they created, similar to the process of housebreaking a crappy puppy.

By 1988, scientists could clearly see the approach of a huge storm, and they dutifully reported their findings.  They believed that once the public was informed, they would rationally do what needed to be done.  But the public shrugged, and the scientists were too dignified to run out into the streets, jump up and down, and scream warnings.  Also, the scientists were too conservative — temperatures ended up rising far more than they had predicted. 

Early in the twenty-first century, many more people could see the storm, but still nothing was done.  A dark villain moved to center stage — the carbon-combustion complex, a disgusting mob of slimy creeps who made a lot of money in activities dependent on burning fossil fuel.  They created think tanks that hurled excrement and insults at the annoying climate scientists.  Screw-brained economists hissed that government should take a long nap and let the invisible hand of the market magically make the bad stuff go away.  (My favorite line is, “The invisible hand never picks up the check.”)

And so, in a heavy fog of mixed messages, everyone resumed staring at their cell phones, and the world went to heck.  There were terrible storms and droughts.  The ice caps melted, and this opened the floodgates to the Great Collapse (2073 to 2093), when sea levels were eight meters higher (26 ft.).  Twenty percent of humankind was forced to move to higher ground during the Great Migration, about 1.5 billion people.  Thus, 100 percent of humankind would have been 7.5 billion — in 2073 — an amazingly high number!

I just let the cat out of the bag.  This book is a gusher of intoxicating hope and optimism.  While the Great Collapse blindsided the hopelessly rotten governments of the west, China did OK.  The wise leaders of the Second People’s Republic of China maintained a strong central government, free of corruption.  When sea levels rose, they quickly built new cities inland, in safe locations.  When leaders have integrity, miracles happen.

And it gets better.  In 2090, a female scientist in Japan created a GMO fungus that gobbled up the greenhouse gas doo-doo, the storm passed, and the survivors lived happily ever after.  Unfortunately, by that time, there was a total dieoff in Africa and Australia.  Luckily, the northern folks, who contributed heavily to the disaster, survived (minus the polar bears).

The authors note that it’s now too late to halt climate change; it’s time for damage control.  The whole thing could have been prevented if only we had rapidly shifted to non-carbon-based energy sources.  Really?  No expert with both oars in the water believes that renewable energy could ever replace more than a small portion of the energy we currently produce from non-renewable fuels.  If we phased out the extraction of fossil energy, our way of life would go belly up.  The status quo is a dead end, and rational change provides few benefits when it’s a hundred years too late.

Solar panels and wind turbines are not made of pixie dust, rainbows, and good vibes.  They are produced by high-impact industrial processes.  They require the consumption of non-renewable resources.  They produce energy that is used to temporarily keep an extremely unsustainable society on life support.  Hydropower dams are ecological train wrecks.  The authors lament that carbon-free nuclear energy became unhip because of a few wee boo-boos.

The book gives high praise to the precautionary principle, which is old-fashioned common sense with a spiffy title.  If you see an emerging problem, nip it in the bud.  If a new technology is not perceived to be 100 percent safe by a consensus of scientists, forget about it until its safety can be proven beyond all doubt.  Duh!  Common sense says that humankind made a huge mistake by ignoring the warnings of scientists in 1988.

The precautionary principle would also have blocked the development of nuclear technology.  It was spectacularly stupid to build 440 nuclear reactors before the wizards had a plan for storing the wastes, which remain highly toxic for more than 100,000 years.  By 2073, all of these reactors will be far beyond their designed life expectancy.  Decommissioning can take decades, and it can cost more than the original construction.  If the 440 reactors are not decommissioned before the grid shuts down, each will do a lively impersonation of Fukushima, and spew deadly radiation forever.  Or maybe they will be disastrously decommissioned by war, earthquakes, terrorists, or economic meltdown.

Imagine a graph that spans 4,000 years, from A.D. 1 to 4000.  The trend line is fairly flat, except for a brief 200-year period in the middle, which looks like a tall spike, as narrow and sharp as an icicle.  As I write in 2014, we’re very close to the tip of this icicle.  This spike is the petroleum bubble, and its trend line is nearly the same as the bubbles of food production, human population, and resource extraction.  What’s important to grasp here is that the way of life we consider normal is an extreme deviation in the 200,000-year human journey.  It’s a temporary abnormality, and it can never again be repeated.

Oil production is quite close to peak.  The huge deposits are past peak.  Today we are extracting oil from lean, challenging deposits, and the output is expensive.  Costs will rise, production will decline, and economies will stumble until Game Over, which seems likely well before 2050.  Industrial agriculture has an expiration date.  (See The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb.)

Unfortunately, after the peak, our carbon problems are not going to fade away in a hundred years.  The book imagines that the global temperature in 2060, fanned by positive feedback loops, will be 11° C warmer than in 1988.  It’s hard to imagine agriculture surviving such a huge transition, consequently a population of 7.5 billion in 2073 seems impossible.  While the authors wring their hands about rising sea level, Brian Fagan (in The Great Warming) warns that the far greater threat of warming is megadroughts, like one in California that began in A.D. 1250 and lasted 100 years.

The bottom line here is that, even if our enormous carbon emissions were perfectly harmless, we have created such a cornucopia of perplexing predicaments that the coming years are certain to be exciting and memorable.  By definition, an unsustainable way of life can only be temporary.  It’s fun to dream, but I have a hunch that reality may not fully cooperate with the story’s imaginary hope and optimism.  Reality bats last.

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M., The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014.


Anonymous said...

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Anonymous! I have no issue with the authors' core thrust. The response to climate change has been terribly bungled on many fronts, and the costs will be extremely high. Many people in positions of power failed to behave in an honorable and honest manner. The conversion of a sound argument into a fictionalized package was poorly polished, in my opinion. I hope that the second edition is better.

Anonymous said...

very good, we need all the help/experiments we can manage as we go down with the ship and fine-tuning/feedback is always needed

What Is Sustainable said...

Well, you've lured in a massive audience. Best wishes in your future work.

Icarus62 said...

One of your very best blog posts, I think (and I have read many of them). You've given a succinct and sobering outline of the grim situation we have created for ourselves, and of the futility of expecting civilisation to continue with 'renewables' in place of fossil fuels.

John (Icarus62)

What Is Sustainable said...

John, yes indeed, better days ahead. We're finally moving out of the Dark Age, moving beyond Peak Foolishness. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw. An old bearded prophet in a long robe is holding a sign of warning: "The beginning is near!"

kaat said...

Thank you for the warning about the optimistic ending. That would have ruined my day, and I'd have been upset about spending the money on it.

What Is Sustainable said...

It was certainly a unique story. I almost never read fiction anymore, but it had a catchy title, and it was generating some buzz.