Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes & Eric M. Conway



Published 2014, "written" in 2393

This book by two historians of science examines our world through the lens of a dystopian fiction. For anyone looking for plot and character, go elsewhere. (I think that they’d recommend the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, whom they acknowledge in the book.) This is a “history” book written by historians looking back from the year 2393 while working in the "Second (Neocommunist) People’s Republic of China". But if you want to learn about what we currently know, what we’re currently doing (or not doing), and how our choices extrapolate into the future, then this is a worthwhile book. Anyone who’s read this blog or followed my Tweets knows that climate change and our collective indifference to it and the future that it holds for us is a major concern of mine. I used to say that this concern would be the problem that my daughters and their generation would have to face. Of course, events have proven this expectation false—it’s here now, staring us in the face, as these two authors make abundantly clear. 

Because the authors are both historians of science, they enjoy street cred with both the science community and the larger community, or at least me. (I won’t give my “all knowledge is a matter of history” talk here, but if you need a quick refresher, see below*.) In a previous book, Merchants of Doubt: Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to ClimateChange (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), these two authors detailed the use of scientists to peddle doubts for the purpose on delaying action on issues of public health from tobacco use to global climate change. They understand not only the science involved in these issues, but also the social context in which that science is practiced. Indeed, the whole point of this exercise is the examine how we in the early 21st century have convinced ourselves that we can ignore these issues and blithely continue down our current path toward disaster. They cite a great deal of relevant science and they extrapolate from our current knowledge about what may happened to this Earth of ours given our current choices. But their observations about canons of knowledge and ideologies are the more unique and insightful aspects of their project. 

Following are some of the more interesting points taken from the book with my commentary following. 

The physical scientists studying these steadily increasing disasters did not help quell this denial, and instead became entangled in arcane arguments about the “attribution” of singular events [floods, fires, storms, droughts & other weather-related events]. Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M. (2014-06-24). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (p. 7). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

Although they don’t come out and say it (Oreskes is a Harvard professor), the scientific community often lives in an ivory tower. Science is a social enterprise, a human enterprise par excellence, and to ignore this all too human aspect of science is a terrible mistake. To whom much is given (to wit, money for research grants), much is expected. While arguments over standards and protocols are important, they don’t override the greater concerns of society as a whole. 

[M]ost countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state. p. 8

It’s good to realize that the word about the utter inadequacy of GNP as a measure of well-being is growing in popularity. But we should move beyond our snapshot in time (as the authors later suggest) and beyond the immediate human world in measuring performance and well-being. 

Though leaders of the scientific community protested, scientists yielded to the demands, thus helping set the stage for further pressure on scientists from both governments and the industrial enterprises that governments subsidized and protected. 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 House Bill 819, better known as the “Sea Level Rise Denial Bill,” passed in 2012 by the government of what was then the U.S. state of North Carolina . . . . pp. 11-12

This is a really frightening realization, one that makes Tennessee’s outlawing of the teaching of evolution (as displayed in the Snopes trial) seem trivial. Really, in 21st century America this could happen? This is Orwellian—or more bluntly, Stalinist. (Orwell of course decried such lies; Stalin and his cohort used the airbrush on history and reality with abandon.) 

It is difficult to understand why humans did not respond appropriately in the early Penumbral Period, when preventive measures were still possible. Many have sought an answer in the general phenomenon of human adaptive optimism, which later proved crucial for survivors. p. 13

We humans believe that we can always come out in the last reel. Maybe, but we test the limits. One thing that the authors don’t do in this “history” is explore fully all of the likely social, political, and economic disasters that will likely befall humanity if our environment comes crashing down around us. The Four Horsemen of war, famine, pestilence, and death will ride freely throughout the world. To think that we can “innovate” our way out of such a situation amounts to fantasy, mere wishful thinking. 

Even more elusive to scholars is why scientists, whose job it was to understand the threat and warn their societies—and who thought that they did understand the threat and that they were warning their societies—failed to appreciate the full magnitude of climate change. To shed light on this question, some scholars have pointed to the epistemic structure of Western science, particularly in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was organized both intellectually and institutionally around “disciplines” in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry…. While reductionism proved powerful in many domains, particularly quantum physics and medical diagnostics, it impeded investigations of complex systems. Reductionism also made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climatic change, since many experts did not actually know very much about aspects of the problem beyond their expertise. pp. 13-14

Again, an important criticism of what is typical of academia—learning more and more about less and less. We can’t afford this now. Specialization and narrow focus can be a tool in some situations, but like many useful tools, it can only prove useful on limited occasions. 

Other scientists promoted the ideas of systems science, complexity science, and, most pertinent to our purposes here, earth systems science, but these so-called holistic approaches still focused almost entirely on natural systems, omitting from consideration the social components. Yet in many cases, the social components were the dominant system drivers. It was often said, for example, that climate change was caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Scientists understood that those greenhouse gases were accumulating because of the activities of human beings—deforestation and fossil fuel combustion—yet they rarely said that the cause was people, and their patterns of conspicuous consumption. pp. 15-16

This is a good point about systems and complexity theories. They are better (i.e., more useful in this context) than reductionist theories, but some do divorce humanity from Nature. We are at once a part of Nature and apart from Nature, but now we need to appreciate just how much a part of Nature we are. 

Other scholars have looked to the roots of Western natural science in religious institutions. 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 physical scientists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries attempt to demonstrate their intellectual rigor through practices of intellectual self-denial.9 These practices led scientists to demand an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind, even those involving imminent threats. In an almost childlike attempt to demarcate their practices from those of older explanatory traditions, scientists felt it necessary to prove to themselves and the world how strict they were in their intellectual standards. Thus, they placed the burden of proof on novel claims—even empirical claims about phenomena that their theories predicted. This included claims about changes in the climate. p. 16

This is a fascinating insight: scientists as the new ascetics. This helps me understand someone like the late Seth Roberts, who was (in essence) a human climate-change denier. I argued (in comments on his blog) that the judgment was a practical one requiring action, not one that should be governed by abstract principles of skepticism. My thinking came from my knowledge and experience with the common law tradition of making judgments about practical matters of liability. He never made clear (to me anyway) the nature of his skepticism in the face of so much contrary proof. 

Much of the argument surrounded the concept of statistical significance. Given what we now know about the dominance of nonlinear systems and the distribution of stochastic processes, the then-dominant notion of a 95 percent confidence limit is hard to fathom. Yet overwhelming evidence suggests that twentieth-century scientists believed that a claim could be accepted only if, by the standards of Fisherian statistics, the possibility that an observed event could have happened by chance was less than 1 in 20.. . . . We have come to understand the 95 percent confidence limit as a social convention rooted in scientists’ desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity. p. 17

I’m so glad to read this. I’m untrained in statistics (one of my many shortcomings), but it always seemed to me that the whole enterprise could be quite arbitrary. This is what they say: you have to do better than 1/20 to have “statistical significance”. That’s probably an extremely useful heuristic, but as a “law”, it’s junk. And as a guide for action? Maybe, but maybe not. The appropriateness of any standard depends upon on what’s at stake, other sources of confirmation or disproof, and the time scale in which we must judge. In other words, a common law type of judgment: the likelihood of harm, the magnitude of possible harm, and the cost of alternatives serve as benchmarks for decision-making.

Western scientists built an intellectual culture based on the premise that it was worse to fool oneself into believing in something that did not exist than not to believe in something that did. p. 17

Again, which is the worst mistake depends on the practical outcome of the actions taken as a result of the belief or unbelief. The likely practical consequence of a mistake, and not the cause of the possible mistake, should guide action. 

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 fuel combustion was to blame. 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. p. 35

Exactly: how can we be so dumb? (And by dumb, I mean in action, not as simply as a means of name-calling.) This is a social-political problem, a problem of persuasion and decision-making of the highest importance. 

The thesis of this analysis is that Western civilization became trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism. p. 35
Yes. 

[T]he overall philosophy is more accurately known as Baconianism. This philosophy held that through experience, observation, and experiment, one could gather reliable knowledge about the natural world, and that this knowledge would empower its holder. Experience justified the first part of the philosophy (we have recounted how twentieth-century scientists anticipated the consequences of climate change), but the second part—that this knowledge would translate into power—proved less accurate. p. 36

This suggests and extreme naiveté by the scientific community and those who support them. 

A key attribute of the period was that 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 comprising fossil fuel producers, industries that served energy companies (such as drilling and oil field service companies and large construction firms), manufacturers whose products relied on inexpensive energy (especially automobiles and aviation, but also aluminum and other forms of smelting and mineral processing), financial institutions that serviced their capital demands, and advertising, public relations, and marketing firms who promoted their products. pp. 36-37

While I’m skeptical of conspiracy theories in general, I do believe that this mind-set (intentional or otherwise—as in false consciousness, akrasia, etc.) does trump because it represents tangible interests as well as a repeated and widely promoted ideology. 

[A] large part of Western society was rejecting that knowledge in favor of an empirically inadequate yet powerful ideological system. Even at the time, some recognized this system as a quasi-religious faith, hence the label market fundamentalism. Market fundamentalism—and its various strands and interpretations known as free market fundamentalism, neoliberalism, laissez-faire economics, and laissez-faire capitalism—was a two-pronged ideological system. pp. 37-38). 

The first prong held that societal needs were served most efficiently in a free market economic system. Guided by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, individuals would freely respond to each other’s needs, establishing a net balance between solutions (“supply”) and needs (“demand”). The second prong of the philosophy maintained that free markets were not merely a good or even the best manner of satisfying material wants: they were the only manner of doing so that did not threaten personal freedom. p. 38

Another example of good ideas gone bad. A market economy is better than other forms, but it isnt’ perfect, and as we humans tend to do, we overreached and made the market absolute. 

The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention. p. 48

This forecast is probably correct. How ironic! 

Period of the Penumbra  The shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries. pp. 59-60

This leads me back to an insight that I’ve had since I started thinking about this world: human power—via technology—has outrun human wisdom. We have loosed a genie that we can’t control. We humans are the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with none but Nature that can restore order—and it will be messy. 

[Naomi Oreskes being interviewed] The nation in which our historian is writing is the Second PRC, because we imagine that after a period of liberalization and democratization, autocratic forces become resurgent in China, justified by the imperative of dealing with the climate crisis. EC [author Erik Conway]: Chinese civilization has been around a lot longer than Western civilization has and it’s survived a great many traumas. While I’m not sure the current government of China is likely to hold up well—the internal tensions are pretty glaring—it’s hard to imagine a future in which there’s no longer a place called China. And as Naomi explains, authoritarian states may well find it easier to make the changes necessary to survive rapid climate change. With a few exceptions, the so-called liberal democracies are failing to address climate change. p. 70

The authors suggest that China will “go renewable” sooner than the West and will adapt more effectively than the Western nations. Maybe. Currently, China is hell-bent on further economic development, and we can see the effect every day in the air quality. The central government does currently have the power to make drastic changes, but how drastic and under what conditions would be subject to a major stress test. The assumption of anything less than a Hobbesian state of nature (or the rise of a Leviathan led by someone as bloodthirsty as a Stalin or a Hitler) seems overly optimistic to me if things deteriorate with the speed and to the extent that the authors suggest that it might. 

This was a one-sitting read. It goes along with William (Patrick) Ophuls and Thomas Homer-Dixon on my (electronic) shelf about the challenge of global climate change. I hope that we can prove their “history” false. 

P.S. The NYT article interview tipped me off to Oreskes and her work, and her TED talk on the practice of science.  


* In sum, the history of anything amounts to that thing itself. History is not a social science but an unavoidable form of thought. That "we live forward but we can only think backward" is true not only of the present (which is always a fleeting illusion) but of our entire view of the future: for even when we think of the future we do this by remembering. But history cannot tell us anything about the future with certainly. Intelligent research, together with a stab of psychological understanding, may enable us to reconstruct something from the past; still, it cannot help us predict the future.