Customer Reviews: The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future
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on June 25, 2014
A pair of fine historians with strong science backgrounds have written a disturbing short book/extended essay. As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, I've read many stories of world-scale disasters. Their future dystopia seems all too plausible, if the USA continues to stall instead of leading. A country settled by people willing to invest in the future for their descendants, whose Founders included two fine scientists and educators of the time (Franklin and Jefferson), invested broadly in education and research and willing to spend 35 years building the Interstate Highway system ... ought to be able to do better, and if we can, the worst can be avoided.

The Netherlands does water planning on century scales, good to emulate. They're building more floating homes.

Oreskes and Conway correctly identify the biggest challenge as political rejection of science. Ironically, this was affirmed again after the book was done, just a few weeks ago, as the US House of Representatives wanted to stop the Pentagon from using the National Climate Assessment or IPCC reports in its plans. Do they really think it's a good idea to keep the Navy from thinking about #4 Norfolk/San Diego, #3 Pacific island bases, #2 Arctic geopolitics, or #1 fact that Karachi, PK is at sea level? That's tike telling the Cold War military to ignore radiation effects as nonexistent. Politicians may specify rejection of strong, inconvenient science, but the laws of physics do not care.

We have so far avoided the 1950s/1960s most worrisome doom, nuclear war, known to have immediate dire consequences. The challenge of limiting climate change damage to a level survivable by modern civilization** is the longer-than-election-cycle lag time from action (or its lack) until the results. Reworking the world's energy infrastructure is a huge, but necessary undertaking, but requires persistent effort over many decades by many people. Humans have done that before.

It is hard to see how the future gains from losing Miami, New Orleans, Shanghai, and many other sea-level cities ... but 50-100 years from now, the residents will have no time machines to come back and stop the problem when needed. They will be stuck.

As it stands, we've missed the choice between Good and Bad, but still have choice between Bad and Worse. In the book, Western civilization delayed until the choice was Worse and Awful and got more of the latter.

People should read the book, but not count on specific technology breakthroughs. Such do happen sometimes, and researchers are working hard in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, but back in Bell Labs, we always said "never schedule breakthroughs" because even we couldn't.
I thought the book's breakthrough was a bit of a "deus ex machina" akin to "Dyson trees" to produce a future that was bad, but still had historians. But I guess that's less unlikely that kindly advanced aliens who take pity and magically fix things.

Anyone who doubts the findings of climate science might attend AGU meetings or university lectures where one can hear good scientists and ask them questions, read some good books, learn enough science to take action. That science is no less strong than medical research establishing smoking/disease connection. (Compare IPCC and Surgeon General reports.) Rejecting climate science is like making sure kids start smoking by age 12 because medical researchers are all wrong, it 's good for the economy and even if the kids fall ill 50 years from now, surely there would be a miracle cure for cancer. People don't need to share political beliefs to accept the science, recognize the problem and argue for solutions they find acceptable.

The Greenhouse Effect and Conservation of Energy exist, and so we are headed for a temperature range above any seen in recorded history, with massive population and infrastructure dependent on that range.

The book's future path is somewhere between Worse and Awful. We don't have to go there, but the clock keeps ticking.

*That wasn't my list, but that of a very senior Navy admiral when asked about climate worries.. #1 Karachi surprised me until I thought about it. Karachi is largest city in PK, which already gets floods or droughts, uses Himalayan water along with quite a few other countries, has nuclear weapons and less-than-stable government. Given increasing pressure from climate change, what could possibly go wrong? Senior military people tend to be pretty pragmatic and this is the sort of thing that worries them.

**Not everyone understands the complexity and potential vulnerability of modern high-tech supply chains. Put another way, in a world as climate-stressed as the one envisioned by Oreskes and Conway, it's unclear that billions of people would have smartphones, Internet access and use of weather satellites.
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on July 1, 2014
This book should be read by anyone interested in the future of our civilization during the lifetime of our children and grand-children. It should be read by scientists who are trying to warn us of the coming catastrophe from climate change. It should be read - but won't be - by the politicians and the economic top 1% who are unable to comprehend, or simply don't care, that they will be the major cause of almost unimaginable suffering to humanity, all for the sake of living the high-life for a decade or two.

Oreskes and Conway are very perceptive historians who bring a strong understanding of science to their writing.

The book is written from the imaginary perspective of an historian from 2393 discussing the reasons for the collapse of Western civilization during the 21st century. I found the style of writing to be compelling. The book isn't describing a wildly speculative possible future (apart from compressing time by assuming a rate of sea-level rise that is at the extreme upper end of predictions) - it has strong elements of inevitability unless humanity takes dramatic action.

The study of history is terribly important. Thinking about what future historians will say about our current epoch gives an excellent perspective. Oreskes and Conway have important lessons for us on the inevitable failure of the free market, as well as issues with how physical scientists should reconsider their addiction to the 95% confidence limit and how they should show more appreciation for the biological and social sciences.

The book concludes with a Lexicon of Archaic Terms, a very interesting interview with the authors, and extensive notes. The illustrations show the effect of many metres of sea level rise on familiar coastlines.

If you haven't done so already, read the authors' earlier book "Merchant of Doubt".

Now go out and make sure that the future is brighter than Oreskes and Conway predict. There is still time to turn things around. Although New York is lost.
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This short book is a report by a future Chinese academic on the collapse of civilization in the 21st century, caused by global warming and pollution. It purports to recount the disaster with perspective that usually only time can provide. We today are too closely involved to see the forest for the trees. That is usually the case. Yet most of us can see the forest, burning, and that is a different issue the book delves into with gusto. Science has been shunted aside in favor of "freedom" and the dollar.

The basic premise of a historian looking back to see what happened is valid, but the authors don't go nearly far enough. The rank stupidity of the politicians of the 20th century is no different from the rank stupidity of the church in the thousand years before, when it burned scientists at the stake for uttering facts it did not want to hear, regardless of provability. Basically, it was always this way. There have always been entrenched interests to defend, empires to defend, wealth to defend, and of course power to expand. Our author from the future missed that.

It is instructive to see how a future Chinese academic might view the economic history of the west, citing capitalism vs communism and neoliberalism and market fundamentalism (in the religious fervor sense). But that academic would surely have also discovered and reported the simple truism that separates all of it for the purposes of his report: Communism failed because it did not tell the economic truth about prices. Capitalism failed because it did not tell the ecological truth about prices. That in a nutshell has driven the greed machine to the heights we see today. (It is touched on in the glossary.) The greater good is a concept discredited in the USA, and the result is a planet swamped for example, in 88,000 new chemical compounds since WWII, only three of which have been tested. (This is touched on in the Q&A, where they compare the lack of chemical testing to exhaustive testing in pharmaceuticals.) Government went from being the solution in the trustbuster age, to the problem in the Reagan era. The results were predictable and were predicted. The market fundamentalists just told everyone where they could go. And we are. Faster than we thought.

The "report" is only about 60 pages. More of a pamphlet than a book. There follows a lexicon of terms we in the present currently use and abuse. This also helps give perspective, as does the Q&A with the authors that follows. The combination of those three nonstandard components makes this an unusual book that would be refreshing if it weren't so hurtful.

David Wineberg
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on August 13, 2014
I heard an interview with the author on NPR and thought The Collapse of Western Civilization sounded great. Unfortunately, the actual book disappointed.

The book is billed as a fictional work about anthropologists in the future trying to uncover why climate change was allowed to get out of hand in the 21st century. It reads much more like a dorm room speculation about climate change involving people who understand the threat. There is no fictional character development, no plot, no other element of fiction other than a free-flowing type of essay. The authors should have employed a fiction author to help fictionalize the concept. I wanted a fast moving book to hand to a climate skeptic friend of mine (he calls himself "neutral"), but this book is not interesting to anyone who is not already interested in climate change.

The information in the book is good and fairly comprehensive. I found some of the political speculations interesting, perhaps because I rarely read anything in that area. The climate information is "broad stroke" without some of the newer interesting tidbits.

Lastly, this was the most glitchy Kindle book I've ever read. Trying to highlight a word often sent me immediately to the table of contents. Some paragraphs are repeated in gray-scale print, but there is no indication why or how those paragraphs are chosen. It makes the book feel a little like a Dummies book where some observation are highlighted in a heavy box, but in Dummies books that is to highlight important point. It is not a technique I've ever seen in fiction. It was an effort just to turn to the next page without being rerouted by some weird Kindle glitch.

This concept and information value of this book are great. I wish reading it had been as exciting.
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on June 29, 2014
This book is most definitely not a beach read. Instead, it is a rather frightening and riveting account of what we are doing right now to ensure that the book become fact. Facts that none of us want for our children or the future generations of humans. Facts that will devastate every living species on our planet. But, instead of taking it as a harbinger of doom, we should take action this very moment to mitigate some of the effects of global warming. We have the scientific information but it is up to us, as people of the world, to take that information , spread it, implement it into our lives. The book should be required reading for every politician as well as everyone in America.
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on August 3, 2014
This book truly illustrates the power of creative fiction as a vehicle for making real issues painfully relevant to the general public--the people who by their sheer numbers can force timely political and economic action.
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on July 10, 2014
An interesting substantiation and synthesis of various apocalyptic elements inn the very complex and multi-dimensional global crises we face. It is a bit short in actual credible projections, but does nicely bind together relevant ecological, economic, cultural, and political strands. There is little reason to hope for miracles, even less reason to imagine that blind faith in yet unknown technologies will somehow stop or reverse the accelerating slide into entropic chaos.
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on July 27, 2014
This is an important book that must be read. It takes an hour at most, unless you want to go through the impressive footnotes. It is entertaining and frightening. It can be read as speculative fiction or a well thought-out and documented view of the future from the future. Don't wait for the movie! It holds a mirror up to the politicians, businesspeople, scientists, and every day human beings turning the phrases used to deny, question, minimize or ignore climate change into the consequences the world will likely experience over the next century and beyond. "Bridge to renewables," "human adaptability," "the invisible hand," "geo-engineering." These phrases and more as the answers to solving or minimizing the problems caused by carbon-based emissions are shown as incomplete. And, to some extent, dangerous words obfuscating the problems and the actual solutions. This book needs to be read by all on all sides of the issues on climate change. As seen in some of the reviews, including some who choose not to read the book, this will not change some minds. But, if it just raises some elements of doubt or increases the sense of urgency in enough readers, maybe the tide will shift.
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on August 30, 2014
This truth is quite scary but it should not be alarming. This short book chronicles what is actually happening now, what we already know and what it is mostly likely in the coming century. An insidious political and business stranglehold is taking the world as we know it down. Oh that plans might be made to wake up and address this crisis.
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on June 25, 2014
This is a quite engaging book, as deep as it is concise in its tracing of how Enlightenment ideals have gone astray and been co-opted into a "free market fundamentalism" that is pushing us toward a disaster not only for the climate, but for our political structures.
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