Monday, 9 February 2015

“I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder.”

The Collapse of Western Civilization; a View from the Future. By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 90 pp.

I guess a lot of people who read feel like they have had enough of the climate change issue. There are thousands of scientists working on the issue, and reports come out every day. A survey of literature in the scientific journals finds that 97% of those doing the actual research know that global warming and climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels.

The international organizations confronting this issue have set an arbitrary limit to the increase in temperature that we can tolerate: 2 degrees Celsius. That level of increase is often cited as “the tipping point” which will trigger disasters that cannot be stopped or reversed. The World Bank in its 2012 report argued that if things continue as they are going by the end of the 21st Century the rise would be around 4 degrees. They warned that it is not certain that we can adapt to such a climate. The International Energy Agency, an arm of the western capitalist states, which promotes the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, warned in 2011 that we are actually heading towards a 6 degrees Celsius increase.

We also know only too well that our governments are unwilling to take any serious steps towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. All the international conferences on the issue repeat the conflict between the industrialized western states and the less developed countries. Our governments are not impressed with arguments that our industrial revolution created the mess, so why should the poor countries of the Third World be called on to take a heavy economic hit? Why don’t we set up a system based on per-capita consumption of fossil fuels? And so on.

It is easy for those of us who have followed this issue over the years to conclude that it seems highly unlikely that our governments will adopt any policies that seriously try to mitigate the problem. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway believe this to be the case. Thus their small book looks back at the Period of the Penumbra (1988 - 2093), which produced the Great Collapse and the Mass Migration (2073-2093). Why did this happen?

Oreskes and Conway are highly respected historians of science based at U.S. universities. In 2010 they authored the widely acclaimed Merchants of Doubt. They exposed the influence of a small number of right wing neoliberal scientists whose crusade was to cast doubt on the science which exposed the dangers of tobacco smoking, acid rain, the questions about the ozone layer, and climate change. They were aided by corporations and conservative “think tanks.” The strategy was to deny the mainstream scientific data, delay any government action, and to present misleading evidence. They were aided by the mainstream media, which gave them equal coverage under their demand for “balanced reporting.”

Neoliberal hegemony
The key to the lack of action by governments was the ideological hegemony of neoliberal political economy. The scientists were on the political right: they strongly resisted any government intervention into the free market. These advocates were relatively few in number, but they had the support of political and economic power.

As I read their prediction of what would happen without a significant effort to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, I was reminded of the study done for the Pentagon on what to expect from the advance of climate change. It was the only study to seriously predict major loss of food crops, food riots, mass migrations, wars for the control of resources, the outbreak of diseases, and the inability of governments to deal with the crisis. The result, they predicted, would be highly authoritarian governments and increased militarism.

Oreskes and Conway project the arrival of the Great North American Desert in 2041, which spread up from the High Plains in the USA through the breadbasket states and the Canadian prairies. In response to food riots and widespread looting, the U.S. government imposed martial law. The two countries formed the United States of North America to try to share resources and help the mass migration of American citizens into Canada. Similar moves were made in Europe and Russia. The populations of Australia and Africa were obliterated by the warming climate and the inability to grow food. The country that dealt best with the crisis was China, which had an effective authoritarian government, a very large military/police establishment, and a citizenry used to following orders.

“Where they said REPENT, REPENT, I wonder what they meant.”

Thanks, Leonard.

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