Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Carolina Parrothead book review-- sort of

"The Collapse of Western Civilization" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik. M. Conway

Always on the lookout for an informative and intriguing book my ears perked up several days back while listening to a guy on National Public Radio interview the authors of a book entitled “The Collapse of Western Civilization.” The way Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway described their book I immediately thought it would follow in the tradition of such novels as “Warday” and Nature's End”, both written by the team of Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka.

Since both of those books have long since passed into obscurity a little background might be helpful. Originally published in 1984, Warday is, of course, a fictionalized accounting of two friends traveling through an America dealing with the aftermath of a limited nuclear war. Given the scale of human suffering, Dark Age-level chaos, and the de facto balkanization of the United States portrayed in that book from just a limited exchange I probably could not have dealt with the nightmarish descriptions from an all-out nuclear war. Their followup work, published in 1987, is called Nature's End and is set in the year 2025 where over population, pollution, and social inequality have pushed the planet to the edge of destruction. In that novel the global situation is so bad that an international suicide movement has formed whose members believe a drastic reduction in human population is the only thing that can save the planet. Yes, global warming/climate change does play a role in the overall story, although I don't remember it being the central problem.

Both Warday and Nature's End are complex tomes, heavy on the fictional side using facts to paint a broad picture of just how badly humans can screw up the environment and their cherished institutions. From what I heard on NPR,“The Collapse of Western Civilization” seemed to be following in a similar vein, this time emphasizing how global warming/climate change destroyed not just our hyper-consumerist society but the basic underpinnings and assumptions on how we live our lives. I was so intrigued from the authors interview that a few minutes later I'm on the Amazon website ordering the book figuring not only would I learn something new about climate change but would be entertained in the process.

About a week later I receive a package from Amazon about the size of a DVD case rather puzzled over what I could have possibly ordered. Once I opened the package I was surprised not to find not an actual book but a glorified pamphlet entitled “The Collapse of Western Civilization.” Upon a closer examination of its Amazon webpage, and reading several customer reviews I discovered there was no mistake, the book I had eagerly awaited was about the size and length of a travel brochure. Needless to say I was both disappointed and more than slightly ticked since the price for this item was that of a regular book. I was so upset I did something I rarely ever do and that was give it one star review on Amazon along with a snarky comment. With those pitiful actions out of the way I then went about to read my newly arrived pamphlet.

Spoiler Alert- damn book is so short it makes it unavoidable

At least “The Collapse of Western Civilization” lives up to its name despite its abbreviated nature. Essentially what happens is that despite all the scientific evidence that climate change is real nothing concrete is ever done to break away from fossil fuels. Because of that climate disasters increase in frequency along with their severity. This includes massive continent wide crop failures along with the emergence of new diseases and a few old ones, like bubonic plague, coming back with a vengeance and going pandemic. Seems disease carrying insects and microorganisms just love the warmer weather and take full advantage of populations weakened by famine, forced mass migrations, and unsanitary conditions. Sorry folks, for those who might want to take a simplistic approach and just close borders and build fences I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you for a great price. What really delivers the knock out punch to western civilization is the increased in global temperatures due to the burning of fossil fuels which sends the planet past the tipping point thawing out the permafrost tundra in the polar regions. This warmed up permafrost starts releasing methane that had been frozen for tens of thousands of years into the atmosphere. This release of methane, a greenhouse gas that makes carbon dioxide look weak, raises global temperatures to the point a nifty feedback loop is created thawing out yet more permafrost which releases even more of the stuff into the atmosphere causing even more warming. For the scientifically unaware, and there are a lot of folks like that in the good old USA, the one thing we have in a near infinite supply of in the polar regions of the planet is methane trapped in the permafrost.

The authors speculate in the book that the only thing preventing Earth from becoming like Venus is the creation of a genetically engineered fungus that is able to consume carbon dioxide at a much faster rate. One of the drawback of this idea though is that the authors write that this fungus visibly altered the landscape without really describing what they mean. While this methane release cycle was going on the massive ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland begin an accelerated melting that cause coastal cities around the world to be flooded. Nations, barely dealing with the increase in famine and plagues now have to contend with moving hundreds of millions to higher ground. At that point many nations are reformulated and become highly centralized to deal with events. For example a neo-communist “Second People's Republic of China” is proclaimed along with Canada and the United States merging in some fashion. Sorry Canada, you know with over three-hundred million egotistical folks south of your border the urge to merge would eventually become overwhelming, just be happy it took what amounts to a biblical disaster for it to happen. Oh yeah, none of these new nations have time for the niceties of democracy in the face certain mass death and even possible extinction.

The main idea this tiny book tries to convey is that all the relevant data concerning how the burning of fossil fuels was akin to civilization suicide was know as far back as the late twentieth century. But yet the mighty forces of the free market not only totally ignore the information but did everything possible to muddy the waters of public discourse. This failure centers around not only our dependence on fossil fuels as fuel for transport but how the use of oil is fundamental in many of the products ubiquitous to everyday life. This lack of caring combined with an industrial power base who could easily spend hundreds of millions of dollars making sure the right people are elected to political office and you have something far worse than just ignoring the handwriting on the wall.

Sitting from my vantage point literally trapped in a pleasant suburban hell I can at least understand this willful ignorance. The pod people around me have it made, while I am sure they all have shortcomings in their lives they essentially want for nothing. They live in huge houses that just forty years ago would have been considered ornate mansions in every sense of the word. The cars they drive are all relatively recent models with every family owning at least two, with more quite common. The stores they shop overflow with cheap goods and foods making life one grand experience they will do everything to defend, including ignoring all warning that this lifestyle cannot be maintained.

All our excesses add up to the point that even though we are less than five percent of the world's population Americans use one-third of world's paper, a quarter of the oil produced, twenty-three percent of the coal, twenty-seven percent of the aluminum, and nineteen percent of the copper. The fact that some Americans actually believe a huge chunk of the world hates us for our “freedoms” would be outrageously funny if the idea wasn't inherently Orwellian at its core.

When you add everything up about “The Collapse of Western Civilization” I cannot help but feel it is a halfhearted attempt at best by the authors. The message it is trying to convey is vitally important, in that the United States and the rest of the world are living on borrowed time. The problem with the book though is that while the facts about climate change are unassailable the fiction is woefully lacking the required punch.

The sad realization I cannot avoid is that our civilization will continue to pump out carbon from our addiction to fossil fuels for decades making the coming disasters far worse. Our consumerist lifestyle, not political freedoms and rational thought, is now the basis of Western existence. Voting rights can be curtailed, the press can become lap dogs to business interests, corporate CEO's can edge ever closer to becoming a new privileged aristocracy, and our politicians outright puppets. But the one thing that will outrage people is having their lifestyle inconvenienced in some fashion. I can't help but think that maybe such a civilization doesn't deserve to survive.


Jimmy said...

I have to admit that you just may be 100% right, we do have it made and everything that is produced is made to be thrown away thus giving us the urge to replace everything we own on a regular basis rather than make things last, our food and clothing along with everything else is mostly imported leaving us with jobs being lost due to downsizing and closing of factories and on and on and on I could go...

Yes for the most part we are a victim of our own selves, and being accustomed to the lifestyles we are living will not change even if to save resources that we need to live.

Beach Bum said...

Jimmy: There was a line in the last Chris Nolan Batman movie that I found intriguing and in a way fits our society.

The bad guy Bane is kicking Batman's ass but during that process says something like this:

[to Batman] "Peace has cost you your strength! Victory has defeated you!"

We've lost something as Americans that might be impossible to recapture. Speaking strictly from my prespective we have become the kings of the mountain and now fear change, this takes many forms but concerning climate change we have vested interests like oil companies who will die before they allow some new techology to become widespread. I find it funny in many ways that while they proclaim the superiority of free markets they absolutely refuse to let go of their huge federal tax breaks.

Red Nomad OZ said...

Hahaha, you paid all that cash for a PAMPHLET?? I think we are already in a diabolical Catch 22 with our money-making activities generating global disaster, and the impending global disaster generating more money-making. Who knew it would end like this? I guess at least I have a better view :D

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I would have been totally ticked off to get a glorified pamphlet when I was expecting a book, so I don't blame you for giving it a single star on Amazon.

I'm not as pessimistic as you are about the fate of the planet. Doesn't mean I'm right. It just means I'm hopeful that we'll wake up and change our ways before it's too late. Of course, it would be immensely helpful if our politicians were wise enough to lead the way. Never mind. Maybe I'm a little pessimistic, after all.

I read something by Whitney Streiber back in the seventies... something about being abducted by aliens, if I remember correctly.

Pixel Peeper said...

It does concern me, the amount of trash and pollution people generate. I see the giant garbage cans in our neighborhood that overflow with stuff every single week. And the Hummers that are parked in the driveway, because they don't fit into the garage.

I recycle everything that is recyclable, I drive a fuel efficient car, I'm frugal with my electricity consumption...and then I wonder if my puny little efforts make any difference. But I do it, because it's all I can do.

I sure hope we learn before it really is too late!

Marja said...

First of all Happy birthday
Good on ya for raising more awareness, The dutch engineers work overtime so Holland doesn't get flooded soon.

goatman said...

Nonetheless, I plan to continue on.