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Collapse Western CivilizationA scientific guide to revolution

We can and must break the limits of current thinking, take action to change the course of history and so avoid a collapse says a futuristic book.

Review by Gerry Gold

There comes a time when a gradual flowering of conscious awareness that arises from the accumulation of evidence comes into the sharpest of differences with current understanding and the social practices based upon it.  

Such a moment arrived with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543. It opened more than a century of scientific advance which culminated in Newton’s laws of motion published in 1687.

During that period, scientific conflict with the authority of the Catholic Church found its hero and victim in Galileo Galilei. For the church’s authority to remain intact, the sun had to continue circling the earth, and Galileo had to be silenced. Eventually the truth won out.

But the struggle of knowledge with power continues.

Despite Pope John Paul ll’s 1992 acknowledgement of heliocentrism, as recently as 2008 protest by students and professors of La Sapienza University (sapienza is Italian for “wisdom”) forced the cancellation of a visit of Pope Benedict XVI because his expressed views on Galileo "offend and humiliate us as scientists who are loyal to reason and as teachers who have dedicated our lives to the advance and dissemination of knowledge”.

The publication of De revolutionibus was a signfiicant turning point in human civilisation. Now it’s on the brink of collapse.

After 26 years of work by scientists comprising the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the urgency of the need for a new revolution – in our economic, social and political systems – is screamingly obvious to all but those in power, or in thrall to it.

In 52 small pages, the Collapse of Western Civilization, set in the year 2393, brilliantly sets out the case for revolution, by using a creative approach to current knowledge to imagine the dire consequences of ignoring its predictions.

Eminent science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are pushing for a break with narrow, reductionist, positivist, physical scientific practice. They argue that it hinders the effective communication and social and political action needed to prevent the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2073-93 their future colleague describes.

Surprisingly and delightfully, for the authors hail from august Harvard and the California Institute of Technology, there’s the clearest exposition of the real source of the problem we now face, in two of the four brief chapters – The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels, and Market Failure. These, we learn were brought on by capitalist production, for which a succinct but accurate definition is provided in the Lexicon. 

There’s also a fascinating interview with the authors on their motivation for the book which includes an assault on the proponents of neo-liberalism, so-called “economic freedom”.  

Despite the implied pessimism of the title, there’s a strong sense of optimism running throughout. In the future as described, at least some of us humans make it through. And there’s a strong paradoxical message for those currently in power:

“By blocking anticipatory action, neoliberals did more than expose the tragic flaws in their own system: they fostered expansion of the forms of governance they most abhorred.”

The message from the real authors is that we can and must break the limits of current thinking, take action to change the course of history and so avoid the collapse.

29 September 2014

The Collapse of Western Civilization, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, 2014
Columbia University Press, £5.20

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