Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway’s Future History

Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present.—Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10)

In 2013, two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published a speculative piece in Daedalus titled “The Collapse of Western Civilization.” They subsequently expanded the piece into a short book of the same time, and, in the process, added a subtitle “A View from the Future.”  The book combines the science fictional conceit of an imagined future with a rigorously thought historical document in order to come to terms with the energy-ecology impasse. The text takes the occasion of the fictional “tercentury of the end of Western Culture (1540-2093)” to address the incredible failure to act on “robust information about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to unfold” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10). The look backwards from the imaginary future of 2393, could be described as a kind of retroactive futurity, and it is through this device that Oreskes and Conway attempt to re-invigorate scientific reportage and transparency.[1] Through the synthesized modes of science fiction novel and history treatise, their intervention offers one way to come to terms with the inertia of our energy commitments in the present. In effect, they use a long durée as a narrative device, extrapolating the effects of a global time elapse.
In their own words, Orsekes and Conway have written a science fiction-historical novel. As a great thinker of both science fiction and history, Fredric Jameson’s description of the former seems entirely applicable here: “[Science fiction’s] multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameson 2005, 288).[2] The negotiation of time, especially the way it is presented as rapidly passing before the reader’s eyes, has the effect of returning the reader to the present. Oreskes and Conway’s text pushes the reader to imagine just what energy commitments in the present mean for the future and precisely why it is so urgent not only to rethink those commitments, but also to rethink the whole network of scientific practice and economic doctrine that shore up oil-capital.
Oreskes and Conway use the device of the narrator to address an imagined future audience, while they simultaneously target the present. For instance, they distance the imagined future through the plain-spoken asides of the narrator. The narrator explains the politico-geographic language he uses like this:

Throughout this essay, I will use the nation-state terms of the era; for the reader not familiar with the political geography of Earth prior to the Great Collapse, the remains of the United Kingdom can be found in present-day Cambria; Germany in the Nordo-Scandinavian Union; and the United States and Canada in the United States of North America. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 15)

This fairly neutral narrative device teaches the reader how to understand and grapple with the extrapolation at work in the text, in effect explaining the world of Oreskes and Conway’s present, the reader’s present, from a scientific-political angle.
Each chapter starts with a regional or continental map. These maps depict ocean levels in one geographic space across two temporal planes. The reader will recognize a map of his or her own present, and superimposed in a ghostly imprint is the land that was—will be—swallowed by the rising oceans.[3] At the start of chapter one, the map of the former Netherlands places Brussels on the coast, while it submerges The Hague, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, and the highlands around Apeldoorn become an island. The map that adorns the title page of chapter two swallows the floodplains of Bangladesh, and the map at the start of Chapter Three depicts what is left of Manhattan and the Borrows of New York City as a new string of thin islands. This device works to reinforce the temporal negotiation of the text itself, hammering home the ecological imperative of the text. Readers can look at the land that will be underwater and consider their own relationship to those places, not only geographically, but also temporally. In this way time becomes the central axis on which the political bid of The Collapse of Western Civilizationturns.
The book is organized into three chapters, which separately take on the three overdetermined limits of imagining a time after present of oil-capital. The chapters are titled “The Coming of the Prenumbral Age,” “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels,” and “Market Failure.” The authors also include a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms” and an Interview. The first chapter situates the reader within the temporal frame of the text, while the second and third chapters outline the mutually reinforcing cognitive limits of petromodernity and neoliberalism. The conceit of the lexicon is that the imagined readers of 2393 will not be familiar with terms prevalent during the height and collapse of Western civilization. The lexicon works to introduce the actual readers of the present time with terms that may be unfamiliar, despite their prevalence and accuracy. While the lexicon provides a snapshot of the overall logic of the text, the arrangement of the three chapters speaks powerfully to the inseparability of the problems of anthropogenic climate change, the overreliance on fossil fuels as energy source, and the dependence on the free mark to resolve these problems. Pursuing these logics, The Collapse of Western Civilization kindly but firmly insists that coming to terms with the energy-ecology impasse is only one crucial step; we must use our knowledge to act.
The first chapter works as a history of science leading up to the present of the narrator, which, at the same time, is partially the reader’s history and partially the reader’s future. The narrator tracks the development of anthropogenic climate change, and people’s awareness of it, from the discovery of CO2 to the rise of environmental movement, and from the foundation of the environmental protection agency to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 16-18). Alongside the hard facts of scientific discovery, the narrator tracks a problem the problem of climate change denial. The narrator traces climate denial to the U.S. noting that “some countries tried but failed to force the United States into international cooperation. Other nations used inertia in the United States to excuse their own patterns of destructive development” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 18). Further, the narrator identifies the way scientists were—read are—stifled by their own practices as one of the crucial factors that stands between knowledge and action in the present.
Chapter two “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” takes a step towards extrapolation as the narrator describes events as they unfold in the twenty-first century. They mention a series of artworks that endured through the heated debates that raged between scientific truths and the cash spent to buy scientific opinions.[4] For instance, in 2025 the U.S. introduced a National Stability Protection Act (modelled on the Sea Level Rise Denial Bill) which “lead to the imprisonment of more than three hundred scientists for ‘endangering the safety of and well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats’” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 25). The narrator explains that this kind of response is described in his time as a part of the psychological phenomenon known as “human adaptive optimism,” which could be read as the mirror image of cognitive dissonance—the making of choices against one’s own understood best interests—or of what philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s calls fetishistic disavowal—‘I know very well what I do is wrong, but I choose to do it anyway.’
The text traces these explanations to their root in enlightenment thought. They call this impasse the fallacy of Baconianism, where despite their knowledge of the ecological threats generated by fossil fuel use they could not act on it. Unlike the Roman and Mayan empires, where historians, archaeologists, and synthetic-failure paleoanalysists are unable to agree on the engine of their ruin, in the case of the twenty-first century nation-states that referred to themselves as Western civilizationexperts agree that people “knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 14-15). The narrator refers to “the archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” as evidenced in the very title of the position “physical scientists.” In this manner, they develop an enlightenment legacy—the impasse of knowledge and action—while insisting on the need to bring physical scientists into conversation with the social and humanistic sciences.
The turn to the future, and the shift from history to science fiction in the text, hinges on China’s decision “to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 6).  According to this document as of 2050 the impact of these decisions were registered as China’s emissions rapidly fell. However neat the separation of history and science fiction appears in the text, their interplay is not so simple, as evidenced in the narrator’s declaration: “Had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have been very different” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 19). The use of history and fiction here mixes truth about population control with speculation about carbon emissions, resulting in a kind of imperative that is familiar in science fictional environmental writing, but shows up here with a twist.[5]  Not, “if we continue on this path, this is where we will end up,” but “had we done as we knew we should have, things would have been different.”[6] The first statement is familiar from what we might call catastrophism, using the threat of a catastrophe to spur action, while the second seems to gain its affective punch from the careful generic dance of the text.[7]
“The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” grapples directly with the inertia of energy commitments. In it the narrator asks, “How did these wealthy nations—rich in the resources that would have enabled an orderly transition to a zero-net-carbon infrastructure—justify the deadly expansion of fossil fuel production?” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 35). The first answer has already been explained: denial. The second answer is that shale gas deposits could offer a bridge to renewables. The narrator addresses this answer by outlining its fallacies: fugitive emissions, the distribution system, it replaced clean rather than dirty fuel sources, the aerosols from coal actually have a cooling effect, and a sustained low price for fossil fuels prevented new energy sources from emerging (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 36-37). The results of not breaking free from this inertia are crippling heat waves, crop failure, rising ocean levels, and changing weather patterns. Here the temporal device works in the favour of the text as it avoids turning into an apocalyptic thriller. The narrator claims, “there is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 44). In a Hitchcockian move, Oreskes and Conway show the reader more by leaving it up to his or her imagination. Fossil fuels, the path of least resistance, are also the path that could prove humanity’s ultimate failure to adapt to the world of their own making.
In the third chapter, “Market Failure,” Oreskes and Conway return to the energy-ecology impasse from an epistemological and economic vantage. The narrator expresses frustration, once more, with Western civilization: “the victims knew what was happening and why…[and they]had the technological knowhow and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 48). In order to account for the lack of uptake of alternate energy sources, the narrator turns to, what he calls, the carbon-combustion complex. The complex is composed of fossil fuel extractors, refiners, and producers, manufacturers (who have come to rely on inexpensive energy), and a whole matrix of firms (advertising, financial, marketing, public relations) who promote and rely on fossil fuels. The intense interest in maintaining economic growth based on fossil fuels outweighs any desire to take up alternate, clean energy sources. Underlying these interests are the infrastructures of petromodernity.
Throughout the text, Oreskes and Conway deploy infrastructureas both a limit and what needs to be changed in order to break free of impasse. Infrastructure gets figured as something those in “passive denial” cannot be convinced needs broad changes (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 19-20). Further, it becomes a crucial term in the fictionalized debates over moving beyond fossil fuels: “Many said the time had come to make the switch to zero-carbon energy sources,” while, “others argued that the world could not wait ten to fifty years required to alter the global energy infrastructure, much less one hundred years it would take for atmospheric CO2 to diminish” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 39). In this way, infrastructure shapes the realm of possible secondary actions, so that primary environmentalist action could only be targeted at staving off further fossil fuel development, repurposing existing structures, and developing the requirements for new zero-carbon energy sources. Indeed, the caption of the map of New York City that adorns “Market Failure” reads, 

Once the financial capital of the world, New York began in the early twenty-first century to attempt to defend its elaborate and expensive architecture against the sea. But that infrastructure had been designed and built with an expectation of constant seas and was not easily adapted to continuous, rapid rise. Like the Netherlands, New York City gradually lost its struggle. Ultimately, it proved less expensive to retreat to higher ground, abandoning centuries’ worth of capital investments. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 47)

This history in miniature acknowledges the way time itself becomes overtaken by space in the development and construction of the hulking infrastructures of modernity. The city is there. It grows and moves. In order to abandon the commitment to fossil fuels, we must turn away from the most energy intensive development in human history. As James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello persuasively argue in the The Oil Road, “The solution to the unsustainable extraction of oil and gas—from both an economic and an environmental perspective—is simple: stop drilling for oil and gas” (Marriot and Minio-Paluello 2013, 47). I would add to this, the solution to breaking free of the inertia that comes along with energy infrastructure is simple: stop building rigs, pipelines, and refineries and start re-imaging what those structures can be and do.

Asimov, Isaac (1983). “The Nightmare Life without Fuel.” Science Fiction: The Future edited by Dick Allen. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonavich. 34-36. Print.

Duggan, Jennifer (2014). “China pledges to cut emissions at UN climate summit.” Available at: <>. [12 October 2014].
— (2013). “How China’s action on air pollution is slowing its carbon emissions.” Available at: <>. [12 October 2014].
Jameson, Fredric (2013). “The Historical Novel Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso. 259-313. Print.
— (2005). Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso. Print.
Jansson, André and Amanda Lagervist (2009). Strange Spaces: Explorations Into Mediated Obscurity. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing. Print.
Liley, Sasha, Editor (2012). Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. Toronto: Between the Lines. Print.
Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia UP, 2014. Print.
Marriot, James and Mika Minio-Paluello (2013). The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea tot eh City of London. London: Verso. Print.

[1] André Jansson and Amanda Lagerkvist (2009) uses the term retroactive futurity in passing to explain a particular form of nostalgia. I use the term here to negotiate the way Oreskes and Conway’s text negotiates temporality.

[2] In Jameson’s recent essay “The Historical Novel Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” he calls for a further consideration of the connection between the historical novel and science fiction: “In what follows I will want to claim, however outrageously, that the historical novel of the future (which is to say our present) will necessarily be Science-Fictional inasmuch as it will have to include questions about the fate of our social system, which have become a second nature. To read the present as history, as so many have urged us to do, will mean adopting a Science-Fictional perspective of some kind, and we fortunate to have at least one recent novel [David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas] which, against all expectations, gives us an idea of what that might look like” (Jameson 2013, 298).
[3] According to a recent article on the Earth is heating faster than scientists predicted (Romm 2014).
[4] They note that the most enduring artistic text from the period is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (2004, 2005, 2007), which quickens the pace and effects of global warming to test various scenarios and human responses.
[5] Jennifer Duggan has been tracking China’s emissions, and appears hopeful about their fight against pollution and climate change (see Duggan 2013 and Duggan 2014).
[6] In this way, The Collapse of Western Civilization is not dissimilar from a 1977 Isaac Asimov essay that was printed in Time Magazine, titled “The Nightmare Life without Fuel.” The essay imagines a post-fuel world as a one where teams of workers dismantle automobiles for metal and tear down infrastructure and buildings in order to harvest rich yields of raw material. Asimov closes that piece by speculating: “If we had started 20 years ago, that might have been another matter. If we had started 50 years ago it would have been easy” (Asimov 1983, 36).
[7] For more on catastrophism see Sasha Liley’s edited collection of the same name (Liley 2013).

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