The Collapse of Western Civilization (in 50 pages)

WesternCivilization“The year 2009 is viewed as ‘the last best chance’ the Western world had to save itself…”

The Collapse of Western Civilization is a disturbing 50-page work of fiction that reads with the authority of nonfiction.

In the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393, a scholar writes an account the Great Collapse of 2093, brought about by failure to take action on climate change.

Pair it with CCR’s Bad Moon Rising; you can read it in an hour or two.

The book came about when co-author Naomi Oreskes, a geologist and historian who teaches at Harvard, reviewed the scholarly literature on climate change to see if indeed there was a lack of consensus among scientists, as is often claimed.

After looking at 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, she concluded that in fact scientists do agree that a high concentration of greenhouse gas is causing climate change.

When Oreskes published her findings in Science, she was championed by the likes of Al Gore. At the same time, to her astonishment, she began receiving hate mail. As she said in an interview, articles published in the scholarly literature are typically ignored by the public.

She and coauthor Eric Conway hoped a work of fiction that remained true to the facts of science might change opinions. Conway is a fan of science fiction and has been especially influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogies about Mars and climate change.

It’s unsettling to read about ideas and ways of life that we take for granted portrayed as extreme short-sightedness, self-delusion, and magical thinking.  The Collapse of Western Civilization will give you a jolt. It’s a quick, page-turning read to put you in a receptive frame of mind when the UN/Paris Climate Change Conference begins on November 30.

Here are some excerpts:

“There is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering. Suffice it to say that total losses – social, cultural, economic, and demographic – were greater than any in recorded human history. Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.”

“At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state.”

“…survivors in northern inland regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”

Commonly used terms that we don’t question are cast as old-fashioned and obsolete in the Lexicon of Archaic Terms at the end of the book:

“capitalism: ….One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself.”

“invisible hand: A form of magical thinking, popularized in the eighteenth century, that economic markets in a capitalist system were “balanced” by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which both ensured that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs. Belief in the invisible hand….formed a kind of quasi-religious foundation for capitalism.”

“Period of the Penumbra: the shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”

Coming Back to Life book coverFor an antidote to all the doom, read Joanna Macy‘s books, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. See also her short film, Joanna Macy and The Great Turning, about civilization’s shift from industrial growth to sustainability.

Have you read any good books about climate change? Are you planning to follow upcoming events related to the UN Conference on Climate Change? Are there local activities planned for your area?

Arcadia, and what’s next

“The monster is peering in the window. The ice caps have melted, the glaciers are nearly gone; the interiors of the continents becoming unlivable, the coasts so storm-battered people are fleeing by the millions. New Orleans and the Florida Keys are being abandoned. The hot land-bound places are being given up for lost; Phoenix and Denver becoming ghost towns. Every day, refugees show up in the city. A family takes shelter in the lee of Bit’s front steps, parents with two small children, silent and watchful.”       from Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia book cover

In the novel Arcadia, Bit and his family leave the dying commune they helped establish and move to New York City when Bit is fourteen. As an adult with a teen-age daughter, Bit is a good man who nonetheless feels guilty over what he calls his selfishness: his greatest concern is Grete’s survival in a world rendered dangerously unstable by climate change. No matter what happens, he says to himself and any greater power that may be listening, let Grete survive. That’s something I wonder about too, the kind of world my sons will inherit and the challenges they’ll face.

Reading this novel and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior   got me thinking about a symposium on the environment I attended in 2010, sponsored by the Rochester Zen Center. Rochester has many treasures, and the Zen Center is one of them. Founded by Roshi Philip Kapleau in 1966 and now one of the largest organizations devoted to Zen Buddhism in the country, it occupies one of Rochester’s stately old homes off of East Avenue near the George Eastman House.  It has been extensively renovated, and the zendo is a stunning space for meditation.

The symposium, called “Turning Toward the Earth,” centered on the Buddhist response to our environmental crisis. This was an intense and unsettling day, the kind of day that makes you want to take dramatic action, upend your life to make a difference – but just how do you do that? The name of the symposium came from “The Great Turning,” a term coined by Joanna Macy, one of the featured speakers that day. Her stance is explained in an article in the Zen Bow:

“The Great Turning is a concept developed by Buddhist philosopher and activist Joanna Macy to help us understand and engage with the momentous change in worldview that is required of us now, at the close of the modern age. Because our species’ enormous technological power is not matched by our spiritual development we have reached a crisis-point unlike any other in the history of humankind, one in which all other sentient beings and so-called inanimate things are irrevocably caught up.”

In her talk at the symposium, Macy encouraged us to act, regardless of any specific outcomes, no matter how overwhelming the challenges may seem. Author and Zen Buddhist David Loy also spoke. He, too, talked of the need for spiritual transformation on an individual level to save our earth as we know it. A tall order, but he seemed hopeful. Conservation biologist Michael Soule, also a speaker, is largely concerned with the dramatic diminishing of species. He believes humans must change their self-centered nature and overcome their selfishness to solve the the extinction crisis, but he is less hopeful. He wasn’t shy about saying he thinks it is already too late.

If you’d like to know more about the Buddhist response to the environmental crisis, take a look at some of the books authored by Macy and Loy. I have read Macy’s World As Lover, World As Self, and I want to read more of her work.

Buddha

Chasing Ice is a documentary about environmental photographer James Balog, who set up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic to record the melting glaciers. One of the trailers shows an astounding view of a glacier calving – breaking up into an immense iceberg. Once part of a glacier becomes an iceberg, it melts much more quickly.

We’ll be watching the documentary Tuesday evening at the Little Theatre.

Introductory quote from Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, New York: 2012. Quote from Zen Bow: “It Goes Along With Everything Else: Mass Extinction and the Great Turning,” Sensei Amala Wrightson, Zen Bow, 23(1), 3 – 8.

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