The Collapse of Western Civilization & Enter the Anthropocene

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I was called a doom-monger yesterday. Although I fervently denied the moniker, it resonated: with recent political events I am struggling to remain positive about the near future. As 2016 was the third hottest year in a row, I find it even more difficult remain positive about the longer term outlook.

Reading The Collapse of Western Civilization: a view from the Future (Oreskes and Conway, 2014) was engrossing. A page-turner. It put into words many inarticulate fears I have about climate change and our species impact on our environment. Through the genre of science fiction it gave us the necessary space to imagine what the consequences of our actions now could result in in the future. It also allowed for some humor. 

These aspects stood out in particular:

  1. Instability. The impact of (climate) refugees in the Mediterranean in 2016 was huge. It had far-reaching political impacts – immigration fears are credited for the Brexit vote, with the increase of the Far-Right Le Pen party in France and could have a hand in the break-down of the European Union. Oreskes and Conway show that cronic social instability, in particular immigration, will be one of the largest impacts of climate change on our world.
  2. Survival. Ultimately, in some form, there is a good chance the human species will survive. It may suffer huge losses in its fight to continue to consume more energy than the world can support, but Homo sapiens (along with several species of cockroaches) would be my bets for the year 3000. Whether we bring any other forms of life along with us will be another question, apart from those animals and plants we require for food.
  3.  Authoritarian regimes. Oreskes and Conway cleverly position China, the Second People’s Republic, as being the only regime able to adapt effectively and implement the drastic policy decisions which are required to mitigate and adapt to climate change. I appreciated their non-Western and non-liberal viewpoint, it was refreshing. Although, I was surprised that certain European countries who are forging ahead with divestment and renewables were not mentioned, their contributions to mitigating climate change are only small in comparison to China, Russia and the USA.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article from 2011 is a useful guide to the term Anthropocene. For those of us who are not geologists, it is difficult to get our heads around what will actually show up in the stratosphere in centuries to come. Whilst CO2 emissions will have the greatest impact on our environment, they are invisible to us. This tragic failure of the imagination is where sci-fi can step in, as in The Collapse of Western Civilization. What is easy to imagine (see) is deforestation, species extinction and ocean acidification. One would hope or even expect that these negative impacts of the Anthropocene would be enough to effect change. Looking back on the last 6 years, on the rise in CO2 emissions/ deforestation/ extinction/ coral reef bleaching, since Crutzen coined the term Anthropocene and warned of its effects, would suggest we are not yet ready to act on what we can see. Is this where art steps in?


  • Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. The Collapse of Western Civilization: a view from the Future. New York: Columbia U Press, 2014
  • Kolbert, Elizabeth, Enter the Anthropocene, 2011