MERCHANTS OF DOUBT and THE COLLAPSE OF WESTERN CIVILISATION: A VIEW FROM THE FUTURE By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
The Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
Oreskes and Conway are historians of science. They collaborated to produce this pair of works that illuminate the same key issue from two different directions – from the perspective of fiction (The Collapse of Western Civilisation in 2014) and non-fiction (The Merchants of Doubt). The issue goes to the heart of human responses to Climate Change and also represents an additional challenge for climate change fiction (Cli-fi).
Other critics (eg Adam Trexler, Adeline Johns-Putra, Nick Admussen) have highlighted the challenges climate change poses for the stories attempting to follow the form of the traditional novel. The global scale, extended timeline, non-human impacts and uncertain outturns of climate change are ill-suited to the realist novel with its focus on human protagonists facing localised dilemmas in stories that end with some kind of neat narrative closure.
In particular attempts to compress decades long climate change impacts into the timeline of a single story (such as in the film The Day After Tomorrow) risk twisting the science of the subject beyond all recognition. With climate change science so often challenged by sceptics with the ear of policy makers, it is incumbent on cli-fi to maintain a high level of scientific fidelity or risk being dismissed as irrelevant speculation. (In much the same way that progressive politicians seem expected to maintain higher standards of morality than their conservative opponents). For example, Kim Stanley Robinson in New York 2140 refers in some detail to the mechanisms by which the Antarctic ice shelfs might catastrophically collapse and so produce the significant sea level rise that turns his downtown Manhattan into an American Venice.
But this brings climate change and its fictional standard bearers into conflict with a further challenge, one that Oreskes and Conway expose from both directions in their contrasting works. That challenge is in the communication and mis-communication of science. Within the scientific community the science of anthropogenic climate change due to humanity’s ongoing release of carbon dioxide is settled science – as settled as the fact the Earth is spheroidal not flat and orbits the Sun rather than the other way round. However, vigorous campaigns by bad faith actors – the eponymous Merchants of Doubt – have attempted to dispute the indisputable and, by getting their voices heard on the world stage and repeated by leading (largely conservative) politicians, have succeeded in muddying the waters of debate and critically delaying action. This movement reached its apotheosis with Donald Trump and his outright embracing of climate change denial.
Cli-fi in its stories must do more than simply adhere to the scientific consensus, it must address why that consensus has gained such limited or belated traction in the minds of the public and more importantly the policy makers. Oreskes and Conway attempt to do just that.
THE COLLAPSE OF WESTERN CIVILISATION: A VIEW FROM THE FUTURE (TCOWCAVFTF)
As far as “challenges to the form of the novel” go TCOWCAVFTF is pretty much it. It is very short, has no protagonist, no dialogue, no scenes – it is presented as an extended essay written in the year 2393 by an unnamed future historian reflecting on the tumultuous period from our present day to around 2093 and the events that caused the titular collapse. In concept it is akin to a present-day historian writing about the time of from the Gunpowder plot of 1605 to the accession of George I in 1714. However, since much of the essay’s history lies in our future the essay is a fictional speculation or projection from established facts at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century.
It is eminently readable, with a lively style pitched at the lay-person rather than the academic scientist or historian. It is also one of 19 texts chosen by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson for his empirical research into how readers respond to climate change fiction. Several of his respondents praised the style and content of TCOWCAVFTF because its projections seemed so credible based on the respondents’ observations of current government and corporate behaviour. However, a scan of Goodreads reviews also reveals some frustration with the sense that this wasn’t a story with characters. In some ways TCOWCAVFTF is a extrapolation of style from novels like James Bradley’s Clade and Max Brooks World War Z: An oral history of the Zombie War. Where Clade has an episodic structure following interconnected characters, World War Z veers into more fictional history with characters who are connected only by the fact of their surviving the ‘war’ reflecting on their experience of it. It is interesting that the film version of World War Z eschewed this dispersed cast approach and felt its audience needed the focus of a single Brad Pitt protagonist driven (as apocalyptic patriarchs so often are) by the need to save his family – with world ending disaster viewed entirely through that lens. (See also The Day After Tomorrow and the truly awful 2012).
TCOWCAVFTF is pure history, some of what we have already lived through, much of it reasoned conjecture. For example the fact that the future historian is a scholar in The Second People’s Republic of China reflects the theory that authoritarian regimes may potentially be more agile in their environmental response. The perception that their leaderships are less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the voters (or more likely the influence of billionaire media magnates on malleable electorates) supports a hypothesis that such regimes are more able to enforce necessary change. Hence it is Western Civilisation’s collapse, and a new China’s ascendancy, that the essay charts. Interestingly Emmi Itaranta’s Memory of Water also features a far future under a new Chinese empire. It may be that aspect of TCOWCAVFTF which proved most telling with the American readers of Schneider-Mayerson’s study.
The essay’s fictional 21st century past/future has some interesting motifs, the unintended consequences of a plan to inject aerosols into the atmosphere to temporarily offset global warming with an artificial nuclear/volcanic winter – or the genetically engineered plant which ultimately provides the deus ex machina to extract the residue of humanity from a crisis of their own making.
However, where Oreskes and Conway direct their sternest fire is at the communication and miscommunication of science. As their scholarly essayist puts it
“The most startling aspect of this story is just how much these people knew, and how they were unable to act upon what they knew. Knowledge did not translate into power.”
Climate change is settled science, accepted in the science community, but still disputed in wider society – thanks to the efforts of bad actors and on the other side of the ‘debate’ the inarticulacy to the wider public ear of that scientific community. The future historian critiques the isolating specialisation of scientists that impedes holistic overviews. They note that “The IPCC had trouble speaking in a clear voice.” They highlight the inherent conservatism in sciences’ reliance on a 95% statistical confidence interval before confirming a finding as valid. Against this a handful of contrarians well-funded by corporate groups would find crevices in the evidence that they could leverage to discredit the whole edifice of climate change science. TCOWCAVFTF eloquently summarises it thus
“A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over the people who considered themselves children of the enlightenment. It is for this reason we now know this era as the Period of the Penumbra.”
The issues as always rest on the conflict between complex truths and simple lies as another unintended consequence erupts to plague our future.
“(As with so many climate-related phenomena, scientists had foreseen this, but their predictions were buried in specialized journals.)”
TCOWCAVFTF charts an all too credible path into climate catastrophe and it is only the redemption found at the end that strains credulity. In making China – if not quite the beneficiary – then at least the last man standing of this nightmare, Orekses and Conway may have hit a magic formula to engage Western readers in a form of fiction so different to the conventional novel. However it is the crisis of science that is the engine driving their world into this future and they are simply picking up the themes of their earlier work in The Merchants of Doubt.
THE MERCHANTS OF DOUBT
This is a book about much more than climate change science and – while entirely factual – it stimulates the emotions more powerfully than TCOWCAVFTF did. Much is made of the power of fiction to challenge and change readers through the emotion of empathy. Which is why novels like Flight Behaviour, Clade and The Memory of Water strive to present the impacts of climate change through the eyes of very human relatable protagonists. However, empathy is not always a stimulus to action. Ursula McTaggart in a paper Literature that prompts action, looked at Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang and the degree to which it inspired the Earth First! Movement. She notes that empathy is not the only emotion reading can stimulate, nor is it necessarily the most likely to prompt action.
“Anger and happiness can elicit moral behaviour as effectively as empathy.”
While McTaggart looks at how in its language and structure The Monkeywrench Gang plays on all those emotions, I can certainly acknowledge – as many users of Twitter will also recognise – that anger is a powerful motivator to take action in one form or another.
I mention all this because the emotion that Merchants of Doubt most stimulated in me was anger, a fury that these bastards had got away with so much for so long. Well written as it is, my kindle notes are dotted not so much with identified “nice line”s as frequent expostulations of “FFS.”
Paradoxically Merchants of Doubt suffers from exactly the same issue facing the science that the identified villains spent so much time and money undermining. It is a dense well referenced and evidenced book that is not a quick or easy read. The authors have to verify their many substantial allegations – indeed in the end matter they mention how they have come under attack merely for writing the book. They explain their evidence in impeccable and forensic detail, but that does not make this an airport book. Which perhaps explains why they went on to produce TCOWCAVFTF and to highlight how cli-fi (in all its various forms) may offer an alternative route by which climate change science, policy and outcomes can capture the hearts and imaginations of a should-be-very-concerned public.
In Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway examine scientific, political and commercial responses to a series of public health issues. They highlight how a handful of once eminent scientists have obstructed action, denigrated good science and scientists and delayed essential responses to real environmental and health issues. These people, acting in bad faith and with financial backing from the industries threatened by action or regulation, have attacked the science that linked: smoking with lung cancer; fossil fuels with acid rain; DDT insecticide with environmental harm; passive smoking with health risks; and carbon dioxide with global warming. The shocking thing for me is how, in each of these different contexts, exactly the same playbook (and so many of the same actors) come out to attack good science and to get themselves the attention of politicians and mainstream press who lack the scientific rigour to realise they are being fed lies and misinformation.
I had understood for some time that 97% of scientist agree that climate change is real. I had not understood until now how far the 3% who disagreed were made up of dissembling attention-seeking charlatans. However, we have seen with the vaccine-autism furore how dangerous a lie that captures the public attention can be. Furthermore the few isolated examples of bad science can – ironically – be used by bad/worse scientists as a tool to shake public faith in good science.
The pattern of undermining science that Oreskes and Conway chart in Merchants of Doubt can be seen all over again in the covid and lockdown sceptic “debates.” Scientists with a reputation in one field pontificating in another where they are not qualified and pushing out unfounded theories that get equal airtime and grievously damage the coherence of a public health response. They prey on public hunger for, immediacy, simplicity and certainty which is an anathema to the lengthy rigour, complexity and openness to genuine debate of properly peer-reviewed scientific progress.
Oreskes and Conway highlight how the doctrine of balance and fairness have been abused to give unwarranted media access to people pushing views scarcely more scientifically credible than the flat-earthers (and how long before they get their own seat in a debate?).
Underpinning and motivating this anti-science is a free-market fundamentalism that erroneously insists the free market is the ultimate perfect system which, left to its own devices, can solve any problem. This is demonstrably false. However, time and time again the mantra that freedom of the individual is being threatened, is used to mobilise the people in defending corporations against regulation and to protect their profits. As Oreskes and Conway demonstrate, this is a false victory for regulation can drive innovation which in turn creates new markets and opportunities as well as improving health and the environment. Indeed, President Biden is sensibly highlighting how the Green New Deal is an opportunity for new industries, new jobs and a different healthier kind of economic growth.
A health issue that Oreskes and Conway did not include, but may qualify in time for a Merchants of Doubt codicil, is the sugar industry’s contribution to the obesity epidemic. In a recognisable Merchants of Doubt motif, in the UK the sugar company Tate&Lyle have been supporters of Prime Minister Johnson who has in turn expressed scepticism about the need for a sugar tax, decrying it as a further example a nanny state. However, nobody would now deny that regulations in so many areas have saved lives. Seatbelts, motorbike helmets and car safety regulation in general has saved countless lives and driven industry innovation even as some insist the right to not wear a helmet/seatbelt should be a matter of personal choice.
Climate Change denial is not an isolated scientific anomaly, it is the latest in a cycle of anti-science behaviours that need to be understood in order to be recognised and defeated. The same people who lie about Covid today, have lied about Climate change and other health or environmental issues. At a time where we need science literacy and critical thinking skills more than ever, media forces collude to promote ignorance and to “balance” fact with utter falsehoods.
Oreskes and Conway neatly identify the problem in calling for A New View of Science
“After that point there are no “sides” There is simply accepted scientific knowledge… Most people don’t understand this. If we read an article in the newspaper presenting two opposing viewpoints, we assume both have validity, and we think it wrong to shut one side down.”
For the scientists
“…Another difficulty arises. Scientists are finely honed specialist trained to create new knowledge, but they have little training in how to communicate to broad audiences, even less in how to defend scientific work against determined and well-financed contrarians.”
This is exactly the conundrum Barbara Kingsolver so expertly portrayed in Flight Behaviour portraying the erudite scientist Ovid Byron as uncomfortable and inarticulate in the face of an impromptu media interview.
Returning to Oreskes and Conway again.
“Perhaps the most forgivable reason why scientists have not got more involved is because they love science, and believe that truth wins out in the end. It is their job – their singular job – to figure out what that truth is. Someone else can best popularise it.”
Which brings me to the nub of the challenge for cli-fi. It is not simply a matter of presenting (and popularising) the valid settled science of climate change. There is the meta-challenge of addressing why that knowledge has been covered in such a layer of unjustified and unsustainable doubt. To make people not just empathise with scientists but to be angry at, and activated by, how their work has been misrepresented to the detriment of all of us.