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Reading The Collapse of Western Civilization Through Economics

Alison's picture

ESem Paper #11 (final paper)
November 21, 2015

Reading The Collapse of Western Civilization Through Economics

In The Collapse of Western Civilization, authors describe the impact of climate change form the view of future. In this world, warnings of the climate disaster are ignored for decades, which leads to the raises of temperature and see level, droughts and food deficits, and finally, the collapse of western civilization. Analyzing the Collapse of Western Civilization from the perspective of economics, economic rationalism, the foundation on which market economies are based, leads to people thinking of the environment as a resource for the self. Thus it causes the destruction of the environment and the subsequent collapse of Western civilization.

Economic Rationalism indicates that efficiency and productivity are the most important measurements of economic success, and it is the base of the free market in America. People in the economy are regard as “economic man”; they autonomously behave in exact accordance with their rational self-interests. In this kind of society, optimization of benefits is the most crucial thing and people measure costs and benefits to decide what they are going to do instead of moral considerations. The modern economic believes that only rationalism can eliminate bias, give people the right guides and create the most efficient economy.

Economic rationalism makes people judge nature based on its usefulness instead of a more complete perspective, and they only want to generate ideas beneficial for productivity and efficiency. In this circumstance, nature is abstracted as the resource for human as only resources are meaningful. It does not represent the mothering love and the magic of the earth’s creation; it is defined as “something which carried particular aesthetic, recreational, or biological value (Oreskes and Conway, 55)”. The idea of utilizing environment gives human the power to conquest the nature, and put the human in a dominant position in relative to environment. Thus people think less about protecting environment compared to their self-interests in the short run.

Economic rationalism makes people focus only on self-interest, and individual money gained by destruction of the environment is worth more than individual benefit from protecting the environment. InThe Collapse of Western Civilization, the carbon combustion complex, a “interlinked fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and combustion industries, financiers, and government ‘regulatory’ agencies, wants to enable and defend destabilization of the world’s climate (Oreskes and Conway, 54).” The reason is that their benefits gained from the running their business and using fossil fuels overwhelm the individual benefit from protecting the environment as people live primarily for productivity and optimization of profits. According to the externality, which is a by-product of consuming or producing a good that affects someone other than the buyer or seller(Hall, 464), the polluter benefits from running their business while the cost of the destroyed environment is shared by all human beings. Their own damage is only part per million or even less, but the interests gained completely belong to themselves, thus they choose to make profit in the expense of polluting the environment.

For the first two reasons, it is reasonable to say that people are unaware of the crisis of climate change and have no reasons to protect it while the society is organized under economic rationalism. However, even if people want to protect the environment, it is difficult for them to gather together and act. Economic rationalism makes people separate individuals instead of a community, and people are unable to gather together to protect the environment as a consequence. To analyze and standardize the economy, market is discussed on the basis of individual. People are divided into units and supposed to only care about their own interests. In addition, humanity is simplified and commercialized to the “labor force” according to the economic rationalism. The value of a person cannot be expressed by the virtues, ideology and ethics; it can only represented by the value of goods he or she produced. In this case, people are connected by the exchange of goods and services in the market instead of the morality and politics. When the society is organized in this way, despite its high efficiency, it is unlikely for people to unite and work together as the relation and dependence between individuals are minimized. In the Collapse of Western Civilization, people cannot get together and fight against the carbon combustion complex as they are unable to consider the problem from the perspective of the entire humanity. The self interests and the detachment between individuals accelerate the final collapse.

From the analysis about how does economic rationalism cause the destruction of the environment and the subsequent collapse of Western civilization, it is clear to see the negative influence of economic rationalism. However, the reasons of the collapse of Western civilization goes beyond the economic concept. The actual negative influences of economic rationalism is that the “economic man” it tacitly approve or even promote is the unfree person who lacks of passion, faith and goodness, etc. In this situation, people are gradually away form the perception and emotion. They regard environment as resources, other people as labor forces and only care about themselves. Even thought they want to save the environment finally, they are trying to save their own lives but not the environment. The reason to have a free market organized in the basis of economic rationalism is ensuring the liberty of humanity, but the market actually creates the illiberal and “identical” people. That is the real reflection from reading the collapse of Western civilization through economic perspective.


Work Cited

Oreskes, Naomi. and Conway, Erik. The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Print.

Hall, Robert. and Lieberman, Marc. Economics: Principle&Application, 6th Edition 2013. Engage Learning. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

as I said in my comments to your first draft last week, I think re-reading Oreskes & Conway through the lens of your econ class gives you some real traction for talking about their book (and real support for their critique of economic rationalism). And/but what's still missing here is YOU. Tell me why you decided to leave yourself (as an international student who taking an econ class @ BMC) out of the picture; from what perspective is this analysis written, and with what investments?

These are all questions I asked last week, which remain unanswered for me:
Where are you from?
What are your own experiences of different governmental structures,
and of the degree to which they intervene in individual lives?
What are you learning, this semester, about the ways in which both US and Chinese governments act, from taking that econ class and being invited to "think like an economist"?....

What does rubbing these two texts up against one another suggest to you?
Does your econ class look @ all @ environmental issues?
If not (given the extent of the catastrophe we're facing), why not?
Do you think that "thinking economically" can help us here?
Or is it precisely that sort of thinking which is getting us into such trouble?

I guess the most important question I'm left with, on this round, is what happens if you make this paper more dialogic and two-directional. Not just what does thinking economically highlight in Oreskes and Conway's work, but the reverse: what does re-reading your econ textbook through the lens provided by Oreskes and Conway reveal about the limits of economic thinking?

Alison's picture

  Before this final paper, I wrote something according to the questions left from the first draft. But when I was trying to describe my experience related to the social structure and government, I was kind of stuck. I asked many of my friends who are from China and currently study in America before I wrote this paper, and I realized that many of our ideas are different. I would bring some ideas from my perspective as an international student, but I think I would bring more ideas only about myself. I'm not sure if I can answer the questions from the perspective of a country as I cannot even represent the thoughts of a small group in China. I'm a little afraid to bring bias to this paper as political stuff is really a new field for me. About the Economic class, it is kind of interesting when I asked my professor why don't we cover environmental issues here. And the answer is that we do not have enough space for environmental issues in an intro class, however, there is a class called New Institutional Economics and Natural Resources that combines economics and environmental science together, but that is a higher level courses and I need a prerequisite.
  I choose to organize this paper in this way because I found that economic rationalism makes a lot sense to me when I did researches about it. I read some essays about capitalism and free market, and I also talked to my professor about this topic. I think it would be interesting to see the problem solely with the discussion of economic structure. I'm trying to think of this problem through the economic perspective, but I found my problem might be that I'm don't know how to think like a economist. Maybe I could do my final revise on this paper? I do want to write more about it and answer your questions.

Anne Dalke's picture

Thanks for your thoughtful response. And thanks for posting it--it's very nice to have it as part of the archive: a record of your ongoing thinking. I'm looking forward to our talking about next steps/a new draft in your final conference, and am thinking now that some pushback on "what there's time-and-space for" in intro econ, given the severity of environmental concerns, might be an interesting way to go....I'd like you to learn to think ecologically as well as economically!

Alison's picture

Hey Anne, I just read some interesting analysis form my economics text that explains why people conduct the activity as altruism in the society. It mentions that people will only be altruism when the total benefits for them are maximized. So like when we do the things that will not benefit ourselves but benefit the group we belongs, we are still considered as the “rational men”. The group is usually small compared to the whole world thus the total benefit is clear and sensible such as a family or a company. Do yu think it make some sense to explain the contradicted ideas of rational choices and the real behavior of human?

Anne Dalke's picture

the whole question of 'what counts as rational' is an interesting one, certainly challenge-able!