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What happens when scientists use fiction to envision our future in a world radically altered by climate change? Who is most thoroughly to blame for our inability to sufficiently react to the horrific, even apocalyptic, future we’re told is coming for our children and grandchilden? This module dives into these questions via the short book The Collapse of Western Civilization, written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. In this short, reader-friendly essay, Oreskes, a science writer who permanently changed how we talk about climate change, and Conway, a NASA historian, write a “history of the future” from the vantage point of 2093. The book offers a unique perspective on climate change and the future we’re heading towards by using fictional narrative, rather than relying on models and graphs, and by adopting a tone equally shocking to readers accustomed to thinking about climate change in terms of numbers and to readers who envision our future as an apocalyptic wasteland. Of particular interest is the book’s frank discussion of the failure of scientists to communicate their findings with the public and their commitment to hallowed principles like statistical significance and the burden of proof. Ultimately, the book and the module prompt fascinating discussions about what Oreskes and Conway call “the most startling aspect” of their story: “the people of Western civilization knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it. Knowledge did not translate into power.” Module Resources: The module includes slideshows that introduce the book and generate classroom discussion, links to supplementary videos and short readings, and an easily adaptable assignment sheet that asks students to consider the strengths and weakness of various methods of communicating information about climate change.

Publication Date



Science fiction; Future, The, in literature; Climatic changes

Document Type

Curricular Materials


Modern Literature




This learning module was developed as part of a 2017-2018 NEH Human Connections grant to Rowan University faculty titled Cultivating the Environmental Humanities.

This content is copyright 2018 by the author and must be properly attributed (see Recommended Citation). Contact the author for reuse permission.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Thinking through the future of climate change with fiction