The best books on the grim ecological-political future

William Ophuls Author Of Electrifying the Titanic: The Shipwreck of Industrial Civilisation
By William Ophuls

Who am I?

William Ophuls served as a Foreign Service Officer in Washington, Abidjan, and Tokyo before receiving a PhD in political science from Yale University in 1973. His Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity published in 1977 laid bare the ecological, social, and political challenges confronting modern industrial civilization. It was honored by the Kammerer and Sprout awards. After teaching briefly at Northwestern University, he became an independent scholar and author. He has since published a number of works extending and deepening his original argument, most prominently Requiem for Modern Politics in 1997, Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology in 2011, and Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail in 2013.


I wrote...

Electrifying the Titanic: The Shipwreck of Industrial Civilisation

By William Ophuls,

Book cover of Electrifying the Titanic: The Shipwreck of Industrial Civilisation

What is my book about?

Innumerable warnings, growing increasingly dire as the years have rolled by, have failed to motivate peoples and nations to take the emerging ecological crisis as seriously as it warrants. What is worse, they have chosen exactly the wrong strategy for dealing with the crisis: instead of remodeling their societies and economies in accordance with ecological imperatives, they are trying to maintain business as usual by substituting solar electricity for fossil fuels. But refitting the Titanic with batteries, even if it were possible at this late date, will not avoid ecological shipwreck.

As a result, we stand on the precipice of radical change, change that threatens to end both the modern way of life and the long period of relative peace since the end of World War II. This work explores the limitations of the human mind that have prevented timely human action and reveals the bleak landscape of the future that our failure to act has now made all but inevitable. 

The books I picked & why

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The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

Book cover of The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

Why this book?

The model still shows, even more starkly than in the 1972 original, that industrial civilization is headed for overshoot followed by collapse to some lower level of complexity in the very near future. The model has proven to be robust: the original base run has tracked real-world curves quite closely. Don’t be put off by its technicality. The model is not that hard to understand—and, once understood, the implacability of its conclusions will appear inescapable.


The Collapse of Complex Societies

By Joseph Tainter,

Book cover of The Collapse of Complex Societies

Why this book?

Tainter makes a powerful and almost irrefutable case for complexity as the key to understanding both the rise and the fall of civilizations. In essence, complexity builds and builds until it is no longer manageable, so collapse ensues. That Tainter does not sufficiently appreciate the role that ecological limits, physical constraints, moral decline, and practical bungling can also play in the process does not detract from the power and utility of his argument. For these latter factors, see my own Immoderate Greatness.


The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman,

Book cover of The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

Why this book?

Why have we ignored innumerable warnings and blatant indications of trouble ahead, to the point that normally conservative scientists have begun to throw around words like “catastrophe” and “extinction”? Tuchman has a big part of the answer: human beings, even very well educated and well informed human beings, are too often “woodenheaded”—that is they obstinately persist in their folly and delusion until catastrophe descends.


A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman,

Book cover of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Why this book?

Same author, but a very different book. This one chronicles a dreadful time of troubles in Europe, an age when for various reasons everything fell apart. As we will relatively soon be entering our own time of troubles—an age of mere anarchy and passionate intensity in which the existing order is overturned—Tuchman’s account may constitute a forewarning that will help us to be forearmed for living in much more challenging circumstances.


The Prince

By Niccolò Machiavelli, Tim Parks (translator),

Book cover of The Prince

Why this book?

The classic description of how politics is practiced rather than how it ought to be practiced. Forget the caricature: the work is the distilled wisdom of an astute participant-observer of politics as it was practiced during a time of troubles. Since that is what our future holds, it might be good to know what the rules are. Machiavelli is quite abstract and speaks in aphorisms and generalities, so for a felt sense of what life is like when “the strong do what they can” see Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.


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