My previous post about so-called ‘collapse porn’ arguably demands a sequel (it should probably have been a prequel) on the definition and nature of collapse. That’s what I’ll try to do here – first with some brief definitional comments, then with a bit of context on collapse literature, and finally with some remarks for discussion on the possible causes of future social collapse.
Though it sort of undermines the purpose of this post, I’ve got to start by saying that trying to define collapse seems to me somewhat futile, in much the same way as trying to define a ‘small farm’ or of fixing and reifying any complex human construct. Maybe collapse is only truly meaningful with long historical hindsight. In my previous post, I mentioned Charlemagne, crowned emperor of Rome more than 300 years after the continuous line of Western Roman emperors had ceased. And Rome’s legacy persists in numerous ways today, more than a millennium after Charlemagne. Yet nobody would say the Roman Empire remains. How, precisely, can we define and date its end? Maybe that’s less to the point than the fact that it clearly ended.
Archaeologist Joseph Tainter, whose book The Collapse of Complex Societies I mentioned in my previous post, uses this working definition: “A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity” (p.4). Inevitably, that poses further definitional questions – what do we mean by ‘rapid’, what do we mean by ‘significant loss’ and what do we mean by ‘sociopolitical complexity’? Spurious quantification or pernickety refinement seems unlikely to illuminate these points, but perhaps it’s worth devoting a few words to ‘sociopolitical complexity’.
I’m not convinced the socio-politics that put Donald Trump in the White House or Boris Johnson in No.10 are any more complex than those that the average member of a hunter-gatherer band has had to negotiate on a daily basis down the ages – indeed, they’re probably rather less complex. But unlike such band members, Trump and Johnson nominally lead polities that thoroughly penetrate and organise the lives of many millions of people, and that involve a highly specialised and urbanised division of labour supported by the availability of cheap fossil fuels. My feeling is that some or many parts of the world will soon be in for a dose of Tainter-style collapse, with ‘rapid’ (ie. over no more than a few decades, following Tainter) and ‘significant’ loss of sociopolitical complexity, in the sense that the political centres presided over by the likes of Trump and Johnson won’t be able to organise social life across their territories to the extent they presently do, nor sustain their present specialised divisions of labour.
That, in a nutshell, is what I mean by collapse.
Now, the idea that governments like Boris Johnson’s won’t be able to sustain their geographical reach or economic specialization, thus precipitating collapse, isn’t something I intrinsically fear. In fact, I welcome it. A major reason why historical collapses are usually painted in bleak colours is because their histories are written by elites who lose most from them – by the Johnsons, shall we say, and not by the Smajes and other Pinocchio-mangling lesser folk. Historically, such underlings have often welcomed collapse. The problem is that with rapid collapse, there’s a chance that political actors worse even than Johnson, hard though that may be to imagine, may step into power. And that’s a major reason why, as per my last post, I think we should attend to the sound of the distant waterfall as the ship of state floats down the river.
I won’t attempt anything but a cursory description of the literature analysing potential collapse, though I’d be interested to hear other people’s suggestions for worthy contributions to it. Inevitably, that literature varies from the learned to the loopy. One of the cornerstones of collapse literature in modern times has been the Limits to Growth report emerging from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first published in 1972. Despite its academic pedigree, critics have long sought to position the report as more loopy than learned, but with increasing difficulty over the years as actual trends have pretty much tracked the ones modelled by the LTG authors (see this, for example, or this). Meanwhile, various new currents of thinking have emerged around energy, climate and economic futures that take forward the ‘business as usual is not an option’ package of LTG.
A recent iteration of these debates has been prompted by Jem Bendell’s paper ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’. Bendell, a social scientist, begins his paper with an overview of findings in climate science, from which he infers the likelihood of a ‘near-term collapse in society’. Inevitably, critics have piled on various aspects of Bendell’s intervention, often citing celebrated climate scientist Michael Mann’s views on the matter. Mann described Bendell’s paper as a “perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness” in comments to Nafeez Ahmed, and then weighed in on Ahmed’s own interesting intervention as “unhelpful doomist messaging premised on poor understanding of climate science”.
I’m not fundamentally invested in Bendell or Ahmed being right, but I’m interested in the framing by Mann and those who invoke him. Mann’s understanding of climate science is surely superior to Bendell or Ahmed’s, but the focus of his comment is on ‘unhelpful doomist messaging’, which is in the realms of politics and psychology, not climate science. ‘Unhelpful’ to whom? Who should the messaging be ‘helping’, and why? What political project is compromised by ‘doomism’? And what if ‘doomist messaging’ turns out to galvanise public opinion in favour of more radical climate action?
I’d suggest that Mann’s scientific expertise lends no greater weight to his opinions on these points than to the opinions of many others, perhaps even less weight than the opinions of social scientists like Bendell and Ahmed. Actually, a sad truth of social science is that – far more than climate science – it’s really not very good at predicting anything. So while this means that the likes of Bendell probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer inevitable near-term social collapse, it also means that the likes of Mann probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer the opposite.
Talking of firm ground, research involving another celebrated climate scientist – James Hansen – suggests that sea levels may rise by as much as several metres within a century or so. With a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its preindustrial 280ppm, average global temperature is probably set to rise, according to recent research, by 2.6-3.9 Celsius. Given the fine-tuned ‘sociopolitical complexity’ and fragile interdependencies of our modern civilization, can anyone in good faith rule out the possibility of social collapse in such circumstances? Some years ago, James Woolsey wrote that it would take an “extraordinary effort” for any country to “look beyond its own salvation” in scenarios like this. What’s interesting here is more the commenter than the comment, since Woolsey is an ex-director of the CIA, an organisation with a better track record than most at social science prediction. Doubtless this is largely because it has more power than most social scientists to turn its predictions into reality. Perhaps a presentiment of collapse is when even CIA experts throw up their hands at impending realities they can’t game their way out of.
For my part, I lack Woolsey’s crystal ball, but I’ll wrap up with a few comments for discussion on why I think it’s eminently possible that we may indeed be facing a near-term collapse in society, which I present briefly under six headings:
Economic: The present global economy is based on a model of growth that generates proportionate returns on investment. Over the last fifty years the total world economic product has grown on average by about 7% annually in real terms, standing in 2019 at about 85 trillion in constant 2010 US$. If you project that growth forwards over the next 50 years, by my calculations the global economy in 2070 will be over 30 times bigger than the present one. It seems to me pretty clear that that’s not going to happen, so the course of the global economy in the near future will be different from its course in the near past. Perhaps, looking back, future historians will describe that changed course as a collapse.
Political: In modern times, blatant inequality – more than rank poverty – fuels political turbulence. Inequalities have been getting more blatant, while politics in many parts of the world have been getting more turbulent, with the rise of various so-called populist movements, authoritarian figureheads, renewal movements and state failures. There’s a chance of declining political legitimacy and a resulting weaker reach of state power. Perhaps this could manifest in a rapid, significant loss of the established level of sociopolitical complexity. In other words, present political trends may prompt collapse.
Energetic: as I recently discussed, our present society is overwhelmingly and increasingly reliant on fossil fuels: average fossil fuel consumption per capita globally is over 1.5 tonnes of oil equivalent, and this constitutes 85% of our energy use. We need to transition out of fossil fuels, firstly (and very urgently) because they’re the main contributor to global heating, and secondly because they’re not renewable. But no transition is yet underway, and it’s hard to see how to achieve one that furnishes over 1.5 TOE per capita, especially at something similar to present energy prices. Therefore, it seems likely that in the future per capita energy availabilities will decline, along with the highly specialised and urbanised division of labour that goes with them. This could involve a rapid, significant loss of established levels of sociopolitical complexity. You know where I’m going with this, right…?
Climate: alternatively, and perhaps more likely, we might carry on relying on fossil fuels, burning our way towards 3 or 4 degrees of global heating. In this scenario, we’re talking about large sea level rises, multiple breadbasket failures, mass climate-fuelled migration, greater fire risks, greater flood risks, greater storm risks and various other related scenarios. Governments may be able to retain their territorial reach, their political legitimacy, and their ability to organise political space so as to retain established levels of sociopolitical complexity as they wrestle with these profoundly challenging issues. Then again, they may not…
Nuclear: the mutually assured nuclear destruction of the Cold War, along with its proxy conflicts, have given way in the 21st century to situations exemplified by US foreign policy in Iran, North Korea and the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nuclear proliferation is clearly in an individual state’s interest as a bulwark against US military power. But globally it makes nuclear conflict more likely. Meanwhile, the disposal problem for high-level nuclear waste has been endlessly kicked down the road, seemingly because it’s too expensive even for wealthy modern states to deal with. Imagine how difficult it might be for non-wealthy states of the future wrestling with a plethora of other problems. I’m not exactly sure what the association between modern nuclear civilization and collapse might be. But I suspect it could prove quite strong.
Infectious disease pandemic: Well, we’re in one now. But unless we’re afflicted with something as or more infectious than Covid-19 and considerably more lethal, I can’t see this as an agent of collapse in and of itself. Not even the Black Death achieved that, with its vastly higher mortality. Indeed, it was arguably a source of social renewal. Then again, the Black Death afflicted societies that didn’t have a highly urbanised and specialised division of labour, and where a large portion of the population produced their own subsistence. I doubt modern societies would be so resilient in the face of such a pandemic, which may indeed cause a rapid and significant loss of sociopolitical complexity in them.
But probably the main way in which a pandemic may work as an agent of collapse – indeed, the main way in which all of the factors mentioned above might – would be as one part of a multifactorial story. Economic decline plus political disorder plus failed energy transition plus global heating plus new health challenges (let’s not even mention nuclear issues) might easily, to borrow Michael Mann’s phrase, create a perfect storm prompting sociopolitical collapse. To rule this possibility out of our reckonings about the future seems to me a case of futurological cherry-picking or selective messaging that I can only describe as…unhelpful.