I think we need to talk openly and calmly about the possibility of societal or civilizational collapse arising from humanity’s present predicaments. And that’s mostly what I want to pursue in this post – not so much what the likelihood or the underlying mechanisms of collapse might be, but the idea that it would be useful if, as a society, we could talk about it.
Maybe that’s happening in one sense. The noises offstage from scientists, multilateral agencies, social critics and political activists about the possibility of collapse are getting louder1. Inevitably, so is the pushback from those arguing that this is so much overheated rhetoric, and everything’s just fine2. My sense is that there’s far greater empirical weight behind the former than the latter position, but it’s the latter one that seems to dominate public discourse. There’s precious little public and media attention to the rather big news that the way we live may soon be ending. Indeed, people who say such things are generally relegated from serious debate, and sometimes accused of peddling ‘collapse porn’ with their mawkish tales of impending doom3. It’s a curious phrase. Inasmuch as pornography presents people with something that they guiltily want to see, but in unrealistic and idealized ways that hide the reality of the relationships involved and erode their integrity, perhaps we should rather be talking about ‘business as usual porn’.
I’m not too sure why business as usual porn is so widespread, but I think possibly it’s because of an unfortunate fusion between two aspects of modern life. First, a sense that the vast technological reach of contemporary societies armours us against the malign contingencies of the world, and second an elaborate and urbanized division of labour that denies most people even the remotest capacity to care for themselves in the face of those contingencies. The result at best is a cheerful fatalism – “there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well enjoy myself” – and at worst a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which we celebrate our armoured urbanism, latch onto every sign of its vitality and dismiss any counternarrative out of hand.
In his lovely book about foraging and hunting peoples, Hugh Brody describes a very different situation among the Inuit hunters with whom he lived4. Every journey across the ice was rimed with potential danger, which was freely acknowledged. The Inuit were well aware of the malign contingencies of the world over which they had little ultimate control – a situation that made them neither fearful, nor selfish, nor angry, nor sad, but in some sense alive within a culture that had to deal with it. And they had many skills for dealing with what came their way, as hunters, builders, navigators, craftspeople and so on. My sense is that they didn’t spend much time debating whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about their uncertain future, nor in honouring leaders who cheekily mocked ‘project fear’ and lambasted ‘doomsters and gloomsters’. Instead, they carefully assessed the dangers ahead that they perceived, prepared themselves as best they could to mitigate them, but were open to the inscrutable workings of uncontrollable contingency.
My feeling is that we could do with channelling a bit of that mentality in our now-challenged world. Perhaps one of the differences between our predicaments today and those of the Inuit is that our problems are fundamentally collective. Often, in non-modern foraging or farming societies centralization and bureaucratization has been a risk-pooling venture by people with other options up their sleeve (I’m borrowing here from archaeologist of premodern societal collapse, Joseph Tainter5). When the going gets rough for the state superstructure, people readily abandon it and pursue a more dispersed and self-reliant life – perhaps something akin to the kind of life lived by the Inuit hunters described by Brody. One of the problems we face today is that, for most of us, it’s not so easy to walk away and lead a more self-reliant life. We lack the space, the skills and the political warrant to do so. These are all genuinely difficult problems, but perhaps as big a problem is that we also lack the cultural language to do so. We’ve become so wedded to urbanism, economic growth, high tech (or, in fact, high energy) solutionism and narratives of historical progress that a turn to self-reliance seems undesirable, impossible, laughable – what someone I was debating with recently called a ‘neopeasant fantasy’.
I guess I’ll continue that debate, wearily. It seems to be a thing I do. And I haven’t given up on it entirely – if I can help break down the resistance to an alternative cultural narrative in a few minds, then I guess that’s something. But I want to imagine myself metaphorically out on the ice with Inuit hunters as Hugh Brody was, with no food, no game in evidence, and many days journey from safety, with only a tired dog team, my knowledge of the terrain, my hunting skills and my fortitude in my favour.
Of course, in reality I’m not out on the ice but on a small farm near the edge of a small town in a small country that’s thoroughly imbued with the culture of global capitalism. I can try to imagine a cultural awakening fit for my time and place, but to write it down on the page will make it thinner and more fugitive than it needs to be in practice. The words I’d write on the page would probably include things like autonomy, self-reliance, community, land, skill, care, craft, work, health, nature, play, creation, love and argument. You can write those words for most cultures. But I think they’ll soon mean different things in our culture than they do now. The trick is going to be building out quickly from the place where we now are, creating culture in practice, but letting go of a lot that we now take for granted, or insist upon. We need to build a new culture that’s calmly open and alive to the possibilities and dangers of the present and the journey ahead, not angrily insistent upon the virtues of the path that took us to where we now stand.
So I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time debating on paper (or online) the detailed shape and content of that new culture. I think it’s better to shape it in practice, by doing what we can as peacemakers, storytellers, educators, healers or agents of the practical arts to breathe local life into it. But I do think it’s worth spending time debating the political and historical circumstances in which that shaping can take off and propagate. And that’s why the inability to countenance collapse in mainstream discussion, our obsession with business as usual porn, is frustrating. Because we need to talk about collapse. I’m not saying that everybody needs to agree it’s inevitably going to happen. But I think it would be good if there was wider acceptance in mainstream discussions that, on the basis of the evidence before us, it’s a reasonable possibility to reckon with. In fact, if our culture were able to countenance this and take it in its stride, I’d probably downgrade my estimation of its likelihood.
I’d liken my position to a tourist on a river rowboat, supping at the bar and enjoying the scenery as we float along. There’s a distant roar, and on the horizon I see a smudge of spray. The current has started running faster and grown sinuous. Coming up quickly on the far bank there’s a placid creek.
“Gosh, seems like there’s quite a waterfall ahead,” I say to my fellow passengers.
One of them cups her ear.
“Nah, can’t hear anything,” she says.
“I really don’t think so,” another replies, “The captain wouldn’t put us into that kind of peril.”
“Don’t be such a killjoy,” says a third. “Carpe diem is my motto. I’m enjoying my drink. We all die in the end anyway.”
“We’ll be fine,” says another. “Somebody’s soon going to figure out how to make some wings and fit them to the boat. If there’s a waterfall, we’ll just fly over it.”
“All the same”, I say, “if we all get down onto the deck quickly and help the oarsmen we might just be able to row into that creek – then we’re sure to be in safer waters.”
“Are you serious?” says another passenger. “I didn’t pay for this holiday just to go back to doing a load of backbreaking work.”
But, privately unsettled by my words, the passengers seek reassurance. “Don’t worry. I know his sort of alarmist very well”, says Captain Shellenberger, nodding in my direction, “and I’d like to apologise on his behalf. Just look how beautiful the river is right here. And it’s even better up ahead. Now, who wants another drink?”
I’m not really down with Ted Kaczynski’s ship of fools, but despite the captain’s words I’m pretty sure we’re in for a rude awakening. Unfortunately, with everyone on board so deeply into their business as usual porn there’s not much I can do about it. And what I don’t know as the curtain of spray approaches is whether we’re just going to bump down and lurch uncomfortably around in the rapids for a while, or whether we’re going to fly over a precipice and be dashed on the rocks hundreds of feet below.
A reviewer of John Michael Greer’s latest offering writes that many people today succumb to an “odd fallacy” that collapse will be fast, when we know from past social collapses that they’re usually slow. In this view, intimations of fast collapse are another version of business as usual porn, because they suggest there’s nothing to be done. We’re screwed – might as well just have another drink.
I understand the concept of slow collapse. Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Rome in 800AD, long after anything that truly resembled the Roman empire had ceased to exist, and Byzantines were still calling themselves ‘Romans’ around that time. I daresay people might still be calling themselves ‘American’ or ‘English’ in centuries hence. But Charlemagne and the Byzantines didn’t have to contend with rapid global temperature and sea level rises whose expected upper bounds are at the kind of levels we know caused mass extinctions in the geological past – slow extinctions no doubt, as measured by human years, but also not ones enmeshed in the fragile interdependencies of complex civilization. Even then, it’s worth considering what collapse might look like as it happens – not necessarily a Mad Max world of anarchic violence, maybe a slow unravelling of political order and economic wellbeing of the kind that already seems underway. And even if future climate disruptions prove only modest, there are numerous other political, economic and biophysical crises looming that suggest change to business as usual is imminent, however much the status quo gratifies some of us.
When I wrote something similar a few years back, one of the captain’s crew responded along the lines that “you can almost hear Smaje wringing his hands with his fears about the future”. But I’m not frightened. We need to jettison these dualities of optimism and pessimism, hope and fear. Optimism to hang onto a world where half the population live in rank poverty? No thanks. I think we need to cultivate something of the insouciance about a rapid change of circumstances of the Inuit, or of those premodern citizenries described by Tainter, who shrugged and walked away.
So where I think I need to be is out on the ice, my belly empty and my eyes open, attentive for prey. By that I don’t mean that personally I’m fully prepped up for the contingencies of a Mad Max world, nor that my hands are unsullied by any traffic with the capitalist present. I mean that I want to be outside the tent, surveying the terrain, not inside it telling tall tales about the rich hunting grounds we’re sure to find just as soon as we step outside.
To return to my other metaphor, I think there’s a good chance that when the boat slips over the edge, it’s going to be worse than just bumpy. To me, that’s not an inducement to have another drink, but one to quit the bar, get down on the deck and start rowing. To do that, though, we first need to kick the porn habit and start talking, properly, about collapse.
- E.g. https://voiceofaction.org/collapse-of-civilisation-is-the-most-likely-outcome-top-climate-scientists/; https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/8xwygg/the-collapse-of-civilisation-may-have-already-begun; https://gar.undrr.org/sites/default/files/chapter/2019-06/chapter_2.pdf; http://lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf; This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, Penguin, 2019; David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth, Penguin, 2019.
- E.g. Michael Shellenberger Apocalypse Never, Harper 2020.
- E.g. Leigh Phillips Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts, Zero, 2015.
- Hugh Brody The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. North Point, 2000.
- Joseph Tainter. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.