The coming collapse

30 August 2016 by Renaud Duterme , Pablo Servigne

Cadillac Ranch by Richie Diesterheft (CC)

Western civilisation has allowed some groups of humans to possess material wealth as incredible as it is useless. This preying has been made possible through the free-exchange imposed on people, the pillaging of natural resources, the general commercialisation of all public goods, and the idolisation of technology and progress. Today, the complexity of connections and interdependencies, the unbearable inequalities created by the exacerbated competition among human beings, and the acceleration of the destruction of our ecosystem are weakening the communal home of living things. Although we are not able to say what tomorrow will look like, some of us suggest aspects to help us understand and imagine how it could or could not be.

Pablo Servigne, co-author of the book Comment tout peut s’effondrer (How everything could collapse) and Renaud Duterme, author of L’effondrement, de quoi est-il le nom ? (Collapse, what does it mean?) answer the questions of Les Autres Voix de la Planète.

What do you perceive as ‘collapse’?

Renaud Duterme: In the current context, it’s possible to consider the collapse as a combination of difficult (indeed impossible) problems to solve, all of which are disturbing our societies to the point where we’re starting to question our way of life. Nowadays, with terrorism, the influx of refugees, climate change and the depletion of resources, we are already seeing phenomena that cannot be resolved by the way in which our societies work. Well, these problems are going to get worse over the majority of years and decades to come. We are certainly moving towards huge changes, for better or worse.

Pablo Servigne: According to archaeologists, collapse is a drastic reduction of the human population and/or of political/economic/social complexity, across a wide area and a long duration. But that’s not a definition that can be used to describe what is happening to us. Thus, we have chosen the much more pragmatic definition from Yves Cochet: a situation in which “basic needs (water, food, accommodation, clothing, energy, mobility, security) are no longer provided for the majority of the population by the services established by the law.”

What are the elements that lend credibility to the theory that our civilisation is at risk of collapse?

PS: Above all, it is necessary to point out that what we are talking about is the collapse of the thermo-industrial industry, that is to say, the modern world running on fossil fuels. We have put together a stack of indicators and evidence which show that not only is a collapse possible, it’s imminent. It’s already even begun in some aspects. It’s already the end of the fossil fuel era (petrol, gas, etc.), the end of the debt system, the collapse of certain ecosystems, the disruption of the climate and the interdependence (and fragility) of our globalised economy. By linking all of these aspects, we realise that each ’crisis’ can worsen others, and that these links are most often invisible, indeed unpredictable. Furthermore, if we decide to limit the damage to the planet, we will then be obliged to leave fossil fuels underground, which would mean provoking an economic, indeed even political and social collapse. If, on the other hand, we decide to continue the trajectory of our civilisation, we will shift the ecosystems, the climate and the other pillars of the earth system towards a collapse, which will not only sound the death knell of our civilisation, but also probably that of our species and indeed the great majority of living things. So we will discover that there is no possible escape.

RD: What’s unprecedented about the current situation is that these threats arise simultaneously and, even worse, they feed each other. On the other hand, we are equally noticing that the contradictions of our economic system are beginning to make themselves understood, through the absence of growth, generalised borrowing and above all mass structural unemployment which we will not be able to resolve without deep reflections outside the current paradigm.

Is the collapse as you consider it uniform to different regions of the world?

PS: No, that’s for sure. The whole aim of our study is to start dismantling the idea of a homogenous, brutal and linear collapse. It will be very different according to regions, climates, regimes and political choices, cultures etc. Each society will respond differently to the challenges (to put it mildly!) that will present themselves. But what’s important to grasp is the domino effect of all these catastrophes and the contagion effects. A climatic crisis can easily transform into rebellion, which can deteriorate into armed conflict, then into the invasion of a neighbouring region which will experience its own famine in turn, provoking the supply disruptions in other regions of the world, triggering a pandemic, and so on. Globally, this slow, irregular and heterogeneous (and unpredictable!) process that is triggered is what we call a collapse. The irony of the story is that this concept is usually used by historians or archaeologists. It’s strange to use it in the present. But that’s the whole beauty and concern of collapsology...

RD: In fact, a collapse should be considered as a process rather than a single event. Don’t forget that what’s known as the fall of the Roman western empire lasted several centuries. Going back to the question, it’s clear that in a number of regions, the collapse is already happening. Talking about the collapse to the inhabitants of some slums or to the refugees languishing in camps in all four corners of the world seems inappropriate to say the least.

I think that what we understand as collapse concerns the middle classes in particular, whatever the world region. It is actually this category of the population that has the most to lose in terms of everyday comfort (consumption, leisure, accommodation…) because it is completely lacking in resilience and autonomy. In a way, the poorest already live their daily lives with resourcefulness and instability. As for the richest and the superior middle classes, their capital allows them to slow down the negative effects of the collapse (but until when?).

Exactly, what do class relations mean within this collapse?

PS: In our book, we show that social and economic inequalities are a very big factor of collapses. More precisely, the more a society displays class inequalities, the more likely it is to quickly and definitively collapse.

RD: This links back to the previous question. If some parts of the world can already be considered as having actually collapsed, others bask in relative prosperity, temporary without a doubt, an indecent luxury even. But, in my opinion, one of the characteristics of a collapse is the progressive privatisation of everything possible, beginning with space. In this way, we can see the proliferation of walls and gated communities across the five continents as a symptom of this collapse. In other words, it doesn’t matter if everything goes wrong as long as it happens behind closed doors… It goes without saying that if nothing is done, the coming years will result in restricting the number of privileged people more and more, in all likelihood those who are the most responsible for the catastrophes to come…

Can we still avoid collapse situations?

PS: No. They are not situations. The fish, bird, and insect populations are already collapsing. Finance has already collapsed several times in a century and the next collapse is staring us in the face. Syria, Libya, they are the countries that are going to collapse. On a more global scale, I don’t think that we can avoid a collapse of the industrial civilisation, but that does not mean that there’s nothing left to do but wait. We have a kind of duty to avoid this happening dramatically. It’s all a question of the transition movement. Because, after the collapse, there is the rebirth. We need to prepare for that now!

The single legitimate creditor of social, ecological, economic, historic and democratic debts are the people.

RD: Actually, we are probably already there. We are heading towards an increase in several degrees of world average temperatures, towards the most serious economic crashes since that of 2007-2008, and a resurgence of tensions, both between and within nations. As a consequence, it is important to consider not only resigning ourselves to this and just profiting from what we can, but putting into place other ways of organising, producing, consuming and living more resiliently from now on. Alongside this, and this is primordial, it is imperative that we identify the responsibilities in the problems that affect us in order to achieve a large level of collective movement and the combination of struggles and objectives. The struggle between equalities could, for example, gather numerous forces which would undoubtedly allow it to alleviate the negative consequences of a collapse. The single legitimate creditor of social, ecological, economic, historic and democratic debts are the people.

Are we doomed to an all-out war in the near future?

PS: Maybe. There are three ways of dying en masse: wars, famines, and diseases. It’s very likely that armed conflicts will occur in our regions in the near future. I’m very cautious about the expression ‘all-out war’, because this appeals to the very vague notion of ‘human nature’, which is very gloomy according to the liberal conception of the world (in the philosophical sense, from Hobbes and Locke). In short, this conception means that if the state disappears, human beings will immediately fall into utter barbarity. I don’t believe that this has any factual basis. It’s a fantasy, a myth. Dozens of scientific, sociological, psychological, ethnological studies testify to this. But myths die hard...

It would be naive to believe that the turmoil that is sweeping, and will sweep across our world, won’t bring extreme tensions with it in numerous places.

RD: This idea is really fashionable in what I call the imagination of the collapse. Seeing the increasing number of post-apocalyptic films and novels, Mad Max being the best example, is enough to realise this. Despite all this, it would be naive to believe that the turmoil that is sweeping, and will sweep across our world, won’t bring extreme tensions with it in numerous places. As a matter of fact, I think that cultural isolationism is a worrying symptom of what we know as collapse. What’s more, things aren’t fixed in place and the level of social cohesion will depend on our ability to anticipate these changes in such a way to alleviate the negative effects. More autonomy, re-localised economy, taking back our districts, deprofessionalisation of politics, and petrol-free and decentralised agriculture are just some of the paths to take, which will transform our perspective of a collapse by creating the possibility of seeing the rise of another way of life.

Why are industrialised countries most vulnerable to this collapse?

PS: Simply because they are the most disconnected from the earth system, from the soil, the trees, living creatures, the climate. Who knows how to survive two weeks without a car, a credit card, without a lighter and a supermarket? Humans have known how to do this for millions of years. But we have forgotten it. This is what makes us very vulnerable. We cannot survive without the artificial structure called civilisation we have created, which is paradoxically very powerful, yet very fragile.

RD: I wouldn’t say that we are the most threatened, rather that the residents of these countries are those for whom the collapse is at risk of making itself felt the hardest, particularly because our way of life is much more above ground than numerous inhabitants of the third world. Our consumption, our diet, our hobbies, our organisation of our territory are the things that have transformed in the last decades and have become dependent on the supply of cheap petrol. Conversely, many African farmers cultivating their land have much more autonomy and therefore more resilience, even if a large middle class grows closer to the way of life of rich countries. The tragedy is that this autonomy and resilience are being destroyed more and more by the attacks of the ruling classes (multinationals, financial institutions, imperialism) and on the other hand, that those who have the financial means of meeting the consumption levels of the rich countries do this without hesitation, which is precisely what increases their vulnerability to a collapse of social and economic structures.

Where does capitalism come into the study of collapse?

PS: It should have an important place in the analysis of causes and the study of the mechanisms of this collapse. Unfortunately, collapsology is in its infancy and we are missing the real analysis on the connection between capitalism and collapse. So, Renaud Duterme’s book is right on time for this!

RD: Capitalism should have a central place in the study of collapse. Firstly because it is undoubtedly the search for quick short-term profit Profit The positive gain yielded from a company’s activity. Net profit is profit after tax. Distributable profit is the part of the net profit which can be distributed to the shareholders. , which is a major cause of this collapse, and secondly, because this approach will still be able to increase (albeit in increasingly fewer hands) following the collapse. The problem is that this system has an ability to adapt disproportionately and unlike other systems (feudalism, centralised communism), capitalism worms itself into every aspect of our lives (which Polanyi calls ‘the great transformation’). As a consequence, highlighting the responsibility of capitalism in the collapse doesn’t mean that other global alternatives exist for the short or middle term. That said, it’s clear that one of the steps for reaching a more positive post-collapse future will entail substituting many areas concerning profit, in order to restore them to a ‘communal’ vision.

How do you see the state in this process?

PS: It’s a crucial question. On one hand the state is a super-organism that has its own pulse (its conatus, Spinoza would say), it doesn’t want to die. On the other hand, archaeologists have shown that its level of complexity is growing (administration, armies, bureaucracy etc.) at an energy price which is also growing, which makes the macrostructures more vulnerable to the point where the energy change begins to decrease (where the extraction of energy becomes too expensive). This is precisely why this cutting between a society which is too greedy when it comes to energy and the difficulty of finding cheap energy has triggered collapses over the course of history. In other words, a collapse could be seen as a fast simplification of society. Without its fossil fuels the modern state is already doomed, just as our mass democracies are. The issue of the transition is to rethink a political system that is compatible with a very weak and renewable (low tech) energetic and technical system. There’s a long way to go!

RD: Unconsciously, for most people the collapse is a sign of the state’s incapability of managing public things (distribution networks, public health, security, order…). In fact, it’s for this reason that we can count on the big private companies to deal with this situation. On the contrary, it’s imperative to be cautious regarding every attempt of the state to restore its power with more and more authoritarian measures. We only need to look at the multiplication of states of exception following the attacks in Paris in 2015. In my opinion, given the complexity of our world, the state seems to me, despite everything, to be an adequate actor for handling many sectors that surpass local levels. But the essential question is rather what we expect from the state. It’s clear that centralism, professionalisation of politics and bureaucracy of the state are obstacles preventing the emergence of a new model. In this way, reclaiming politics, putting opposing forces into place, installing a good dose of direct democracy and federalism could use the collapse in order to resolve our exhausted democracy.

What role do you assign technology in the study of collapse? Is it not possible to avoid it thanks to technological progress?

RD: Fans of technology forget several things: first, the period of time needed to make technology really efficient. Second, the indirect problems that a new technology can present (coal being substituted for oil in Europe, for example). Finally, more than the technical history, it’s above all the access to this technology that needs to be available. For instance, medical progress has succeeded in lengthening life expectancy to up to 80 years, which does not, however, prevent more than half the global population not having access to it. More generally, however, we need to consider technology independently from the social connections in which it emerges. The mechanisation of excess allows us to work only 2 hours a day yet we’re far away from it. To sum up, technology should be considered for what it is, to know something about others, and not an end in itself.

PS: In fact, technology and energy should not be confused. Without energy, technology is nothing. Today, despite incredible technological progress, we have only managed to extract energy at a growing rate. The financial system and certainly the economic system are therefore going to implode soon and risk transforming into a political collapse, and I hope not, a social collapse. Technological progress will not be able to do anything, in the same way that technology can ‘resolve’ the climate question, or bring back extinct species. The myth of progress and all-powerful technology is well rooted in our spirits and unfortunately it puts a huge brake on the transition. It prevents it from getting started. The issue is certainly largely in our imaginations…

This article is an extract from the CADTM magazine: Les Autres Voix de la Planète

Renaud Duterme

est enseignant, actif au sein du CADTM Belgique, il est l’auteur de Rwanda, une histoire volée , éditions Tribord, 2013, co-auteur avec Éric De Ruest de La dette cachée de l’économie, Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2014, auteur de De quoi l’effondrement est-il le nom ?, éditions Utopia, 2016 et auteur de Petit manuel pour une géographie de combat, éditions La Découverte, 2020.



8 rue Jonfosse
4000 - Liège- Belgique

00324 60 97 96 80