Of the nine frontiers vital to the functioning of the “Earth system”, at least four have already been transgressed by our industrial societies, with global warming, the decline of biodiversity or the unsustainable rate of deforestation. To transgress these borders is to take the risk that our environment and our societies will react “in an abrupt and unpredictable way” warn Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, in their book How everything can collapse. Recalling all the data and increasingly alarming scientific alerts, the two authors are calling for an end to denial. “To be a catastrophist is neither to be pessimistic nor optimistic, it is to be lucid”.
2015 Original French Edition
2020 English Translation
Pablo Servigne is an agricultural engineer and doctor of biology. Raphaël Stevens is an expert in the resilience of socio-ecological systems. They wrote the ground-breaking book How everything can collapse, Du Seuil, April 2015.
Basta! : Isn’t a book on collapse a little too catastrophic?
Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens: The birth of the book is the culmination of four years of research. We have merged hundreds of scientific articles and books: books on financial crises, on ecocide, archeology books on the end of ancient civilizations, climate reports ... While being the most rigorous possible. But we felt a form of frustration: when a book tackles peak oil (the gradual decline in oil and gas reserves), it does not mention biodiversity; When a book deals with the extinction of cash, it does not speak of the fragility of the financial system ... It lacked an interdisciplinary approach. This is the aim of the book.
Over the months, we have been crossed by great emotions, what the Anglo-Saxons call the “Oh my god point” (“Oh the cow!” Or “Oh my god!”). We receive such enormous information that it is overwhelming. We passed several “Oh my god points”, like discovering that our food depends entirely on petroleum, that the consequences of a warming beyond 2° C are terrifying, that highly complex systems, like the climate or the economy, react abruptly and unpredictably when thresholds are exceeded. So much so that, by reading all this data, we have become catastrophic. Not in the sense that we say that everything is screwed up, where we sink into an irrevocable pessimism. Rather in the sense that we accept that disasters can occur: they are looming, we must look at them with courage, eyes wide open. To be a catastrophist is neither to be pessimistic nor optimistic, it is to be lucid.
Peak oil, extinction of species, global warming... What are the borders of our “thermo-industrial” civilization?
We have distinguished borders and limits. The limits are physical and cannot be exceeded. Borders can be crossed at our own risk. The metaphor of the car, which we use in the book, helps to understand them well. Our car is today’s thermo-industrial civilization. It accelerates exponentially, to infinity is growth. However, it is limited by the size of its petrol tank: the peak oil, that of metals and resources in general, the “peak of everything” (Peak Everything) to use the expression of the [U.S.] American journalist Richard Heinberg. At one point, there is not enough energy left to continue. And that moment is today. We drive on the reserve. We cannot go beyond.
Then there are the borders. The car drives in a real world which depends on the climate, biodiversity, ecosystems, great geochemical cycles. This earth system has the distinction of being a complex system. Complex systems react unpredictably if certain thresholds are crossed. Nine vital frontiers to the planet have been identified: climate, biodiversity, land use, ocean acidification, freshwater consumption, chemical pollution, stratospheric ozone, the nitrogen cycle and phosphorus and the aerosol load of the atmosphere.
Of these nine thresholds, four have already been exceeded, with global warming, the decline of biodiversity, deforestation and disturbances in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle. Europe has, for example, lost half of its bird populations in thirty years (read here). Marine biodiversity is collapsing and the first “dead zones” appear at sea. These are areas where there is downright no more life, no more enough interactions due to very strong pollution (see here). On earth, the rate of deforestation remains unsustainable. Between 1995 and 2010, the planet lost an average of 10 hectares of forest per minute, according to the FAO. However, when we cross a border, we increase the risk of crossing the other thresholds. To return to our metaphor of the car, this corresponds to a road trip: we have crossed borders. Not only do we continue to accelerate, but we also left the asphalt for a chaotic track, in the fog. We risk a crash.
What are the obstacles to awareness?
First there is denial, individual and collective. In the population, there are those who do not know: those who cannot know for lack of access to information and those who do not want to know anything. There are those who know, and there are many, but who do not believe it. Like most decision makers who know but do not really believe in IPCC data and reports. Finally, there are those who know and who believe. Among them, there is a range of reactions: those who say “what’s the use”, those who think that “everything is going to blow up” ...
The alert on the limits of growth was however launched more than 40 years ago, with the report of the American physicist Dennis Meadows for the Club of Rome (1972). How to explain this lasting blindness of “decision-makers”?
When a fact occurs and contradicts our representation of the world, we prefer to distort these facts to make them enter our myths rather than to change them. Our society is based on the myths of competition, progress, infinite growth. This founded our western and liberal culture. As soon as a fact does not correspond to this future, we prefer to distort it or outright deny it, as do climate skeptics or lobbies who sow doubt by contradicting scientific arguments.
Second, the structure of our neural connections does not allow us to easily envisage events of such great magnitude. Three million years of evolution have forged a cognitive power that prevents us from understanding a long-term catastrophe. This is the image of the spider: the sight of a tarantula in a jar causes more adrenaline than reading a report from the IPCC! While the trapped tarantula is harmless and global warming will potentially cause millions of deaths. Our brain is not adapted to face a gigantic problem posed over time. Especially since the problem is complex: our society is going straight into the wall, we hear. It is not a wall. It is only after having crossed a threshold—in terms of global warming, pollution, loss of biodiversity—that we realize that we have crossed it.
Can we not brake and regain control of the car, of our civilization?
Our steering wheel is blocked. It is socio-technical locking: when a technical invention appears—petroleum and its derivatives for example—, it invades society, locks it economically, culturally and legally, and prevents other more efficient innovations from emerging. Our society remains stuck on increasingly ineffective technological choices. And we are pressing hard on the accelerator because we cannot afford to abandon growth, unless we take the risk of an economic and social collapse. The interior of our car is also increasingly fragile, due to the ever-increasing interconnection of supply chains, finance, transport and communication infrastructure, such as the Internet. A new type of risk has appeared, global systemic risk. A global collapse that will not be just a simple road accident. Whichever way we approach the problem, we are stuck.
The ways in which the collapse could occur and what will remain of post-industrial civilization is abundantly represented in cinema—from Interstellar to Mad Max via Elysium[Fr,Eng]—or in series like Walking Dead. Is this imagination out of step with your vision of the “day after”?
To speak of collapse is to take the risk that our interlocutor immediately imagines Mel Gibson with a sawed-off shotgun in the desert. Because there is only this type of image that comes to us. Our intuitions do not, however, lead to a Mad Max version world, but to images or stories that we find only too rarely in novels or movies. Ecotopia, for example, is an excellent utopian novel by Ernest Callenbach. Published in the United States in 1975, it greatly inspired the Anglo-Saxon environmental movement, but is unfortunately not translated into French. We also don’t think it will be a Star Trek future: we no longer have enough energy to travel to other planets and colonize the universe. It’s too late.
There is a gap in our “day after” imagination. The USSR collapsed economically. The situation in Russia today is not terrible, but it is not Mad Max. In Cuba, the use of agroecology has helped limit the damage. Mad Max has this specificity to approach a collapse through the role of energy, and to consider that there will still be enough oil available to make war against each other. Scientists are expecting such catastrophic events. In the scientific literature, the appearance of famines, epidemics and wars is approached, in particular through the climate question. Mass migration is already there. It is not a question of having a naïve vision of the future, we must remain realistic, but there are other possible scenarios. It’s up to us to change our imagination.
Is there, as for earthquakes, a Richter scale of collapse?
We were interested in what we learned from archeology and the history of ancient civilizations. Collapses have occurred in the past, with the Mayan Empire, the Roman Empire or Soviet Russia. They are of different natures and of varying degrees. The scale produced by a Russian-American engineer, Dmitry Orlov, defines five stages of collapse: financial collapse—we had a slight glimpse of what it could cause in 2008—, economic, political collapse, social and cultural, to which we can add a sixth stage, ecological collapse, which will prevent a civilization from restarting. The USSR, for example, stopped at stage 3: a political collapse which did not prevent them from going up the slope. The Mayans and the Romans went further, until a social collapse. This has evolved towards the emergence of new civilizations, such as the entry of Europe into the Middle Ages.
What are the signs that a country or a civilization is threatened with collapse?
There is a historical constant: clear indicators of collapse are manifested first in finance. A civilization systematically goes through a phase of growth, then a long phase of stagnation before decline. This phase of stagnation manifests itself in periods of stagflation and deflation. Even the Romans devalued their currency: their coins contained much less metal silver over time. According to Dmitry Orlov, we can no longer avoid a stage 3 political collapse today. Take southern Europe: the financial collapse that has started is gradually turning into an economic collapse, and little by little losing political legitimacy. Greece is reaching this stage.
Another example: Syria has collapsed beyond political collapse. In our opinion, it is starting a stage 4 social collapse, with wars and mass deaths. In this case, we get closer to Mad Max. When looking at a nocturnal satellite image of Syria today, the light intensity has decreased by 80% compared to four years ago. The causes of the Syrian collapse are obviously multiple, at the same time geopolitical, religious, economic... Upstream there is also the climatic crisis. Before the conflict, successive years of drought caused crop failure and the displacement of one million people, who added to the Iraqi refugees, and increased instability.
Even simplified, this classification of stages allows us to understand that what we are experiencing is not a homogeneous and brutal event. It is not the apocalypse. It is a mosaic of collapses, more or less deep according to political systems, regions, seasons, years. What is unfair is that the countries that have contributed the least to global warming, the poorest, are already on the verge of collapse, notably due to desertification. Paradoxically, the temperate countries, which have contributed the most to pollution, may be better off.
This brings us to the issue of inequality. “Inequalities in OECD countries have never been higher since we measured them,” said OECD Secretary-General in Paris on May 21. What role do inequalities play in the collapse?
Inequalities are a collapsing factor. We approach the issue with a model called “Handy”, funded by NASA. It describes the different interactions between a society and its environment. This model shows that when societies are unequal, they collapse faster and more confidently than egalitarian societies. Ostentatious consumption tends to increase when economic inequalities are high, as demonstrated by the work of sociologist Thorstein Veblen. This drives society into a consuming spiral which ultimately causes collapse by depleting resources. The model also shows that the wealthy classes can destroy the working class—human potential—by exploiting them more and more. This strangely echoes the austerity policies currently in place, which reduce the ability of the poorest to survive. With the accumulation of wealth, the elite caste only collapses after the poorest, which makes them blind and keeps them in denial. Two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett [The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger], also show that the level of inequality has very toxic consequences on the health of individuals.
Is the transition movement, very connected to ecological alternatives, sufficiently tackling inequalities?
The transition movement affects more the wealthy classes, educated and well-informed circles. It is a fact that precarious classes are less active in this movement. In the transition movement, as it manifests in France with Alternatiba or the growth objectors, the social question is present, but is not tackled head on. It is not a standard. The posture of the transition movement is to be inclusive: we are all in the same boat, we are all concerned. It is true that this can annoy politicized activists who are used to social struggles. But it also allows many people who are disillusioned or little politicized to get in motion, to act and to no longer feel helpless.
The transition movement came from the United Kingdom, where historically the use of the welfare state has been less strong. “Do not wait for governments, let’s act”, is their leitmotif. It is a question of finding levers for action where a power to act can be exercised, without politics or the State: a street, a neighborhood, a village. The role of the movement’s leaders is to put everyone, individual or collective, in touch.
The transition movement seems to be configured by the spaces where a citizen can still exercise his power to act: the private sphere, his way of housing or consuming, his neighborhood ... The world of work, where this power to act is currently very limited, even prevented, but which remains the daily life of millions of employees, is it in fact excluded?
Not necessarily. This is called “REconomy”: building an economy that is compatible with the biosphere, ready to provide services and produce products essential to our daily needs. This is not only done in one’s spare time. These are cooperatives or entrepreneurship turned towards an activity without oil, evolving with a destabilized climate. These are also the local currencies. All this now represents millions of people around the world. It’s not nothing.
Transition is the story of a great disconnect. Those working in and for the collapsing system need to know that it will stop. We cannot say it otherwise! You have to unplug, cut the wires gradually, find a little autonomy and a power to act. Eating, dressing, housing and transporting yourself without the current industrial system will not happen by itself. The transition is a return to the collective to regain some autonomy. Personally, we don’t know how to survive without going to the supermarket or using a car. We will only learn it in a collective setting. Those who remain too dependent will experience great difficulties.
Is it not a bit brutal as a speech, especially for those who do not necessarily have the capacity or the room to maneuver to anticipate the collapse?
Sadness, anger, anxiety, helplessness, shame, guilt: we successively felt all these emotions during our research. We see them express themselves in a more or less strong way among the public that we meet. It is by welcoming these emotions, not by repressing them, that we can mourn the industrial system that nourishes us and move forward. Without a lucid and catastrophic observation on the one hand, and tracks to go towards the transition on the other, we cannot get into motion. If you’re just a catastrophist, you don’t do anything. If you are only positive, you cannot realize the shock to come, and therefore enter into transition.
How, in this context, make mutual aid and collective dynamics prevail?
The feeling of injustice in the face of collapse can be very toxic. In Greece, which is collapsing financially, economically and politically, the population experiences this as a huge injustice and responds with anger or resentment. It is completely legitimate. Anger can be directed, with reason, against the elites, as the victory of Syriza showed. But it also risks targeting scapegoats. We have seen this with the far right party Golden Dawn, which attacks foreigners and immigrants. Addressing the issue of inequality upstream would help defuse future political disasters. This is why unions and actors in social struggles have their place in the transition movement.
Collected by Ivan du Roy