Down with collapse!

by | Sep 10, 2009

A few weeks back, George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth had an intriguing debate on the Guardian’s website about prospects for the imminent demise of western civilisation. Both are firmly convinced that the world is in Very Serious Trouble, what with climate change, oil depletion and what have you.  Both think we are probably All Doomed. Where they differ, though, is whether we should even try to mount a rescue attempt.

Monbiot is definitely the more upbeat of the two, in that – cheery chap that he is – he reckons that it’s on balance a good idea to avoid the total collapse of civilisation:

I’m sure we can agree that the immediate consequences of collapse would be hideous: the breakdown of the systems that keep most of us alive; mass starvation; war. These alone surely give us sufficient reason to fight on, however faint our chances appear. But even if we were somehow able to put this out of our minds, I believe that what is likely to come out on the other side will be worse than our current settlement … I am fighting to prevent both initial collapse and the repeated catastrophe that follows. However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive.

Pah, says Kingsnorth: our current economic system can’t be tamed without collapsing – “and who wants it tamed anyway?”  – so we must grow up and let go of the idea that our predicament can be fixed (whether through clean technology, through co-ordinated interntional action, or whatever).

The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.

As you might expect, all of this is deeply exciting for other collapse gurus, some of whom just can’t resist adding their own two-pennyworth. Like the Archdruid, for instance, whose blog is reliably full of (always readable) musings on our imminent demise. Rather fabulously, he dismisses both Monbiot and Kingsnorth on the basis that both of them are unduly optimistic:

Both men are proclaiming the gospel of a better future; their disagreements are simply about what form that future will take and how we will get there. Both assume that we can have, and ought to have, a future that’s even shinier than the present …

We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that. If this sounds like fatalism, it may be worth remembering that once a car goes skidding off a mountain road into empty air, it requires neither a crystal ball nor a faith in predestination to recognize that nothing anybody can do is going to prevent a terrific crash.

One can only imagine the sort of inverse euphoria induced by spending one’s days in this kind of competitive auction of doom with other collapse gurus – perhaps this is what it’s like to take ketamine. Either way, I wish to place on record a discordant note.

Not about the facts; I don’t disagree with any of the three on the gravity of the situation.  Anyone who looks hard at the data on climate change, energy security, food scarcity and so on recognises that we’re potentially in for a much rougher ride than mainstream political discourse is yet prepared to recognise.

Instead, I disagree with their approach.

All this talk of ‘descent’, ‘collapse’, ‘decline’, of ‘hopes … however faint’ makes me feel rather… well, impatient. One imagines the three of them in the pub last night, downing pints to drown their sorrows about England being knocked out of the World Cup, three hours before kick-off.

We are, it is true, playing for high stakes in the civilisational stakes. We live in interesting times. It might all go terribly wrong. But it might not. And we do, after all, have some agency in the matter.

It’s often observed that there’s a lack of political will for dealing with the big global risks, and this is true.  More specifically, we’re lacking leadership (too few policymakers willing to grasp the nettle); political space (not enough public consent to really radical action); institutional bandwidth (our national and global governance systems are bad at dealing with complexity); and ideas on what sort of ‘shared operating systems’ we need to be aiming for (see David and my paper on The Resilience Doctrine for more on these).

Most of all, though, we lack narratives.

Images. Metaphors. Stories that explain where we are; how we got here; where we might decide to go next; and how we might get there.

When David and I wrote the report on global institutions (pdf) that Gordon Brown commissioned from us for the 2008 Progressive  Governance summit, we called it Shooting the Rapids because we thought this metaphor captured the essence of the challenge ahead. In small boat; rocks and choppy water ahead; risk of capsize; manageable if paddle together; pleasantly shaded pool at far end.

You could write a book on why it is that we lack these narratives. For my part, I think a lot of the answer has to do with a prevailing cultural relativism in the west that has the effect of sapping people’s confidence in thinking or talking at what you might call the ‘macro-historical’ level. Short-termism is certainly part of it, too – I’ve always liked Danny Hillis‘s 1993 observation that,

When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by the year 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.

But regardless of the reason, it’s time we sorted this out. And where that starts is with the people who are thinking most about the challenge ahead – whom I think have a responsibility to articulate the challenge in a way that implies the possibility of shooting the rapids successfully.

And so, a small plea for a little less about collapse, descents, powerdowns and the rest – and a little more about renewal, transformation and renaissance. What, after all, have we got to lose?


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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