Are collapsitarians socially inadequate?

Poor old collapsitarians. It’s bad enough spending your days convinced that you’re one among a small band of Cassandras burdened with the foresight to see civilisation’s imminent collapse looming ever closer. (Like those cheerful fellow over at the Dark Mountain Project, whose manifesto proclaims such perky sentiments as:

That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.

It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming.)

But the burden does not end there.  Turns out that their grim tidings turn out to be less than fertile soil for relationships, too, as the New York Times reports:

Mr Angelantoni said his concern with peak oil had strained his relationship with his spouse, creating an “unbridgeable” distance between them.

Ooh! That’s gotta hurt! And now, just to really add insult to injury, Mickey Foley argues (h/t Futurepundit) that Doomers are Doomers because… they’re socially inadequate!

The Doomer is motivated by much more than a perverse sense of altruism. He mainly desires to see everyone brought down to his level. His fondest wish is for everyone to be as emotionally crippled as he is, and, if they could also be paralyzed fiscally, that would be great too. The argument for the necessity of disaster is merely an excuse for his vindictive fantasies.

This is the Doomer’s Curse: to wallow in despair, to sneer at the happiness of others, to revel in schadenfreude and to believe that he has humanity’s best interests at heart. The Doomer honestly thinks that a universal depression (in the emotional sense) would lay the foundation for a better world, but this belief is rooted in his own selfishness, not in a rational socioeconomic analysis.

Tee hee hee … “light blue touchpaper and retire to a safe distance”, as I believe the phrase goes.  I’m with Foley all the way. Could all you Doomers just shut up about collapse, find some better narratives, and generally just man up a bit?

Down with collapse!

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. Continue reading

Enlist the old (and why being libertarian is not enough)

Over at The Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen objects to Jules’s call for national service to be used to toughen up the youth in the face of a changing climate.

This strikes me as completely contrary to the spirit of ‘resilience-ism’ (sorry; ugly, I know), which emphasises local knowledge rather than a top-down approach — giving communities the tools to help themselves rather than waiting for government to do it for them. It also raises my libertarian hackles (again): there are few better ways to empower the state at the expense of the individual than to have it conscript its youth.

Two points. First, why do we always want to conscript the young? To be sure, they make excellent cannon fodder, which is why national service was vital to the ‘total wars’ of the late 19th and early 20th century. But modern challenges are knowledge-intensive, needing people with much greater experience and skills.

So if we’re going to have compulsory service of any kind, let’s impose it on the post-war, baby boom generation – surely the most narcissistic generation of them all (in the spotlight as teenagers in the sixties, hippies in the seventies, yuppies in the eighties, middle aged and smug in the 90s, early-retired victims of age discrimination in the noughties)? 

And second, I want to pick up on his Sam on his comfortable equation of resilience with bare-chested libertarianism. Alex and I began to delve into the politics of resilience in the most recent issue of Renewal. Our conclusion? Resilience is tough on all major strands of political thinking – libertarianism (or what Brits still think of as liberalism) included: Continue reading

Bringing back National Service

Just thinking through how our society copes with climate change. One way might be to bring back national service.


1) We need to train a generation of young people how to deal with crises, whether that’s food riots, race riots, or extreme weather. They will have to be physically and mentally tough, resilient and disciplined.
2) In general, we need to instill a war-time discipline into the country if it is going to cope with a drastic reduction in our quality of life.
3) We need a bigger domestic emergency force.
4) We may need a bigger external defence force as well.

What are the arguments against it?

1) It’s the first step to a fascist military state.
2) We need experts, not amateurs.
3) We need a bigger global peacecorps, not brownshirts at home.
4) We need de-centralised innovation and spontaneous systems evolution, not goose-stepping drones.

I think the arguments for are better than the arguments against. If you want the UK to be at a forefront of a global solution to food shortages, helping other states that are failing, then you will need an even bigger armed forces.

Our country will need to become much more disciplined very quickly, and I think national service is one step towards that.

The US seems to be thinking along the same lines. Eg the Innovations in Civic Participation’s Youth Service and Climate Change initiative. President Obama also seems keen to resurrect JFK’s Peace Corps spirit. Ask not what your climate can do for you. Ask what you can do for your climate.

I wonder if this could become part of the Resilience programme which Martin Seligman developed, and which the government is now piloting in some schools in the UK.

That programme is based on the assumption of an affluent society. But it could easily be adapted to a much more Stoical sense of resilience – how to survive and stay positive, engaged and ethical in a crisis-prone society.

More reasons to be cheerful

While we’re on the subject of climate change misery (see the two posts below), an interesting finding in Raymond Fisman and Eduardo Miguel’s ‘Economic Gangsters‘ is that in Africa, the world’s most conflict-prone region, “the risk of armed civil conflict is much more likely the year after a large drop in rainfall than in normal years.”

In the Sahel region – the area between the Sahara and the equatorial zone which takes in such beacons of stability as Sudan, Chad, northern Nigeria and Niger – climate change is expected to reduce average rainfall by 24 per cent. Much of the rain that does fall will evaporate because of higher temperatures. Fisman and Miguel reckon all this will increase the risk of conflict in the region by 15 per cent by 2080, meaning some countries will face a 1 in 3 chance of civil war EACH YEAR!

Enjoy your weekend.

Kraken Wakes – climate calamity

The Kraken Wakes - john WyndhamThe first signs of disaster are noticed by only a few doomsayers.

Newspapers profess themselves ‘distressed by the calamities that have befallen certain islands,’ but counsel awaiting more evidence before taking hasty action.

Industry reacts with fury when government indulges in what it sees as a ‘panic inspired’ reaction.

The loss of the ice caps brings breathless media coverage. “I have seen icebergs formed before, but never on anything like the scale that is taking place there,” reports one observer.

In the great ice cliffs hundreds of feet high, cracks appear suddenly. An enormous section tilts out, falling and turning slowly. When it smashes into the water the spray rises up and up in great fountains, spreading far out all around…

Very often a berg had no time to float away before a new one had crashed down on top of it. The scale was so big that it was hard to realize.

Only by the apparent slowness of the falls and the way the splashes seemed to hang in the air – the majestic pace of it all – were we able to tell the vastness of what we were seeing.

But still there is little appetite for action. The scale of the threat may be accepted by a growing number of ’eminent but very worried men’, but the public remains sanguine. Sea level rises of two and half inches appear an anticlimax, ‘ just a very slightly higher mark on a post.’ And, after all, by the time things get really bad, won’t the ‘boffins’ have come up with a technological quick fix.

Then London’s flood defences are breached for the first time and thoughts turn to protecting those parts of Britain that can most easily be saved. The result? “Great bitterness between those who were chosen and those who looked like being thrown to the wolves.”

The second flood is worse and prompts a state of emergency (“the government had removed the velvet glove”). For a while, despite crumbling infrastructure, some kind of normality is maintained,  “seemingly through habit or momentum.” Gradually, however, lawless ‘seeps’ in.

“Failure of the emergency electricity supply one afternoon, followed by a night of darkness, gave a kind of coup de grace to order. The looting of shops, and particularly foodshops, began, and spread on a scale that defeated both the police and the military.”

From there, it is a short step to the era of mass migrations, as people make a “panicky rush to stake a claim on the high ground while there is still room there.” A fiercesome “guerrilla war between starving bands” begins.

Standard climate change-inspired, apocalyptic fiction? Sure, except for the fact that John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes was first published over half a century ago, in 1953. Continue reading

On The Road

Spent the afternoon at a water-park in Dubai, mainly reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road .

If there’s ever a book I don’t recommend reading in a water-park in Dubai, its Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which some unspecified ecological disaster led to the sun being covered behind dust or ashes, leaving the earth in perpetual winter. American society has broken down, most people are dead, most plants and animals are dead, and most of the survivors are marauding bands of cannibals.

In this horrendous environment, a man and his son travel a road, trying to stay alive and get south, where they hope some form of human society may have survived.

Reading it makes me wonder if the so-called ‘politics of well-being’ may be hugely presumptuous.

Geoff Mulgan said this century would be defined by the politics of well-being. Lots of others are involved in this emerging politics – Lord Layard, Richard Reeves of Demos, Martin Seligman, Oliver James, NEF, and in a small way I am too, that’s why I named my blog

But the main idea of the politics of well-being is western societies are safe and affluent, therefore can afford to turn their attention to higher transcendent goods like inner peace and so on.

Then you read a book like The Road , or like James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia , and you wonder…

What if this century isn’t about well-being at all? What if it’s mainly about ecological disaster, food shortages, water shortages, extreme weather, burnt out fields, societies breaking down?

James Lovelock predicted that the global population will go from 10 billion to 1 billion in the next 90 years, because of food shortages and rising oceans.

If people don’t have enough food, they will eat each other. That is the grim message of McCarthy’s book. Civilisation will break down.

In this sort of situation, the question becomes ‘how can states prevent themselves from breaking down’?

They need two things – food and security. They need to be able to protect their borders from the huge amounts of people who will migrate in search of food, and from other states hunting in search of food. And they need enough arable land to make their own food.

The UK as a society, in such an apocalyptic future, would have a chance of surviving, because its institutions are strong, and its people are (one hopes) good at coping in crises and not eating each other.

But if we are facing huge food shortages in the future, then is there an argument for controlling or even stopping immigration? Partly because we can only take a population that we can support with our own land, and partly because I am not sure how a multi-cultural society copes under extreme stress…

Do you think liberalism survives climate change? Or that the open society survives climate change? I don’t think they do.

Like I said, not a great beach book…but a great book nonetheless.