‘Only a tiny handful of writers even noticed the collapse of Rome’

John Michael Greer has just posted the latest instalment in a series of essays on collapsonomics over at the Archdruid Report – here’s a sample. I don’t agree with everything he’s been arguing in his series – but it’s thought-provoking stuff and definitely worth a read.

I’ve mentioned more than once in these essays the foreshortening effect that textbook history can have on our understanding of the historical events going on around us. The stark chronologies most of us get fed in school can make it hard to remember that even the most drastic social changes happen over time, amid the fabric of everyday life and a flurry of events that can seem more important at the time.

This becomes especially problematic in times like the present, when apocalyptic prophecy is a central trope in the popular culture that frames a people’s hopes and fears for the future. When the collective imagination becomes obsessed with the dream of a sudden cataclysm that sweeps away the old world overnight and ushers in the new, even relatively rapid social changes can pass by unnoticed. The twilight years of Rome offer a good object lesson; so many people were convinced that the Second Coming might occur at any moment that the collapse of classical civilization went almost unnoticed; only a tiny handful of writers from those years show any recognition that something out of the ordinary was happening at all.

Reflections of this sort have been much on my mind lately, and there’s a reason for that. Scattered among the statistical noise that makes up most of today’s news are data points that suggest to me that business as usual is quietly coming to an end around us, launching us into a new world for which very few of us have made any preparations at all.

Keanu Reeves, John Cleese and, er, global level non-zero-sum co-operation


So there I am on a long plane flight home, in need of something to watch. Hailing as I do from the Global Dashboard stable, the preferred option was clear: a disaster movie. And lo, what should be playing on BA routes this month but the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

My expectations were along the lines of I am Legend or The Day After Tomorrow. You know how it goes: massive catastrophe, civilisation collapses, a veritable smorgasbord of SFX, a couple of doughty folk live to fight another day, and (as the credits roll) the prospect of a gradual rebuild.

As it turned out, this was not the case.  In a nutshell: Keanu Reeves is an alien. He has been sent here by a confederation of highly evolved alien civilisations to “save the earth” – by wiping us out, given that we’re cheerfully running our own mass extinction event. Pretty scientist Jennifer Conolly, initially part of the US government scratch team of scientists (“We need you to come with us right away, ma’am. It’s a matter of national security”) comes to befriend the alien, and must persuade him of humanity’s case; and so it goes for the next hour or two.

Where it gets fun, though, is when she takes Keanu to see her mentor, a Nobel Prize-winning uber-scientist – played, somewhat improbably, by John Cleese – whereupon the following dialogue ensues:

Boffin: Well, there must be alternatives. You must have some technology you have that could solve the problem.

Alien: The problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.

Boffin: Then help us change.

Alien: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.

Boffin: But every civilisation reaches a crisis point eventually.

Alien: Most of them don’t make it.

Boffin: Yours did. How?

Alien: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.

Boffin: So it was only when your world was threatened with destruction that you became what you are now.

Alien: Yes.

Boffin: Well, that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction, and you’re right.  But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change; only on the precipice that we evolve. This is our moment – don’t take it from us. We are close to an answer.

That’s right, readers: I spent ten minutes doing pause and rewind on British Airways’ crappy touch screen entertainment system, juggling a laptop and an economy class meal, and I did it all for you. Why, you ask? Because when was the last time you saw a movie that expounds the necessity of crisis for global-level non-zero-sum co-operation – and uses Basil Fawlty to do so?

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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