Collapse, in this context, refers to the significant loss of an established level of complexity towards a much simpler state. It can occur differently within many areas, orderly or chaotically, and be willing or unwilling. It does not necessarily imply human extinction or a singular, global event (i.e. monolithic collapse). Collapse can occur slowly (i.e. a decline) as well as in a ‘staircase’ pattern or series of smaller changes followed by period of brief stability (i.e. catabolic collapse).
“By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity over a considerable area, for an extended time.”
Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)
“Collapse is a broad term that can cover many kinds of processes. It means different things to different people. Some see collapse as a thing that could happen only to societies organized at the most complex level. To them, the notion of tribal societies or village horticulturalists collapsing will seem odd. Others view collapse in terms of economic disintegration, of which the predicted end of industrial society is the ultimate expression.
A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations.
The collapse, in turn, must be rapid – taking no more than a few decades – and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline. Collapse is manifest in such things as: a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation; less economic and occupational specialization, of individuals, groups, and territories; less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites; less behavioral control and regimentation; less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of ‘civilization’: monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like; less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a center and its periphery; less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources; less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups; a smaller territory integrated within a single political unit.
Collapse is a general process that is not restricted to any type of society or level of complexity. Complexity in human societies is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Societies vary in complexity along a continuous scale, and any society that increases or decreases in complexity does so along the progression of this scale. There is no point on such a scale at which complexity can be said to emerge. Hunting bands and tribal cultivators experience changes in complexity, either increases or decreases, just as surely as do large nations. Collapse, involving as it does a sudden, major loss of an established level of complexity, must be considered relative to the size of the society in which it occurs. Simple societies can lose an established level of complexity just as do great empires. Sedentary horticulturalists may become mobile foragers, and lose the sociopolitical trappings of village life. A region organized under central chiefly administration may lose this hierarchical umbrella and revert to independent, feuding villages. A group of foragers may be so distressed by environmental deterioration that sharing and societal organization are’ largely abandoned. These are cases of collapse, no less so than the end of Rome, and no less significant for their respective populations. To the extent, moreover, that the collapses of simpler societies can be understood by general principles, they are no less illuminating than the fall of nations and empires. Any explanation of collapse that purports to have general potential should help us to understand the full spectrum of its manifestations, from the simplest to the most complex. This, indeed, is one of the central points and goals of the work. These points made, it should be cautioned that in fact defining collapse is no easy matter. The present discussion may serve to introduce the orientation, but the definition will have to be added to as the work progresses.”
Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)
“Although each stage [of collapse] causes physical, observable changes in the environment, these can be gradual, while the mental flip is generally quite swift. It is something of a cultural universal that nobody (but a real fool) wants to be the last fool to believe in a lie.
Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.
Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm. Collapses in General 15
Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.
Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.
Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity.” Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes “May you die today so that I can die tomorrow.” My hope is that these definitions of specific stages of collapse will enable a more specific and fruitful discussion than the one currently dominated by such vague and ultimately nonsensical terms as “the collapse of Western civilization.”
Dmitry Orlov in The Five Stages of Collapse (2013)
“The difference between my view and that of many others in the collapse field is that a lot of them assume that the first wave of crisis will be followed by total collapse, and I argue that it’ll be followed by muddling through and partial recovery, then by renewed crisis, and so on. Thus I don’t think it’s actually that useful to have a single metric for what counts as collapse, because collapse is a process, not an event; the collapse of industrial civilization has been under way for quite some time now, and will still be a going concern for longer than any of us will be alive.”
John Michael Greer
“Collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.”
Vinay Gupta – Interview with Global Governance Futures (2021)
These are the most global, systemic, and potentially impactful pressure driving civilization towards collapse. It’s important to note this is still an anthropocentric listing (human-focused) and other models such as planetary boundaries and holistic perspectives are relevant as well. Future studies and measures of global catastrophic risks are also worth investigating.
1. Civilization is overwhelmingly dependent on finite resources.
Fossil fuels account for 87% of the world’s total energy consumption.1, 2, 3 Economic pressures will manifest well before reserves are actually depleted as more energy is required to extract the same amount of resources over time or as the steepness of the EROEI cliff intensifies.4, 5, 6, 7
2. Global energy demand is increasing.
Global energy demand increased 0.5-2% annually from 2011-2017, despite increases in efficiency.1, 2, 3 Technological change could raise the efficiency of resource use, but also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use (i.e. Rebound Effect).4, 5, 6
3. We are transitioning to renewables very slowly.
The renewable energy share of global energy consumption had an average growth rate of 5.4% over the past decade.1, 2, 3, 4 Renewables are not taking off any faster than coal or oil once did and there is no technical or financial reason to believe they will rise any quicker, in part because energy demand is soaring globally, making it hard for natural gas, much less renewables, to just keep up.5, 6 New renewables powered less than 30% of the growth in world energy demand (which went up 15%) from 2009 to 2016.7 In contrast, transitioning to renewables too quickly would likely disrupt the global economy. A rush to build a new global infrastructure based on renewables would require an enormous amount resources and produce massive amounts of pollution.8, 9
4. Current renewables are ineffective replacements for fossil fuels.
Energy can only be substituted by other energy. Conventional economic thinking on most depletable resources considers substitution possibilities as essentially infinite. But not all joules perform equally. There is a large difference between potential and kinetic energy. Energy properties such as: intermittence, variability, energy density, power density, spatial distribution, energy return on energy invested, scalability, transportability, etc. make energy substitution a complex prospect. The ability of a technology to provide ‘joules’ is different than its ability to contribute to ‘work’ for society. All joules do not contribute equally to human economies.1, 2
5. Best-case energy transition scenarios will still result in severe climate change.
Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change. Reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.1, 2 The speed and scale of transitions and of technological change required to limit warming to 1.5°C has been observed in the past within specific sectors and technologies. But the geographical and economic scales at which the required rates of change in the energy, land, urban, infrastructure and industrial systems would need to take place, are larger and have no documented historic precedent.3
6. Global economic growth rates peaked decades ago.
The increased price of energy, agricultural stress, energy demand, and declining EROEI suggest the energy-surplus economy peaked in the early 20th century.1, 2, 3, 4 Our institutions and financial systems are based on expectations of continued GDP growth perpetually into the future. The size of the global economy is still growing and OECD forecasts (2015) are for more than a tripling of the physical size of the world economy by 2050. No serious government or institution entity forecasts the end of growth this century (at least not publicly).5
7. World population is increasing.
World population is growing around 1.09% per year. The annual growth rate having reached its peak in the late 1960s at around 2%. Although, the rate is expected to continue to decline in the coming years.1
8. Our sources of food and water are diminishing.
Global crop yields are expected to fall by 10% over the next 30 years as a result of land degradation and climate change.1 An estimated 38% of the world’s cropland has been degraded or has reduced water and nutrient availability.2, 3 Four billion people currently live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least one month per year.4 Global agriculture is still extremely dependent on fossil fuels for processing, fertilization, and transportation.5
9. Climate change is rapidly destabilizing our environment.
An overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree humans are the primary cause of climate change.1, 2, 3 15,000 scientists, the most to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article, recently (2017) called on humankind to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”4 Carbon emissions are rising at increasing rates globally and far from enabling us to stay under the goal of two degrees of global average warming.5, 6, 7, 8 A global average increase of 2°C is very likely locked in and will already incur significant consequences. In addition to increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, many disrupted systems could potentially trigger various positive or negative feedbacks within the larger system and exponentially accelerate climate change.10
10. Biodiversity is falling.
The current species extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than the natural background rate.1, 2 The Living Planet Index showed a 60% decline in global wildlife populations between 1970 and 2014.3
Barriers to Understanding
There are numerous barriers to developing an understanding of collapse. Despite how obvious some of these may seem, an awareness of them helps to navigate them and be more tolerant of others, regardless of what stage we are at.
Ignorance is the most prominent barrier to understanding. It should not be confused with ‘nescience’ or a state of not knowing because knowledge is entirely absent or unattainable. Ignorance involves a conscious choice or series of choices to disregard information and develop an understanding of it.
Societal conditioning compels us to avoid any information which would disturb our sense of equanimity. Fear of personal responsibility and the inability to face present or future suffering are major triggers of this form of psychological resistance. Courage is required to venture through the unknown towards the reality of our predicament.
Denial occurs after we have taken in information and consciously reject it to avoid an uncomfortable truth. William Catton termed this behavior ‘ostrichism’ or the strategy of sticking your head in the figurative sand and expecting an issue to go away or persistent belief nothing will change and refusal to face facts.
A recent theory of mind proposes it may have been central to our development as a species. Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s “Mind Over Reality Transition” (MORT) theory provides significant reasoning for our trajectory to date. They suggest we have succeeded as a species due in large part to an evolved denial of reality, but this behavior is now a disadvantage and preventing a majority of us from recognizing and acting on systemic issues such as climate change and overshoot.
We’re referring to generalized apathy, not the diagnosed syndrome, versions with a biological basis, or forms of depression. Apathy is traditionally defined by lack of motivation or feeling and can result from emotional desensitization, fear of failure, or habitualized acceptance of boredom.
Apathy can develop as a defense mechanism to guard ourselves from failure or confrontation. In certain cases, acting as though nothing really matters is the path of least resistance. It can also be a response to ‘apocalypse fatigue’, a term coined by George Will to describe the media’s fixation on framing issues in eschatological terms. Overexposure to this information or portrayals of distant suffering can trigger guilt or disconnect from the contexts presented, regardless of how capable one is from acting on them or supporting others who are able to do so.
Understanding the underlying causes and nature of our predicament is extremely challenging. Collapse is a concept against which our human brains are almost incapable of reacting to. It is complex, abstract, in the future, extremely scary, and we currently lack the ability to collectively agree how to solve it.
“None of this should prevent us from cultivating an interest in collapse, as we all start out from a place of ignorance about any subject, but collapse relies heavily on systems theory and so we can’t point to one work, person, or perspective as “the best” since we have to look at as many perspectives as possible and they way they interact.” – Dave37 in response the to the Collapse Survey
Assessing the myriad of perspectives is a significant investment and the time before we can confidently or effectively contribute to discussions on these subjects is immense. We’ve done our best to share the best introductory resources here and continually collaborate on building a basis for navigating these issues.
Hope is a belief in or expectation of some future outcome. Depending on the likelihood and variety of what we wish to occur it prevents us from seeing a clear picture of the future and taking action to address present circumstances. The variations of hope are better explored through the perspectives of individual beliefs surrounding the future and covered in the next section.
“Casey Maddox wrote that when philosophy dies, action begins. I would say in addition that when we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to thoroughly resolve it. I would say when hope dies, action begins.”- Beyond Hope by Derrick Jensen article in Orion Magazine (2006)“Clive Hamilton in his Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth — intellectually and emotionally — and rise up to resist the forces that are destroying us.” – The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies by Chris Hedges (2013)
“One problem with hoping things will be OK is that it means we give up our agency. We assume someone will fix things. That is what some call “passive hope.” Meanwhile, any unrealistic hope steals possibility, by wasting the precious time we have to attempt to reduce harm and save humanity. So the problem with proponents of the hope that “we can fix this” is that it makes taboo the needed conversations about what to do given that we can’t fix things. That is what we could call “magical hope”, as it often comes with an overt or implicit suggestion that we can make the reality evolve according to moments where we are choosing to hope (as an aside: if we are co-creating our reality through our consciousness then it is through every moment of attention, not just those moments when we choose to pull ourselves together and do some magical hoping). In distinction to passive hope some have called for an “active hope” where we drop mainstream or received ideas of hope and instead face what we think is reality and construct a new hope based on what we believe in. That is a powerful rethinking of what hope means, as it makes us realize that hope involves actions to make it real. But I don’t think it is a sufficient reworking of the concept of hope. Because it can downplay whether we really think our actions will add up to the outcome we are actively hoping for. Instead, the emphasis is on intention, without being precise about the nature of intention, such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. Therefore, people who speak of “active hope” may actually be practicing magical hope, and avoiding either deeper inquiry into the intentions they value or into the implications of the futility of their actions.” – Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse article by Jem Bendell (2019)
“Grief requires of us that we know what time we’re in. And the great enemy of grief is hope. The basic proposition of hope is: you hope for something that ain’t. You don’t hope for something that is. It’s always future oriented, which means, hope is inherently intolerable of the present. The present is never good enough. Our time requires of us to be hope free. To burn through the false choice between hopeful and hopeless… it’s the same con job. We don’t require hope to proceed. We require grief to proceed.” – Stephen Jenkinson – On Grief And Climate Change (2016)
Growthism is the insistence upon the limitlessness of growth regardless of the present circumstance or consequences. It disregards the finiteness of the world and accepts uncritically a myth of limitlessness or notion of eternal progress.
“This need to grow—Growthism—is the foundation of our current condition and the key concept of our present worldview. It has become a sort of theology and advanced democracies are equally theocracies of Growthism. It is our official ideology, but not in the common partisan sense of the word. Rather, it describes a value or a good that is mainly invisible and obediently accepted without question. Growth, and growth without end or limits, seems like the natural and inevitable order of things, like the best possible arrangement between people and their lands, like all that is left standing when false gods are slain and ancient beliefs are stripped away.” – Erik Lindberg – Growthism (2016)
Cosmeticism is the belief relatively superficial adjustments in our activities will ensure a positive future and perpetuate growth or the Age of Exuberance. Individual recycling, environmental protection laws, and individual choices are perceived as the best and common strategies for overcoming the limits of growth.
Optimism is the general attitude or belief a specific endeavor or outcomes in general will be positive and desirable. Humans are biologically predisposed towards optimism (123), but takes many different forms. Techno-optimism is especially common and the subnotion technology will always save us or technological innovation will stave off collapse. Both stem from our inability to fully conceive of the risks and negative aspects of future technology or present circumstances.
Pessimism is the general attitude or belief a specific endeavor or outcomes in general will be negative and undesirable. It is marked by the tendency to see the worst aspects of things or believe the worst will happen. Defeatism can be linked to pessimism and is the acceptance of defeat without struggle, often with negative connotations. It can also be related to determinism, fatalism, or the belief we have no power to influence the future or our own actions. Pessimism should remain distinct from cynicism, which has more marked philosophical origins. Modern cynicism is more defined by a distrust of others’ motives and belief individuals will act solely based on self interest.
Realism initially appeared within the context of climate change as an antonym to alarmism. Currently, it generally points at someone who either actively strives against both optimistic and pessimistic tendencies or someone who has reach a degree of acceptance with the possibility of extremely negative outcomes. Realism is a difficult road and involves agitating for the best option while still preparing for the worst. It can also be used as a form of shorthand to dismiss any perceivably ignorant or naive belief in opposition to what we perceive as the systemic and wicked problems inherent to our predicament.
Analysis of Several Modes of Adaptation to Ecologically Inexorable Change from Overshoot by William Catton (1980)
Stages of Awareness
Our awareness of systemic pressures and the notion of collapse are generally considered to evolve through a series of stages. Paul Chefurka’s perspectives on these stages are regularly referenced in the community and used as a way to evaluate individual progression.
1. Dead Asleep
At this stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings in human organization, behavior and morality which can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.
2. Awareness of One Fundamental Problem
Whether it’s climate change, overpopulation, peak oil, chemical pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism, economic instability or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal about their personal issue, and blind to any others.
3. Awareness of Many Problems
As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of complexity begins to grow. At this point a person worries about the prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree of impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new problems – for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of resource depletion. They may feel that the problem space is already complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute the effort that needs to be focused on solving the “highest priority” problem.
4. Awareness of the Interconnections Between the Many Problems
The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it in terms of a predicament. At this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to raise its head.
People who arrive at this stage tend to withdraw into tight circles of like-minded individuals in order to trade insights and deepen their understanding of what’s going on. These circles are necessarily small, both because personal dialogue is essential for this depth of exploration, and because there just aren’t very many people who have arrived at this level of understanding.
5. Awareness the Predicament Encompasses All Aspects of Life
This includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of a “Solution” is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.
Where do you fall on this scale? Answering this question is the first step to orienting yourself. For those who arrive at the last stage there is a real risk depression will set in. After all, we’ve learned throughout our lives our hope for tomorrow lies in our ability to solve problems today. When no amount of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament the possibility of hope can vanish like a the light of a candle flame, to be replaced by the suffocating darkness of despair.
How people cope with despair is of course deeply personal, but it seems to me there are two general routes people take to reconcile themselves with the situation. These are not mutually exclusive, and most of us will operate out of some mix of the two. I identify them here as general tendencies, because people seem to be drawn more to one or the other. I call them the outer path and the inner path.
If one is inclined to choose the outer path, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into the foreground, as exemplified by the Transition Network and Permaculture Movement. To those on the outer path, community-building and local sustainability initiatives will have great appeal. Organized party politics seems to be less attractive to people at this stage, however. Perhaps politics is seen as part of the problem, or perhaps it’s just seen as a waste of effort when the real action will take place at the local level.
Choosing the inner path involves re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness, self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception. For someone on this path it is seen as an attempt to manifest Gandhi’s message, “Become the change you wish to see in the world,” on the most profoundly personal level. This message is similarly expressed in the ancient Hermetic saying, “As above, so below.” Or in plain language, “In order to heal the world, first begin by healing yourself.”
However, the inner path does not imply a “retreat into religion”. Most of the people I’ve met who have chosen an inner path have as little use for traditional religion as their counterparts on the outer path have for traditional politics. Organized religion is usually seen as part of the predicament rather than a valid response to it. Those who have arrived at this point have no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather they wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal spirituality of one sort or another often works for this, but organized religion rarely does.
It’s worth mentioning that there is also the possibility of a serious personal difficulty at this point. If someone cannot choose an outer path for whatever reasons, and is also resistant to the idea of inner growth or spirituality as a response the the crisis of an entire planet, then they are truly in a bind. There are few other doorways out of this depth of despair. If one remains stuck here for an extended period of time, life can begin to seem awfully bleak, and violence against either the world or oneself may begin begin to seem like a reasonable option. Please keep a watchful eye on your own progress, and if you encounter someone else who may be in this state, please offer them a supportive ear.
When might collapse occur?
It’s too difficult to determine specifically when collapse may occur given the complexity and wide range of scenarios. Although, there is a common axiom in the collapse-community which is “the collapse is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.” If you’ve been unemployed since the recession in 2008 or live in Flint, Michigan it might seem like collapse has already hit. Ecological collapse is currently underway and drastically affecting many forms of life on Earth. Meanwhile, others have only been minorly inconvenienced or remain ignorant entirely.
“Collapse can occur at different times for different people. You may never quite know that collapse has happened, but you will know that it has happened to you personally, or to your family, or to your town. The big picture may not come together until much later, thanks to the efforts of historians. Individually, we may never know what hit us, and, as a group, we may never agree on any one answer. Look at the collapse of the USSR: some people are still arguing over why exactly it happened.”
When regarding time frames, it is best to remain cognizant of the difference between prediction and projection. Predictions have no weight or observational basis or founded in belief. Projections use existing data and attempt to project a scenario or timeline into the future based on inherent trends within an existing set of data.
Perspectives vary widely in regard to the actual time frames of collapse. Joseph Tainter has stated it must be rapid or last no more than a few decades and involve substantial simplifications to society to constitute a collapse. Losses which are less severe or take longer are considered cases of weakness or decline. We can still observe non-linear or isolated instances of collapse within a system, as long as we are aware of the distinctions.
John Michael Greer’s theory of catabolic collapse is also a potential outcome, stating collapse will follow a stairstep sequence of decline marked by cycles of breakdown (catabolism) and buildup (anabolism).
How likely is collapse?
The inevitability of collapse is widely disputed and distinctions are difficult to make in terms of the potential or ability of humans to change their conscious or unconscious behaviors leading to specific outcomes. Collapse is certainly inevitable if we continue down our default path. Our ability to conceive of the inevitability or probability rests deeply within our basis of understanding collapse and numerous factors feeding into it.
“To make the case for the imminent collapse of global industrial civilization, it is necessary to prove two things. The first is to account for the Earth’s finite endowment of fossil fuels, metal ores, other industrial and agricultural inputs, fresh water and fertile soil, and to demonstrate that many of these resources are either past their all-time peak of production or will soon achieve it. The second is to prove that, as these resources become too scarce to allow the global industrial economy to grow, the result will be collapse rather than a slow and steady deterioration that could continue for centuries without reaching any conclusive, historical endpoint.
While the first task is a relatively simple matter of laying out the numbers, which are available from reputable sources that are difficult to argue against and can be grasped by anyone with a head for numbers and a general understanding of the functioning of industrial economies, the second task is much harder, because the only way to address it is through mathematical models. The first of these models is the World3 model used in the 1972 book Limits to Growth. World3 is a relatively simple model that ran on a computer less powerful than a smartphone and included just five variables: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. This model predicted economic and societal collapse by mid-twenty-first century. The 2004 Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update3 confirmed that, thirty years later, the initial predictions are still in excellent agreement with reality. Though your instinct may be to mistrust the predictive abilities of mathematical models in general, this wariness should be tempered somewhat when the model in question is shown to have been correct decades later.”
“All complex systems, both living and non-living, self organize to maximize available energy and resources. This is a key concept that forms the very foundation of ecology,or study of ecosystem and is also referred to as the Maximum Power Principle.
These flows of energy and resources can be thought of as “stocks” and “sinks”. Stocks are accumulations of resources, and sinks are accumulations of wastes. Sometimes these flows of energy and resources become organized in such a way that one system’s sink becomes another system’s stock.
Any system can only grow to the extent it does not exhaust its accumulations of resources or to the extent it does not overwhelm the capacity of it’s sinks. This the basis of the concept of carrying capacity, or ability of a given environment or eco system to support a species sustainably by providing stocks and flows of resources and safely absorbing accumulations of wastes.
The very definition of “sustainable” is to stay within the long term carrying capacity of your environment by not over-exploiting resources and over-accumulating wastes.
It is possible to overshoot the long term carrying capacity of your environment by over-exploiting large stocks of accumulated resources. This temporarily increases short term carrying capacity by enabling population growth above what would otherwise be sustainable by the long term carrying capacity. Once these resources are exhausted, the excess population which was enabled by the consumption of these finite stocks becomes redundant and dies off or collapses.
Home sapiens have grossly overshot the long term carrying capacity of our environment, mostly through the over-exploitation of extremely large accumulations of sunlight in the form of long buried hydrocarbons within the Earth’s crust, namely fossil fuels.
Fossil Fuels have supplied such a high quality and quantity of energy it has enabled the rampant growth of both our population and exploitation of many other resources on our planet. This has also grossly overwhelmed the ability of our environment to safely absorb our wastes, mostly in the form of greenhouse gasses, and are now beginning to experience the consequences of a destabilized climate as a result.
All together, this understanding forms the basis for global, ecological overshoot and how civilization has been unsustainable by an incredibly wide margin for a significant time and will inevitably collapse.”
Jerry McManus, based on his Collapse 101 post
How do I talk to others about collapse?
Collapse is a complex, abstract, in the future, and extremely scary notion. We also currently lack the ability to collectively agree how to solve it, regardless of how you personally may have chosen to respond.
- Be aware of the ultimate purpose of whatever conversation you wish to have.
- Familiarize yourself with the subject first so you can effectively answer questions with confidence and maintain a consistent message.
- Be aware of the barriers to understanding collapse and remain patient when confronted with them in others.
“In many cases I don’t think it’s possible to communicate the reality of collapse to family and friends, because some people are simply unable to shake themselves loose from the dominant paradigm of endless growth, and will go to their graves believing that a return to growth is just around the corner, regardless of all evidence to the contrary.”
Dmitry Orlov on ClubOrvlov (2014)
The notion of hope is widely debated within the collapse community, but remains a critical pivot point in regards to our perceptions and relationship with our future. These are excerpts from some of the most relevant individuals and perspectives we have found on the subject.
One problem with hoping things will be OK is that it means we give up our agency. We assume someone will fix things. That is what some call “passive hope.” Meanwhile, any unrealistic hope steals possibility, by wasting the precious time we have to attempt to reduce harm and save humanity. So the problem with proponents of the hope that “we can fix this” is that it makes taboo the needed conversations about what to do given that we can’t fix things. That is what we could call “magical hope”, as it often comes with an overt or implicit suggestion that we can make the reality evolve according to moments where we are choosing to hope (as an aside: if we are co-creating our reality through our consciousness then it is through every moment of attention, not just those moments when we choose to pull ourselves together and do some magical hoping). In distinction to passive hope some have called for an “active hope” where we drop mainstream or received ideas of hope and instead face what we think is reality and construct a new hope based on what we believe in. That is a powerful rethinking of what hope means, as it makes us realise that hope involves actions to make it real. But I don’t think it is a sufficient reworking of the concept of hope. Because it can downplay whether we really think our actions will add up to the outcome we are actively hoping for. Instead, the emphasis is on intention, without being precise about the nature of intention, such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. Therefore, people who speak of “active hope” may actually be practising magical hope, and avoiding either deeper inquiry into the intentions they value or into the implications of the futility of their actions.
Many redefinitions of hope have been offered. Here Jeremy is pointing to the notion of an “active hope” which doesn’t imply someone or something else will fix things. Unfortunately, most people I meet who speak of their hopes at a societal level are expressing a self-calming passive hope, where there is the story of someone or something fixing things. I have two perspectives on hope. First, that to discuss whether we need active hope or not, is a distraction from what that hope is for and what it invites from us. In my paper I write of “radical hope” which begins when we give up hopes that no longer seem credible. Deep Adaptation is imbued with this radical hope – that humanity will find compassion and collaboration during terrible circumstances. Second, I have come to see any hope, even radical, as influenced by our egos’ fear of the unknown. All hope is a story of the future rather than attention to the present. If we lived ‘hopefree’ rather than hopeful, might we take more ownership and responsibility for how we are living in the present?
Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless. I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.
We’re in an insanely troubled time. I mean you can barely keep your wits about you; You pay attention to any kind of news feed, you go out of your mind. So now you look for all kinds of distractions as an antidote to the news feed, and now you go out your mind. And so on and so on. Okay, so you got to stay hopeful. Really? To do what? What’s being hopeful doing for you now? It’s a crazy time. It’s not an antidote to the crazy time.
If you’re a real citizen, which is what I’m pleading for now, not an opt-out specialist, a citizen, now. That means you’re in, right? That means we can count on you for the heavy lifting. Do you got to be hopeful to be a citizen of a troubled time? It sounds like you do, until you start wondering about that ‘got-to’ part. Can you do the heavy lifting without hope? Not hopeless, hope-free? Can you do the work and not ask to be paid first? Because that’s what hope is.
Hope says I got to feel positive about the outcome or I’m not going to work on behalf of the outcome. That’s hope. It doesn’t sound hopeful, but that’s how hope actually works. Got to be hopeful first, gotta have the upside in view, right? Got to be positive. But wait, we’re in the shit, what do you mean we got to be positive? I’m positive we’re in the shit, is that what you mean? No, positive is an alternative to being in the shit. No, it isn’t! It’s truancy. Right?
So how do you occupy your god…if I can use the phrase, your god-given place in the shit? Because we’re in it now, by the accident of birth, we’re in it. It’s never been like this for near as I can tell. How confounding it is to keep your bearings and imagine what a properly deeply well-lived life could possibly be in a time like this. You don’t need hope to get your bearings, what you need is a willingness to occupy the fact that you were born to a troubled time.
When do you suppose the generations of Western people who presented us the dilemma we now find ourselves in are going to be willing to set aside their personal requirement for a personal sense of well-being and the promise that that will continue and that they shall be rewarded for the work they propose to undertake? When are Western people going to be willing to forego the payday before they do the work? Because my point is simply this: If that’s what you require, it’s more of the same for you. Hope, in and of itself, is engaged in the mod—I’m not saying I don’t understand the draw of the thing; I believe I do, and I’m not dismissing the draw. What I’m trying to do in response to your question is elaborate the consequences of remaining addicted to the kind of methadone drip called “it could still work out.”
I mean, make a simple observation: do you really believe that we need to know ahead of time that it could all still work out as a precondition for working on it working out? My own encounters with these matters are basically the answer is: Yes. The Western world seems absolutely addicted to the reassurance that their labors will not be in vain as a prerequisite for laboring. And I just find this so in almost a ghosted way, a kind of juvenile unwillingness to show up for active adult duty. It really sets me to lament over this matter that it’s another ‘out’ clause. The requiring of being hopeful is another way to make sure that nobody hits us up for too much work, you know.
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