Is it irresponsible or ‘doomism’ to predict societal collapse?

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Posted Oct 24 2021 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
Teetering on the edge of an ecological collapse

I was introduced to an interesting academic paper recently, in which Professor Jem Bendell explained that his predictions of societal collapse have been criticised by some in academia because they will engender fear, depression and apathy, which will harm our chances of solving environmental problems.

Let’s explore whether they’re right, but first let me just say that I think he’s spot on when it comes to the likelihood of collapse. I’ve been saying it since Lowimpact.org was launched in 2001, when it was a more unusual position to take than it is now.

Bendell’s ‘Deep Adaptation’ paper, in which he outlines his ideas around a coming collapse, has been downloaded over a million times, bringing him fame, as well as the opprobrium of those who either oppose his position, or believe that we should discuss it in more optimistic terms. Let’s call these people ‘business-as-usual types’, and those who are predicting collapse, ‘adapters’.

[By the way, Bendell was one of the first people to introduce me to the way money works, and how mutual credit could provide an alternative, in this TED talk from 2011.]

Is collapse going to happen?

In fact, what does ‘collapse’ even mean? Bendell’s definition is: the uneven ending of normal life, meaning the normal modes of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning. The term collapse implies that there is an ending, and then something new, rather than a breakdown and possible repair back to normal.

OK, so we’re talking about a definite break with the current system – and as I’ve said before many times on this blog, system change is something that we do ourselves, or nature will do it for us; and if we wait until nature does it, it won’t be pretty. As it stands, we’re going to be handing over a raft of problems to the next generation that they may not be able to solve; It’s not just climate change – it’s also biodiversity loss, soil loss, and will inevitably include more pandemics, mass migration, fuel and energy shortages, food shortages, resource wars, droughts, famines, extreme weather events, forest fires – but on a scale that’s never been seen before, as we try to accommodate 3 billion new humans into a world in which global ecology is breaking down. And at the same time, they’re unable to buy a house, but are still in debt. I feel very sorry, and scared for them.

It seems to me that societal collapse will be very, very difficult to avoid. Most people get it – even if they’ve never really looked into it. When I tell people that I work for an environmental organisation, one of the most common responses is along the lines of: ‘oh yes, we’re f**ked aren’t we?’ People know we’re headed in a dangerous direction.

And the powerful seem very aware of what’s coming – see this piece by Douglas Rushkoff.

Is it a bad idea to talk about it?

Bendell has received a backlash in academia. Not from all academics by any means, but some have criticised his Deep Adaptation paper as ‘doom-mongering’ and that we must stay optimistic, or we’ll make people depressed, and so remove any motivation to do anything to try to improve the situation. But they don’t provide any evidence for that, whereas in his recent paper, Bendell points towards research that shows exactly the opposite – that threats of collapse are motivating.

In fact, activism and life-changing behaviours have increased hugely since the problems associated with climate change and environmental destruction have become more widely known. When Lowimpact started off in 2001, it was much more difficult to engage people. Those of us who’ve been pointing out the dangers for decades used to be labelled ‘doom-mongers’, when in fact, the doom-mongers are those who claim that everything is OK, or at least not bad enough to cause collapse. That’s the approach that can really bring doom.

A lot of environmental organisations tell us that changing behaviour a bit is all that’s needed. We don’t need to talk about system change and we have to try not to scare or depress people, as it removes motivation. Again, they never provide any evidence for this, and although I was concerned that they might be right for a while, having looked at the evidence provided by Bendell, I now believe that that approach breeds complacency – which is why things aren’t getting better. But this approach suits the corporate sector perfectly: don’t rock the boat – we’re green now, so keep consuming from us and everything will be OK. Some people see this as the ‘common sense’ approach, but as Bendell points out, research has shown that perceived threats change behaviour more quickly and deeply than any ‘optimistic’ outlook on the future. I’m not in favour of treating people like children, and most people want to know the truth.

But how exactly do we communicate with people, if we don’t want to treat them like children? Bendell’s approach is to look at the field of psychology for clues as to how to communicate about what’s happening and how bad things are going to be, and in fact, psychology has been used as another way to criticise predictions of collapse – because it might cause widespread mental health problems. But the current system causes mental health problems already. My wife is an NHS psychiatrist, and she’s well aware that her job involves taking people that have been damaged by this system, patching them up and throwing them right back into the same system again. We’ve had long conversations about how at least part of the role of mental health professionals needs to be critiquing the current economic and political systems.

Those of us who ‘get it’ don’t want to hurt or distress others, but we don’t want to be dishonest either, or to say nothing, and just carry on as though this isn’t happening. Bendell gives 7 reasons for being open about the likelihood of societal collapse:

  1. honesty – research shows that more and more people are coming to believe it;
  2. to help each other cope with the emotional trauma it might cause;
  3. to reduce psychopathological behaviours that may result from the emotional suppression of thoughts of annihilation;
  4. to support each other to find new says of just being due to the impermanence of mainstream society;
  5. to look at the causes, leading to…
  6. working out what to do next, from the individual to the whole of society to try to not make things worse, to slow down the destruction and to prepare for the worst; this includes what not to do;
  7. and working out how to help those worst affected by a collapse that has already started in many parts of the world.

Is it ‘too late’?

It depends. Too late for what? Too late to maintain our levels of consumption, comfort and growth in the West? Yes, I think it is. Too late to avoid carnage and warlordism as we tussle for dwindling resources, including food and fresh water? I hope not – but we have to build supportive, decentralised institutions in communities to have any hope of avoiding that.

Our ideas in the West of comfort and safety involve a ‘normality’ that doesn’t provide comfort and safety for many people all over the world already. And worse than that – often the comfort and safety (and overconsumption) of people in the West actually rely on the lack of comfort or safety of people elsewhere.

What it definitely is too late for is maintaining the status quo. Things are going to change. What we should be focusing on instead is moving to a system that will allow us to live without consumer capitalism. That in itself might push back the date of collapse, or mitigate its negative effects. Attempting to maintain business as usual (which is the only type of solution that will be debated at COP 26) will only make things worse. This reveals an absolute lack of imagination, or worse – a realisation that advocating anything other than a slightly greener business as usual might be career suicide: active cowardice rather than passive lack of imagination.

Can a refusal to accept the possibility of collapse lead to authoritarianism?

I sometimes believe that we might be able to avoid serious collapse, but then I remember that there aren’t any large-scale actions planned that might prevent it. I don’t think we’ll stop until all fossil fuels have been burnt, and every country in the world is still chasing the real cause of the problem – perpetual GDP growth. I don’t think that under those circumstances there’s the slightest chance that we can maintain our current way of life in the West.

Bendell lists the 12 main reasons why people refuse to address the idea that we’re headed for near-term societal collapse. He also points out that there can be authoritarian attempts to close down ‘adapters’ by those who (wrongly) believe that their beliefs will inspire apathy. They’d prefer to fight to maintain corporate capitalism. But there’s a real fear that this approach will lead to fascism as things do start to collapse (or more accurately, continue to collapse, as collapse is well under way in many parts of the world), to try to maintain order if, for example, supply chains fail and people stream out of cities looking for food. Some people will feel aggrieved that their privilege within capitalism might disappear, and might revert to atavistic behaviour as long as their money or property can still purchase the potential for violence.

But in case of collapse, it’s solidarity that will keep us safe, not entitlement. We can be almost certain that right now, there will be no global solidarity in case of global collapse. The response to Covid has shown that globally, vaccination against the virus depends on whether you live in a wealthy country or not. Any available resources to assist in survival post-collapse will be earmarked for the wealthy, and any challenge to this approach will undoubtedly be met with authoritarianism.

What can we do?

Generally, the kinds of changes busines-as-usual folk are proposing are superficial and ineffective anyway – reformism, changing consumer habits, ‘green growth’, technical fixes, corporate social responsibility, voting for this party rather than that party and so on. These are ideological positions from people who want to maintain the corporate status quo. This, for me, will absolutely guarantee collapse. These kinds of ideas should be the first to go. This is the ideology that caused the problem in the first place.

What’s the worst-case scenario if the ‘business-as-usual folks’ are right, but we follow the path of the ‘adapters’? We might just help build a better, more co-operative, sustainable and democratic society anyway. Great.

And what’s the worst case scenario if the ‘adapters’ are right, but we follow the ‘business-as-usual’ path? We don’t adapt to what’s coming, resulting in far more deaths, and possible extinction. For anyone with any understanding of the precautionary principle, the adaption path seems infinitely preferable.

Yes, openly discussing collapse can generate fear, powerlessness and depression. But those feelings may be necessary to get people to look for realistic solutions. The best way forward is to come together honestly to share our feelings and to support each other, not to deny the likelihood of collapse or suppress our emotions.

In practical terms, we can start to stabilise the economy, build community, re-skill, start using a new kind of money, build co-operative institutions, transcend.

I believe that the most likely scenario will be societal collapse; so at Lowimpact.org, we’ll continue to:

1. provide information and tools to help people:

a) live in a way that could reduce the chance of it happening, or result in only partial collapse;

b) live in a way that might push back the date of collapse, to give more time to build infrastructure that could help more people survive / reduce suffering;

c) survive when it happens.

2. promote system change, that can:

a) make collapse less likely, or partial;

b) push back the date of collapse;

c) allow more people to survive and/or avoid extreme suffering.