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  • Posted June 4th, 2023

    If our civilisation were collapsing, would we even know? Review of Jem Bendell’s ‘Breaking Together’

    If our civilisation were collapsing, would we even know? Review of Jem Bendell’s ‘Breaking Together’

    Being a fan of stories of the collapse of past great civilisations I have often wondered if it would be possible to perceive that one’s own civilisation is collapsing while that process is happening. Did the Mayans know their civilisation was collapsing? Did the Romans? Or the Khmer? “Going through some changes”? Sure. “Having a few problems”? Yes. But actually collapsing? To me it seems highly improbable.

    That is because collapse is something that can only really be seen after the fact. And even then it is exceedingly difficult to be definitive about precisely when and precisely why it happens. Scholarship on past civilisational collapses shows us it is hard to say when because societal collapse is a process – not an event. It is something that plays out over a period of decades, or in some cases centuries. And it teaches us it is hard to explain precisely why because collapse is always the result of multiple interacting factors.

    There is certainly evidence that some societies made drastic changes in their dying days in response to their various deteriorating situations. So I like to imagine that there were some who knew, or at least intuited, that their world was collapsing around them. People who saw the signs, joined the dots, and realised that an unstoppable process was underway, and that an end of some kind was therefore certain.

    One such person in modern times may be Professor Jem Bendell of Cumbria University, whose new book, Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse, was released on 9 May 2023. Bendell caused no small stir in 2018 when he published a paper claiming that the collapse of modern civilisation was “inevitable”, primarily as a consequence of climate change. Five years later “the Doomster” (as he is now dubbed) has changed his tune somewhat. In Breaking Together Bendell argues that the collapse of industrial consumer societies is not just “inevitable” but is in fact already underway.

    The change is Bendell’s language is much more than semantics. Collapse framed as a possible – or even inevitable – future event is one thing, because until one’s conception of that ‘event’ actually happens it remains possible to deny that it ever will. Collapse framed as process that is already underway is quite another thing. It demands an entirely different response.

    In Breaking Together Bendell goes to considerable effort, and some length, to argue that there is ample evidence to indicate that the collapse of industrial consumer societies is already in progress. And having done so he then invites his readers to consider how they want to be in the face of this predicament, and what sort of society they wish to retain or build. While his style is engaging and conversational, for me to say the book is an easy read would be disingenuous because on every page Bendell is inviting us to to look honestly and critically at both our outer and inner worlds. And much of what he invites us to see is uncomfortable to say the very least. Despite the sober subject matter this is not, on the whole, a book of doom. But neither is it a book of manufactured hope. Nor is it a book of solutions. Breaking Together is something quite different, and perhaps a little surprising.

    The first half of the book is devoted to the evidence for the present-day breaking-down of 7 foundations upon which Bendell says contemporary industrial consumer societies sit: their economic and monetary systems; their energy use; the biosphere and the climate; their food supply; and their social systems. Each is dealt with substantially and systematically, and it is difficult to read these chapters, dense with references to the scientific literature, and not draw the same conclusions as the author himself. Namely that each of these 7 foundational elements of industrial consumer societies is seriously cracked, if not demonstrably crumbling in our own times.

    We all know the world is full of problems, and most (but perhaps not all) of what Bendell presents in these chapters is known and accepted, at least within the various fields of research that he covers even if not widely understood by the public. No doubt some will argue with his assessment of the severity of some problems, or argue that we have time or the capacity to turn some of these things around. His point is not that the collapse of the economy or the monetary system will necessarily end us. Or a global energy or food crisis, or even climate change. It is the fact that all these things upon which industrial consumer societies rely are breaking down right now all at the same time. And as any scholar of past civilisational collapses will tell you, it is never just one thing. It is always the confluence of multiple factors, acting simultaneously or sequentially, and the negative and often unforeseen ways these factors interact that ultimately brings a civilisation down.

    Having made his case for the process of collapse being underway, Bendell spends the second half of the book inviting his readers to consider how they will choose to be in the face of this predicament and what sort of society they will choose to create through it. While the earlier chapters are things he needed to say to set the scene, my sense is that it is these latter chapters where Bendell says the things he really wants to say. And therefore this is where I think he makes his most important, unique and in some respects surprising contribution to the public discourse around collapse awareness and readiness.

    Bendell’s main message is that this new era of societal collapse presents each of us with a new choice to make – and denial of the predicament delays that choosing. The new choice is whether to liberate oneself from past compromises and explore, experiment and play with new approaches to life. Or to choose instead to stay as we are, hope that the elites will help, and just do as one is told.

    These final chapters are all about freedom (as you might expect from the book’s subtitle) and the choice to first be free in oneself, and thence to help nurture a free society.

    He says we must embrace the ‘freedom to know’, to cultivate in ourselves “critical wisdom”, or the capability for understanding oneself in the world through a combination of mindfulness, critical literacy, rationality and intuition.

    He says we need ‘freedom from progress’, that deeply entrenched Modernist idea that material progress is an unquestionable good and makes our present society superior to those that have gone before. He says we need the freedom to embrace a different story of what it means to be human and what our place on Earth is.

    He says we need ‘freedom from banking’ and the ecocidal stranglehold that money and monetary systems have on our society, which not only reinforce the delusion of our separation from nature, but lead to “routinised socio-environmental oppression”, and “routinised cultural and political oppression”.

    He says we need to reaffirm our belief in ‘freedom in nature’, arguing for the importance of free will, self-determination and freedom from other people instrumentalising us – that we must embrace eco-libertarianism and eschew eco-authoritarianism.

    He says we need the ‘freedom to collapse and grow’ in our personal lives, to become “doomsters” (as opposed to ‘doomers’), to liberate ourselves from the old stories of self that keep us enslaved to Imperial Modernity.

    And he says we need to assert our ‘freedom from fake green globalists’ and resist the agendas of the institutions of incumbent power (public, private and civic) and their officers and apologists, who he argues are already making matters worse in the early phases of unfolding societal collapse.

    If Bendell’s 2018 Deep Adaptation paper was a disruptor, it seems to me that Breaking Together may be his patient but timely response to both his supporters and detractors – a well considered reflection on all he has learned over the intervening 5 years.

    I have no doubt the book will ruffle some feathers. Especially amongst climatologists and the IPCC whom Bendell singles out for particular criticism. And perhaps most amongst the modern environmental profession about which he has much to say, including describing it as “empirically-demonstrably ineffective”. But I also have little doubt the book will resonate deeply with the wider public, those that are now experiencing the effects and anxieties of crumbling societies in their daily lives.

    Breaking Together is not a book of doom, or a book of hope, or a book of solutions. Rather it’s a book of starting points. A book of inspiration. A book of political propulsion. A book of beginnings.

    Purchase Prof. Bendell’s, book here, or for more information, including how to receive a free copy as an e-book, go to his website.

    Dave of Lowimpact is interviewing Jem soon – subscribe to our blog.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1Daniel Scharf June 4th, 2023

      I do not have the book but read the review as none of my neighbours thought that it would be worth their while coming round for a climate assembly in the garden to discuss carbon over tea and cake. There are 115 people on the estate Whatsapp and since my invitation the following have been passed on/recycled; grass seed, chilli and tomato plants, tiles, brown sauce, news of a cycling festival, a canoe, sand and cement, birthday balloons, roofing felt glue, polyfilla, plastic netting, a kids trike, soft toys, mincemeat and parquet glue. I am restraining myself from posting pictures of uneaten cake to see whether this would be wanted without having to talk? Incidentally the Carbon Conversations booklet was published in 2009 when atmospheric carbon concentration was 380ppm, Brown,Paul (2006) Global warning;the last chance for change (sic) was already dated and this afternoon atmospheric carbon is 420ppm. What chance for change?

    • 2Jo McDonnell June 5th, 2023

      There seems to be no doubt that we are heading for a global banking crash . This will be a real opportunity for the people to rethink and establish a more equitable system away from the corrupt fiat banking system we have now - which only serves the elite.

      Hopefully the corrupt political system will fall too before we lose all of our God given rights eg the coming of the ‘15 minute cities’, the looming World Health Treaty driven by the globalists in the WHO and and the WEF , the indoctrination of our educational system , the weaponisation of Big Pharma against the people, the new ‘Online Act’, the new Police Powers Act re the right to protest, the ULEZ scheme , the increasing surveillance ….

      All the above are forms of increasing control of us and our present societal set up serves only the globalists and not the common people.

      Perhaps a collapse of our modern day society will be a good thing as it presents us with a real opportunity to develop a fairer , freer society in which we take back our inalienable rights and power.

    • 3Dave Darby June 8th, 2023

      Daniel - no chance of anything coming from the state, I don't think - too busy trying to maximise GDP growth, flying around the world to useless COP meetings, subsidising the fossil fuel industry etc. We have to do it ourselves in communities I think (https://www.lowimpact.org/categories/low-impact-economy)

    • 4Dave Darby June 8th, 2023

      Jo - I agree with everything you say, apart from / confused by your opposition to 15 minute cities. Wouldn't it be good for all we need to be within 15 minutes walk? I'm in conversation with someone at 'the Light' paper, who oppose 15 minute cities. As far as I can see,15 minute cities is a good idea – an example of politicians doing something right for a change. opposition to 15 minute cities plays into the hands of the corporate car lobby, oil lobby, plus the EV industry. I notice that the Light say strange things about climate change (eg ' in the name of the made-up, scientifically baseless climate change.’) - which I find bizarre and counterproductive if we're looking to decentralise power.

      As Jem Bendell says in the book: "complaining about people who might be exploiting a problem does not remove that problem. Unfortunately, a complaint-only focus on the matter of climate change typifies increasing numbers of people who now choose to deny the problem itself as part of an understandable rebellion against further surveillance and control."

      The conversation about the Light / David Icke et al is a much bigger one (and maybe a blog article), but why do you oppose 15-minute cities? (if you're going to say that it makes life harder for drivers, then I don't see the problem with that - cars ruin everything).

    • 5Amy June 15th, 2023

      That this perspective 'Unique' and 'new' is.... debatable (false). Queer black feminists have been saying it for years. Perhaps it's time to broaden our sources of insight and scholarship, when considering liberation and the collapse of white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal, ableist systems? Perhaps we might make more meaningful progress if we include the voices - leadership, actually - of those most affected and so often excluded?

    • 6Dave Darby June 15th, 2023


      Queer black feminists (particularly) have been talking about civilisational collapse due to biosphere destruction, climate change and an expansionist money system? I mean, I'm sure some of them have, but why that group specifically?

      ...'more meaningful progress' - do you think we're making meaningful progress?

      But I think you're right, solutions need to (and I think will) come from groups that are marginalised by capitalism - from Africa, particularly - https://www.lowimpact.org/posts/regenerative-traditions-in-africa-inspiration-for-the-commons-everywhere (although ironically, if you're queer, you'd better be in a Western capitalist country rather than most of Africa).

    • 7Amy June 15th, 2023

      Why would queer black femmes in particular have already written about these ideas? Or why would we credit them as having done so when discussing this book?

      And by 'more meaningful' I mean 'more meaningful than if we just pretended that body of work didn't exist'.

    • 8Dave Darby June 15th, 2023

      Amy - sorry, I'm asking about the contribution to collapsology (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapsology) by queer black feminists) - ie what have they been saying for years? I can see that they will be more vulnerable to collapse (as they have been during pre-collapse capitalism), but have they been writing about the indicators of collapse, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, financial instability etc, and what are their ideas as to what we might do about those problems?

    • 9Amy June 16th, 2023

      That's a great question, I'm glad you asked. :-)

      'These final chapters are all about freedom (as you might expect from the book’s subtitle) and the choice to first be free in oneself, and thence to help nurture a free society.'

      This is a great place for folks who might wish to make their own connections to, and exploration of, the body of work. I hope they find nourishing and practical wisdom there: about freedom; about the culture that got us here; about the welcome of collapse, and the grieving of it; about how we might respond and what we might want to build.

      Thank you for your curiosity. There so often is much to be found and learned when we expand into interrelated networks of existing knowledge: a plurality of framings to the problem and available responses. And a wealth of things to learn about how we do this work together. I think your response might facilitate that and it's exciting to see these connections forming :-)

    • 10Dave Darby June 17th, 2023


      Yes – history is devoid of many of the real initiators of solutions, because of their invisibility due to their lack of whiteness, straightness or maleness; which means the world is deprived of new solutions until they’re adopted by white males. At this juncture, with the need for solutions / preparation paramount, we need to make sure that we don’t miss talent and good ideas by ignoring marginalised voices.

      But wherever the ideas come from, it had better be fast. The commons ideas that I’m pinning my hopes on originated in indigenous communities all over the world. They’re being reinforced now by new ideas for the digital age (see https://www.lowimpact.org/categories/commoning/further-info/building-the-commons-economy).

      Having said what I said above, these new ideas did indeed come from white males – they were able to have them because of privilege (more access to money, comfort, respect, education, books, contacts, leisure time etc.) - but I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the privileged bathwater. We we can use them to build a new system in which not only is power not concentrated in the hands of white males – it’s not concentrated at all.

      ‘Wokeness’ I think overall has provided a massive leap forward for humanity. I think the younger generation is more compassionate, empathic and loving than we were (it’s my biggest source of optimism, in fact). I’m sometimes critical that identity politics might be distracting the left from the need for system change – which is the most important thing we need at this moment, imo, and I’m still a little bit scared of that. Capitalists aren’t challenged by wokeness, and have incorporated it into their advertising – but I think wokeness is something that has been absorbed into the culture and into people irreversibly, especially young people, in ways that have moved us forward, and made a move to the commons more likely (we all have to work together in communities to make it happen, after all – all of us). 

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