Book cover of How Everything Can Collapse

How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times, co-authored by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, provides “a valuable guide to help everyone make sense of the new and potentially catastrophic situation in which we now find ourselves.”

What if our civilization were to collapse? Not many centuries into the future, but in our own lifetimes? Most people recognize that we face huge challenges today, from climate change and its potentially catastrophic consequences to a plethora of socio-political problems, but we find it hard to face up to the very real possibility that these crises could produce a collapse of our entire civilization.  Yet we now have a great deal of evidence to suggest that we are up against growing systemic instabilities that pose a serious threat to the capacity of human populations to maintain themselves in a sustainable environment.

In this important book, Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens confront these issues head-on. They examine the scientific evidence and show how its findings, often presented in a detached and abstract way, are connected to people’s ordinary experiences – joining the dots, as it were, between the Anthropocene and our everyday lives.  In so doing they provide a valuable guide that will help everyone make sense of the new and potentially catastrophic situation in which we now find ourselves. Today, utopia has changed sides: it is the utopians who believe that everything can continue as before, while realists put their energy into making a transition and building local resilience. Collapse is the horizon of our generation. But collapse is not the end – it’s the beginning of our future. We will reinvent new ways of living in the world and being attentive to ourselves, to other human beings and to all our fellow creatures.

Nature scene of ocean and cliffs
This was first published on Michael’s blog, Angle of Vision.
The first thing to overcome with the coronavirus is fear. The virus is certainly dangerous. The likelihood is we will need to learn to live with it. A “new normal” will emerge with its own protocols for traveling, meeting, caring for each other, grieving those we lose, and living our lives. Perhaps there will be a vaccine. Certainly we should do everything we can to protect ourselves. But that is different from living in fear. Hafiz said it well:

Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I’d like to see you in better living conditions.

The coronavirus is a poster child for the world we are living in now. Many think that climate change is the only existential threat. In fact the greatest threat of all is the Global Challenge—the completely unpredictable interaction of several dozen global stressors—environmental, social, and technological.

The coronavirus illustrates how perfectly predictable threats (viral pandemics) disrupt  profoundly interconnected and fragile global systems. Financial markets, supply chains, consumer behavior, tourism, healthcare, and both national and global events are all affected by the virus.

The virus was entirely predictable because experts know that this is what happens when humans move ever deeper into fragmenting ecosystems where viruses jump from their animal and other hosts to human beings. We know more lethal viruses will appear again as they have repeatedly in the past.

The Global Challenge consists of several dozen global stressors. Other names for the Global Challenge include the global problematique, the human dilemma, and the online acronym TEOTWAWKI—the end of the world as we know it. Scientists call the Global Challenge a wicked problem. Here is the Wikipedia definition:

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem…Because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Think of the Global Challenge as the “perfect storm.” We are in a period widely called the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene can be envisioned as an evolutionary bottleneck. The biosphere—and all the biodiversity it contains—has entered a bottleneck: a funnel created by the sum total of all these global stressors. Only a portion of life as we know it will emerge. Whether humans or some successor species will be part of what emerges is unknown. What kind of world we/they will inhabit, with what kind of values and norms, is also unknown.

But fear, hopelessness, and cynicism aren’t the only choice in the face of this perfect storm. We have lived through many perilous circumstances on our journey so far. The black plague killed one third of the population of Europe. Fortune favors the prepared.  The best way to face the perfect storm is to acknowledge its reality and to prepare for different forms of what the visionary scientist Jem Bendell has called “deep adaptation.” While Bendell’s use of the term deep adaptation refers specifically to the climate crisis, the term is equally applicable to the perfect storm of the Global Challenge.

Some believe the Global Challenge will inevitably lead to civilizational collapse. The situation is far more subtle, and indeed more hopeful. Nate Hagens, one of the great thinkers on the Global Challenge, believes it is far more likely humanity will “bend but not break.” William Gibson, the science fiction writer, puts it well when he says “the future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.” It is in the nature of the Global Challenge that we can’t predict what combination of global stressors will result in what outcomes, when, where, or how. This view is called being “trigger agnostic.” We don’t know what will trigger what, when, where, or how.

There is authentic hope for us here. We can hope to “bend but not break.” We can hope that cultures and civilizations will find unanticipated ways to adapt to the perfect storm we are facing. We can hope that “deep adaptation” leads to courageous and creative new forms of resilience.

We know the world won’t look the same in 20, 40, 100, or 200 years. But we can hope for and fight for the survival of the core values we take to be at the heart of what it means to be human. We can hope for the survival of love, wisdom, and compassion for others and for the creation.

We can hope to build a better, wiser, more caring, more just and greener world on the ashes of the old world.

Resilience is not something we need to teach people. Resilience flows directly from the deepest human instincts of loving and caring. We instinctively seek to survive ourselves and to help all those we love and care for to survive and flourish. In fact, we often care more about others than we do about our own survival.

As the perfect storm envelops us—as the future shocks become ever more intense and frequent—people all over the world face the existential question of what they and those they love will need to survive. Refugees have to decide what to carry with them. Those who stay where they are have to decide what they will need in order to stay.

Human beings have certain irreducible needs. Air, warmth, water, food, shelter, clothing, community, health care, safety, a shared story about ourselves, and some sense of hope and meaning in our lives. Fear, cynicism, and despair are rarely the best strategies for survival and resilience. The coronavirus cannot be contained. Many among us will be affected by it. But it is far from the greatest challenge we face in the years and decades ahead.

Courage and hope are the most interesting way to live.

—Michael

woodland scene

Resilience.org supports building community resilience in a world of multiple emerging challenges: the decline of cheap energy, the depletion of critical resources like water, complex environmental crises like climate change and biodiversity loss, and the social and economic issues which are linked to these. Created by the founders of the Post Carbon Institute, Resilience.org functions as “a community library with space to read and think, but also as a vibrant café in which to meet people, discuss ideas and projects, and pick up and share tips on how to build the resilience of your community, your household, or yourself.”

Image from Yann Coeuru at Creative Commons
earth from space at night

The FAN initiative describes the situation: Two hundred years of economic and complexity growth have added immensely to human welfare and security. It has shaped our world-views and expectations of the future. Yet there is widening concern that the conditions that have underpinned this growth and the socio-economic stability that we have habituated to, and are dependent upon, is being increasingly undermined. Societies are likely to experience mounting socio-economic stresses from which there is no recovery, declining resilience, and rising risks of rapid large-scale breakdowns in global integration. The envisioned consequences are very challenging and quite possibly catastrophic.

Image from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center at Creative Commons
house in middle of yellow field

The MAHB mission is twofold:

  • Foster, fuel and inspire a global dialogue on the threat of collapse and how interconnected biogeophysical and socio-economic systems contribute to, and are affected by, the existential threats facing humanity
  • Develop and implement strategies for shifting human cultures and institutions towards practices that promote a future in which people can live peaceful and productive lives.
Image from faungg’s photos at Creative Commons
rainbow

The Climate Resilience Fund offers grants under two programs: the “Coordination and Collaboration in the Resilience Ecosystem Program,” which “features an annual grants competition that aims to rapidly scale up climate adaptation and resilience services,” and the “Capacity Building Program,” whose “funds are utilized to expand the capacity of institutions or collaboratives that provide climate services to communities and/or resource managers.”

Photo by Ruth Hennig

sunset

The Consciousness of Sheep website, hosted by Tim Watkins, focuses on the “three Es” (Economy, Energy, and Environment). The website is an offshoot from the book of the same title.

Global Challenges Foundation homepage

The mission of the Global Challenges Foundation is “to prevent, or at least reduce the likelihood, of a catastrophe that would cause the death of over 10% of humanity, or cause damage on a similar scale.” Their website offers analysis and research, partnerships, and education opportunities.

Daniel Schmachtenberger

In this episode of the Rebel Wisdom YouTube channel, Daniel Schmachtenberger explores the shift in humanity from one based on strategic competitive advantage to one based on interconnectivity that is necessary to avert self termination.

Firefighters fighting a wildfire

by Stanley Wu, Coordinator, the Resilience Project, Commonweal

When Pacific Gas and Energy (PGE) was determined to be responsible for the devastating Camp fire that killed at least 86 people and resulted in tens of billions in damage, they filed for bankruptcy and changed their tactics. The public outrage over their recent CEO bonuseslobbying, and political investments rather than fixing old and accident-prone infrastructure, was swift and accurate.

That was last year. Today as I write this in the dark at home, 185,000 people are being evacuated just north of San Francisco, and PGE has shut off electrical power to 1.3 million people. Potentially historic winds and low humidity at the end of a dry summer can develop almost any spark into a life-threatening fire that can spread faster than you can run. PGE has calculated that dealing with the public and political outrage, and plummeting stock, is cheaper than being responsible for another catastrophic fire.

The implications of shutting off power to cities and counties should not be glossed over. County hospitals and health care facilities are running on backup generators and are scrambling to ensure they can maintain diesel supplies. Public utilities that provide water and sewage are trying to calculate how long their drinking water reservoirs will last before running out. These are serious times, and as Gov. Newsom said: “I could sugar coat this, but I will not. The next 72 hours are going to be challenging.”

For the first time, many Californians are being confronted with the reality of making everyday decisions without electricity. Fundamental realizations are developing as people negotiate the basic questions of their livelihood. Will water still run from our faucets and will the toilets flush (yes, for now)? How long will the food stay safe to eat in my refrigerator (place cold ice in there to help it keep cool longer)? I have a solar system so I’ll have electricity (not likely, they are designed to turn off when the grid goes down).

In my neighborhood, after we lost power and my wifi network went down, my landline was useless and I could no longer send or receive text messages because the local cellular towers were also not being powered. People around me could not make emergency calls if they needed to, and how were we going to receive evacuation notices and updates about potential new fires in their areas? Needless to say, this is an unexpected predicament for most, and an extremely dangerous situation at the least.

We will eventually come to the end of this ever-growing fire season. Houses and infrastructure will likely be rebuilt, the power will be restored, people will go home and forget to execute on the ideas they had to ensure their safety in future emergencies. In addition to the grief thousands will endure, rage will boil, blame will fall on PGE, and calls for accountability will flow through the veins of public discourse.

Here is the thing—there is no doubt California will experience catastrophic fires again and we can be certain millions will be without power for days if not weeks in the coming future. There are over a 149 million dead trees as a result of years of drought, heat, and beetle infestation. 18 million died last year alone, and these trees could be match sticks for a careless person, lightning strike, or wind storm that topples a utility power line. Housing developments will continue to expand into fire prone areas. Yearly averaged temperatures will continue to climb upwards, and droughts will likely become more severe.

Furthermore, PGE operates 106,681 circuit miles of electrical distribution lines and 18,466 miles of interconnected transmission lines. Anyone expecting one of the largest utility companies in the United States to overhaul their aging infrastructure better not hold their breath, especially since PGE has already filed for bankruptcy. It is time for us to take a hard look at this truth in the face. The probability that we will tackle enough of these issues—climate change, infrastructure, land use policies—in a meaningful way, is low.

Reactionary preparations set in hours leading up to the power shutoffs are not enough. I visited Target, Best Buy and Home Depot to find they were all sold out of small cell phone battery packs, flashlights and people were trickling in to mill through the empty sections. At best, these products will help people maintain an extra day or two of cellphone and flashlight power before they need to be replaced or recharged. Thankfully, most people are still able to drive to packed café to charge their devices, and order takeout food.

Within hours of the shutoff, local gas stations and grocery stores were drained of their ice, batteries, and booze. In my neighborhood, Safeway was letting people shop in a dark store, one at a time, and accompanied by staff, and were not accepting credit cards. How many people actually have the recommended 2 gallons of water per day per person stored? Do people have extra cash, medical prescriptions, a first aid kits that is the base line of preparation? There are plenty of psychological barriers such as discounting the future, that make it hard to really prepare. My sense is people treat their resilience like their earthquake kits—something to knock off the to-do list. And we need so much more.

Non-government organizations, journalists, philanthropists, churches, and motivated citizens are starting to work on these difficult questions. It is time for us to start focusing on what we as individuals, families, and communities can do to increase our resilience and abilities to cope with a challenging future, especially one with limited resources.

Over my battery powered AM/FM radio, I just heard that the winds are expected to pick up, and a “red flag” warning was just issued over the next few days. It seems likely our power will be off for an extended period of time, and more evacuations were announced. My computer batteries are running low, and it is time to drive somewhere to purchase more ice, if I can find any, and connect to a network to let my family know I am okay.