It seems to be increasingly common to consider the prospect of collapse (or some form of major “breakdown”) in the near-future (e.g. here, here, here, here). Authors and activists like Paul Gilding assert that some form of collapse is inevitable. Gilding writes that “the time to act preventatively has past” and asserts that “the coming years won’t be pleasant, as our society and economy hits the wall”. Others warn that “it may be too late to convince the world’s politicians and wealthy elites to chart a different course” and suggest we need to “think about how we protect ourselves as we head into an uncertain future”. In some respects it reminds me of the late 1960s and 1970s, although a key difference now is that climate change is a key concern whereas other issues were previously the focus of such predictions. Another important difference is now there is a greater focus on near-term or medium-term crises.
Lately I’ve been thinking about why this is. There are always risks and global civilisation faces many serious risks, few informed people would disagree with that. Many dramatic events over the past 7-8 years – such as the oil price bubble, the spike in other commodity prices in 2008 like food prices (and associated riots), the global financial crisis and ongoing major economic difficulties in Europe, ecological changes driven by climate change, and industrial accidents (e.g. BP Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima, etc) – emphasise this. However, it is also debatable whether it is too late to address key risks and whether the near-term or medium-term future should be expected to be as bleak as is being claimed.
A commonality amongst many of those people who are predicting collapse or major future crises is that they want major social transformations to occur, often transformations related to sustainability. I think this commonality potentially gives us an important clue as to why they predict such futures.
Consider the example of the book The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding. In it he argues that “we have passed the limits of our planet’s capacity to support us” (p.1) and further contends that dramatic discontinuous change around 2018-2020 is a near certainty. He also believes that major sustainability-related changes won’t occur until economic growth stops or is at least strongly curtailed. He seems to sense that the crises he predicts will also be a “civilisation-shaping opportunity to make a difference” (p.263) that will enable us to “arrive at a better place” (p.2) than today’s civilisation, writing that:
As a species we are good in a crisis, and passing the limits will certainly be the biggest crisis our species has ever faced. Our backs will be up against the wall, and in that situation we have proven ourselves to be extraordinary. As the full scale of the imminent crisis hits us, our response will be proportionally dramatic… This is why we shouldn’t despair in the face of what the science is telling us… the crisis itself will push humanity to its next stage of development” (p.3).
Such a crisis cannot be prevented, he alleges; all we can do is prepare ourselves so we can make the most of the “civilisation-shaping opportunity” he claims will be upon us in the near-future.
What is clear is that many people who want to see major transformations related to sustainability can only see one way that these could be achieved: transformations forced by major societal crises. Consideration of this has resulted in me formulating the following idea: holding such views on change processes may lead people to expect – and perhaps even to hope for – major societal crises.
This can be related to Sheila Jasanoff’s views on environmental knowledge. She argues that “durable representations of the environment … do not arise from scientific activity alone, through scientists’ representations of the world as it is, but are sustained by shared normative and cultural understandings of the world as it ought to be”. Views on what is (e.g. the claim that “we have passed the limits of our planet’s capacity to support us”) are sustained by views about what ought to be (e.g. Gilding’s call for a steady-state economy and transformation away from a consumer society).
We must also ask: what if the predicted crises don’t occur and you prepare for events that never eventuate? Is it wise to put all your eggs in that one basket? It is also possible that the expectation that “apocalypses are also opportunities” – because they reduce “the resilience of the status quo” – will turn out to be false? (Or have unintended consequences? Think of how Germany’s crises after World War 1 created the circumstances in which a leader like Adolf Hilter could rise to power). What if the prophecies of collapse tends to lead to people switching off and “giving up” rather than prompting the additional preparedness and activism that is desired (as Richard Eckersley has also written about)?
Some environmental campaigners have recognised similar issues. For example, Bill McKibben, in his recent book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, warns that obsessing over collapse-style scenarios “keeps you from considering other possibilities” and can limit creativity. I also worry that too many sustainability-oriented thinkers and activists focus too much on collapse-style futures. Just like Paul Ehrlich got it badly wrong in The Population Bomb, and Malthus was wrong a couple of hundred years ago, today’s prophets of doom like Paul Gilding could be just as wrong.
Sustainability writers, thinkers and activists are right that truly transformative moments are rare and are often, though not always, set in motion by major “shocks” and/or societal crises. However, it is also true that this not the only way that significant change happens and the dynamism of modern society means that some change is constant. Perhaps what’s most important is to constantly refresh our conceptions of change rather than unreflectively falling back on crisis-driven change models.