Last night I went to the Sustainable Living Festival’s annual great debate, this time on the somewhat convoluted topic (perhaps written by a committee?) of “To collapse or not to collapse: Pushing for economic ruin or building a great transition”, juxtaposing:
At one end of the spectrum, [are] some environmentalists [who] are fueled by a strong belief that speeding up an implosion of the global financial system is the only thing that can prevent catastrophic climate change… Counter to this position are other [activists and change advocates] who remain firmly dedicated to building a mass global movement to achieve a full-scale emergency, wartime-like transition of our economy – they anticipate the restoration of safe climate conditions by rapidly eliminating greenhouse gas pollution and actively cooling the planet through conversion of the current system.
My response to whether it’s just a stupid question is: yes, and no. The “no” part is, partly, in response to the more nuanced and deeper reflections that were prompted by the question but didn’t really directly address the proposition. But before discussing these reflections, I should first summarise the initial core arguments made by the 6 speakers (based on my notes and memory of their remarks):
- David Holmgren spoke first and immediately questioned the dichotomy posed by the debate proposition. He argued for a focus on individual and small-scale self-reliance, that he believes is well-adapted to “energy descent”, but also suggested that if enough of the middle classes adopted such lifestyles this could be a key leverage point that leads to a collapse of current systems.
- George Monbiot questioned expectations of sudden collapse (e.g. due to peak oil), arguing that collapse “will be very drawn out if it occurs at all” and that the capitalist social order is far more resilient than most environmentalists think it is. But he also thought that not collapsing is likely to lead to dark futures, and so, like David Holmgren he also questioned the debate topic.
- Philip Sutton argued that pushing for economic collapse in order to avoid ecological collapse is “a nuts idea”, and that it will diminish our capacity to solve problems like climate change. He called for renewed mass movement style efforts to shift public policy and achieve the rapid transitions (e.g. via legislation that leverages the power of the state); a core issue is political will.
- Nicole Foss questioned the debate proposition in another way: for her there is no question, some form of collapse in the near-future is inevitable and she forecasted major economic and energy contractions. Change has to be small-scale, bottom-up, focussed on resilience. Foss made familiar claims about EROI (e.g. of alternatives to crude oil) and reductions in this, but argued that over the shorter-term financial crises will be the key driver of change (also see this talk in which she similarly predicts the resumption of the global financial crisis and an emerging “era of limits”).
- Jess Moore was, broadly, in favour of transitions in economic systems, away from a profit-centred system to one focussed on people and the environment through public participation and democratic means (her bio describes her as “an activist, anti-capitalist and permaculturalist who works in community development”). It was unclear if she is pro/anti “collapse”.
- George Marshall argued collapse narratives are problematic and suggested that discussing it would make collapse more likely. He emphasised language and framing, arguing we need to find narratives that “bring us together” (not “draw us apart”). He also argued environmentalists have cognitive biases that frequently lead them to exaggerate the potential for collapse futures.
So, we had the usual spread of conflicting views: e.g. that collapse will be upon us in a few years and it is inevitable (Nicole Foss), or collapse – if it occurs at all – it “will be very drawn out” over a long period of time (George Monbiot). To my surprise, we also had speakers who argued seeking collapse is “nuts” (Philip Sutton) and that, in terms of language and framing, it “draws us apart” (George Marshall).
I was also surprised by the audience vote at the end: 135 people voted not to collapse; 59 voted ‘other’; 23 voted for pushing for collapse; and 4 “donkey” voted (which is what George Monbiot called for).
So, is ‘to collapse or not to a collapse?’ a useful debate topic? Perhaps the fact that the majority of speakers either explicitly questioned the framing, didn’t address the topic directly, and tended to rehearse well-worn arguments speaks volumes. But it was reasonably effective in drawing out some additional questions and issues that are worth thinking about. For example:
- There was some consideration of the ways that expectations can be performative – for example it was suggested that a stronger focus on collapse narratives could make collapse more likely (a possible analogy could be how expectations of a run on a bank can lead to a run on the bank);
- Some speakers provocatively questioned anti-capitalist perspectives. For example, George Monbiot (aside from suggesting a steady state economy is the necessary ideal) also questioned the belief that getting rid of capitalism will lead to a more harmonious relationship with nature, and whether a “collapse world” would have more benign impacts on nature than present societies. Linked with this he pointed out the poor environmental record of past human societies and civilisations;
- George Marshall raised the issues of cognitive biases, affective reasoning and the fable of “the boy who cried wolf”. The latter has multiple possible lessons, but most apparent was that if environmentalists commonly say collapse is coming and it doesn’t arrive then when/if the threat is real they won’t be listened to. This is an issue that doesn’t get discussed enough;
- Discussion frequently addressed human nature, such as whether we’re biologically programed to exploit and expand (thus, pushing towards forms of collapse), to what extent various ecological crises can be blamed on ‘programmed’ human behavioral patterns or other factors (e.g. cultural forces). I’m glad this topic came up but was disappointed by many of the remarks. If there is a core, unchanging “human nature” social scientific research suggests it’s not so deterministic and strong – as Steve Fuller has put it, what it means to be “human” is rather malleable and has been constantly shaped and re-shaped and, in some senses, is an “artificial” construct rather than “natural”; and
- Issues of polarisation were also raised, so that for example climate change becomes an issue of ‘The Left’ and groups of ‘The Right’ disengage (and/or seek to oppose The Left on the issue) and are constructed as ‘The Enemy’. In these ways, and more, science gets entangled in political agendas and political conflicts, often in ways that constrain effective action. George Marshall argued for the need to engage get beyond ‘enemy narratives’ (e.g. the political right as The Enemy), and ‘us and them’ attitudes, to seek common ground and cooperation (also see this article).
Overall, a wider set of issues were discussed at the debate than I expected, which was a pleasant surprise along with the vote result (I expected more votes for collapse). Some speakers also advocated critical examination of what “collapse” could mean in reality, such as whether it would assist with addressing climate change. But as a debating topic it was pretty stupid – it often became more of a debate about whether collapse is likely (and how to cope with such a future), than whether financial or economic collapse is the necessary path to success in tackling climate change and other environmental issues.