Collapsology

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian in April 2020.

*

Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times

Polity Press; $31.95; 223pp

In his most recent novel, The Second Sleep, Robert Harris imagines a future England in which life is lived according to the rhythms and mores of the pre-modern era. Technology is primitive, Christianity taken literally, and, notwithstanding a parrot or two (an effect, perhaps, of global warming), the landscape indistinguishable from that of medieval England. Nobody knows, or seems to know, how this spectacular reversal came about, though some suspect that it was the very sophistication of the twenty-first century that was partly to blame. Certainly this is the thrust of an article written shortly before the catastrophe. ‘Society’, it warns, ‘has reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse.’

As daft as Harris’ staging is, the idea that modern society could suffer some irreversible setback looks a lot more plausible than it did six months ago. The rapid spread of Covid-19 has left the world in little doubt that the interconnectedness of global systems – natural, cultural and economic – brings with it mighty challenges of governance and policymaking. The imperatives of globalisation and growth have shrunk the world to a single organism that is far more fragile than previously imagined. Whole systems now unravel with alarming speed. A market trader sneezes in Wuhan, and a few weeks later the Australian Treasurer is setting out an emergency stimulus amid talk of an imminent and deep recession.

If this crisis has taken most of us by surprise, Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens – an agronomist and eco adviser, respectively – can claim to have seen it, or something like it, coming. In How Everything Can Collapse, they suggest that civilisation is now vulnerable to a complete breakdown, and that the interconnectedness of modern societies makes that prospect more, not less, likely. Written before the Covid-19 crisis, the book’s most frequent reference points are the global debt crisis of 2008 and anthropogenic climate change. Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout confirm the authors’ arguments.

The central argument of the book is simple: in order to forestall disaster, we need to recognise its likelihood. To this end, Servigne and Stevens have evolved a ‘transdisciplinary’ science of collapse, which they call ‘collapsology’. Defining a collapse as something more than a crisis but less than an apocalypse, they argue that we are now facing a systemic disintegration – not the end of the world, but the end of a world, which is to say the world we recognise and, in a spirit of ‘collective denial’, hope to go on reproducing.

Much of Servigne and Stevens’ argument hinges on an analysis of limits and boundaries. Limits are the lines that cannot be crossed, while boundaries are lines that can be crossed, but only with disastrous consequences. Fossil fuels, for example, are limited, in the sense that there is only so much coal and oil that can be taken out of the ground, while the burning of fossil fuels is a boundary, in the sense that our capacity to continue doing it outpaces what the planet will tolerate. It is the passing of such planetary boundaries, and the tipping points and feedback effects that result from their having been so passed, that particularly concerns the authors, who also seek to understand how technical and political ‘path dependence’ locks us in to self-destructive behaviours. It goes without saying that an addiction to ‘growth’ is fundamental in this respect, though I think the authors might have emphasised more how capitalist economies necessitate expansion, arranged as they are around the profit motive. Certainly such an emphasis would have underlined another of their key themes, namely the way in which economic, political and environmental factors are increasingly hard to separate from one another.

How Everything Can Collapse is an important book, but the argument isn’t always well served by the authors’ addiction to extended metaphors. By far the most irritating example of this is the image of modern society as a car, which, by the end of Chapter 10, is running low on fuel (fair enough), accelerating exponentially, and facing an impassable wall, at the same time as it is veering off the road and careering down a steep slope riddled with obstacles. Of course, one can sympathise with the authors’ desire to make the material more accessible; but in this case they end up obscuring their analysis rather than illuminating it.

The analysis survives the metaphor. Servigne and Stevens are surely right to argue that ‘utopia has now changed sides’ – that it is those who recognise that a radical change in how we live is necessary who are the sober pragmatists, and those who think we can go on as we are who are the dreamers and idealists. As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc, we need to start thinking seriously about the weaknesses in the systems we have built. How Everything Can Collapse is a decent place to begin.