How Everything Can Collapse: by Servigne and Stevens

If you want to understand how our future could unravel…

I highly recommend this book: it will give you a clear sense of why societies might well collapse, what that could look like, and to some extent how we could prepare for this, or adapt if it happens.  Originally written in French, the book has an engaging tone of voice, despite its heavy subject matter: it combines flair with well researched facts, and emotional dynamics with ecology, economics, and more. 

Part I of the book lays out the trends pushing us towards collapse.  What I found most helpful was not the facts, but the guiding metaphor they use (a car driven beyond its limits), and the system perspectives: the difference between finite limits (eg oil or water running out) and boundaries which we can override for a while (such as climate and ecosystem resilience).

They also observe that: “the ever more globalised, interconnected and locked-in structure of our civilisation makes it highly vulnerable to the slightest internal or external disruption…we are moving towards a very unstable, ‘non-linear’ future, where major disruptions…will be the norm; and we are now potentially subject to global systemic collapses.”

They also point out that several major systems are now beyond safe limits or boundaries, and resolving one or two of these (eg global debt, or carbon emissions) would not be enough to move us out of the danger zone.

Part II of the book is enticingly titled “So, When’s It Going to Happen?” This gathers a lot of useful data: both from quantitative models, and from analysts like Jared Diamond who have studied the causes of collapse in previous civilisations.  Here are some of the insights: 

  • A collapse would arise from interaction of so many complex variables that its timing cannot be predicted – and so cynics can doubt if it will happen at all.
  • Models of complex systems (natural and human) show that homogeneous and closely-connected systems are more vulnerable.
  • Several models of our current global system, such as HANDY, show that major income inequalities contribute substantially to the risk of collapse: the reasons are well explained in Chapter 8, and are really worth understanding. The reasons include the ways that wealthy elites are cushioned from crises and slow to react, and how conspicuous consumption at the top orients most people towards emulating it.
  • An updated version of the famous Club of Rome Limits to Growth model from the 1960s, in 2004, predicts collapse from 2030 unless several drivers are all stopped: population growth, income inequality, and soil erosion/agricultural crisis.

Part III is tersely called Collapsology.  This usefully explains different types or levels of collapse, and draws insights from ancient and modern collapses. They describe the model created by Demitry Lorov with five progressively severe levels of collapse: financial, commercial, political, and then cultural: the latter meaning that “faith in the goodness of humanity is lost”. There are now plenty of experts with gloomy views of the future, but it would help us all if they could clarify the degree of collapse they foresee, as that would shape the ways to prepare for it. 

A reassuring view from this section is that “After a catastrophe…most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm and composed ways.”  Similar views on the caring and cooperative essence of human nature are well evidenced in the recent book by Rutger Bregman, Humankind. A lot of our fears arise from disaster movies and misleading media reports (eg on Hurricane Katrina). 

The authors underline how vital imagination and storytelling, of the kind Transition Network offers, are in creating a positive “cultural narrative” to help us prepare for collapse or major crises.  They comment usefully on the different responses likely to grow in the face of the rising crises we’re already seeing.  They see resilience for local communities as a valuable response, but admit that national-scale resilience and transition are also needed, but less likely.

I share their view that by understanding the likely collapse ahead of us, we have more chance to avert it.  And the book ends with a sobering postscript by Yves Cochet, a former Minister of the Environment in France.  He points out that social psychology shows us that real change, among leaders or the population, only happens if an individual believes a sizeable number of people will make the change with them.  If you want a chink of hope, the fact that many governments have successfully led their people into lockdown could show that even larger radical change could be possible…If you want some pointers on how to respond constructively to this outlook, try my blog on Bob Doppelt’s book, Transformational Resilience