“How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” by Servigne and Stevens

Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens cover a lot of territory in this book. It is clear enough to anyone open to even consider reading it that climate change and other ecological catastrophes are already occurring and will only intensify. This book was published in French in 2015, well before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the origins of this virus are not yet known, it is widely understood that the effects of climate change and attendant habitat loss make “spillover events” more likely. So pandemics may be the new normal, with Covid-19 serving as a deadly but relatively merciful dress rehearsal (relatively merciful because the next novel virus that spills over into human circulation may have a much higher infection fatality rate). We have also learned from the explosion of conspiratorial thinking during the pandemic just how right Servigne and Stevens are to warn that collapse will not come with any homogenous vision of what is happening (153): “almost everything will be played out on the ground of the imaginary, of our representations of the world” (154). We are in the midst of a total information war with as many fronts as there are screens. Such a situation finds us in desperate need of shared understandings, of a common (even if multiply culturally inflected) story, since “stories give birth to collective identities,” and thus, foster awareness of our shared planetary destiny. 

In addition to the threat of pandemics which we have all grown familiar with, Servigne and Stevens list other catastrophes that are likely to intensify: biodiversity loss, chemical spills, resource wars, droughts, wildfires, migrations, terror attacks, financial crises, and social unrest, to name a few. They raise the question of how we are to maintain belief in the urgency of our situation given that disasters are becoming so common. Jerry Brown, former governor of California, remarked back in 2018 that mega-wildfires are “the new abnormal.” The authors discuss the difficulties and moral hazards of assessing risk in the context of ever-evolving hypercomplex systems, like Gaia or the global economy. Often, an “inverse temporality” only allows catastrophes to be recognized as possible in retrospect. Also, complex systems are understood to be resilient only up to certain unknown thresholds, at which point they can suddenly collapse. In light of the uncertainties, they recommend that we switch from an “observe, analyze, command and control” approach to risk assessment to a “probe, act, sense, adjust” mode. The latter is a better alternative to just waiting for catastrophe to strike before taking action. 

Despite the uncertainties, Servigne and Stevens discuss a few attempts to mathematically model collapse, including the “HANDY” (human and nature dynamics) model and the “World3” model. The HANDY model is unique in including economic inequality among its parameters. It factors in not only accumulated wealth but also its distribution through society. The model shows that societies with inequalities in wealth distribution will collapse even with low levels of overall consumption (112). Part of the reason is that “wealth buffers” in such societies allow elites to continue business as usual, thus locking in the very sociotechnical routines that eventually deplete the resource base, triggering collapse. The World3 model, originally developed by a group of systems scientists at MIT, has been around longer than HANDY. Based on the modeling of parameters including population, industrial production, agriculture, pollution, and resource use, it predicts the collapse of thermo-industrial civilization at some point in the 21st century. One of the designers of the model, Dennis Meadows, remarked in 2012 that “It is too late for sustainable development, you have to prepare for shocks and urgently build small resilient systems” (122). 

At this point, the question of how to define collapse may have arisen. How would we recognize it if and when it actually occurred? Yves Cochet’s definition is cited, which states that collapse is “the process at the end of which basic needs can no longer be provided at reasonable cost to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision” (126). The authors also cite Dmitry Orlov, who studied the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lists five stages of collapse (133), including 1) financial collapse (future investments become impossible because faith in business as usual is lost), 2) commercial collapse (money itself becomes devalued or scarce, supply shortages, rationing, etc.), 3) political collapse (faith in functioning and legitimacy of government is lost, municipal services like water and trash collection begin to shut down, etc.), 4) social collapse (loss of faith in existing institutions and organizations, leading people to regress to clan and gang allegiances), and 5) cultural collapse (faith in the goodness of humanity is lost). As Cochet’s and Orlov’s accounts make clear, in many parts of the US and around the world, collapse is very much already upon us. 

Despite the possibility of social and cultural collapse, Servigne and Stevens try to check the Hollywood movie driven fear that human beings become savage killers whenever catastrophes occur. The evidence suggests quite the opposite: “after catastrophe…most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm, and composed ways” (150). Such behaviors challenge the founding myth of our liberal societies, that prior to the “social contract” that gave rise to states, humans existed as autonomous, greedy individuals ruthlessly competing in a “state of nature.” The truth is we are profoundly relational creatures, with the ability to fluidly shift identities between “I” and “We” as the moral circumstances require. Nonetheless, emergent networks of mutual aid rest upon a “fragile alchemy,” and without the restoration of basic needs like food and water, cooperative altruism may quickly shift into violent competition and selfish hoarding. There is an urgent need to rebuild vibrant local social fabrics and to create collective practices and aptitudes for living together (all things that modern consumer culture and individualism have methodically destroyed) (155). 

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