“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). 

2016 Presidential Election and Political Ontology

J. Thomas Howe describes Whitehead’s process ontology as follows:

Whitehead’s theory of experience is extremely complex, and its elucidation is the major task of Process and Reality. What is important for our purposes is the essentially social nature of all actual entities. “There is no entity, not even God, which requires nothing but itself in order to exist…Every entity is in its essence social and requires society in order to exist” (Religion in the Making, 108). Whitehead’s point involves more than the claim that we need the help of others to sustain our well-being. To say that “every entity is in its essence social” means that all actual entities are constituted by their relations. They are internally related to all others. “An actual entity is present in other actual entities” (Process and Reality, 50).

Margaret Thatcher infamously claimed that “there is no such thing as society.” A friend of mine (with whom I’ve been discussing these themes for years) recently suggested to me that I don’t believe there is any such thing as an individual. It is true that I have been influenced by thinkers like Simon Critchley and Immanuel Levinas, who in their own ways articulate an ethics of dividualism in opposition to ethical individualism. But this doesn’t mean I deny the existence of individuals or even that I don’t value individuality. In fact I believe individuality is among the most important values of the modern world. My criticisms of individualism are only meant as a reminder that individuality is a social construct, which is to say, in order to become a free thinking individual capable of taking responsibility for my actions, I first need to be cared for and enculturated by a community that values individuality. The social care required to produce responsible individuals, I would argue, must include access to nutritious food, safe housing, comprehensive healthcare, and quality education. The capitalist system is supposedly pro-individual, but by undermining the relational bonds of families and local communities, and hampering the ability society as a whole to care for itself, it makes the formation of responsible individuals more and more difficult. So in short, I’m in favor of Bernie’s socialist proposals precisely because I value and want to foster the formation of caring individuals capable of creatively contributing to the ongoing reproduction of society.

Will publicly funded education and healthcare in and of themselves save American society from its decay into consumerist resignation? No, of course not. Hospitals are still very dangerous places to be and mechanistic medicine needs to take a step back to consider health from a more holistic perspective. And our public educational system has got to drop its obsession with standardized testing. But investing time, energy, and money in publicly available healthcare and education is the best way to revitalize them. Publicly funded tuition and healthcare are not sufficient to rebuild society, but they are a necessary part of the effort.

Motto_web_dubois_original

Below is W.E.B. DuBois speaking to the Wisconsin Socialist Club in Madison back in 1960 about the history of socialism in American political discourse:

And here is another socialist, Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Alexander Bard on Network Metaphysics

I really dig Alexander Bard’s “network-dynamic persepective.” Geometrogenesis is also extremely relevant to my research on Whitehead’s and Rudolf Steiner’s ether theories (the former articulated an alternative to Einstein’s theory of relativity based on an “ether of events”; the later spoke of an etheric dimension of nature mediating between the material and spiritual dimensions). The idea is that space-time is not ultimate, but an emergent product of quantum events (what Whitehead called “actual occasions”). Thanks to Prof. Corey Anton for pointing me to Bard’s lecture.

After a little searching, I’ve turned up this blog post by Bard wherein he makes reference to Whitehead as one of the few philosophers who can survive Nietzsche’s deconstructive hammer. But he seems to distance himself from Whitehead’s process metaphysics because he feels it lacks a proper phenomenological account of the real. Conrta Bard, Whitehead does in fact situate his cosmology in the context of America’s own breed of phenomenology coming out of William James’ radical empiricism.

Bard also discusses Burning Man, syntheism, Silk RoadSimon Critchley’s “faithless faith,” and the “chemical liberation” set off in the 60s by the California counterculture’s use of psychedelics. He finishes with the provocative question: “What if the internet is God?” (the title of his recent Ted Talk).