Collapsology: Is this the end of civilisation as we know it?

photo via Unsplash

The Coronavirus pandemic has sparked a surge of interest in ‘collapsology’, a movement based on the assumption that declining resources and climate change will bring the world extremely close to destruction. Voice of London takes a look at people who believe society is collapsing, and what they do about it.

The grasshopper spent the summer singing while the ant worked hard to store up food for the winter. The grasshopper quickly dies of hunger and the ant dances the cold season away. Aesop’s fable ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ sums up the moral lesson to work hard and plan for the future, and recently it has taken on a new meaning.

In light of COVID-19 taking the world by storm, it has become increasingly clear that our societies are fragile. Showing us that we are never that far away from mass panic, that we are so reliant on everybody else, and that we need to do better. This virus has brought the world to its knees. However, it was already starting to crumble before.

Although a traditionally French ideology, the concept of collapsology has crept its way into London life.

Infographic by Arwa Nadeem

At the root of this concept is Pablo Sevigne, a French philosopher who published a book called ‘How Everything Can Collapse’. Collapsology is a new term that was invented to try and bring together a number of disciplines that look at systemic risk in different areas. For example, climate risk, water stress, financial instability, economic boom and recession cycles, energy depletion… The list goes on.

This string of environmental crises and the consequences of how we choose to live our lives will soon trigger a breakdown in our food, water and energy supply systems, which will ultimately bring down the somewhat stable political structures we know today. Looking at how far humanity has come in the past centuries calls to question: what are the dynamics of exponential growth in a limited world? And the answer to that is collapse.

Once You Know

Once You Know, written and directed by Emmanuel Cappellin in collaboration with Anne-Marie Sangla, is a film about climate-induced collapse and our chances to collectively prevail. Voice of London speaks to the director Emmanuel Cappellin, who shares his motivations for this film and his thoughts on the concept of collapsology.

Logging on to Zoom from a small village in the mountains of France, Cappellin says that he has spent the majority of his life living in bustling cities– a life that he would happily trade-in for the serenity of urban exodus.

“I lived in Paris, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong. I mean, I lived in huge metropoles. And I decided to live in a village at the foot of the Alp mountains, inhabited by just 1300 people.”

When the concept of the film was in the works, the word ‘collapsology’ hadn’t yet existed. Extinction Rebellion didn’t exist.

Cappellin explains: “A lot of the things that came to be at the centre of the film didn’t exist yet. All I wanted to do was tell the story of a generation. Mine, and probably even more so yours. For about 3000 years, we’ve been saying that we’re going towards disaster if we don’t do anything.”

Survivalists run to the hills for cover, Collapsologists believe in managing collapse. That is what pulls in the interest of many people around the globe, including Cappellin.

“Now the ‘if’ is behind us, we haven’t done nothing, we have done a lot, and that has been insufficient. So, it’s no longer an ‘if we are going towards disaster’, but more so what can we do when we get there?

This asks totally different questions, which can have very political answers. How do you manage crisis when the crisis is a long emergency?”

The world has a well-developed system of responding to anthropological disasters. In the days following chaos, money is sent in heap-loads, resources suddenly become available to spare, awareness is off the charts. But the way we respond to natural disasters is flawed. Human beings, as a species, are reactive rather than proactive.

“Once you start thinking about the long emergency, then you start talking about what would be equitable rationing, for example. And there’s starting to be a lot of research in political science as to how you do that,” Cappellin says.

Reset civilization/Living the collapse

The off-the-grid movement became popularized in the 60s but hit a wall when people realised what living off-the-grid meant. In the 70s, the ‘back-to-the-land’ trend completely failed as people packed up their tents and returned to consumerism, discovering that they did not have the resources to remain sustainable. Living a ‘hippie’ lifestyle was not all it was hyped up to be. What is different in 2020 that allows people to successfully remove themselves from the negatives of modern life?

A shared mindset, the urge to be self-sufficient, and the lack of another option are just some of the reasons why the term collapsology is gaining popularity. Societies must confront the possibility of collapse to have the chance to avoid it.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that it is no longer possible to rely on a stable, predictable environment. Rather than simply accepting the idea of societal collapse, like survivalists who take cover in underground bunkers with tins of food, collapsologists see an opportunity for a new and restorative way of life.

Moving humanity forward

Cappellin talks on how collapse is not a far distant future, it’s right behind the curve.

“It’s a transcendence. There are some things that are ideological or spiritual about it. You’re not finding your reasons for acting in today’s world but in the potential future world.

That’s what I try to represent in the film. We have people who are just trying to deal with it on a very personal level. How do you keep feeding your child, going to work, doing your everyday business when it can feel meaningless or condemned?”

Many people struggle with the concept of climate change simply because they cannot grasp that the world they live in is in such danger. When they finally do understand this, they can’t cope with the implications of it.

It can be exhausting trying to find some type of inner peace while anger, sadness or a complete feeling of powerlessness rages inside. Using these emotions as positive energy to keep moving forward and fighting for the issues you believe in is the way that humanity must move forward.

“The other part of it is collective resilience. How do you reorganize society?” asks Cappellin.

So, what does collapsology actually mean, and why should we be paying attention to it now?

According to the research Cappellin carried out for his film, the ingredients for societal collapse are already present in societies across the globe.

“Whole countries will be deserted, and that won’t be the end of humanity.”

Although advocates of this concept believe that society as we know it will collapse, they do not necessarily have a negative outlook on the world. Rather than continuing to live in a society that they know will not be around much longer, they often remove themselves from it in order to live a more sustainable life.

Collapsology is about accepting the idea that collapse will happen and accepting what is being lost, all so that you can work on saving what can still be saved.

Words: Arwa Nadeem | Subbing: Maelina Hassel

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