Das Buch „How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times“ von Pablo Servigne, Raphael Stevens und Andrew Brown ist keine leichte Kost und gibt einiges zum Nachdenken. Interessant ist es auch, weil hier erstmals für mich eine französische systemische Betrachtung angestellt wird, wo aber viele Puzzlesteine zu den bisherigen passen und diese auch verstärken. Eine Aussage nehme ich auch für mein Wirken in Anspruch: To be catastrophist, for us, simply means avoiding a posture of denial and taking note of the catastrophes that are taking place

Zur maschinell übersetzten Version (deutsch)

 

Hier ein paar Kernaussagen für zeitlich limitierte LeserInnen:

During our research, we progressively had the feeling of being hemmed in on all sides. Worse, we found that all the ‘crises’ were so interconnected that one of them could trigger a gigantic series of domino effects among the others. To realize this prompts a sense of frustration and of stupor, the same as one might feel when walking across a huge frozen lake covered with a layer of ever thinner ice. As we halt in our tracks, and realize open-mouthed how fragile our situation is, we hear all around us others yelling in unison: ‘Go on! Run! Jump! Go faster! Don’t stop!’

Moreover, it seems that to date few people have become aware of the systemic aspect of things, and governments are turning out to be particularly inefficient at finding solutions. For their part, ‘international institutions are concentrating mainly on simple problems, ignoring the interactions of the entire system.

Today, globalization has created global systemic risks, and this is the first time that a very large-scale, almost global collapse has become possible to envisage. But that won’t happen in a single day. A collapse will take different speeds and shapes in different regions and cultures, depending on the vagaries of the environment.

It is to see that utopia has suddenly changed camp: today, the utopian is whoever believes that everything can just keep going as before. Realism, on the contrary, consists in putting all our remaining energy into a rapid and radical transition, in building local resilience, whether in territorial or human terms.

What scares us in the idea of a great catastrophe is the disappearance of the social order in which we live. It is an extremely widespread belief that, without the order that prevails before the disaster, everything rapidly degenerates into chaos, panic, selfishness and the war of all against all. As surprising as it may seem, this almost never happens.

In fact, individuals seek security first and foremost, so they’re not inclined to violence and are unlikely to do wrong to their fellows. Groups able to demonstrate remarkable cooperative behaviour will have a better chance of surviving.

Knowing and understanding is only 10 per cent of the challenge ahead.

A recent study by university researchers at the University of Auckland has counted about 50 major power blackouts that affected 26 countries over the last decade. The researchers note that such power failures are caused by the fragility of networks that cannot cope with intermittent supplies of renewable energy, the depletion of fossil fuels or extreme weather events. 

More dramatic still, power outages that last too long, coupled with interruptions in the supply of oil, could interfere with the emergency shutdown procedures of nuclear reactors. Because – as we hardly need remind you – it takes weeks or even months of work, energy and maintenance to cool and shut down most reactors …

No collective action will result, no attempt to arrest this collapse. And, paradoxically, even if a majority of people (in France, for example) were finally convinced of the impending collapse, it is unlikely that this majority would organize to act effectively against this threat.

What triggers the action of an individual is not his/her opinion or will but the question as to whether s/he would act only on condition that a sufficiently large number of other people also act. Collective (political) action is not an accumulative phenomenon of individual wills to act but the emerging result of representations that everyone creates by observing the representations of others.

The individual who is cognisant of the collapse does not wonder if s/he wants to change his/her life but only if s/he would do so if a number of others also did so. With each person being placed in the same situation as others, the collapse will be reduced, not thanks to the will of all but thanks to their combined representations – according to the way each person gauges the actual capacity of those who surround him/her to change their lives.

So, if many communities of transitioners and anti-growth protestors fail to emerge, collapse is inevitable, not because the scientific knowledge of its coming is too uncertain but because the social psychology embedded in human beings will not allow them to take the right decisions at the right time.

Collapse is certain, and that is why it is not tragic. For, in saying that, we have just opened the possibility of avoiding its catastrophic consequences.

Faced with a predicament, there are things we can do, but there are no solutions.

So it may be better to be part of small, still tightly knit communities in which trust and mutual aid are cardinal values.

To solve this problem, Hans Jonas, in 1979, suggested that we listen more to prophecies of misfortune than to prophecies of happiness in situations which have a catastrophic potential.

 

Und hier noch eine ausführlichere Auswahl

die vielleicht zum vollständigen Lesen führt, sollte der erste Schock nicht zu groß sein.

Systems often hold longer than we think, but they end up by collapsing much faster than we imagine.

People who are bringing attention to the darkness are also lighting candles of wisdom.

Candles only shine within darkness.

As more candles are lit, so we can see each other anew.

We now have a huge bundle of evidence suggesting that we’re up against growing systemic instabilities that pose a serious threat to the ability of several human populations – and indeed human beings as a whole – to maintain themselves in a sustainable environment.

It’s not the end of the world, nor the Apocalypse. Nor is it a simple crisis from which we can emerge unscathed or a one-off disaster that we can forget after a few months, like a tsunami or a terrorist attack. A collapse is ‘the process at the end of which basic needs (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, etc.) can no longer be provided [at a reasonable cost] to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision’.

We have also had the unpleasant experience of seeing the anger of those close to us projecting itself onto us and crystallizing in us. This is a well-known phenomenon: in order to stave off bad news, we prefer to kill the messengers, the Cassandras and the whistle-blowers. But besides the fact that this does not solve the problem of collapse, we will warn the reader right now that we are not very fond of this kind of outcome…. Let’s talk about collapse, but calmly. It’s true that the possibility of a collapse shuts down certain futures dear to us; this comes as a real shock, but it opens up countless other futures, some surprisingly cheerful. The challenge, then, is to tame these new futures and make them viable. [Siehe Resilienz]

In our first public interventions, we took care to deal only with figures and facts, to stay as objective as possible. Every time, the emotions of the audience surprised us. The more clearly the facts were set out, the stronger were people’s emotions. We thought we were talking to people’s heads and we were touching their hearts: sadness, tears, anxiety, resentment and outbursts of anger frequently erupted from the public. Our language gave words to intuitions that many people already had, and it struck a deep chord. In return, these reactions echoed our own feelings, which we had tried to conceal.

We will see that it is the convergence of all ‘crises’ that makes this outcome possible. However, an overall collapse has not yet taken place (at least not in North Europe – Greece and Spain may be premonitory examples).

Reaction of a living system to exponential growth

Figure 1.1 Reaction of a living system to exponential growth (the continuous curve represents a population and the dotted curve represents the carrying capacity of the milieu)

The last diagram represents the ecology of the 2010s: for the past twenty years, we have continued to accelerate quite knowingly, destroying the Earth system at an ever faster pace – the very system that welcomes and sustains us. Whatever the optimists may say, the time we are living is clearly marked by the spectre of a collapse.

The trajectory of the Anthropocene a summary

We should by now realize that many of the parameters of our societies and of our impact on the planet are increasing at an exponential rate: population, GDP, water and energy consumption, the use of fertilizers, the production of engines and telephones, tourism, the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, the number of floods, the damage to ecosystems, the destruction of forests, the extinction rate of species, and so on. The list is endless. This overall picture7 (see Figure 1.2a and 1.2b), very familiar to scientists, has almost become the logo of the new geological period called the Anthropocene, a time when humans have become a force that upsets the major biogeochemical cycles of the Earth system.

World population, which had doubled about every thousand years over the last eight millennia, doubled in just one century. From one billion people in 1830, it grew to two billion in 1930. Then things really speeded up: in only forty years, the population doubled again. Four billion in 1970. Seven billion today. In the space of a single lifetime, a person born in the 1930s saw the population increase from two billion to seven billion! During the twentieth century, energy consumption increased tenfold, the extraction of industrial minerals by a factor of 27, and that of building materials by a factor of 34.9

It may be simple or even simplistic, but the metaphor of the car has the advantage of clearly distinguishing between the different ‘problems’ (call them ‘crises’) that we face. It suggests that there are two types of limit, or more precisely that there are limits on the one hand and boundaries on the other. The former cannot be crossed because they come up against the laws of thermodynamics: that’s the problem of the fuel tank. The second can be crossed but they are no less insidious because they are invisible, and we realize that we are crossing them only when it is too late. This is the problem of speed and keeping the vehicle on course. The limits of our civilization are imposed by the quantities of so-called ‘stock’ resources, which are by definition nonrenewable (fossil fuels and ores), and ‘flow’ resources (water, wood, food, etc.): these are renewable but we are exhausting them far too quickly for them to have time to regenerate. However much the engine may gain in efficiency, there will always come a time when it can no longer work for lack of fuel

If the vehicle goes too fast, we can no longer perceive the details of the road, and this increases the risk of an accident

The problem, in our case, is that we are running up against several limits simultaneously and we have already crossed several boundaries!

A society that has taken the path of exponential growth needs the production and consumption of energy to follow this same path. In other words, to maintain our civilization in working order, we must constantly increase our energy consumption and production. But we have reached a peak.

According to the most recent statistics, half of the twenty leading producing countries, representing more than three-quarters of the world’s oil production, have already crossed their peak, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Mexico, Norway, Algeria and Libya. In the 1960s, for every barrel consumed, the industry discovered six new ones. Today, with an ever more efficient technology, the world consumes seven barrels for each barrel discovered.

In a scientific overview published in 2012, British researchers concluded that ‘more than two-thirds of current crude oil production capacity will need to be replaced by 2030, simply to keep production constant.

So, in the next fifteen years, in order to maintain itself, the industry will need a supply of 60 million barrels per day, equivalent to the daily capacity of six Saudi Arabias.

In short, there is a growing consensus about the fact that the age of easily accessible oil is over and we are entering a new era.

In an attempt to artificially inflate the growth and competitiveness of the United States, the Federal Reserve Bank allowed oil companies to borrow at extremely low interest rates, thereby manufacturing a time bomb: the slightest rise in interest rates would push the most fragile companies to the edge of bankruptcy. The problem is pretty much the same for shale gas.

So, even in the best-case scenario, it is impossible to compensate for the decline of conventional fuels in this way.

Without oil, the current electric system, including nuclear power, will collapse.

The decline in oil will therefore lead to the decline of all other forms of energy. It is thus dangerous to underestimate the magnitude of the task that faces us if we are to compensate for the decline in conventional oil.

A recent study has assessed the scarcity of 88 non-renewable resources and the probability that there will be a permanent shortage of them by 2030.

Those for which this is a high probability include silver, essential to the manufacture of wind turbines, indium, an essential component for several photovoltaic cells, and lithium, used in batteries. And the study concludes that these shortages will have a devastating impact on our way of life. In the same vein, we have recently seen estimates in which peaks will be reached for phosphorus (an essential fertilizer in industrial agriculture), fisheries and even drinking water.

But the challenge now is that we are having to face them all at pretty much the same time: [there is] no more of the energy needed for the less concentrated metals, [there are] no more of the metals needed for less accessible energy.

Remember the surprising fact about exponentials: once the consequences are visible, it’s all just a matter of years, or even months.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, US oil had a fantastic EROI of 100:1 (for one unit of energy invested, one hundred units were recovered). You hardly needed to start digging before the oil started gushing. In 1990, it had fallen to only 35:1, and today it is about 11:1.43

In the United States, the EROI for oil sands lies between 2:1 and 4:1, that for agrofuels between 1:1 and 1.6:1 (10:1 in the case of ethanol made from cane sugar), and for nuclear power between 5:1 and 15:1.45 The EROI for coal is about 50:1 (in China, 27:1), for shale oil about 5:1 and for natural gas about 10:1.46 All these EROIs are not only declining, but declining at an accelerating rate since it is always necessary to dig deeper and deeper, go further out to sea and use ever more expensive techniques and infrastructures so as to maintain the level of production.

In the United States, concentrated solar power (those big mirrors in the desert) produces a yield of around 1.6:1. Photovoltaics in Spain produce around 2.5:1.47 As for wind power, it initially seems to offer a better yield of about 18:1.48 Sadly, these figures do not take into account the intermittent nature of this type of energy and the need to back it up with a storage system or thermal power plant. If we take this into account, the EROI for wind turbines comes down to 3.8:1.49 Only hydroelectricity apparently offers a comfortable yield of between 35:1 and 49:1.

But besides the fact that this type of production seriously disrupts natural habitats, a recent study has shown that 3,700 projects underway or planned across the world would increase global electricity production by only 2 per cent (from 16 per cent to 18 per cent). In short, renewable energy does not have the potential to offset the decline in fossil fuel, and there are not enough fossil fuels (or ores) to massively develop renewable energies so as to offset the predicted decline in fossil fuels. As Gail Tverberg, actuary and specialist in the economics of energy, puts it, ‘We are being told, “Renewables will save us,” but this is basically a lie. Wind and solar PV are just as much a part of our current fossil fuel system as any other source of electricity.’

The problem is that our modern societies need a minimum EROI to maintain all the services currently offered to the population. The principle of energy use is roughly the following: we first allocate all the energy surplus we have to the tasks essential for our survival, such as food production, building and heating our habitats, making our clothes, and running health systems in the cities. Then we split the remaining balance between the systems of justice, national security, defence, social security, health and education. Finally, if we have any energy surplus left, we use it for our entertainment (tourism, cinema, etc.). Today, the minimum EROI to provide all of these services has been assessed as within a range of between 12:1 and 13:1.54 In other words, there is a threshold beneath which we should not venture unless we are prepared to decide collectively – and with all the difficulties that this implies – which services are to be maintained and which it will be necessary to give up. With an average EROI in decline for fossil fuels, and an EROI of no more than 12:1 for the majority of renewable energies, we are coming dangerously close to this threshold. Of course, all these ranges of numbers can be argued with, and some people will not fail to question them, but the general principle is less controversial. The idea we need to grasp is that we are facing a thermodynamic wall that is getting ever more rapidly closer. Today, each unit of energy is extracted at an ever higher environmental, economic and energy cost.

Knowing that about two-thirds of the growth in the years 1945–75 was due to the burning of fossil fuels – the remainder being the product of labour and investment – we can deduce that the inexorable decline of the EROI for fossil fuel will result in a huge shortfall that will make it impossible to keep the promise of economic growth. In other words, an energy decline is the sign of nothing less than the definitive end of global economic growth.

In reality, the energy system and the financial system are closely linked, and the one cannot function without the other.

In other words, an energy crisis precedes a serious economic crisis.

‘The problem we are encountering now is that once resource costs get too high, the debt-based system no longer works.

A debt system has a bulimic need for growth and thus energy.

When the price of energy is too low (after a recession or as a result of geopolitical manipulation, for example), economic growth may start to rise again, but the oil companies then experience serious financial difficulties and reduce their investments (as we saw from the fall in oil prices in 2014), which dangerously compromises future production.

The most urgent limiting factor for the future of oil production, then, is not the quantity of remaining reserves or the energy return rate (EROI), as many people think, but ‘how long our current networked economic system can hold together’.

In short, our economies are doomed to try and maintain a very precarious and oscillating balance, a roller-coaster ride, based on the price of a barrel of oil being between about US$80 and US$130 a barrel, while hoping and praying that the now extremely volatile financial system does not collapse. In fact, a period of low economic growth or recession could reduce available credit and investment on the part of oil companies and could cause the engine to seize up even before the physical extraction limit is reached.

Without a functioning economy, easily accessible energy ceases to be available. And without accessible energy, it’s the end of the economy as we know it: swift transport, long and fluid supply chains, industrial agriculture, heating, water purification, the internet, and so on. But history shows us that societies are quickly destabilized when tummies start to rumble. During the economic crisis of 2008, the dramatic increase in food prices provoked food riots in no fewer than thirty-five countries.

Five global systemic risks linked directly to energy and threatening the stability of the global economy: oil depletion, carbon emissions, the financial value of fossil fuel reserves, shale gas, and the financial sector. ‘A market shock involving any of these would be capable of triggering a tsunami of economic and social problems, and, of course, there is no law of economics that says only one can hit at one time’. So we are probably listening to the last splutterings of the engine of our industrial civilization before it dies.

In addition to the impassable limits that physically prevent any economic system from growing unstoppably, there are invisible, unclear ‘boundaries’ that are difficult to predict. These are thresholds beyond which the systems on which we depend get out of hand, such as the climate, ecosystems and the major biogeochemical cycles of the planet. It is possible to cross these thresholds, but the consequences are just as catastrophic.

We cannot create energy from nothing, but we can choose to live in a climate with a temperature of +4°C above the historical average (which is what we are doing in any case). However, to make responsible choices, you need to know the consequences of your actions. But most often, these are known only after exceeding these thresholds, when it’s already too late.

The climate is the best known of these invisible boundaries and over the years it has acquired a special status. Indeed, according to some experts, the consequences of global heating have the power on their own to cause global, massive and brutal disasters that could lead to the end of civilization or even of the human species.

Episodes of increased drought can also lead to a fall in the electricity production of thermal and nuclear power plants, which further weakens the ability of people to adapt and survive the consequences of global heating, especially in cities.

According to the latest surveys, the state of biodiversity continues to worsen, despite the increasing efforts we are deploying to protect and conserve it. All the tremendous efforts that human beings are making to protect other living beings from their destructive power are still not enough.

When a species dies, it never dies alone: it usually takes some of its neighbours with it without anyone noticing. Extinctions are like shocks that spread across the food web, affecting predators and prey of the ‘endangered’ species (vertically) and impacting indirectly on other species indirectly related to the latter (horizontally).

We are discovering, for example, that the collapse of the populations of some pollinators can cause the widespread collapse of all the pollinators of an ecosystem and thus have a serious impact on the plants that depend on it, i.e., the agricultural yields.

In other words, a species (the otter, for example) is already losing ‘connections’ with its neighbours as soon as decline sets in, entailing the disappearance (in 80 per cent of cases) of other species around it well before it has died out itself. These indirect and silent extinctions can begin very early, even before the population of the endangered species has lost a third of its total population (whereas it is not officially declared an endangered species until its decline has reached a figure of 30 per cent). After this point – paradoxically – the most endangered species are not the ones we imagine but those that are indirectly related to those we think are most endangered. Even ecologists, long aware of these effects, have been surprised by the extent of such ‘domino effects’. What are now known as co-extinctions are potentially the most numerous, but they are unpredictable, and we do not observe them until it’s too late. That is one possible explanation for the catastrophic extent of the destruction of biodiversity through human activity.

In 2003, a study estimated that 90 per cent of the biomass of large fish had disappeared since the beginning of the industrial era.

in Europe, 52 per cent of the wild bird populations have disappeared over the last three decades.

Domino-effect extinctions have dramatic and profound consequences for the productivity, stability and sustainability of the planet’s ecosystems. As a result of our having disrupted or ‘simplified’ them (especially by industrial agricultural activity), these ecosystems are becoming very vulnerable and starting to collapse.

During the twentieth century, despite a world population that quadrupled, human beings ‘only’ doubled the amount of biomass they took from ecosystems. This ‘delay effect’, which has preserved many forests, is due only to the massive consumption of fossil fuels.

The consequences of a decline in biodiversity are far more serious than we imagine. Reduce the number of species and we reduce the ‘services’ that ecosystems provide us with, and thereby reduce the capacity of the biosphere to sustain us. This will sooner or later result in a reduction of the human population following the usual pattern: famines, diseases and wars.

Nine planetary boundaries that it is absolutely vital not to cross if we are to avoid falling into a danger zone for our survival. They include, of course, climate change and the decline of biodiversity (now also known as the ‘integrity of the biosphere’) but also the acidification of the oceans, the depletion of stratospheric ozone, the disruption of the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, the impact of aerosols on the atmosphere, the consumption of fresh water, changes in land use and finally chemical pollution. Seven of them have been quantified to date, and four have apparently already been exceeded.

Today, about 80 per cent of the world’s population is at risk of shortages, especially in densely populated areas such as Europe, India and China.

Boundaries show us one thing: the great industrial machine, though remarkably efficient, becomes paradoxically ever more vulnerable as it grows and gains in power.

Imagine a switch on which you’re exerting an increasing pressure: at first, it doesn’t move, so you increase and maintain the pressure; it still doesn’t move and then, at a given moment, click! It switches to a state totally different from the initial state. Just before the click, you could feel that the switch was about to yield under the pressure, but you couldn’t predict the exact moment. For ecosystems, it’s (almost) the same. For a long time, it was believed that nature responded to disruptions in a gradual and proportionate manner. In reality, ecosystems also function as switches. Those which undergo regular disruptions (hunting, fishing, pollution, droughts, etc.) do not immediately show any apparent signs of wear, but gradually – and imperceptibly – lose their capacity to recover (i.e., they lose their so-called ‘resilience’) until reaching a tipping point, an invisible threshold beyond which the ecosystem collapses in a brutal and unpredictable way. Click! In 2001, a new discipline was born: the science of ‘catastrophic shifts’. For example, a lake can quickly change from a translucent state to a completely opaque state due to the pressure of constant fishing. The gradual decrease in the number of large fish causes, at a particular moment, a domino effect throughout the food web which in the end leads to a very sudden and widespread proliferation of microalgae. This new state is very stable and difficult to reverse. The problem is that nobody had anticipated this invasion of algae, and no one could (until recently) predict it. Similarly, in semi-arid forests, once enough vegetation cover has vanished, the soil dries out a little too much and triggers the violent emergence of a desert, which prevents any vegetation from growing back.

The presence of these tipping points is often due to the great connectivity and homogeneity of systems (see chapter 7) associated with domino effects and feedback loops.

Indeed, a complex living system (ecosystems, organizations, societies, economies, markets, etc.) consists of countless interwoven feedback loops that keep the system stable and relatively resilient. When approaching a break point, just one small disruption, such as a drop of water, is enough for certain loops to change nature and drag the entire system into an unpredictable and often irreversible chaos. Either the system dies or it reaches another state of equilibrium, admittedly more resilient and more stable, but often very uncomfortable (for us). At a global level, the global economic system and the Earth system are two complex systems subject to the same non-linear dynamics and also containing tipping points. This is brought out in two recent studies, one analysing the risks of a global systemic financial crisis system that would cause a major economic collapse in a very short period of time, and the other considering the possibility that the ‘global ecosystem’ is coming dangerously close to a threshold beyond which life on Earth would become impossible for the majority of the species present.

We now know that every year that passes, and thus every small step towards an intensification of ‘crises’, does not produce foreseeable proportional effects, but increases the risks of sudden, unpredictable and irreversible catastrophes more than proportionally.

In fact, when a new and more efficient technology makes its appearance, it does not automatically become the norm – far from it. Indeed, it is often very difficult to change systems because of a phenomenon that historians and sociologists of innovation call sociotechnical ‘lock-in’.

Current technological trajectories are therefore largely determined by our past and, quite often, technological innovations are just trying to solve the problems caused by previous ones. This ‘path-dependent’ evolution can, in many ways, lead to ‘technological dead-ends’, trapping us in increasingly counterproductive choices.

The more this dominant system becomes entrenched, the more it has the means to maintain its dominance.

The tragedy is that, by preventing small systems on the margins from blossoming, we deprive ourselves of potential solutions for the future.

Investments in innovative technology design depended more on the trajectories of the past than on desires for the future.

The institutional inertia of a system is also reflected in the construction of large ecologically destructive and economically useless projects, where huge investments are committed on the basis of decisions dating back to a time when conditions (economic, social and environmental) were not the same as today.

In social psychology, this ‘hidden trap’ mechanism refers to the tendency of individuals to persevere in an action, even when this becomes unreasonably expensive or no longer achieves its objectives. In terms of emotional life, for example, it’s the tendency to stay with a partner we no longer love, as ‘we can’t have gone through all those years for nothing’.

In short, an established technical system provides itself with the means to resist change.

Indeed, over time, societies gradually turn towards natural resources that become increasingly expensive as they are more difficult to exploit (the easiest being exhausted first), thereby reducing their energy benefits at the very same time as they are increasing their bureaucracy, social control spending at home and military budgets simply in order to maintain the status quo. Locked in by all this complexity, the metabolism of a society reaches a threshold of diminishing returns that makes it more and more vulnerable to collapse.

This ‘global lock-in’ can be illustrated by three examples: the financial system; the energy system based on carbon; and growth.

Today, if we take away oil, gas and coal, there is not much left of our thermo-industrial civilization.

If it can hope to survive, our civilization must fight against the sources of its own power and stability, thereby shooting itself in the foot! When the survival of civilization totally depends on a dominant technical system, it’s the ultimate lock-in.

The stability of the debt system rests entirely on this growth: the world economic system cannot abandon it if it wants to carry on working. This means that we need growth to continue to repay credits, to pay pensions and even to prevent the rise of unemployment. In fact, none of our institutions is adapted to a world without growth because they were designed for and by growth. It’s like trying to slow down a rocket on the way up, bringing it back down and landing it gently…. If we are deprived of growth for too long, the economic system implodes under mountains of debt that will never be repaid.

To sum up, we have very quickly climbed the ladder of technical progress and complexity in what could be considered a self-perpetuating headlong flight. Today, while the height of the ladder of progress may make us feel giddy, many people are realizing – with horror – that its bottom rungs have disappeared and that the ascent is continuing inexorably nonetheless. It’s no longer possible to stop this upwards movement and come down quietly to find a less complex lifestyle on terra firma – unless we jump off the ladder, which will involve a shock for the person jumping or indeed trigger a major systemic shock if lots of people fall off the ladder at the same time. Those who understand this are filled with anxiety that the further their ascent continues, the more painful will be their fall.

In total, six million parts are needed to build a Boeing 747. To assemble its aircraft, Boeing uses nearly 6,500 suppliers, based in more than a hundred countries, and performs approximately 360,000 business transactions every month. Such is the amazing complexity of our modern world.

‘A networked society behaves like a multicellular organism’. Most of the organs are vital; you can’t amputate a single part without risking the death of the whole organism. What Bar-Yam discovered was that the more complex these systems are, the more vital each organ becomes for the whole organism. At the global level, therefore, all the sectors and all the regions of our globalized civilization have become interdependent to the point where one of them cannot suffer from a collapse without making the whole metaorganism vulnerable. In other words, our living conditions at this precise time and in this precise place depend on what happened a short time ago in many places on Earth.

There are three main categories of risk that threaten the stability of a complex system: threshold effects (‘all or nothing’ phenomena), domino effects (or contagion effects), and the inability of the system to recover its balance after a shock (the phenomenon of hysteresis).

As we have seen, these risks are present in the natural systems on which we depend but they also exist in our own systems, as we will see for finance, supply chains and the physical infrastructures that shape our societies.

For example, the Basel Accords, which aim to guarantee a minimum level of equity in order to ensure the financial soundness of the banks, contained 30 pages in 1988 (Basel I), 347 in 2004 (Basel II), and 616 in 2010 (Basel III). The documents necessary to implement these agreements between signatory countries, for example, the United States, ran to 18 pages in 1998 and now contain about 30,000 pages!

Thus the cumulative balance sheet of the major central banks worldwide (US, European, Chinese, British and Japanese) went from 7,000 billion before the crisis to more than 14 trillion today. All this money denotes no actual value.

The Eurozone, for example, has seen its public debt rise by more than 3 trillion euros (+50 per cent) in the space of six years, settling at a total of 9,000 billion euros, or 90 per cent of its GDP. If some people now claim that economic activity managed to stabilize after this considerable effort, countries have not seen any decline in their unemployment figures, nor a lessening of social tensions. Quite the opposite …

Over the last decades, the real economy has also become tightly interconnected through the establishment of a huge network of supply chains that facilitates the continuous flow of goods and services, from producers to consumers. Today, companies operate ‘internationally’: to maximize profits, they relocate and subcontract everything they can. Their new management practices focus on efficiency (the hunt for ‘hidden costs’) and favour just-in-time supplies to avoid keeping stocks when they become too expensive. The last vital stocks of oil and food still owned by states are only enough to hold out for a few days or even a few weeks.

By increasing the length and connectivity of these supply chains, and reducing stocks to nil, the global economic system has gained in efficiency what it has lost in resilience. As for finance, the least disruption can now cause considerable damage and spread like wildfire through the whole economy.

A team from Stanford University showed that using botulinum toxin to contaminate a single silo of 200,000 litres of milk in the United States could kill 250,000 people, even before the origin of the contamination had been discovered.

A shock such as the insolvency of a supplier spreads vertically and then horizontally as it destabilizes competitors. To crown it all, supply chains are all the more fragile as they depend on the good health of the financial system that provides the credit lines necessary to any economic activity.

These physical infrastructures are the main pillars of our societies, and are (surprise, surprise!) also prone to increased risks of systemic vulnerability.

In 2000, following the increase in diesel prices, 150 striking truckers blocked the main fuel depots in Great Britain. Just four days after the start of the strike, most of the country’s refineries had stopped their activities, forcing the government to take steps to protect the remaining reserves. The next day, people rushed into supermarkets and grocery stores to stock up on food. A day later, 90 per cent of service stations were out of fuel and the National Health Service began to cancel non-essential surgical operations. Royal Mail postal deliveries stopped and schools in many towns and villages closed their doors. The big supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s introduced a rationing system, and the government called in the army to escort convoys of vital goods. Finally, the strikers stopped their action as a result of public pressure. According to Alan McKinnon, the author of an analysis of this event and Emeritus Professor of Logistics at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, if the same thing were to happen again, ‘After a week, the country would be plunged into a deep economic and social crisis. Once the lorries started running again, it would take several weeks for most production and distribution systems to recover’ – and some businesses never would.

A recent study by university researchers at the University of Auckland has counted about 50 major power blackouts that affected 26 countries over the last decade. The researchers note that such power failures are caused by the fragility of networks that cannot cope with intermittent supplies of renewable energy, the depletion of fossil fuels or extreme weather events. The consequences of these failures are the same everywhere: electricity rationing, financial and economic damage, risks to food safety, dysfunctional transport, breakdowns in treatment plants and GSM antennae, and an increase in crimes and social unrest.

During the first 24 hours: – The delivery of medical supplies will stop in the affected area. – Hospitals will run out of basic supplies such as syringes and catheters. – Service stations will start to run out of fuel. – Factories that work on a just-in-time basis will suffer a shortage of parts. – The post and other parcel deliveries will cease. After one day: – Food shortages will appear.

Fuels will no longer be readily available, leading to soaring prices and long queues at service stations. – Without the parts necessary for factories and trucks for the delivery of products, the assembly lines will stop, laying off thousands of workers. After two to three days: – Food shortages will worsen, in particular if consumers panic and start hoarding food. – Essential supplies like bottled water, powdered milk and canned meat will disappear from large retailers. – Cash machines will run out of banknotes and banks will not be able to handle certain transactions. – Service stations will run out of fuel. – Rubbish bins will overflow in urban and suburban areas. – Container ships will be stuck in ports and rail transport will be disrupted before coming to a halt. After a week: – Travel by car will be impossible due to lack of fuel. Without cars or buses, many people will be unable to get to work, to access medical care or to reach the shops. – Hospitals will start to exhaust their reserves of oxygen. After two weeks: – Drinking water will start to run out. After four weeks: – The country will have exhausted its drinking water and all water will need to be boiled before drinking. Consequently, gastrointestinal diseases will increase, increasing the pressure on an already weakened health-care system.

In addition, many transport, electricity and water-supply networks in OECD countries are now more than 50 years old (in some cases more than a century) and are already working beyond their maximum capacities. Since the economic crisis of 2008, it is not uncommon to see governments delaying or freezing the investments necessary for their maintenance and the construction of new networks, which makes the infrastructure system all the more vulnerable. In the United States, for example, 70 thousand bridges (one in nine) are considered structurally deficient and 32 per cent of the roads are in poor condition.

The lesson to be learned from all these examples is simple: the higher the level of interdependence of infrastructures, the more consequences small disruptions can have across a city or a country.

So far, we have seen that these systemic risks took the shape of limited losses and temporary blockages at very localized spots and specific times. The question now is whether a disruption in the financial system, supply chains or infrastructures can spread to the entire global economy and bring about its collapse.

To support this, Korowicz describes a scenario of knock-on effects, starting with the disordered bankruptcy of a state in the euro area. This ‘crisis’ would sow panic in the banking sector country by country and then affect whole economies, in other words all sectors of activity, eventually mutating into food shortages after a few days. In less than two weeks, the crisis would spread exponentially across the world. After three weeks, some vital sectors would no longer be able to reboot their activities (see chapter 9). In another vein, a severe pandemic could also be the cause of a major collapse. For this, there is no need for a virus that would wipe out 99 per cent of humankind: just a small percentage would suffice. Indeed, when a society becomes more complex, the specialization of tasks intensifies, producing key functions without which society cannot manage.

And if we include not just the sick but those who stay at home because they are afraid of the pandemic, the domino effects could be catastrophic. After a few days, the whole system might implode. In 2006, economists simulated the effects of the 1918 flu pandemic on today’s world. The result: 142 million deaths worldwide, and an economic recession that would lop 12.6 per cent off global GDP. In this scenario, the mortality rate was 3 per cent (of infected people). However, for the H5N1 virus or for Ebola, the rate can exceed 50–60 per cent. [Anmerkung: Die Coronakrise 2020 verlief bisher noch glimpflich. Wir wissen jedoch noch nicht, ob nicht ein Tsunami auf uns zurollt.]

Moreover, it seems that to date few people have become aware of the systemic aspect of things, and governments are turning out to be particularly inefficient at finding solutions. For their part, ‘international institutions are concentrating mainly on simple problems, ignoring the interactions of the entire system.

Finally, it is important to point out that systems have become so complex that even in the absence of external shocks, and just as a result of their structure, they can suffer collapse. [Siehe etwas das europäische Stromversorgungssystem] Indeed, beyond a certain level of complexity, the technological measuring tools are not even powerful enough to understand and predict the chaotic behaviour of such super-systems. It has simply become impossible to control them completely: even if experts and decision makers are informed about the risks (which is not always the case), are competent (ditto) and have the best technologies, they cannot avoid systemic disruptions to global networks. This ‘hyperglobalization’, then, has transformed the global economy into a highly complex gigantic system that connects and multiplies the risks specific to each of the critical sectors we have discussed. This has brought a new type of risk, global systemic risk, which can be triggered by countless potential factors – a risk that can rapidly entail both small recessions and a major economic crisis or widespread collapse.

When a civilization becomes ‘uprooted’ – in other words, when a majority of its inhabitants no longer have a direct link with the Earth system (earth, water, wood, animals, plants, etc.) – the population becomes entirely dependent on the artificial structure that maintains it in this state. If this ever more powerful but vulnerable structure collapses, it’s the survival of the entire population that may be endangered. 

To maintain itself and avoid financial disorder and social unrest, our industrial civilization is forced to accelerate, to become more complex and to consume ever more energy. Its dazzling expansion has been nurtured by the exceptional availability (though this will not last long) of fossil fuels that are very energy efficient, coupled with a growth economy and highly unstable levels of debt. But the growth of our industrial civilization, today constrained by geophysical and economic limits, has reached a phase of decreasing returns. Technology, which has long served to push these limits back, is less and less able to ensure this acceleration and ‘locks in’ this unsustainable trajectory by preventing the development of new alternatives. At the same time, the sciences of complexity are discovering that, beyond certain thresholds, complex systems – including economies and ecosystems – suddenly switch to new and unpredictable states of equilibrium and may even collapse. We are more and more aware that we have crossed certain ‘boundaries’ that guaranteed the stability of our living conditions, as a society and as a species.

The paradox that characterizes our era – and probably all eras when civilizations came up against limits and crossed boundaries – is that the more powerful our civilization grows, the more vulnerable it becomes. The modern globalized political, social and economic system, which provides half of humankind with life, has seriously depleted the resources and disrupted the systems on which it relied – the climate and ecosystems – to such an extent that it has dangerously undermined the conditions that formerly allowed it to expand and guarantee its stability and survival. At the same time, the ever more globalized, interconnected and locked-in structure of our civilization not only makes it highly vulnerable to the slightest internal or external disruption but now subjects it to processes of systemic collapse.

Today, we are sure of four things: (1) the physical growth of our societies will come to a halt in the near future; (2) we have irreversibly damaged the entire Earth system (at least on the geological scale of human beings); (3) we are moving towards a very unstable, ‘non-linear’ future, where major disruptions (internal and external) will be the norm; and (4) we are now potentially subject to global systemic collapses.

What will happen in the next epidemic if industrial health services are no longer capable of providing a solution?

During our research, we progressively had the feeling of being hemmed in on all sides. Worse, we found that all the ‘crises’ were so interconnected that one of them could trigger a gigantic series of domino effects among the others. To realize this prompts a sense of frustration and of stupor, the same as one might feel when walking across a huge frozen lake covered with a layer of ever thinner ice. As we halt in our tracks, and realize open-mouthed how fragile our situation is, we hear all around us others yelling in unison: ‘Go on! Run! Jump! Go faster! Don’t stop!’

The financiers are talking about an impending crisis because no lessons were learned from the 2008 crisis.

And who are we to believe? Warnings from the Club of Rome go back to 1972, and their model still remains valid (as we will see in chapter 8); and yet there are many who still do not believe it. Perhaps people are tired of apocalyptic warnings? Forty years waiting is a long time …

From the millenarian prophecies of yesteryear to the contemporary fear of a nuclear winter, all the predictions of our societies’ collapse have so far failed – everyone can see that no global collapse has occurred. So how can anyone be sure that we’re not mistaken yet again? The answer is easy: we can’t be sure. But there is evidence.

As the philosopher, mathematician and former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains, classical methods of risk assessment are of little relevance to the forecasting of rare events or the behaviour of complex systems. Devised by Bertrand Russell and taken up by Taleb, the celebratedinductivist turkey problem’ illustrates this perfectly.

Moreover, confined within their disciplines, risk specialists see that ‘for each of the risks they focus on, it is unlikely that the future holds a major tragedy in store for us’.

Now, our society doesn’t like uncertainty. It uses it as an obvious pretext for doing nothing, and society’s functioning rests on its ability to predict future events. When this ability evaporates, we seem disoriented and lose the ability to come up with real projects.

So how are we to manage black swans? How are we to ‘manage’ the next ‘Fukushima’? We cannot really do so. Instead, we need to let go and move from the ‘observe, analyse, command and control’ mode to a ‘probe, act, sense, adjust’ mode.

If we are to forestall a catastrophe, we need to believe in its possibility before it happens.

To solve this problem, Hans Jonas, in 1979, suggested that we listen more to prophecies of misfortune than to prophecies of happiness in situations which have a catastrophic potential.

If we view them as certainties, we will be better able to avoid them.

Collapse is certain, and that is why it is not tragic. For, in saying that, we have just opened the possibility of avoiding its catastrophic consequences.

However, without a high degree of predictability, it is difficult to invest financially, humanely or technically in the right places and at the right time.

The crucial challenge is therefore to detect the warning signs of these catastrophic changes so as to anticipate them and react in time. More precisely, we need to learn to recognize the extreme fragility of a system that is approaching a tipping point, the very same one that paves the way for the ‘little spark’.

One of the most frequently observed characteristics of a system ‘on the edge of the abyss’ is that it takes longer to recover from a small disruption. Its recovery time after a shock lengthens – in other words, its resilience decreases.

A heterogeneous and modular network (weakly connected, with independent parts) will withstand shocks by adapting. It will suffer only local losses and will gradually become more and more damaged. On the other hand, a homogeneous and highly connected network initially resists change because local losses are absorbed through the connectivity between elements. But, then, if the disruptions continue, it will be subject to domino effects and therefore catastrophic changes. In reality, the apparent resilience of these homogeneous and connected systems is misleading as it hides a growing fragility. Like the oak, these systems are very resistant but break when the pressure is too great. Conversely, heterogeneous and modular systems are resilient; they bend but do not break. Like the reed, they adapt.

It seems then that we are doomed, for the moment, to being able to take action only after catastrophes.

In a time of uncertainty, it’s intuition that counts.

In other words, not only is economic inequality toxic to a society but equality is good for everyone, even for the rich!

Inequalities also generate economic and political instability. The two most important financial crises of the last hundred years – the Great Depression of 1929 and the stock market crash of 2008 – were both preceded by a sharp rise in inequality.

This negative spiral of inequalities cannot fail but lead finally to self-destruction.

Are we perhaps doomed to wait for the next war or, failing that, a collapse of civilization? Why are the elites doing nothing, even though it is obvious that they too will suffer from these two catastrophic outcomes? To answer this question, let’s go back for a moment to the HANDY model. It is particularly interesting to note that in both scenarios of the collapse of inegalitarian societies (famine among the commoners or a collapse of nature), the elites, cushioned by their wealth, do not suffer immediately from the first effects of the decline. They do not feel the effects of a disaster until long after the majority of the population or long after irreversible destruction of ecosystems – in other words, too late. ‘This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue “business as usual” despite the impending catastrophe’. Moreover, while some members of society are sounding the alarm to indicate that the system is heading towards an imminent collapse and advocating structural social change, the elites and their supporters are blinded by the long and seemingly sustainable period that precedes a collapse and take this as an excuse to do nothing.

The Limits to Growth: if we start from the principle that there are physical limits to our world (this is a basic assumption), then a widespread collapse of our thermo-industrial civilization will most likely take place during the first half of the twenty-first century.

The goal of the game was to introduce the real data of the world into the model and press ‘Enter’ to simulate the behaviour of this world-system over a hundred and fifty years.

The first result, called the ‘standard run’ and viewed as the business-as-usual scenario, highlighted how our system was extremely unstable, and described a widespread collapse in the twenty-first century (see Figure 8.1). Between 2015 and 2025, the economy and agricultural production start to fall apart, and they collapse completely before the end of the century at a pace faster than the exponential growth that followed the Second World War. From 2030, the human population begins to decrease ‘uncontrollably’, finally sinking to about half of its maximum at the end of the century, about four billion people (these figures are approximate -they just give orders of magnitude).

Das Weltmodell - Standard

Even more definitively, the update showed that nothing had been done since 1972 to avoid the business-as-usual scenario. On the contrary, since 1963, global industrial production had doubled every twenty-four years! In 2008, and then in 2012, an Australian scientist, Graham Turner, decided to compare the actual data over these last forty years with different scenarios to find out which one was closest to reality. What was the result? Our world clearly behaved in accordance with the business-as-usual scenario – in other words, the worst scenario. And Turner concluded, ‘This is a very clear alarm bell. We are not on a sustainable path.’

The main result of the Meadows Report is not that it predicts the future accurately, advocates ‘zero growth’ or announces that petrol will run out by 2000, as its detractors claimed. It simply warns us of the extreme instability of our system (as it generates exponentials). The model shows remarkably clearly how all crises are interconnected, as well as demonstrating the power of systemic thinking. We cannot be content with ‘solving’ just one problem, for example peak oil, or birth control, or pollution, as this would change almost nothing about the outcome. They must be tackled simultaneously.

The expression the ‘collapse of industrial civilization’ has a serious sound to it because it draws on three clichés. The first is that of a possible end to the great institutions guaranteeing law and social order: for a modern (and liberal) human being, this inevitably implies a return to barbarism. The second is that a collapse would be followed by a great void that it is hard to imagine, caught up as we are in the religious image of the Apocalypse. The third is that it seems to designate a relatively short moment, a brutal event, a guillotine clattering down on the whole of society that could easily be dated retrospectively. According to some anthropological studies, an absence of governments or states does not necessarily imply a return to barbarism, sometimes quite the opposite. Also, collapses are not followed by the end of the world, as many examples from history demonstrate. Finally, they usually last several years, several decades or even centuries in the case of entire civilizations and are difficult to date precisely.

We have tried to use the word ‘crisis’ as little as possible as it creates the illusion that the situation is ephemeral. A crisis still fosters the hope that a return to normal is possible and therefore serves as a bogeyman that economic and political elites can brandish to subject the population to measures that would never have been tolerated ‘in normal times’. By creating a sense of urgency, a crisis paradoxically boosts a sense of continuity.

A predicament is an inextricable, irreversible and complex situation for which there are no solutions, just measures for adapting to it.

Faced with a predicament, there are things we can do, but there are no solutions.

Jared Diamond has identified five recurrent and often synergistic factors of collapse in the societies he has studied: environmental damage or the depletion of resources; climate change; wars; the sudden loss of trading partners; and the (wrong-headed) reactions of a society to environmental problems.

The only common factor behind all collapses is actually the fifth, that of sociopolitical order: institutional dysfunctions, ideological blindness, levels of inequality (see chapter 8), and above all the incapacity of a society – and especially its elites – to react appropriately to potentially catastrophic events.

He explains that human groups suffer from catastrophes for several reasons: they do not manage to foresee them; they do not perceive the causes behind them; they fail in their attempts to ‘solve the problems’; or simply there are no relevant ‘solutions’, given the state of their knowledge.

In fact, this fifth factor increases the vulnerability of a society (its lack of resilience) and makes it highly sensitive to disruptions that it can normally cope with.

To use the words of the American political scientist William Ophuls, when ‘the available energy and resources can no longer maintain the existing level of complexity, the civilization begins to consume itself by borrowing from the future and feeding off the past, thereby preparing the way for an eventual implosion’.

A social collapse occurs when ‘faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict’ So we enter a world of clans and gangs, of civil wars and ‘devil take the hindmost’. At this point, a process of ‘depopulation’ is triggered: conflict, displacement, malnutrition, famines, epidemics, etc. So it may be better to be part of small, still tightly knit communities in which trust and mutual aid are cardinal values.

Complex systems tend to be subject to cyclical dynamics.

Every new recession damages the system’s recovery capabilities a little more, and it gradually loses its resilience. Debts pile up and the possibility of investing in fossil fuels and renewable energies is reduced to zero.

It is not so easy to restart. In the crash of 2008, for example, Germany suffered a sharp decrease in its transport activity. So trains and locomotives were temporarily shut down and when a year later the decision was made to restart them, many elements had suffered from damage that required significant and costly repairs.

Our societies are resilient to the point of being able to handle sudden and relatively short interruptions (in food supplies, energy, transport, etc.). But the interruptions that last too long (from several days to several weeks) become irreversible once the entropic decomposition of production infrastructure becomes too significant. As in a heart attack, every minute counts and takes us further away from a potential ‘return to normal’.

The more ‘crises’ and disasters there are, the less possible it will be to easily reboot ‘the machine’.

More dramatic still, power outages that last too long, coupled with interruptions in the supply of oil, could interfere with the emergency shutdown procedures of nuclear reactors. Because – as we hardly need remind you – it takes weeks or even months of work, energy and maintenance to cool and shut down most reactors …

In other words, large societies confer concrete evolutionary benefits in terms of adaptation to environmental conditions. But this advantage comes with a downside: you cannot go back. ‘The more […] we depend for our survival on large bodies of culturally transmitted knowledge, the more we rely on living in large groups.’

So the possibility that our industrial civilization may suffer ‘de-globalization’ and a ‘reduction in complexity’ comes with another risk: the impossibility of preserving the whole culture of our civilization, in which we find certain kinds of knowledge specific to the survival of a majority of us.

But if there should be a financial, economic and then political collapse of nuclearized regions, who will guarantee that the hundreds of technicians and engineers charged solely with shutting down the reactors will be kept in post?

In 2013, a study published in the journal Science confirmed this trend, drawing on historical data going back more than ten thousand years and covering forty-five conflicts worldwide, concluding that a rise in average temperature and a change in the rate of precipitation were systematically correlated with an increase in interpersonal violence and armed conflict.

The Pentagon, for example, expects catastrophes to arouse widespread anger towards governments and institutions in the next few years.

But it is often this escalation in presumed violence that generates real violence …

What scares us in the idea of a great catastrophe is the disappearance of the social order in which we live. It is an extremely widespread belief that, without the order that prevails before the disaster, everything rapidly degenerates into chaos, panic, selfishness and the war of all against all. As surprising as it may seem, this almost never happens. After a catastrophe, i.e., an event that suspends normal activities and threatens or causes serious damage to a broad community, most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm and composed ways (though this definition excludes situations where there is no surprise effect, such as concentration camps, and the more complex situations of armed conflict). ‘Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this.’ In these situations, some people even take insane risks to help people around them, whether these be friends, relatives or perfect strangers. Surprising as it may seem, the image of human beings as selfish and panic-stricken in times of disaster is not at all corroborated by the facts.

A few years later, we can say with certainty that our imaginary deceived us. The images of floods and armed soldiers were perfectly real, but this memory of the catastrophe, or more precisely the memory of the social violence resulting from the catastrophe, does not correspond to reality. It corresponds to a discourse cobbled together and peddled by the media without prior verification. The crimes they described never actually occurred! This is all the more serious since this lie led to thousands of police officers and armed, tense soldiers being dispatched to the scene … and they really assaulted local people in distress and caused real violence, which the media then fed on to justify the myth of violence in times of catastrophe.

When looking at the testimonies of survivors of the attacks of 11 September 2001, the bombings in London, train derailments, plane crashes, gas explosions or hurricanes, they all converge on the fact that the overwhelming majority of those involved remain calm, help each other and get organized. In fact, individuals seek security first and foremost, so they’re not inclined to violence and are unlikely to do wrong to their fellows. In sum, behaviour associated with competitiveness and aggression is set aside in a general upsurge of feeling where all ‘I’s instantly become ‘we’s with a force that nothing seems to stop. It’s as if extraordinary conditions bring out extraordinary behaviour.

The real problem is that the emergency plans currently in place always concentrate their efforts on the preservation of physical structures (buildings, institutions, etc.). But scientists are starting to understand that economic and social networks are more resilient than buildings. The buildings collapse but human resources remain. Preparing for a catastrophe thus means weaving a web of connections around you.

Will ‘community resilience’ work in the same way over the duration of a collapse? We absolutely cannot count on it. We know that in time of war (especially civil war), social order sometimes breaks down so quickly that the most barbaric acts can be committed in the most ‘normal’ populations.

Mutual aid and altruism on one side and competition and aggression on the other are two sides of the same coin: human nature.

Indeed, it seems obvious that individualism is a luxury that only a very energy-rich society can afford. Why should we help each other if we all have ‘half a thousand energy slaves’ at our disposal? To put it another way, in times of energy shortage, there is a strong presumption that individualists will be the first to die. Groups able to demonstrate remarkable cooperative behaviour will have a better chance of surviving,

This imaginary of the irrational crowd, which is not based on facts but is continually fed by the Hollywood film industry, so thoroughly imbues our subconscious that we take it for granted.

But it is an autopoietic loop (one which keeps itself going): we become survivalists because we believe in the myth of barbarism but, by preparing for the worst, we create a fear in others that favours a climate of tension, suspicion and violence, which then justifies the myth. What the transition needs is to play on the stories and myths to reverse these spirals of violence, nihilism and pessimism.

By imagining a better future (but without oil and with an unstable climate), transitional initiatives are thus freeing people from the toxic sense of helplessness so prevalent in the population. ‘This work on the collective imaginary helps strengthen local resilience, because it insensibly acculturates the population to the prospect of a post-oil and post-growth future, one that will inevitably be more sober’.

When told the truth, most people tend to become pessimistic and resigned, or they just totally reject the message. Many factors may explain this behaviour.

We are simply not equipped to perceive the dangers posed by systemic or long-term threats. Conversely, our brains are very effective at dealing with immediate problems. Over past millennia, the selection pressures exerted by the environment have fostered our sensitivity to concrete and visible hazards, and so we respond to risks by listening to our instinctive emotions rather than by using our reason or our intuition.

Myths also prevent us from seeing the reality of catastrophes. The obsession with economic growth in our modern societies is extremely powerful.

The strangest and most fascinating aspect of the problematics of catastrophe is that it is not uncommon for us to know what’s going on – and what might happen – but not to believe it.

It is not uncertainty, scientific or not, which is the obstacle, but the impossibility of believing that the worst will happen’.

Myth is stronger than facts.

Climate sceptics, for example, are not real sceptics; they are not looking for facts that they could submit to rigorous analysis. On the contrary, they oppose everything that contradicts their worldview and then look for reasons to justify this rejection.

Some very big players in the industrial world financed think tanks and managed to create a ‘climate’ of uncertainty and controversy around some perfectly well-established scientific facts. This strategy of doubt and ignorance, aimed at hiding the harmful effects of their products, is today well documented in the case of tobacco, asbestos, pesticides, endocrine disruptors and, more recently, global heating.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

First, it’s too late for that and, second, human beings don’t work that way.

The main thing, to begin with, is that a deep-seated belief in collapse should not make our present too unpleasant – for ourselves or for our friends and relatives – because we will need much emotional comfort to get through these troubled and uncertain times.

In general, human beings do not believe in the eventuality of a catastrophe until it has actually happened, i.e., too late.

Because even if it is too late to build a true steady-state economy, it is never too late to build small-scale local resilient systems better able to endure the coming economic, social and ecological shocks.

At the level of territory, the leitmotif of transition is the need to create ‘local resilience’, that is, to increase the capacity of local communities to recover from very diverse systemic disruptions (food, energy, social order, climate, etc.). 

Historical examples of societies that knew how to limit themselves so as to avoid a collapse are extremely rare.

Indeed, few of the inhabitants of rich countries know how to eat, how to build a house, get dressed or move without the help of the industrial system. The challenge lies in organizing, rediscovering the knowledge and techniques that allow us to regain possession of our livelihood before we disconnect.

However, we must not delude ourselves: the catastrophic consequences of climate change and the shocks to the energy and financial systems will inevitably have effects on political systems. ‘Democracy will be the first victim of the negative impact on general living conditions that we are planning. […] By the time the collapse of the species appears conceivable, things will have become too urgent for our slow and complex processes of deliberation. The panic-stricken West will transgress its values of freedom and justice’.7If confidence erodes, if wages and pensions are no longer paid on time or if food shortages become too severe, nothing can guarantee the maintenance of the existing political regimes.

So Europe could well see, much sooner than expected, the emergence of divided and probably violent societies, far from the cosmopolitan ideal of a ‘free’ and ‘open’ world.

Major and irreversible systemic shocks may very well take place tomorrow, and the deadline for a large-scale collapse seems to be much closer than we usually imagine, around 2050 or 2100. Nobody can know the exact timing of the sequences that will (in the eyes of future archaeologists) transform a set of catastrophes into a collapse, but it is plausible that this sequence will be the lot of present generations. This is the intuitive feeling that we share with many observers, both scientific experts and activists.

Even if the future is dark, we have to fight because ‘waiting does not mean we should be passive’. To be catastrophist, for us, simply means avoiding a posture of denial and taking note of the catastrophes that are taking place

In this now ‘non-linear’ world, unforeseen events of greater intensity will be the standard, and it is to be expected that, very often, the solutions we try to apply will disrupt these systems even more.

These infrastructures have become so interdependent, vulnerable and often obsolete that minor interruptions to their flow or supply may endanger the stability of the overall system by causing disproportionate domino effects.

These three states (approaching the limits, exceeding boundaries and increasing complexity) are irreversible and, when combined, they can lead to only one outcome. There were in the past many collapses of civilizations which remained confined to certain regions. Today, globalization has created global systemic risks, and this is the first time that a very large-scale, almost global collapse has become possible to envisage. But that won’t happen in a single day. A collapse will take different speeds and shapes in different regions and cultures, depending on the vagaries of the environment. So it must be seen as a complex mosaic where nothing can be decided in advance. To think that every problem will be solved by the return of economic growth is a serious strategic mistake. It erroneously presupposes that a return to growth is possible; and, above all, as long as leaders focus on this goal, no serious policy for preserving the stability of the climate and ecosystems can be implemented to do what is necessary: to significantly and quickly reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

It is to see that utopia has suddenly changed camp: today, the utopian is whoever believes that everything can just keep going as before. Realism, on the contrary, consists in putting all our remaining energy into a rapid and radical transition, in building local resilience, whether in territorial or human terms.

We might be criticized for blackening the picture. But those who accuse us of pessimism will have to prove exactly where we are wrong.

However, it will be of little help in the process of inner transition that everyone is now called upon to undertake. Knowing and understanding is only 10 per cent of the challenge ahead.

In the 1970s, it was still possible that our society might create ‘sustainable development’. It chose not to. Since the 1990s, indeed, everything has continued to accelerate, despite the many warnings. And now it’s too late.

This phenomenon of denial of reality is not simply due to the contradiction between the short term of politics (‘I must remember I’m up for re-election soon’) and the long duration of ecology (repairing the ecosphere needs a long time); no, this phenomenon stems first and foremost from the limitations of the human cognitive apparatus and the constraints of social psychology. In short, faced with the evocation of an extraordinary and monstrous event still to come – here ‘the collapse of the world’ – no human being can imagine its effects, even though this event is the consequence of human actions.

This intuitive certainty of collapse, felt by a few people, becomes doubly confused when it clashes with the reactions of others. Indeed, there then comes into play a specular mechanism that explains, better than any accumulation of individual wills, society’s inaction when a supraliminal event looms. Suppose I am convinced of the impending collapse and that I try to share this belief with my friends and relatives or with random people. It is possible that a few will agree with me but most of the time, at least for now, the majority, even people quite well informed about global ecological issues, will take refuge first in denial, in cognitive dissonance. No collective action will result, no attempt to arrest this collapse. And, paradoxically, even if a majority of people (in France, for example) were finally convinced of the impending collapse, it is unlikely that this majority would organize to act effectively against this threat.

What triggers the action of an individual is not his/her opinion or will but the question as to whether s/he would act only on condition that a sufficiently large number of other people also act. Collective (political) action is not an accumulative phenomenon of individual wills to act but the emerging result of representations that everyone creates by observing the representations of others.

What determines an indivuduals’s behaviour is therefore the system of models that this individual possesses. According to this hypothesis, will is thus not a primary reality but a reality derived from specular interaction. The individual who is cognisant of the collapse does not wonder if s/he wants to change his/her life but only if s/he would do so if a number of others also did so. With each person being placed in the same situation as others, the collapse will be reduced, not thanks to the will of all but thanks to their combined representations – according to the way each person gauges the actual capacity of those who surround him/her to change their lives.

So, if many communities of transitioners and anti-growth protestors fail to emerge, collapse is inevitable, not because the scientific knowledge of its coming is too uncertain but because the social psychology embedded in human beings will not allow them to take the right decisions at the right time.