I am not a collapsitarian. Yes, I firmly believe that industrial civilization has pointed its collective GPS straight toward the cliff. But I don’t write about collapse, and I don’t often talk about it. Why not? Because focusing on collapse tends to convince people there is only one ending to the story. It’s an arrogant and hope-sucking conviction—and it is simply false. We do not yet know the end of this story.
So when the Guardian announced this month that industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades, I sucked in my breath. And when it said that its story was based on a study about to appear in the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Economics, a study that was funded in part by the Goddard Space Flight Center of NASA, I knew that fringe headlines had just gone mainstream.
The authors of the study compared human-nature interactions in certain advanced, complex civilizations in the past, such as Roman and Mayan, with those in modern industrial society. They conclude that under conditions similar to today’s,
we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.
The week this study was publicized was the same week, as it happens, that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest scientific society in the world and a notoriously staid group, issued a bold call to action. “What We Know” is a clear, calm document with some blunt facts about climate change. Point 2:
We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.
Two warnings of collapse in the same week: serious changes lie ahead.
I find the warnings oddly cheering. I feel less crazy than I did a few years back, when the evidence for collapse was just as strong but we had our collective head buried in the sand about climate change. What people are feeling and what they are saying no longer belong to separate universes. We are being more truthful, or at least beginning to be.
I do have some serious questions about the NASA-funded study. Comparing modern society to Roman or Mayan is fraught with problems, one of which is that we don’t actually know what “collapse” in those societies looked like. The “fall of Rome,” for example, may have had little impact on the shape of everyday life for most people. (You can read more about this in chapter 12 of Kissed by a Fox, which I based in part on the work of historian Peter Heather.) Did “collapse” mean that people spread out away from what had been cities, as some Mayan scholars think? If so, it suggests there was someplace to go—very unlike the situation we face today.
But about the AAAS document I have no questions. Its three points bear repeating:
- Climate change is real, it’s caused by us, and 97% of scientists agree.
- We may be changing nature irreversibly.
- There is much we can do.
I want to focus on number 3: There is much we can do. On this point both studies completely agree. Societal collapse, while difficult to avoid, is not inevitable.
We could reset the GPS by choosing differently.
The NASA-funded study offers two excellent recommendations:
Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.
In other words, use fewer resources per person, and distribute resources more equally.
The AAAS document is even more blunt:
The sooner we make a concerted effort to curtail the burning of fossil fuels as our primary energy source and releasing the CO2 to the air, the lower our risk and cost will be.
These are straightforward assignments. The job ahead seems clear:
- Cut down on consumption. Stop burning fossil fuels.
- Work toward greater social and economic equality.
Each one of these is a monumental task. But people change, and even societies can change on a dime. When I was a child all restaurants and offices were blue with smoke. Smoking was entrenched by centuries-long habits and big money. Few could predict that in forty years most environments would be smoke free.
At this moment, we need the biggest change that has ever happened, because the stakes are higher than human beings have ever faced.
Will we challenge laws that stimulate endless growth? Will we wake up to our interrelatedness with all other creatures? Will we insist on solar power? Will we begin to reward reciprocity instead of profit? Will we design interactions based on respecting nature more than using nature? Will we pass rights-of-nature laws to guarantee healthy eco-communities for the children now being born?
I don’t know. But I do know that every one of these is possible.
And even if we did all this, would we avert the cliff? This too I don’t know. And neither does anyone else, because the end of this story is not yet written.
How do we live in a time of eco-crisis? I take heart from the wisdom of Buddhist teacher and writer Joanna Macy. A few months ago she said:
Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart.
We need our collective heart. Which means the heart of each person. You. Me. Everybody. Whatever we do that brings us back to the heart will help. Every little thing we do to increase respect and equality and happiness—to bring that little spark of warmth and aliveness back into people’s eyes—will help. Because the more of that warm spark, the less stuff people need and the more love they show each other.
And whether or not we avert the cliff, we will have a much better time getting from here to there, and if we can increase the work of the heart, the “there” we arrive at will be much kinder and more livable for everyone.
Even—and perhaps especially—in a time of eco-crisis, we can answer the summons. Macy continued:
It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say “It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.”
And you do it anyway—for the adventure is not yet finished, and astounding challenges can call forth astounding creativity.
This is a time for big risks and big changes. This is a time to pull out all the stops. This is a time to stand up and be counted in our collective story. Because each of us is a character, each an actor in this story.
What’s the end of this story?
Come on, let’s find out.
Author’s note: For excellent critiques of the NASA-funded study, see this article by Ian Angus at “Climate & Capitalism,” posted March 31. The author of the Guardian report defends his claim that the study was partially funded by NASA.