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[Analysis] “Collapse” A Reactionary Discourse?

The issue of the collapse of industrial civilization, which has been very much in the spotlight since the 1970s, is now back in the spotlight. Since the publication of Jared Diamond’s bestseller collapse in 2005 ( collapse, Einaudi), there has been a whole succession of new essays, articles and conferences, which predict a short-term “collapse” of the major productive and political structures of the industrial world.

Originally published by Contra Toda Novicidad. Translated by Enough 14.

This trend of collapse, which is not reduced to contemporary ecological thinking, is obviously linked to the environmental crisis: the sixth extinction of the species, the foreseeable warming of 3°C by 2100 and, more generally, the disturbance of biogeochemical cycles, in short, what scientists of the Earth system call “anthropocene”. But is “collapse” the right word? Is it the right way to describe and therefore to think about what is happening? Without expressing a definitive opinion, I see at least four problems.

First, the term collapse is too anthropocentric. Now, what collapse are we talking about? Nature has already been widely consumed: humans and their livestock account for 97% of the biomass of terrestrial vertebrates; only 10% of large fish remained compared to the period between the two wars; in Germany, insects have declined by three-quarters in thirty years. By focusing on the coming collapse of industrial civilization, the risk is to be blind to the collapses of nature that are already underway and also well-advanced.

Second, the discourse on the collapse is somewhat “western-centric”. In short, it’s an ecology for the rich. What we are experiencing is infinitely more perverse: climate change deepens other forms of violence and inequality. The ultimate injustice is caused by the rich and mainly persecutes the poor in poor countries. And, on the other hand, it is precisely this characteristic that explains the general apathy. When you see the ocean of indifference in which tens of thousands of refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean, how can you mobilize yourself by evoking the Bangladeshi farmer who was forced out of his home by rising water? The “pedagogy of catastrophe” is an illusion denied by history: those who remember, apart from the countries involved, Cyclone Bhola (at least 300,000 deaths in Bangladesh in 1970), Typhoon Nina (170,000 deaths in China in 1975) or Cyclone Nargis (130,000 deaths in Burma in 2008)? And in Europe, what has changed since the 70,000 deaths of the 2003 heat wave? Capitalism should be recognized for its extraordinary resilience to disasters of all kinds.

Thirdly, the current discourse on collapse combines two things: the disruption of the Earth system and the sixth extinction, which are proven, and the depletion of fossil resources which is constantly being postponed. The problem is that these two phenomena take place on very different time scales: according to climatologists, in order not to exceed +2°C by 2100, two thirds of economically exploitable oil, gas and coal reserves should be left underground [1]. In other words, fossil capitalism is wonderful, it is in full force over the years, its collapse is not very likely, and this is precisely the tragic situation.

Fourth, the collapse discourse depoliticizes the ecological issue. A little like the Marxist intellectuals of the 1970s who expected the collapse of capitalism under the weight of its internal contradictions (the famous trend fall in profit rates), it would not make sense to wait for the collapse of fossil capitalism, since it will be “nature” to decide it. The ecological struggle is not to mobilize against, but for the collapse, at least, of fossil capitalism.

All these problems, the collapse is the result of their intellectual and political origins. At the beginning of the 19th century, the liberal elites that emerged from the French Revolution were already using this discourse to suppress the use of nature, particularly common forest lands, by the peasant masses freed from feudal obligations. At the same time, in England, Malthus explained that aid to the poor had to be cut off to prevent it from proliferating dangerously. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the collapse was first supported by the rulers of industry and the Empire: the economist Stanley Jevons was concerned about Britain’s domination without coal; it was Paul Leroy-Beaulieu who justified the plundering of colonial resources in the name of the expected collapse of Europe; it was the Paley Commission set up by Truman to organize the extraction of raw materials from the Third World; and it is still the Club of Rome, an acolyte of Cold War industrialists and scientists who have strangely seduced the counterculture [2], and whose works have been crucial in the development of the Chinese one-child program. [3]

Finally, note that in the 1990s, when the climate problem emerged in public sphere, the collapse discourse initially had an effect on a group of consultants working for the Pentagon, neo-Malthusians obsessed with their racist fantasies – brown hordes of climate refugees, eager to anticipate the new fields of intervention by the US military in a global South that was prey of widespread collapse. If the “collapse” of the left is known in France, that of Yves Cochet, Paul Servigne and Raphael Stevens trying to build post-apocalyptic emancipatory politics, we should not forget that the collapse during its long history has fed the most disgusting political passions.

“Wrong name for an object – said Camus – means to increase the unhappiness of this world.” If you are optimistic, you could say about the collapse that its political position is still uncertain. It could become the trumpet of a general mobilization for the climate, but it could also strengthen the nuclear option and tomorrow, who knows, geo-engineering. The collapse disappears and reappears, regresses or revitalizes in line with future developments. Meanwhile, disasters are multiplying everywhere, especially beyond a Western civilization that for two centuries has not ceased to admire its power in the prism of its collapse.


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