Against Collapse

Acting for Living Environments

By Benedikte Zitouni François Thoreau

“Deep down, the narrative of collapse steals our collective futures from us”.

Published in lundimatin #170, 19 December 2018

Our civilisation, indeed the whole of humanity, is under the threat of collapse. This is the thesis vigorously defended in Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens’ book, How Everything Can Collapse: Petit manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations futures, published in 2015 by Seuil. In this book, collapse is defined as a situation where, as a result of a series of sudden ecological shocks cascading down, it becomes impossible to meet people’s needs for water, food, energy, shelter, healthcare and mobility, among others. The collapse will therefore be all the more painful, surprising and disruptive because people are privileged, or at least had become so used to having access to these services and infrastructures that they no longer even questioned their access. The book is therefore supposed to interrupt the daily routine of a privileged ‘us’ who, since the routine continues, obviously lack a real awareness. Text originally published on L’entonnoir, Laboratoire du quotidien.1

And it works. Collapsology – the interdisciplinary science of collapse – and the corollary thesis of serial collapse are flourishing with full houses and buzz on Facebook and Youtube. It has to be said that the massive story strikes the imagination. It is based on scientific literature to show and explain the environment in which we have been living for several decades: irreversible pollution, climatic disorders, the collapse of biodiversity, the depletion of resources (oil peaks, other peaks, ‘peak of everything’, etc.). All these problems converge in a damning state of affairs. The pieces to be added to the dossier of the ongoing disaster gradually form, chapter after chapter, a unified narrative, the ultimate revelation of which is waiting for us any day now, since it is the entire thermo-industrial civilisation that is speeding along the highway of great acceleration. No one and nothing will escape.

The situation in which the reader finds himself or herself is paradoxical, to say the least. For most of the factual elements mobilised – the fragility of biotopes, the melting of ice floes, the disruption of the seasons – we know them by heart, especially since that scorching, parched summer that everyone experienced. The apprehension of disaster is our present. But then what exactly is the purpose of the truth revealed in the book? Why do we want to illuminate our consciences if we are perfectly aware of the disasters in progress? It is because we must adhere to the narrative of a collapse of the ‘whole’, and it is with this ‘whole’ that our problem begins.

A hegemonic narrative

Our problem is the hegemonic claims of the collapse narrative. This grand narrative functions as a machine that aggregates any element that might strengthen it, but also absorbs any element that might undermine it. It is a hydra with a thousand heads and innumerable ramifications. This is reflected in the very structure of the book, which seeks to integrate the different disciplinary registers of the human sciences (demography, sociology, psychology and political science), while subordinating them to the bio-geo-physical sciences, as well as to the computer and systemic models on which the collapse hypothesis is based.

Of course, the authors admit that the collapse narrative does not tell the whole story. It lacks many dimensions. But it is precisely these ‘dimensions’ that only need to be named and documented in order to be added to the extensive system. Thus, collapsologists can without apparent difficulty proclaim themselves feminists and add a ‘gender’ chapter, shamelessly integrating the figures of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ into their software. Similarly, there would be no major obstacle to integrating the critique of the modes of thought inherited from imperialism and colonial expansion, as well as the observation of environmental inequalities between classes and ‘racialised’ groups. In short, we could go on indefinitely with the list of what collapsology lacks, and we wouldn’t have finished adding to it. The integrative machine is running and will continue to run at full speed.

However, collapse does not have a monopoly on disaster. It can only claim this because it has created for itself a generic, disembodied and neutral public, which takes the form of the would-be inhabitants of the Earth-System or the powerless citizens of the declining civilisation. The collapse narrative thus creates a new spectrum. It transforms its readers,2 those who adhere to it, into people whose world is still more or less intact and who enjoy a certain level of comfort, in short, into people who have something to lose. But are we really these disembodied, idle, superficially attached beings?

What about the people, here and elsewhere, present and past, who have lost almost everything? How many have already seen their worlds collapse?3 Do you want to know what it feels like when a world comes to an end? Ask the Standing Rock Sioux4 or the Krenak of the Rio Doce Valley5 and see how they react to the indecency of the question.

The persistent ordinary

Basically, the narrative of collapse steals our collective futures from us. It is intended first and foremost as a way of thinking about rupture, rather than continuity. It is going to be a matter of going straight, straight ahead. Again, this is not without political consequences. Thinking of rupture rather than continuities is, today, the worst service that can be rendered to the people and collectives fighting against environmental devastation. There are many people who, for years, have been following the patient, delicate, laborious work of sedimentation that collectives in struggle and all people in search of dignity must constantly produce, or else they will disappear. Their research programme unfolds under the obsessive and stubborn question of how not to succumb and how to create a difference, however small, insofar as it holds and disrupts the probable but undetermined course of things. To go and tell all these people that a brutal collapse is looming over them, once again, is to participate in the multiple attacks on the density of the links that such resistance to the probable course of things makes necessary.

So should we stop talking about a disaster? Yes and no. The answer is pragmatic and is assessed according to the effects created by the statement. It’s all in the manner. In any case, one thing is certain: a linear perspective, mechanical and brutal in the event it announces, is not likely to have the supposed virtues of enlightened catastrophism,6 namely: announcing the worst in order to avert it. The catastrophe only makes sense if it can be conjured up, if it can be captured in a narrative that is not closed in on itself and devoid of rough edges. Otherwise, we lose our footing, we slip, we skid, we skate, trying desperately to climb back up the curve of all these asymptotes, which are the motif of the Anthropocene. The practical consequence is a tenacious feeling of despondency that leads straight to cynicism, nihilism or aquoibonism; in other words, the exact opposite of the generalised extension of voluntarist innocence. We have already dreamed of a more desirable perspective.

Multiple worlds

In order to ward off the above, it is therefore necessary to explode the idea that ‘everything can collapse’, in all its abruptness and suddenness. There is no ‘everything’. There are, at best, only rare partial totalities, and constellations of fragments.7 There is what makes the world for the Amerindian, the Nepalese or the Belgian, for the iguana or the bee, for the cypress or the orchid, for the dog or the sequoia, for the railway network or the paths. The world that is collapsing in the form of riverbanks in Alaska is not the world that is collapsing in Belgium when petrol stations face shortages; both matter (as the yellow waistcoats show us). Ecology, the one we hold dear, is that field of thought and action that places the primacy of diversity, in all its forms, over simplification.8 This requirement also applies to collapsologists. It is possible to discuss and negotiate with them if they accept to acknowledge the partiality of their perspective, of their world. The bio-geo-physical totality of the collapsologists, the one that made it possible to discover global warming, the one that led to the sounding of the alarm and to pointing out the finitude of the planet, as fundamental and important as it is, is not enough to exhaust the world and to hold the final truth. To claim otherwise is to play ‘God’s trick’,9 to force a viewpoint from nowhere on an infinite diversity of situations and worlds.

Such a total narrative condemns us, again and again, to put collective destinies in the hands of the great drivers of the circuit, those bodies that have always considered the Earth system to be unified and to be remotely controlled, that give us a view of the Earth ship from a porthole: the Club of Rome, the IPCC, and all those other apprentice captains of the ship, including the collapsologists. We tell them this: of course, until proven otherwise, we can only count on one planet, affected as it is in its bio-geo-physical processes. We have no alternative to propose. Of course, these processes are total and concern the planet as a whole. The thermo-industrial civilisation is spreading on all continents and leaves no one untouched. And yet, what you describe does not absorb the whole of reality, its nooks and crannies, its pockets of otherness, its numerous intercontinental traffics, its improbable events and its joyful stalls. The light you shed on the world is necessary, the situation you describe is catastrophic, but that is not all. The physical environment is a world, but it is only one world. Capitalism is total but the economy and life forms are patchy.10 Each is a stitched-together assembly of partial totalities.

We will be criticised for being epistemologically refined. That worlds are multiple, entangled, complex, all this fine verbiage is good only for anthropologists. You can’t fight an elephant with porcelain. Yet that’s all we have, porcelain, and still, in scattered fragile fragments, networks and wholes (global warming shows this!). We have neither a beautiful vase all wrapped up, nor the seamless cohesion of a system ready to illuminate our powerlessness. The worlds are in contact with different peoples and different futures. We must learn to inherit and cultivate the innumerable precedents of environments that have been rewoven, in spite of everything, that have emerged, whatever the cost, and that have remained alive when everything conspired to demolish them. 
Against the probable, we must bet on the possible.11 The worlds are in pieces. They are dying under the hegemonic narratives that continue to pulverise them. The damage done to them is severe and, for some, irreversible. Often only fragments remain, but from these fragments we can seize ourselves;12 from them we can deploy again desiring powers and modes of action, experiments, to make the present less suffocating.

A Californian woman sends the liquidators of stories back to their copies: “The game is NOT over. Thank you very much”.13 History is not terminal. Indeterminacies, in all their forms, carry with them hesitation, doubt, possible regret and shame, but also the joy of action. Each of our actions vibrates in a world, but no one can predict its future. So let’s be quick not to conclude with those dreaded words uttered many times by feminists: “The future is dark, and that’s the best thing that can happen to it, I think”.14 In the end, we act and will always act in the dark. We make history in the present and we don’t want any more blinding lights.

  1. We would like to thank Isabelle Stengers, Rémi Eliçabe, Thierry Drumm, Thibault de la Motte, Jean-Baptiste Fenouillère, Greg Pascon, Nathalie Melis, Olivier Praet, Michaël Ghyoot, Josep Rafanell i Orra, Alexis Zimmer, Alexandre Galand, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Lionel Devlieger, as well as the students of the “Socio-ecology of transitions” course at the University of Mons, who put our arguments to the test. We would also like to thank Elisabeth Lagasse who, during an academic meeting, encouraged us not to take the effects of collapsology lightly and who then wrote a text with which we are in solidarity: “Contre l’effondrement, pour une pensée radicale des mondes possibles”, Contretemps: Revue de critique communiste, published on July 18, 2018, online 

  2. On the importance of address and the potentially bewitching nature of writings and theories, see: P. Pignarre and I. Stengers, Sorcellerie capitaliste: Pratiques de désenvoûtement, La Découverte, 2005. 

  3. D. Danowski and E. Viveiros de Castro, “Arrêts de monde”, in E. Hache (ed.), De l’univers clos au monde infini, Editions du Dehors, 2016, pp. 221-339 

  4. See their website: 

  5. See the interview with Krenak activists about their contaminated land: 

  6. J.-P. Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. When the impossible is certain, Seuil, 2004. 

  7. J. Rafanell i Orra, Fragmenting the World, Paris: Editions Divergence, 2018. 

  8. Murray Bookchin, For an Ecological Society, 1976 [1965]. 

  9. D. Haraway, “Situated Knowledge: The Question of Science in Feminism and the Privilege of the Partial Perspective” in Cyborg Manifesto and Other Essays: Science – Fiction – Feminism, Exils Publishing, 2007 [1988]. From I. Stengers we learned the gesture of ‘civilising the moderns’; in this case, is there a way to civilise the collapsologists? See: I. Stengers, Civilising Modernity?, Les Presses du Réel, 2017. 

  10. A. Tsing, The mushroom of the end of the world: on the possibility of living in the ruins of capitalism, La Découverte, 2017. 

  11. See I. Stengers, Au temps des catastrophes: Résister à la barbarie qui vient, La Découverte, 2009. 

  12. On the non-completeness of any ontology and the fabrication of meaning that is always done with, and from fragments, see the conclusion of N. Martin’s book, Les âmes sauvages, La Découverte, 2016, pp. 257-268 

  13. D. Haraway, Staying with the trouble: Making Kin in the Anthropocene, Duke University Press, 2016. 

  14. R. Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”, New York Times, April 24, 2014