‘Collapsologie’: Constructing an Idea of How Things Fall Apart

From The New York Review of Books:

Marco is particularly well-liked among the residents at the retirement home where he works. He attends painstakingly to their every need and discomfort. They confide in him, just as he confides in them. He has painted a collage of bright scenes on the bedroom window of one elderly woman with whom he is particularly close, and with whom he shares a taste in crass humor. As he adds a red rocket ship to the motley tapestry, however, he notices something rustling in the woods down below.

His former co-workers, gone presumably for several days, are carting away the home’s remaining food. When he goes out to stop them, they tell Marco that it’s futile: more supplies will not come, and he’s silly to chain himself to this spot. They tell him where they’re camping that night and that he’s welcome to join. After a moment or two of protest, he goes back inside and tries to pretend as if nothing has changed. But the hopelessness of the situation finally catches up with him. Affixing a respirator to a gas tank unhinged from a utility closet, Marco goes about the thankless task of helping his residents check out early.     

So goes the sixth episode of the new French mini-series, L’Effondrement, that premiered this fall on the Canal+ network. Made up of eight stand-alone vignettes, L’Effondrement, or “Collapse,” is set in the near future. This dystopia, as the title suggests, inverts the logic of shows such as the British drama series Black Mirror, which allows viewers to savor their claustrophobic entanglement in a watertight technological apparatus beyond their control. Max Weber’s “iron cage” of modern society’s bureaucratic rationality is not so rigid, L’Effondrement would have us believe. Instead, confronted by the rickety foundations of all we’d taken for granted, we relish the possibility that we might be swept away once everything falls apart.

A global spike in energy prices, frozen industrial supply chains, climate shocks such as crop-destroying heat waves and rapid ecosystem decay—it is not until the series’s fi nal episode, a flashback to the days before the collapse, that we get something of the broader picture. A group of activists, Extinction Rebellion style, have hatched a plot to sneak a rogue climate scientist into a talk show studio where the environment minister is slated to give a reassuring appearance. When the activists rush the stage, the minister graciously allows the scientist to give his rant, after which she dismisses him as an extremist: “You’re a collapsologue!”

. . . .

Collapsologie—or, as Servigne and Stevens define it, the “applied and transdisciplinary science of collapse”—proposes to free environmentalist thought from the linear or progressive understanding of history implicit in such faiths as “sustainable development,” “green growth,” or the energy “transition.” The story of human societies, which Servigne and Stevens suggest is ultimately the story of their interactions with their natural environments, is circular. The pendulum of human history swings between moments of our being harmoniously embedded within natural processes and periods of population concentration, political centralization, and an urge to transcend the earth’s resource constraints. We develop economies of scale, agglomerate extractive industry on a grand scale, but ultimately overexploit our natural foundations.

Building off Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse, which focused on these dynamics in primarily pre-modern societies, Servigne and Stevens argue that the same iron law of history applies to our hyper-connected, concentrated, and self-confident industrial society of today. The reasons are manifold—and many will be familiar to readers of recent anglophone environmental bestsellers such as David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, arguably a mass-market work of collapsology in its own right.

. . . .

Yves Cochet was the environmental minister under Lionel Jospin’s Socialist government in the early 2000s. He has since emerged as one of France’s more high-profile collapsologues, and was a co-founder and president of what might as well be considered the group’s first think tank, the Institut Momentum. Cochet regards the trajectory of traditional environmentalism, with which he was heavily engaged, as largely a “failure.” When I asked him what he thought of the new radical turn embodied by visions such as the Green New Deal, he was circumspect, seeing in them little more than a rehashed and slightly democratized version of the old sustainable development.

“I don’t believe in it for one instant,” he said. Efforts such as the Green New Deal suffer ultimately “from the technological illusion. It’s the Californian technological dream in disguise.”

For Servigne and Stevens, the horizon of sustainable development, a greened industrial society shorn of its addiction to fossil fuels, ignores what they call the earth’s “uncrossable thresholds.” The earth being a closed system, in which a finite quantity of resources is available to a variable population of exploiters (us), poses the inexorable question of limits. Plans to “transition” our energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources such as wind and solar power, for example, and still assume an exponential expansion in energy use, will not be able to overcome the fact that these new technologies depend on the exploitation of a very limited quantity of rare-earth metals. As the work of Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left, and Guillaume Pitron, author of La guerre des métaux rares, shows, the race to access these resources is rapidly becoming a geopolitical battlefield in its own right. The age of expanding energy exploitation remains the age of fossil fuels.

Ultimately, the critique goes, the fatal weakness of traditional environmentalism is its inability to think beyond economic growth. 

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost

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