A Beginner’s Guide to End Times


The cover of How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times

“UTOPIA HAS SUDDENLY changed camp,” write Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens in How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times, just out in an English translation by Andrew Brown. “Today, the utopian is whoever believes that everything can just keep going as before.” In 2015, when the book was first published in France, such a statement might have sounded alarmist. In 2020, Collapse feels positively prophetic. Things have not kept going as before, and it seems increasingly doubtful that they ever will again.

That doesn’t mean that these are end times. Servigne and Stevens argue that the specter of apocalypse, like the economic gospel of perpetual growth, is only a distraction from the true danger: civilizational collapse resulting from wanton exploitation of natural resources. At the end of the world we can relax, because there will be nothing left to do. Collapse, by contrast, requires hard work, because it is as much a beginning as an end. In the view of these self-styled “collapsologists,” the disintegration of national and global institutions will demand invention, resourcefulness, and a return to small, mostly self-sufficient communities that depend on local networks of mutual aid. The newly minted discipline of collapsology aims to help people prepare for this new way of being.

How Everything Can Collapse was a best seller in France, but collapsology is controversial. Some environmentalists have attacked it as counterproductive “catastrophism” that will inspire despair rather than action. For others collapsology is a disturbing survivalist fantasy. But every day it gets harder to ignore the disasters that loom before us—or that have already arrived. Most recently, the debacle of the US response to COVID-19 is a reminder of our chronic failure to prepare, no matter how obvious the threat.

The first two parts of Collapse—“The Harbingers of Collapse” and “So, When’s It Going to Happen?”—consist mostly of an overview of indicators and predictive models of ecological, economic, and social collapse, drawing on climate science, political science, economics, medicine, history, anthropology, archaeology, demography, psychology, and sociology. The argument is organized around the simple metaphor of a car in various dangerous situations: accelerating past the point of control, going off road, losing control because the steering has locked, and so on. Unlike, say, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the book is succinct and straightforward, easy to read and absorb. The tone is chatty, friendly, and even funny: sections have headings like “What are we talking about exactly?” I’m sure that many of the breezy simplifications will frustrate experts, and I noticed some dubious observations myself. Some of the predictions and analyses are already outdated. But the finer details aren’t the point; this book is about a vision of the future.

Like environmentalists who implore us to “save the planet” before our way of life is lost forever, Servigne and Stevens are in favor of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. But they do not think that switching to renewable energy will be enough to prevent a profound change in our standard of living. The ores and rare metals required for wind and solar power are nonrenewable resources, and for now, at least, fossil fuels are needed to build and maintain renewable-energy systems. This means that it will be impossible to maintain current levels of global energy consumption using only renewables. (Given the ever increasing risk of natural disasters, water shortages, and other disruptions, the authors view nuclear energy as a dangerous and unrealistic alternative.) Even if we succeed in eliminating fossil fuels, people will have to adapt to a much less energy-intensive lifestyle.

Servigne and Stevens are also in favor of a more equitable distribution of global energy consumption, and they make clear that the worst effects of climate change will be felt by those who have had the least responsibility for overconsumption. Some eco-socialists imagine a new world of green egalitarian abundance for all of the world’s workers; collapsologists retort that dramatically increased social equality will not suffice to reduce energy demands to sustainable levels. Increased equality would have to be accompanied by minimal or even negative growth—and living with less is a hard sell for people in any economic bracket. The degrowth movement advocates deliberate reduction in consumption on ecological grounds. Though they have a greater affinity for degrowth than for optimistic eco-socialism, pessimistic collapsologists don’t believe that humankind will pull it together to follow either of these preventive approaches.

Zoe Wetherall, Animals Feeding, 2018, ink-jet print, dimensions variable.
Zoe Wetherall, Animals Feeding, 2018, ink-jet print, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Front Room Gallery

Nevertheless, Collapse views inclusive models of ecological transition as valuable tools in imagining and surviving the future. Servigne and Stevens laud efforts at low-consumption, locally oriented living. The “transition towns movement” founded in Great Britain in 2006 gets a mention: it includes renewable-energy cooperatives and local-food systems. In the United States, too, “eco-villages” are popping up, self-reliant types are moving off the grid, and “buy nothing” community groups allow for the sharing and exchange of goods. Formative ecological anxiety and economic precarity will likely generate new experiments in sustainable living and mutual aid in Generation Z. No doubt the collapsologists will cheer these, too, even as they continue their preparations for the end of civilization as we know it.

Servigne and Stevens are preoccupied with narrative, and their collapsology can be as compelling as a good disaster movie. A relatively small disruption can lead, over time, to collapse. An invisible threshold is crossed, and a forest turns into a desert. A global pandemic causes mass unemployment, which leads to a political uprising. Servigne and Stevens’s analysis helps explain how COVID-19, which hardly compares to the Black Plague or Ebola in its mortality rate, caused so much disruption so quickly. With an economy reliant on fast, seamless international transport, baroque supply chains, and just-in-time production, a mere month of closed borders can trigger new sequences of crises: for example, a shortage of basic medical supplies that causes unnecessary illness and death.

High-tech, high-speed globalization won’t save us; it only makes us more vulnerable. It’s hard to imagine a technocratic fix for climate change when the US couldn’t even provide enough face masks to medical personnel at the beginning of the pandemic. Managing collapse, the authors suggest, will require a return to older ways of living. As supply chains and economies fall apart, we’ll learn lessons that anyone who lived through, say, the fall of the Soviet Union could teach you. Cultivate a kitchen garden. Learn to make things and fix things. Ask for help, and offer it. This ethos of self-sufficiency and mutual aid has surged in popularity during the pandemic, with organizations and how-to guides popping up across the country.

The hero of a disaster movie is often the first to recognize the danger. Collapse argues that “accepting the death” of the future we once imagined follows the stages of Kübler-Ross’s model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. If that’s true, then the explosion of rage at Greta Thunberg, who only asked the world to follow the IPCC’s advice, is a step in the right direction: climate-change deniers have finally made it to stage two. Since Collapse was written, public discussions of climate change have achieved new urgency, as evidenced by Thunberg’s sudden celebrity, climate strikes, fossil-fuel divestment, a sharp uptick in climate-change media coverage, and more. But collective denial is still a way of life. What is to be done?

Servigne and Stevens believe that emotion and imagination must be brought to the center of discussion about climate change and the future. Their public lectures on collapsology, they explain, have evoked sadness, anxiety, resentment, and anger—but also gratitude, relief, and enthusiasm. There is comfort and even joy in imagining the future in concrete terms rather than simply fearing the apocalypse. The response to their lectures led them to conclude “not only that we had to add to our cold and objective discourse the heat of subjectivity—ensuring that emotions too had plenty of room as we built up our arguments—but also that we had a lot to learn from the discoveries of the behavioural sciences when it came to denial, mourning, storytelling and all the other themes that could link psychological realities to collapse.”

Servigne and Stevens aren’t the only ones to have reached this conclusion. The Extinction Rebellion movement has gained members, momentum, and notoriety in part by focusing on ecological grief, building communities of mourning as well as protest. But Extinction Rebellion hasn’t spent much time imagining the future, and its demand of net-zero greenhouse- gas emissions by 2025 is virtually impossible to achieve. Thunberg demands action following the IPCC report, but she doesn’t offer a story about how humankind will cope with the new reality if we don’t contain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This is where the novelists and screenwriters come in. In a section with the charming heading “The importance of watching films and reading novels,” Servigne and Stevens build a case for the importance of the arts in coping with the future. This doesn’t mean zombie movies or Mad Max. Servigne and Stevens are against dystopias: nightmares can be useful as cautionary tales, but they don’t offer any positive plans. They also tend to emphasize the worst sides of human nature. Servigne and Stevens are convinced that in an emergency, most people will go out of their way to help others; if something will save us, they believe, it’s the human instinct for cooperation.

What we need, Collapse argues, are constructive visions of survival in a radically different world. If it avoids dystopian wallowing, the burgeoning genre of “cli-fi” might guide us through mourning and help us prepare for new ways of living. There’s plenty of precedent. Novels played a central role in revolutionary and utopian projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, Lenin’s favorite, was arguably the most politically influential novel of all time, with its vision of socialist cooperatives and ascetic, radical lovers. Here’s one note of optimism: by making possible futures feel real, novels, films, and other works of art can help transfigure dread into action.

Sophie Pinkham is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine (Norton, 2016).