The question of the collapse of the thermo-industrial society, whether it is its presumed imminence, its modalities or even its reality, always divides the ecologists. If it is hardly conceivable to call oneself a « décroissant » without at the same time asserting oneself to be anti-advertising or anti-war, would it be possible to be a décroissant while continuing to repress this painful question? The argument almost always invoked is that the political message to be sent to our fellow citizens must remain « positive », since pleasure would be the engine of action, it seems. Again and again, we must not despair about Billancourt! This raises a more fundamental question: is it possible to reconcile catastrophism (i.e. realism) with the exercise of politics? This implies a credible and hopeful horizon, at least that of not having to give up our most precious dreams or objectives. But between positive (political) thinking and manipulation, the step is quickly crossed. Does an environmentalist worthy of the name have the moral right to withhold disturbing information on the grounds of broadening the circle of citizens likely to become involved? So to censor oneself? Should strategies take precedence over truth? « The duty of optimism — to reassure first — is a form of blindness. Only true speech should be used between adult democrats », reminds Hugues Stoeckel(1). Humanity is on a giant Titanic that hit the iceberg of planetary limits some 40 years ago. Since then, we have been sinking, whether we believe it or not. However, some may well be able to get into the lifeboats. All would not be lost, but almost. So let’s get organized and take action.
When to date this return of the feeling of catastrophe? During the « Trente Glorieuses », few were those who gave the alert, not or little followed by their contemporaries: Günther Anders, Lewis Mumford, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner or Jean Dorst. In 1972, the Meadows Report of the Club of Rome dealt a severe blow to Westerners’ confidence in the eternal horn of plenty. René Dumont and Hans Jonas marked the decade. After the period of the « money years » and neoliberal globalization (1980–2000), Jean-Pierre Dupuy delivered a work that will be a landmark in the annals of 21st century political philosophy: For an enlightened catastrophism. When the impossible is certain published in 2002 by the Seuil publishing house and proposes a deep theoretical reflection inspired by Jonas, Anders and Illich. A decade later, biologist Pablo Servigne and eco-advisor Raphaël Stevens popularized the term collapsology, or science predicting the collapse of modern civilization. Comment tout peut s’effondrer (Seuil) is a 296-page essay that offers a panoramic and detailed view of the question, to be placed in all hands and to be pushed into skeptical heads. Yves Cochet, President of the Momentum Institute(2), is right to begin his afterword by writing: « Is there any subject more important than the one treated in this book? No. Is there more neglected material than this? Not either » (p. 261).
The authors did not work lightly. They are based on numerous scientific studies. Without falling into scientism, ecologists must take into account what this research tells us in order to put forward political proposals. All too often, some people, steeped in idealism or Nietzscheanism, think that good politics can be achieved simply by showing good feelings or by being proactive, whereas good politics requires, above all, taking reality into account. Obviously, reality is multiple, and it remains to know which aspects to privilege. For example, if the « realists » plead that the automobile or the digital invasion are aspects of reality, there are others, ignored or repressed because they cause anxiety, that must be tackled head on: for example, organizing the food resilience of cities, via a market garden belt, rather than building up with shovels. Besides science and its statistics, collapsology also calls upon our imagination and our emotions to grasp what the collapse might look like, an experience that we have by definition not yet lived, that is subliminal, according to the term of Anders, that is to say unrepresentable, or quasi (cf. part 3 of the book). After the moment of (unpleasant) surprise, one passes to anger, then to sadness, to finally enter — eventually — in the serene acceptance of this fate. From then on, the field of action is open again, and only this one constitutes a remedy to the anguish.
The first part of the essay exposes the convergence of the beginnings of the collapse, where nature and human activities, economic and financial, are inextricably mixed. The great acceleration of the Anthropocene — this new geological era in which modern man is changing the biophysical balance of the planet — has taken us beyond limits and boundaries. If these are palpable, they are invisible: we cross a border without noticing, and when the consequences start to be felt, it is often too late to react. This is the case for climate disruption and biodiversity erosion, which are part of positive feedback loops. Ecosystems behave like switches: changes are not gradual and proportionate, but occur abruptly. If the alternatives are struggling to impose themselves, it is because the locking mechanisms, of a socio-technical nature, are numerous and gigantic, and even more rigidified by globalization. The authors show the link between finance and energy supplies. Thus, the spark could come from a global imbalance in the financial system combined with peak oil. The second part ventures into futurology, with the risks inherent to this exercise. Since the uncertain is not probabilizable, we must rather « open reason to intuition » (p. 142). The challenge is to be able to detect the warning signs in order to anticipate, and thus cushion the collapse, while being aware that there is always uncertainty. Computer models are useful. The Club of Rome’s World3 has aged remarkably well, with Dennis Meadows persisting with his analyses forty years later. More recently, HANDY(Human and nature dynamics) shows that « strong social stratification makes it difficult to avoid a collapse of civilization » (p. 161). We can easily recognize the current situation of financialized and globalized capitalism. The third part tries to draw the contours of the collapse (financial, economic, political, social and cultural) by re-exploring the past: linear decline, oscillating decline or systemic collapse are three possible scenarios. In space, the collapse will be modulated differently depending on whether one is in the Center or the Periphery. Will it be possible to restart a civilization afterwards? Perhaps, under two conditions: that humans rely on solidarity rather than barbarism and that ecosystems can still « serve » them. But nothing is less certain… The authors also address the delicate issue of demographics.
Many of these reflections and warnings seem paradoxical; the mistake would be to dismiss them out of hand, remaining locked in one’s cognitive barriers. R. Stevens and P. Servigne wish to see the advent of a « politics of collapse » that would take the form of an anticipatory and resilient transition finding « a compromise between the democratic gesture and the urgency of catastrophes » (p. 248). « In fact, there are not even solutions to be sought to our inextricable situation (predicament), there are just paths to take to adapt to our new reality » (p. 252).
- Hugues Stoeckel, La faim du monde. L’humanité au bord d’une famine globale, éd. Max Milo, 2012, p. 301.
- Cf. www.institutmomentum.org.