There’s no need to hide from it or beat around the bush. To dive into the theme of collapse is to inevitably address the issue of violence. Will the future necessarily be ultraviolent? Is it not possible to consider something else?
According to the latest IPCC report, « climate change will increase the risk of violent conflicts, which will take the form of civil wars and inter-group violence. More broadly, environmental disasters (energy, water, climate, pollution, etc.) will be an obvious source of armed conflict and social instability, particularly in emerging countries(1). There is no need to talk about the future either, massive population displacements and conflicts over access to resources have already begun.
towards a zombie movie scenario?
None of this is really new. The convergence of the « crises » is a serious concern for the militaries, governments and agencies of the countries responsible for guaranteeing internal security. As international security expert Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed points out, the Pentagon, for example, expects environmental disasters to provoke widespread public anger toward governments and institutions in the coming years(2).
These institutions therefore anticipate a world of tension and uncertainty, preparing for an increase in the frequency of armed conflict, riots and terrorist attacks, and monitoring their populations, including peace movements, as Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s global surveillance programs have shown.
Harald Welzer, social psychologist and specialist in the links between the evolution of societies and violence, shows how a society can slowly and imperceptibly push back the limits of what is tolerable to the point of calling into question its peaceful and humanist values, and sink into what it would have considered unacceptable a few years earlier(3).
In other words, people will get used to (and are already getting used to) extreme weather events, food shortages or population displacement. The inhabitants of rich countries will also most probably get used to increasingly aggressive policies towards migrants or other states, but above all will feel less and less the injustice felt by the populations affected by the disasters. It is this gap that will serve as a breeding ground for future conflicts.
let’s revisit our classics!
Will all this necessarily lead to a great butchery? Perhaps. But one can also doubt it. In fact, it’s not that simple. Thinking about collapse (which is what « collapsology » proposes), means permanently renouncing a homogeneous vision of things.
For example, what frightens us in the idea of a great catastrophe is the disappearance of the social order in which we live. For it is a widely held belief that without this pre-disaster order, everything quickly degenerates into chaos, panic, selfishness and war of all against all. Surprising as it may seem, this never happens in times of disaster.
Specifically, after a disaster, i.e., an » event that suspends normal activities and threatens or causes serious harm to a large community, »(4), most humans exhibit extraordinarily altruistic, calm, and collected behaviors. (Note that we are not talking about more complex situations where there is no surprise effect, such as concentration camps or armed conflicts).
When one looks at the testimonies of survivors of the 9/11 attacks, the London bombings, train derailments, plane crashes, gas explosions, or hurricanes, all converge on the fact that the overwhelming majority of survivors remain calm, supportive, and self-organizing. « Decades of meticulous sociological research on human behavior in the face of disasters, bombings during World War II, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the continent and elsewhere in the world have demonstrated this. »(5) In these situations, some people even take foolish risks to help people around them, whether they are relatives, neighbors or complete strangers.
The image of a selfish and panicked human being in times of disaster is not at all supported by the facts. In fact, individuals are security-seeking above all else, so they are unlikely to be violent, and unlikely to cause harm to others.
Competitive and aggressive behaviors are set aside, in a general momentum where all the « I’s » instantly become « we’s » with a force that nothing seems to stop. As if extraordinary conditions bring out extraordinary behaviors(6).
It is not won (but it is not lost either)
The crucial question now is whether a one-time disaster can be compared to a set of intense, repeated, large-scale disasters as they unfold. Will « community resilience » work in the same way over the duration of a collapse? Nothing is less certain. It is well known that in times of war (especially civil war), the social order sometimes breaks down so quickly that the most barbaric acts can be born among the most « normal » populations.
Nevertheless — and this is at least a given — we know that at the epicenter of a specific disaster that does not announce itself, human societies possess this unsuspected capacity of resilience, which is already considerable in itself.
No one can say what fiber the social fabric of the collapse will be composed of, but it is certain that mutual aid will play a primary role. Indeed, it seems obvious that individualism is a luxury that only an energy-rich society can afford. Why help each other if, thanks to oil, we all have a « half a thousand energy slaves « (7)?
To put it another way, in times of energy scarcity, it is a safe bet that individualists will be the first to die. Groups that are able to demonstrate outstanding cooperative behaviors will be more likely to survive, as has been the case over the millions of years that have separated us from our common ancestors with other primates(8).
Thus, even if the risks of conflicts and violence are increasing, we are paradoxically entering an age of mutual aid.
Pablo Servigne & Raphaël Stevens
This article is an edited excerpt from the book How Everything Can Fall Apart. Small manual of collapsology for the use of present generations », by Pablo Servigne & Raphaël Stevens. Seuil, 2015, 300 pp.
- Scheffran, J., & Battaglini, A. (2011). climate and conflicts: the security risks of global warming. regional Environmental change, 11(1), 27–39.
- (2) Ahmed n. m. Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown. The Guardian, 12 juin 2014. Ahmed n. m. Pentagon bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks. The Guardian, 14 juin 2013.
- Welzer H. Les guerres du climat. Pourquoi on tue au XXIème siècle. Gallimard, 2009.
- Aldrich, «d.P. Building resilience. Social capital in postdisaster recovery. The university of « chicago Press, 2012.
- Solnit, r. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary communities That Arise in disaster. Penguin Books, 2012.
- L. clarke, « Panic: myth or reality? », contexts, vol. 1, n°3, 2002, p. 21–26.
- Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2011). A cooperative species: Human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton university Press.