top of page

The Collapse Laboratory

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

Or, what I'm doing if I'm not trying to stop climate change.


Strangely, not everyone is manifesting immediate and substantial interventionist action on climate change. There are those For, those Against, and then there is Me.



Against:

As far as I can tell, there are only two groups of people who do not want their governments to take immediate, dramatic action on emissions

1. those who are paid by fossil fuel industries,

2. and those who are paid to be opinionated in order to sell something else. Which is usually, ultimately, advertising slots.


Both of these categories of people are Bad People; commercialising the demise of human society for a bigger house, more consumption. If you are paid to do a bad thing, you are a bad person.


For:

Everyone else. As far as I can tell, the arguments have been won. The science has most certainly been won. FUD will only get you so far, and the public in the street has got the message. Climate change is real, and it should be stopped.


On top of that, there is an almost uncountable selection of organisations attempting to mobilise, organise and fundraise - Fridays for a Future, Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, 350.org, Ende Gelände, Greenpeace. From impassioned kids to greenwashed Socialist Workers to lifelong climate activists. There are also countless groups with different approaches to the same aims - women's groups, indigenous people's representation, ocean-first, habitat-first, biodiversity-first.


On all of their websites, you can find the list of their demands. Summarised, to the best of my interpretive abilities, for the selection above these seem to be:

FFF: 1. 1.5 °C; Climate justice & equality, listen to the science,

XR: Tell the Truth, Net zero by 2025, Citizen's Assembly

Just Stop Oil: No new fossil fuel exploitation in the UK

350.org: Keep carbon in the ground; build a low carbon economy; put pressure on governments

Ende Gelände: Keep the coal in the ground, systemic change

Greenpeace: Send money. Greenpeace is a fundraising organisation with lots of expensive staff to pay. I guess making noise isn't a bad thing, but they don't actually do anything. Let's ignore Greenpeace.


On none of their websites can I find a list of successes.



This sounds harsh, but it is important. Not because I want to denigrate them for being useless - they are not. They are absolutely imperative to keeping up the pressure on governments, to add balance to the wealth and power of the fossil fuel industries. And none of them are wrong per se. They are all right. None of their demands are what you might call wrong, though the biasses shine clearly in some cases.

We do need to keep the hydrocarbons in the ground, we do need a fairer and more equitable world. The 1.5 thing is totally arbitrary, but as a line in the sand, at least it is a powerful icon of intent. Governments should tell the truth, scientists should be listened to, justice and equality are good.

But none of these groups will ever have a Successes section on their website.


The fossil fuel companies may well collapse one day, but not until they are ready to.

Governments will lie. Wealth and power will win.


There is no illuminati, no world government, no organised Davos conspiracy. But, people with wealth and power like to keep it. And they have two things that you do not have which make it easier for them to keep it than it is for us to take it off them - they have wealth, and they have power.


And finally,


It is already too late.


Don't feel bad about this. It's been inevitable since the Club of Rome, since Carl Sagan gave evidence to Congress, since Al Gore "lost" the 2000 US Presidential election. It was both inevitable and avoidable; it was fixable in the late 70s, 80s and 90s. It isn't now. Human created climate change is going to destroy human society.

There is no chance of any demand of any climate action group being met.


Acceptance is not defeat


If you are fighting an unwinnable position, especially when you know it is unwinnable, you will likely never be able to accept the loss. At some level you are being dogmatic. Dogmatic people aren't so great with data.


Does this mean that it is wrong to oppose climate change? To try to fight for it to stop? To struggle for a fairer and more equitable world?

No, of course not. Absolutely, unequivocally not.

Every tenth of a degree matters. Look out for this refrain. I think this is the cry that is going to get louder and louder - every tenth matters - it's a refocussing of the argument - as close as it is possible to get to an admission that 1.5 is lost. The data is clear - we know it's lost (the official UN optimistic scenario is 1.8C) - but having to change your plea half way through the trial is bad lawyering. Changing the framing of the argument is good lawyering.


But this is an aside.


What if we could reframe the problem into something that is actually useful? Is there anything that we can do that is actually useful?


There is.


A timeline of collapse


1. Society is going to collapse.

The fact of the breakdown of the institutions of society is pretty easy to imagine

Once the institutions of society start to fall to pieces, they do not come back. We need to be able to recognise them.

We already know that there will not be enough food on the shelves in Europe in 2023. We know that more weather records are going to be broken, and more people are going to die.


Collapse happens when these two things (people get hungry, services get stretched close to breaking) happen simultaneously, and it happens in one of two ways.

No-one with a hungry family is going to prioritise going to work over trying to find food for the table. If you have an important job, one which society actually needs - essential and emergency services - there is an extremely asymmetric relationship between backlogs building up, and backlogs clearing. Think just in time supermarket deliveries, refuse collection, triage in A&E.


And they snowball. Think of the air traffic controller who doesn't make it into to work. When planes start falling out of the sky, shit gets real real quick.


Collapse of services is precipitated by one of two very simple things - unfixable backlogs or human error made more likely by the same profit-boosting efficiencies which made the backlogs in the first place.


2. We are going to spend an amount of time in collapse

Collapse does not mean the end of the human race. In fact, it is probably the only logical, foreseeable pathway to stopping the fossil fuel industry. You can definitely posit that the sooner collapse comes, the more likely the continuation of the human race, but that's a bit too glum even for me right now (the idea being that a sudden and complete cessation of modern living might be the only way to keep the fossil fuels in the ground).


There is no way of knowing how deep we are going to get into it, how much of human ingenuity and creativity will be lost in collapse but eventually, we will come out of it.


3. At some point, we will emerge from collapse.

This is without a doubt.

Emergence is just another word for - we will have rebuilt enough that we can once again contemplate an existence as an intelligent species which uses it's intelligence for good rather than for survival. When we can once again philosophise about the meaning of life other than its survival and perpetuation.


The Climate Event Horizon


Societal collapse marks an event horizon of human existence. All laws break down, all predictions become moot, it is impossible to look beyond it. *


There is no way of knowing what collapse looks like from the inside; all human relationships are remade, and I don't see anyone trying to understand it. We can imagine what is lost, but we cannot imagine what living in the absence of that which is gone looks like.


Even this concept - imagining something which does not exist - can make the brain hurt. But we do it all the time - it is a game which entertains people of all ages - you just have to do it backwards. It's called "can you remember a time before we had .... ?"


I saw a question on twitter today asking if anyone could remember how people bought airplane tickets before the internet. It's not a difficult question to answer, but it does give rise to a second of thoughtfulness. Take any future-shock style discovery or invention - the wheel, the printing press, the electric motor, the transistor - and try to imagine an existence before it.

These are future shocks. Event horizons, either side of which exist two realities so different from each other that it is impossible to imagine the other side.


Futurists and prognosticators and soothsayers are, as far as I can tell, taking an understanding of what we have now and extrapolating from there. Basically with the new data, but the same variables.

Current society does not morph step-by-step into post-collapse society; we undergo a future shock so profound that calculations on this side of the event horizon have no meaning on the other side of it.


To think of post-collapse society means to imagine something which does not exist. I don't believe that it is impossible. I do believe that trying to understand it is a useful use of human effort.


The Collapse Laboratory


If we are going to redirect at least a portion of our thinking not about avoiding collapse, but accepting that it is going to happen, then we should be trying to answer two questions


1. How do we minimise the amount of time we spend in collapse?


2. How do we most effectively build our way out of it?


We are responsible for our own demise, that is clear, but humanity was not all bad.

We created great libraries, learned about the universe, staring inside atoms, out to the reaches of the cosmos and back to the big bang. We created music to be played on instruments and with our voices and bodies, we danced and we wrote great works of literature. We loved and we marked the passage of time with festivals and joy. We created art and architecture to marvel at the concept of existence. We are not simply instruments of the perpetuation of life, we questioned our own existence.


My greatest fear about collapse is that this all gets lost. That we return to the worship of invented gods and forget the beauty that we created, the science we learned and the poetry that we wrote. That we become even more corrupted by what separates us and become superstitious, idolatrous, dumb beasts. That would the the lasting tragedy.


We are coming simultaneously close to understanding consciousness, creating it in silicon, and extinguishing it. What a remarkable trifecta of beauty, brilliance and stupidity.


The safeguard against this final irony is to try to answer these two questions before we get there.


This is to be the purpose of the barracks. Over the last four years, we have been building the authenticity of the place. I believe that here is a singularly honest place for a backdrop to serious contemplation of the deepest questions of collapse.


In the summer, we will be inviting artists, philosophers, researchers, scientists and interested lay people to come and exchange honestly and openly with others in order to answer the two questions - how to minimise the amount of time we spend in collapse, how to emerge best from it.

I hope that the from the Collapse Laboratory will emerge the Collapse Toolbox.

I do not know what this looks like. It may well be the telling of our stories, artistic interpretations (we know that words alone will not be enough), presentations, demonstrations, essays. It may not. It may be a user guide to rebuilding.


Whatever it is, the hope is that it will be useful.



 


Notes


* this statement deliberately ignores the finer questions of Hawkins radiation, the principle of the conservation of information and other advances in cosmology / quantum physics. Basically, I'm talking black holes at the time of A Brief History of Time.


Some of the references or ideas used in this essay:




Carl Sagan testifying before Congress in 1985


Alvin Toffler, Future Shock - it's the book, this is the documentary


David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs (pdf)


The Club of Rome, Limits to Growth (pdf scan)


And finally, accept certain inalienable truths: prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old. Wear Sunscreen.


576 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page