An Activist’s Introduction to Societal Collapse: Your Existential Questions About Global Catastrophe Answered

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An Activist’s Introduction to Societal Collapse: Your Existential Questions About Global Catastrophe Answered

While numerous pathways lead to becoming an environmental activist, there's one reason that regroups us all: The belief that there's something fundamentally wrong with how we live on our planet.

Treetops seen from the ground
Photo by ANGELA BENITO / Unsplash

The dramatic consequences predicted from a +4.3°C world within the next century — if we don't take urgent action today — attest that our societies are heading into challenging times. Just over the past four decades, there's been a 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish.

But how exactly would this difficult period look? What could happen if we do not urgently change our auto-destructive lifestyle? Is a global societal collapse similar to the Roman Empire's "destruction" depicted in Thomas Cole's painting a credible outcome? These four inquiries aim to provide the beginning of an answer so that we may take appropriate action.

Developing a common framework of collapse

1. What is a societal collapse?

When studying societal collapse, the first step is to understand how scholars and historians define this notion. Interestingly, there is no unique definition of societal collapse, as this concept differs depending on the field of study (archeology, history, etc.). However, there are two commonly used definitions that one can keep in mind.

The first one, offered by most archeologists describes societal collapse as a drastic reduction of the human population across a widespread area and/or of political, economic, social complexity over a long duration.

Photo by Patrick Perkins.

A second definition, possibly even more appropriate to the current globalized context, is proposed by Yves Cochet, a former French Minister of Environment:

While it may be reassuring for some to see that societal collapse does not seem to have much in common with a Hollywood-type movie, this reassurance evaporates if you picture yourself in a world without electricity, running water, energy, or food supplies.

2. What's the potential timeframe of a societal collapse?

How long could it take for our globalized and complex society to collapse? Once again, authors from different fields have different opinions about the timeframe of civilization failures. On the one hand, authors such as Nial Ferguson, a History professor at Harvard, or Pablo Servigne, author of the best seller How Everything Can Collapse, seem to advocate an abrupt collapse over a short timeframe.

from wet to dry
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann / Unsplash

On the other hand, recent research from archeologists and historians tends towards a measured "Rome did not fall in one day" approach based on Edward Gibbon's renown The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Only time will tell which group is closer to an accurate prediction.

3. What does history tell us about societal collapses?

The work of historians and archeologists demonstrates that our society collapsing would definitely not be the first and probably not the last to do so. For example, a 2019 study from the University of Cambridge concludes that the average life span of former civilizations was 336 years — which seems extremely short compared to our current societies.

The average lifespan of ancient civilizations. Photo by Nigel Hawtin, BBC Future.

But what's even more worrisome is that recent studies tend to demonstrate a correlation between a civilization's failure to survive and the following indicators: climate change, inequalities, environmental impact, and a civilization's complexity — all of which characterize today's world.

4. Should we be worried?

The answer to this question is very personal.  It's up to each of us to look at the available data and forge an opinion. However, it's true that studying and understanding the potentiality of our modern society collapsing comes with its share of anxiety.

Be greatful
Woman thinking about the current state of the environment. Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado.

Nevertheless, do keep in mind that you became an activist to build a better world and can accomplish that on WeAct. A potential collapse does not mean the end of the world entirely, but rather the end of a world. Let us take this as an opportunity to build a greener and more equitable society for all.

Additional reading

If you would like to dive deeper into the study of societal collapse, the following books and blog posts are highly recommended:

Joseph Tainter (1988), The Collapse of Complex Societies

Jared Diamond (2005), Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed.

John Michael Greer (2008), The Long Descent

Dmitry Orlov (2013), The sixth stage of collapse

Pablo Servigne & Raphael Stevens (2020), How everything can collapse

Article written by Johann Hartmann, sustainability advisor and content writer living in Switzerland. An advocate for a “strong sustainability” approach with the goal of building a better world for future generations.