The province where I live, Quebec, is making international news this month for something other than the CAQ government’s recent official declaration that institutional racism does not exist here: millions of acres of boreal forest are burning to a crisp. Normally by this time of year, about 25,000 acres of forest in the province would have burned. Since March, an area 147 times that size has gone up in smoke, shrouding major cities on the east coast and reaching all the way to Europe.
Sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic have reached extraordinary record highs for the months of May and June, and we’re not really sure why yet. The marine heat wave is now classed as a category 5 in places off the west coast of Ireland, which is considered “beyond extreme,” with devastating consequences for marine life. Additionally, the unusually warm water creates unusually warm air above it, which has been linked to the unusually hot and dry weather in eastern Canada (including Quebec) this spring. Add a few lightning strikes and the commodification of forests, and here we are.
Antarctic sea ice growth this southern hemisphere winter is the slowest it has been since humans started keeping records of it – by a lot. Meanwhile at the other end of the world, Arctic sea ice extent for winter 2023 was below average as well, just like the previous four years. A lack of bright, white sea ice does funny things to atmospheric air circulation, causing irregular positioning of relatively warm and cool air masses at the poles, which push the jet streams into sinuous shapes. Weather patterns stagnate. Heat domes form and stay put.
Record heat waves in the southern USA, both in magnitude and duration, are putting a huge strain on the electrical grid as people (those who have air conditioning) try to stay cool. Outdoor workers are passing out and even dying from the heat – most of them people of color.
We’ve been fairly lucky here in southern Quebec: an anti-clockwise wind circulation pattern has pushed the worst of the smoke from the northern burning forest to the west and south, leaving us with smog alerts and rain. Still, the haze and air quality warnings are potent reminders that all is not well in climate-future-land. People are worried about their kid’s health. They’re worried about walking their dogs outside. Many are whispering about ‘collapse.’ Others are shouting about it.
What is meant by the term ’collapse’? First off, most users of the word, whether on social media, a website, or in conversation, are talking about civilizational or societal collapse, in response to the mounting impacts of human-caused climate change. Wikipedia offers this definition:
“Societal collapse is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of social complexity as an adaptive system, the downfall of government, and the rise of violence.”
which I think summarizes well what most people imagine when they use the term. Scary stuff, this. Collapse has become almost a secret password amongst certain folks who are paying attention to our present multiple interlocking crises, uttered with a quiet sigh or asserted as ‘collapse aware’, as if it were a university degree. The implication is that those who use it acknowledge approaching catastrophic loss (commonly imminent), profound change in the way they live, and an overall dismal and frightening future- similar to the definition above.
I’ll just come out and say it: I do not like the term collapse, nor do I think it is an appropriate descriptor for what our collective future holds. Before you call me an unrealistic optimist in denial, let me explain.
1) Societal collapse is commonly conflated with the collapse of Earth systems, such as the climate and ecosystems. Though the collapse of some civilizations has been attributed to environmental stressors and local climate change, this is not at all what is happening at present. Yes, we are experiencing the impacts of climate breakdown right now – sooner than predicted, and yes, things will only get worse as our collective inaction continues. Although we cannot reverse the damage that we have caused, we can stop making it worse. The climate would stabilize at a ‘new normal’ in under a decade if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases and destroying carbon sinks. Human societies in familiar forms would survive this if we got our act together quickly. The key difference from past human civilizational collapses is that we are the cause and we know how to stop causing it.
Right now, a lot of people are pointing to the forest fires, the polar sea ice anomalies, the falling temperature records, and saying ‘See! Collapse! We’re passing tipping points!' While the emerging evidence is startling indeed, there is no scientific consensus on what is causing the large departures from the ‘normal’ climate heating trend. Some suggest the new El Niño is contributing, and it almost certainly is. But it is just too early to tell. Science doesn’t work at the pace of social media. Making declarations that collapse is imminent and it’s too late to do anything is at best wrong and unhelpful, and at worst inflammatory and defeating. So stop it.
2) Collapse is inherently about privileged people. Perhaps without realizing it, what most people mean when they quietly sigh about collapse is envisioning having to live the way the poorest 50% of the world actually lives today, which is with profound uncertainty, precariousness, ‘natural’ disaster, and often violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise. Most ‘collapse-aware’ folks are white, privileged people living in wealthy countries with fairly stable democracies. Having the time to worry about collapse means that you are privileged and, by definition, part of the problem: the top 10% of wealth holders in the world are responsible for 50% of historical and present CO2 emissions. We are responsible for this mess yet we shrug our shoulders and point our fingers and fear what is essentially climate justice, disguised as undeserved out-of-control leveling-up (or down).
3) A catastrophic collapse of wealthy democratic societies is not going to happen. Don’t get me wrong – there is absolutely no doubt that our global neoliberal economy will ‘right-size’ itself to fit within the biophysical limits of the planet whether the powers that be want that or not. But what is not going to happen is a sudden, clear demarcation after which all hell breaks loose. There will be no schadenfreude ‘we told you so’ moment, before we run for the hills and our guns.
What we will have are blips, flickers, like the financial crises of 1929 and 2008; populists elected that threaten democracy and maybe even destroy it; riots in the streets over police brutality; food shortages; cost-of-living crises. Pandemics. Sound familiar? Fossil fuel-based systems will fail, including industrial agriculture. Shocks of this polycrisis will be worse than what we’ve experienced so far, and will catalyze other crises. And then they will pass, and others will pick up the pieces and organize to try to meet the latest challenges, having less to work with and more to deal with. If we cling to the dogma of the need for a constantly-growing economy, the world’s wealthiest 10% will experience a slow, difficult, punctuated decline in the foreground of increasing ‘natural’ disasters and ever hotter temperatures. Those closer to the bottom have less far to fall, and more experience dealing with it.
4) Our present understanding of societal collapse is much more nuanced than the one commonly held and used by ‘collapse aware’ people. It can be better understood as societal transformation, a reorganization of a fatally flawed structure through the resilience of the people who live through it – which is usually almost everybody except for some wealthy elites. All societies have experienced transformations like this, and a complete end to previous political systems has never happened. When examining the evidence on ‘collapse’ versus societal transformation, it is pretty clear which term is a more accurate description of what actually happens. People, entire civilizations, don’t just disappear in a puff of smoke, or heatwave, or storm. They continue to live, reorganize, and transform. This doesn’t mean that violence or catastrophe are not involved – it means that we have a choice right now to change our civilization willingly and mindfully to fit within planetary boundaries, and minimize their presence in the coming transformation.
5) Collapse (transformation) of the present global economic-political system, using the more nuanced concept of it, is actually a good thing. A very good thing, and it is what activists at all levels and in all sectors are working toward. It will be about loss for some, certainly for the richest 1%, and much of the richest 10% - but this is a good thing. So let’s start talking about a Just Transition societal transformation and leave ‘collapse’ with fossil fuels, greed, inequity, and over consumption. No need to sigh quietly. But there is a need to get to work – not to be confused with going to work just to keep going.
6) Focusing on collapse undermines the important work that we privileged folks need to do today to minimize the impacts of anthropogenic climate breakdown and slow it to a stop. We need all hands on deck, especially older generations and all those who benefited from untethered growth capitalism at the expense of the natural world and a stable climate, whose collective wealth could turn this ship around – or more likely just stop it, but that might be enough. The first thing to do is divest all that wealth from fossil fuels, and from the banks who fund them. Second, become politically active and advocate for an immediate shut down of the fossil fuel industry. Third, live humbly. Consume up to 90% less resources and energy (depending on what you are starting from) in order to cut personal CO2 emissions to your fair share. Give away the money saved to climate activists involved in meaningful action. Tell your friends why. Talk to them about Degrowth and Doughnut Economics. Don’t just do this in your spare time- this is an emergency, and young people will never forgive you for navel-gazing right now. So stop it. This is it. The time for radical action is now. T-R-A-N-S-F-O-R-M-A-T-I-O-N.
I understand that there is a lot of emotion involved when reading the news about the climate crisis, the wild animals dying by the billions, the violence in the world and the uncertainty of the future. Proclaiming collapse seems to make sense, but it also provides a little bit of relief. It lets us privileged folks off the hook – look it’s too late – nothing to do – collapse is already here! Collapse lets people who care deeply about the losses that we see every day all around us, the familiar landscapes turned an eerie orange by incinerated trees and forest creatures, stop fighting against their destruction and mourn instead. Rest. I get it. But do not slip into despair and stop there – there is so much work to be done. This transformation is underway whether we want it or not, and scientific consensus tells us that we do still have time to preserve a livable future, albeit a very different one than what the previous generation expected.
And that is a good thing.