Of what possible use is it to imagine the end of civilization or even of the species? Is it simply a pessimistic indulgence or can it contribute to progressive and other positive results?
When I was a child, my family's pastor used to elbow into almost every sermon an admiring reference to "St. John languishing in exile on the rock-bound, sea-girt island of Patmos." He was referring to the author of the grisly Book of Revelation , the dominant Western source of apocalyptic imagery.
We chuckle at cartoons of robed men on city sidewalks carrying placards that claim, "the end is nigh," and at bumper stickers that declare, "in case of Rapture, this car will be driverless" (which sounds more dangerous than driving under the influence). Since St. John's fiery prose, there have been many predictions of the end, including the modern cult studied by social psychologist Leon Festinger in When Prophecy Fails (1956).
Those who see danger tend to accuse others of "denial," of "refusing to listen." Perhaps a tincture of denial has given humans an evolutionary advantage. Speaking positively, psychologists refer to "optimism bias." Most of us tend to imagine that things will turn out better than they do, a common mental pattern studied by such authors as Tali Sharot. While this trait arguably encourages enterprises, some of which succeed, it may also, on occasion, blind us to the possibility of avoidable loss, even terminal loss.
In A Year to Live (1997), Stephen Levine asks readers to pretend they have the awful privilege of knowing when they will die (in 52 weeks) and challenges them to review their histories honestly and to live abundantly in the remaining time. As my wife and I know, from working through Levine's book with another couple, the result can be an enhancement of life.
During the Cold War, Joanna Macy gave us Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (1983). Before writing on ecology, on general systems theory, and on hope, Macy taught that a fuller life, including activism, could be approached through uninhibited expression of the deep feelings that led us to be concerned. More recent examples are the grief work of Carolyn Baker, author of Sacred Demise (2009) and Collapsing Consciously (2013) and of Francis Weller, author of Entering the Healing Ground (2012).
Still, it's going against the grain to ask people to imagine extreme loss. Unlike some so-called primitive groups, our society is not set up for it, apart from isolated workshops. According to both Baker and Weller, working through grief requires the support of a community and the additional safety of a ritual container. For all its virtues, U.S. culture is based more on individuality, the frontier, and risky enterprise, than on mutual support and safe space.
Nonetheless, a growing number of observers of climate change and other trends foresee disaster. We can describe them as collapseniks, a term with a suffix derived from Russian in honor of Dmitri Orlo*, who grew up in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and emigrated to the U.S. An engineer, sailor, and writer, Orlov believes that his adopted country will descend into collapse, and that the U.S. is less well prepared than the country where he was raised. If we define collapsenik as an observer who is conscious of the possibility of economic, political, and social collapse and who believes collapse is worth taking seriously, then Orlov has a parade of company, of which I will give chronological highlights at the end of this piece.
There are big differences among collapsenik authors and even in a single author at different times. A spectrum exists, from those who feel we could avoid the worst of climate change by changing our ways substantially ("we're sleepwalking toward disaster but could conceivably wake up") to those who believe our species is doomed ("it's already too late"). For example, scientist Guy McPherson has come to believe that, as a species, we are headed toward "near-term extinction" (niftily abbreviated as NTE).
While pessimists predict NTE, optimists envision the triumph of a progressive politics that would render climate change survivable, perhaps shifting us toward a steady-state economy, slowing the sixth extinction of species, and fostering a network of local and democratic institutions. An optimistic scenario would resonate with what Macy, expressing hope, now calls "The Great Turning."
In contrast, McPherson argues that it's already too late for ad equate reform: humans have inadvertently created feedback loops that will keep making the situation worse. For example, the release of methane, caused (in part) by warming of the shallow Arctic ocean and the Siberian and Canadian tundra, will cause more warming because methane is a greenhouse gas even more dangerous than CO2. And so on.
Humans don't have a very good record of predicting the future, in spite of various divinatory schemes. Whether developments are technological, political, or economic, we have proceeded without reliable forecasts. Given the surprises inherent in complex systems and in technical development, nobody can show that we face certain demise, though we can discuss probabilities.
Could we learn to regard collapse not as a firm prediction but as a scenario worth exploring? After all, the Pentagon has contingency plans for events that are arguably less likely and less devastating.
To return to our original question, what could be the use of taking seriously a scenario of collapse, especially the views that argue that it's already too late or that changes could help, but probably won't be made? If we feel grief at what seems to be happening, instead of simply seeming smug in a prediction of certain doom, if we invent ways to lessen the turbulence and create the best that is possible in the new circumstances, if we live intensely instead of habitually, then the scenario of demise might seem no worse than knowing that, as individuals, we each will die. Meanwhile, what are we capable of?