How Everything Can Collapse – my foreword to new book

This is my foreword to the new book “How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens.  The book is released June 2020 by Polity.

Candles Only Shine Within Darkness 

By Professor Jem Bendell, author of Deep Adaptation.

When we read the latest news of disasters, disease, extreme weather, changes to our planet and scientists’ warnings, it is natural to feel unease, even fear. Some of you may have even suffered direct consequences of climate chaos, such as failing harvests, forest fires, disease or political unrest from prolonged drought. If so, I want to recognise at the outset that my own anxiety about the future is nothing compared to what you have already been through. And that people like me can learn from you. Yet all of us are now being affected by the climate crisis in some way, whether it is from rising prices or the rise of extremism as people feel unsafe and uncertain. Many of us have busy lives and obligations, which means that although we sense this growing danger, it is difficult to turn towards it. Without time to delve into this issue, how can I know what the real situation is? What are the issues to consider or the options we have? Who should we talk to about it all?

These are the difficulties for even starting a conversation about the breakdown or collapse of the society we live in due to climate change. It is why this book, and the past work of Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens are so helpful in starting the conversation. The first step in engaging with this topic is to allow yourself to consider “what if” the future is as difficult for humanity, everywhere, as some of the scholars are now saying. If you do allow that outlook into your consciousness, then you are embarking on a bizarre ride.

Well, at least it has been a bizarre ride for me! Every person’s journey on this topic will be different, especially when the months go by and the impacts will worsen while more of our friends, colleagues, and neighbours will wake up to our predicament.

First, there is the self-doubt.

Is it really so bad? Might someone or some technology be able to stop it? Is it helpful to have such a negative outlook on the future? Does that mean I have a negative view on human nature? Will I be able to cope with life if I accept such a bleak view of our future? Such doubts are natural, even before we begin to talk to others about our perspective.

Second, there are painful emotions.

Once one has accepted that our societies will break down or collapse, there can be great sorrow, fear and confusion. How did we do this to life on Earth? Who are we as a species? What could I do to help the people I love? What could I do to help humanity and nature? How bad will it get? Where and when? It can be normal to experience moments of panic. Some of us can also feel like blaming someone, as anger provides a momentary release from our fear. We might also jump from one simple answer or preoccupation to another. Yet none of these mental habits will distract us from the underlying pain for very long.

Third, there is a sense of isolation.

Who can I talk to about this? Will they think I am overly anxious or depressed? Will they be traumatised, so I will feel bad about triggering their pain? How can I talk about this with young people? Where is there advice or guidance on how to be with this perspective, let alone how to start changing my life as a result?

Fourth, there is a new community.

Suddenly we find people we can talk to about the situation and share ideas about how we live with it and what to do next. I have experienced the excitement of meeting people in this way. Yet also, there is pain. Because the joy of connection then increases the sense of forthcoming loss. As the situation we connect with is so challenging, emotions can run high. More community means more of every human emotion.

Fifth, there is the backlash.

What did he say about me? Why would she say that it is immoral to have concluded how bad our situation is? Why is there such anger in their criticism? What are they hiding from themselves? Shall I just disengage in conversations with them and live my own truth? If I do, does that mean I am giving up on engaging in society to try and reduce harm? Why should I have to do that?

Sixth, there is the transformation.

But there is not one path of transformation. You will have your experience and come to your own conclusions. One reason I introduced a Deep Adaptation framework was to open up conversations on the myriad of potential responses once we believe that the breakdown or collapse of our civilisation is likely or inevitable within our own lifetimes. Your inner and outer transformation could be supported through newfound community and resources like this book, but ultimately you need to find your own path in what is completely new territory for humanity.

Seventh, there is dying well.

Although we all die, modern society seems to hide this away from our daily consciousness. An awakening to our climate predicament is an awakening to our common mortality and impermanence more generally. Often talk of responding to climate chaos, including how it can transform our lives, can focus on what we can do differently, where there is an assumption it is only about how we live differently. That is not enough. Instead, we can ask what dying well might look like for us. What do I want to look back on? How do I want to approach death? What might I die for? How do I feel about what happens, if anything, after death? How might I help others to approach the death of themselves and others more consciously and lovingly?

I share with you some of these steps to map some of the new reality for people who are collapse-aware. I think I do that because I want to belong. I want to engage in conversations where we weave new stories of being in these troubling times. That is why I welcome the work of people like Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens. Because the first step towards creating those new conversations that create new stories and belonging is to break the taboo around climate-induced collapse. When I wrote my paper on Deep Adaptation to imminent climate collapse, I did not know that there was a field of scholarship and action on this topic. There certainly wasn’t such a field within my own areas of expertise. As I explained in my paper, it was taboo. Since the paper went viral around the world, I discovered people exploring this terrain and changing their lives. Thousands of people were getting in touch, and so I encouraged them all to connect with each other by launching a Deep Adaptation Forum. We are mostly an English language network, yet I have been telling people of Pablo and Raphaël’s earlier work and am keen to learn from the work in France and elsewhere. This book will help you to discover that work, and join an ever-widening conversation about what to do in the face of this most difficult predicament.

It requires some courage to break a taboo. It requires some courage to make people aware of darkness that they had not seen before or had turned away from. Especially when that darkness is not in the changing climate and the institutions that have damaged our world, but is also within us. Because we have all participated in both the creation of this disaster and the ignoring of it. Or being satisfied with ineffectual action that provided us with a believable myth of being a good person. As such, climate chaos is an invitation to go deeper into self-reflection and learn about why we have participated in such destruction. From that inquiry we may find ways of living that avoid making matters worse. Bringing attention to the darkness around us, ahead of us and inside of us is essential if we are then to light candles of wisdom. People who are bringing attention to the darkness are also lighting candles of wisdom. Candles only shine within darkness. As more candles are lit, so we can see each other anew. We can connect with what is burning inside our hearts and live from that truth more fully than before.

NB: This foreword was written in September 2019 before the covid19 pandemic.