Since I began to pay attention to how people respond to their anticipation of collapse, I have learned that the responses are far more diverse than I could have ever imagined before I stopped suppressing my own anticipation. After the Deep Adaptation paper came out I wrote about the myriad responses that seemed reasonable to me at the time. I shared that to encourage the idea there is not just one right way to respond to an anticipation of collapse. Over the last few years, I have become more aware of how some people are responding in less than helpful ways to their own conclusion that societal collapse is probable, inevitable or already beginning. Given that collapse anticipation triggers difficult emotions, unhelpful responses can be expected, and yet as such anticipation spreads, it will be helpful to identify problematic responses so we can invite people away from them. With that aim, I will summarise some of them in this essay, with labels for each, to enable future discussion.
The fifteen responses I describe below are not from people who believe we can prevent societal collapse, but from people who now think it likely, inevitable or already underway. Sometimes I hear or read from people who express a mixture of these responses. Some people express them when feeling particularly anxious, and then return to a wiser, kinder and creative place in themselves. In this text I won’t provide examples or references, as my intention is not to complain about individuals. However, the following discussion may be triggering if you have previously experienced the field of people engaged in collapse anticipation as purely supportive, rather than challenging. I hope the benefit of reflection from seeing these responses presented in this way will outweigh any discomfort.
- One response that has become obvious from seeing reports and speeches from military officials is the quiet planning for conflict at home and abroad to seek to maintain authority and even the capacity to fight. Typically, the avoidance of public scrutiny for such preparations is justified by such people with the idea they are avoiding public panic while preparing for the worst. That reflects the narcissism and cowardice that can be present within any group of people within powerful institutions. Given that any military around the world that is scheming in this way must know that their counterparts in other countries will be scheming in the same way, it is an idiotic build up in the ideological basis for conflict. The reasons this response is problematic include how militaries will start pre-emptive conflicts ahead of many actual disturbances, rather than supporting multilateral collaboration. We could call this the #CowardlyAssuredDestruction response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “it is really sad but we have to be realistic about preserving our defensive capabilities.” We can respect their concern for security while inviting them to see the need to work on more multilateral responses.
- Some intellectuals have been theorising new ethical frameworks of ‘realistic hope’ that seem to me to be thinly veiled attempts to make people accept the exploitation or oppression of people who are less connected to the lives of the intellectuals (and their readers). Such frameworks are scholarly attempts to escape the unbearable pain some people feel about the terrible situation facing their children and grandchildren. What such intellectuals overlook is that if everyone in every country is nervously favouring their grandkids to the detriment of everyone else’s, that is bad news for all grandkids. The reasons this response is problematic include how it will provide cover for a lack of international solidarity and collaboration. We could call this the #PanickingGrandpa response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “I can’t let my distaste for certain kinds of politics get in the way of doing what I can for my granddaughter’s future.” We can appreciate their love for their families while inviting them to see the futility and counterproductiveness of their intellectualising .
- Another response from some activists, scientists and commentators is seeking a personal role within the wider societal realisation of collapse risk, due to a compulsion to feel a sense of agency, self-esteem and perhaps even some personal redemption from the situation. That can involve a subconscious desire to feel superior to the people, and the aspects of people, that caused the climate disaster. The reasons this response is problematic include how attention can be grabbed by people seeking to build their status and career, rather than explore openly what is needed. It also means unprocessed emotions and existential terror could lead to authoritarian and risky decision making if and when such people gain influence. We could call this the #ListenToMe response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “I am trying to make this agenda feel safe for the powerful people and institutions so that things will shift with the necessary speed.” We can respect their concern for practical action while inviting them to consider how desperately seeking personal redemption through influence will carry a destructive shadow.
- Turning to the more fundamentalist religious institutions and leaders for explanations and advice without questioning why they were so slow to respect and respond to the predicament, is another response. It can lead to people accepting stories that fellow believers are better than non-believers, and that God is punishing humanity or saving some of humanity not others. Such religious extremism ignores the core insights of all religions about universal love, that are expressed well by all the teachings in all their mystical traditions. The reasons this response is problematic include that it increases a sense of separation from fellow human beings in the most extreme way – at the level of someone’s intrinsic worth – as well as reducing the inclination for exploratory dialogue and learning about how to respond to our predicament. We could call this the #ReligiousBigot response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “My faith in Jesus means that I am not concerned about how these might be the End Times.” We can respect their reverence for the knowledge and guidance of religious traditions as they seek to do the right thing, while inviting them to consider how every human is as much God’s creation as themselves.
- Another response has a long history for when societies or their elites are stressed, but it is only recently becoming expressed in response to collapse anticipation. That is the mix of nationalism and authoritarianism, whereby the national interest is assumed to be best served by people submitting to national elites and their argument that who is to blame for people’s problems lies either outside of the nation, or outside of those who are obedient to the elites. Such authoritarian nationalisms do not need to be racial and can also be sub-state or pan-state. The reasons this response is problematic include everything we know of 20th century history. We could call this the ecofascist response, but as they may or may not even mention the environment, it’s more simply the #Neofascist response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “I’m sure the powers-that-be are working out how we will cope with these impacts.” We can respect their desire for solidarity with others through the identity that they grew up with – as a citizen of a nation – while inviting them to consider how they risk being manipulated by people using stories of patriotism to secure their own power.
- Another response has some backing from scientists and is increasingly promoted by public relations agencies working for big corporations. It is based on the privately-held belief that while many societies will fail, there will be some networks of people and organisations that will be able to maintain sufficient geo-engineering capabilities to sustain a liveable environment for humanity. Although some technologies will be useful to the future of humanity, an aspect of this response is to focus on a grand scale, believe in acting unilaterally, and that technology is the answer, rather than a risky tool in the box. They do not believe it will preserve or solve all societies’ problems but that it must be deployed by people with the expertise and power to do so. The reasons this response is problematic include the dangers of many geoengineering projects as well as the uneven impacts that different ones will have on different regions of the planet. We could call this the #Technosupremacist response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “It’s too late not to try this technology to save our civilisation from catastrophe.” We can respect their interest in using all the creative capabilities of humanity to try to save lives, while inviting them to consider how decisions to use risky technologies should be accountable to the people affected.
- One phenomenon I have witnessed quite widely is where collapse anticipators decide not to talk to children about their anticipation of collapse, with the perspective that the children won’t be able to cope. Clearly some children are too young to understand concepts like the climate or the future. However, from the age of 9, many children can have meaningful conversations about such matters. Not talking with them means adults can’t discover that many children have better approaches to the emotions that arise, less investment in the current culture, no pain yet about offspring, and amazing ideas and energy about how to live ‘post-doom’. The reasons this reticence to talk is problematic include how it removes the possibility for the everyday ‘kitchen table dialogue’ that is helpful for people of all ages to express and move beyond difficult emotions. We could call this the #TongueTiedAdult response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “I am really upset at how some doomers are upsetting the children. I’m worried about the impact on their mental development and health.” We can respect their concern for the wellbeing of children while inviting them to consider how they might actually be protecting themselves from their own pain at the situation.
- Another response to anticipated collapse typically comes with little to no mention of the environment, but with a level of concern about social changes which suggests a subconscious intuition of the predicament. These are the people who speak of a decay of modern values, that derive from the Enlightenment and era of Modernity, and who seek to restore those values. They try to defend the ideology of the culture that has degraded the basis for life on Earth by either misrepresenting critiques of that culture, or picking holes in some of the weaker criticisms. Thus the coherent critiques of patriarchy, Modernity, and scientism are misrepresented to suggest that Modernity, Western culture, and an unreconstructed masculinity, are all valid and in need of defence by right-thinking moral people. They might be in a bargaining phase of grief as they notice the death of a culture that has given them safety, comfort, meaning and status. The reasons this response is problematic include not only a sapping of intellectual time and energy away from a deeper exploration of what we might learn from our predicament, but the creation of an identity of superiority that could justify unaccountable expressions of power. Because this response is dominated by men who exhibit signs of a personal affront to their identity from the people and ideas they criticise, we could call this the #PlasticMasculinity response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “he reveals how a deficit in our mythopoetic structures means the upregulating of experts on this matter has been so difficult.” We can respect their concern for applying intellect to the problems of the world, while inviting them to consider how they might be missing something through an aggressive rather than reflective approach to the situation.
- Some people respond to the predicament with rhetoric that invites aggression towards human life. I have argued publicly with people who concoct rationales for why being against violence in political activism is bad. They encourage people to consider the merits of violence against the people they consider have more influence over the harm. Some advocates of violence even use categories of race, nationality, gender, or age to suggest that some people have more guilt for the current predicament and less intrinsic worth because of the identities they are ascribed. The reasons this response is problematic are many, including how counterproductive it is to organising social movements. We could call this the #FakeRadical response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “It’s only their privilege that means they disagree with me.” We can respect their concern for social justice, while inviting them to consider how they might be allowing their unprocessed trauma and anger to determine political positions which are neither ethically coherent nor well evidenced as successful.
- Some people are responding to their anticipation or experience of collapse with the idea that the collapse of society is the revenge of nature on humanity. In some cases this helps people to make sense of terrible personal disruption and loss. Yet some are implying that we might care less about people’s wellbeing or suffering because it is a natural revenge. Such a perspective is deeply confused, given that the people who are and will suffer the most are not those people who caused the problem. We could call this the #FuckTheLotOfThem response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “We had it coming” and “the Planet will be better without us.” We can respect their attempts at equanimity, while inviting them to consider how they might be adding personal insult to collective injury, as they close down their ability to be present to people and nature.
- Another kind of response that is more prevalent in the environmental activism world is to reject and condemn all attempts to change society at scale, in favour of purely personal lifestyle changes, sometimes in cooperation with a small group of fellow believers. Whereas consuming less, being self-sufficient, practicing yoga or other forms of self-care are all admirable and necessary things to do, to believe that they mean we should try nothing else does not make sense when there is a global scale problem and non-local actors determining the outcomes locally. Some people who respond in this way go much further with the philosophical and spiritual stories to explain their choices. For instance, some argue we need to create cult-like communities that will provide the new templates for life, and others say by giving all our attention to higher consciousness we can both physically and metaphysically split from the worsening reality. The reasons this response is problematic include how it is an unhelpful impediment to organising for social change and how it numbs people to others’ suffering. Another potential problem is that it could lead to abusive collapse-cults. We could call this the #GreenBypass response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “The only way forward is to leave behind patterns of lower consciousness and create new communities with our own sacraments and systems.” We can respect their interest in living their values in their lives, while inviting them to consider how their choices reveal values that seem little to revere or evangelise about.
- Another response is one I have experienced in people who take the predicament deeply seriously. It is where one not only values, psychologically and spiritually, the embrace of the dark aspects of reality (and the shadows in each of us) but then allows that perspective to suppress positivity, creativity and agency in oneself and others. The disdain for any impulse for agency can lead to a wallowing in the negative in ways which make peaceful engaged action feel like a sacrifice, and therefore unsustainable. We could call this the #SpiritualUnderpass response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “You are trying to do something about this predicament at a scale just because your ego wants you to be distracted from the pain.” We can respect their commitment to staying present to the pain and suffering of the world, while inviting them to consider how their trauma from previous disappointment means their fear of further disappointments is stunting their creativity.
- It might sound outlandish and foolish to mention here, but another unhelpful spirituality-related response to collapse anticipation is growing online. It involves people pretending to themselves and to others that societal collapse is the result of lizard people. Sometimes such stories are mixed with other elements of conspiracy theories, such as paedophile rings in the deep state.The reason that a retreat into conspiracy theory is problematic is that it gives people an easy target for their anger while stripping them of agency. Similarly conspiracy theories may appeal to precisely those people who feel powerless. We could call this the #Conspirituality response. It is so effective in undermining civil dialogue towards effective social change, that a conspiracy theory that conspiracy theories are secretly funded by vested interests would have some explanatory power! People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “The truth is finally being revealed as people step into their Christed consciousness and will rise up to free humanity.” We can respect their desire to reject mainstream corporate and state narratives, while inviting them to consider how they have no real evidence for their views and are likely to get bored when they realise they have no agency or sane friends left.
- A related phenomenon, and yet different because it involves something that, surprisingly, might be true, is the recent belief that aliens or their technology will save humanity and other life on Earth. This perspective is taking off more now that military agencies have released more information on UFOs. I hope that there are beneficent aliens and that they care about life on Earth, but not enough to extinguish Homo Sapiens. Clearly, if there are extra-terrestrial lifeforms visiting us then they easily could have been doing that for millennia and so their positive or negative involvement in life on Earth could have already been underway for that whole time. The idea that they come now to fix things for modern humans is purely speculative. The reasons this view is problematic include how it means people can distract themselves from the situation and their choices going forward. We could call this the #ETSaveHome response. People trapped in this response are typically heard saying phrases like “Not all the top officials are defensive and are probably trying to get help to fix things on Earth.” We can respect their openness to new information that would change everything we understand about ourselves, while inviting them to consider how their view is a calming way of letting out-of-this-world hope (literally) justify their lack of engagement.
- The final response I want to mention here is from some of the people who are pretending in public not to anticipate collapse. They are beginning their personal prepping through planning a life with more self-sufficiency, distance from population centres and means of exclusion and defence, while publicly undermining the people who promote collapse awareness to invite public dialogue on the implications. I know at least two key critics of collapse anticipation who are themselves privately preparing for collapse through moving to rural areas and getting their properties ready as much as they can. I don’t know if this is a conscious strategy to try and delay the hordes while they prioritize their own safety. The reasons this is problematic include how it is undermining the chances for civil dialogue about our predicament. We could call this the #BluffAndRun response. We can respect their panic, confusion, and cognitive dissonance as natural aspects of being human, while inviting them to consider how they are exhibiting machiavellian narcissism which will require therapeutic intervention to reduce the chances of them being kicked out of whatever community they eventually hunker down in.
Because I anticipate some of the worst case scenarios (not near term human extinction), and yet do not conclude with apathy, I could be called a positive pessimist. Each of the responses I have summarised above are forms of positive pessimism going wrong. To varying degrees we all choose narratives that justify how we feel. Most of us feel excluded from all the important decisions influencing our future. That leads to a feeling of lack of agency. How do we feel better about such a lack? Many of us will adopt narratives to justify ourselves. Which gives rise to the range of unhelpful responses I have just summarised. So what can we do about it to help each other express our wiser selves? One way is to help each other find a sense of agency, without denial, delusion or demonisation. Another way is to find ways of responding that feel meaningful without requiring a sense of agency at scale. It is a topic I explore in my notes on discussing disruptions like the pandemic with people with polarised views and finding wisdom in the face of collapse. It is also something I explore in a paper on why facilitation of group dialogue for deep adaptation is so important.
If you want to explore ways of finding, promoting and sustaining a positive pessimism that is helpful in the face of collapse, then I recommend either my one course this year, in July, or my book that is out in June. In both, our focus is on what is good, rather than listing the unhelpful stuff. My 2018 list of responses to collapse anticipation that I did not consider to be so unhelpful is here.
Comments are welcome below (use the hashtag of the label of the response to refer to it)