Of Collapsology

Scott McLemee reviews How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens.

June 19, 2020
 
 

On New Year’s day, I posted on social media a passage from the Encyclopedia Galactica, a reference work to be published several millennia from now but available to me, on occasion, because I know a guy. (Long story.) “Given developments over the next several decades,” it read, “many looked back on the 2010s as a period of relative stability …”

Well, that didn’t take long to confirm. In the meantime Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens’s How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times (Polity Press) has arrived in English translation, offering an assessment of several trend lines already obvious when the book was published in France five years ago. The authors (an agronomist and an expert in the resilience of socio-ecological systems, respectively) have coined a semi-sardonic term, “collapsology,” to name the transdisciplinary field of study for which their book is a primer.

A little irony is understandable insofar as “collapse” implies a discrete event, unmistakable and undeniable: the sudden, swift implosion of a structure. Given that connotation, to speak of the collapse of industrial civilization means risking the suspicion that you are, like Chicken Little, extrapolating wildly from dubious information. Servigne and Stevens do not make forecasts or resort to scenario building. (In that regard, collapsology differs from the old futurology, which was prone to blending social science and science fiction into projections that seldom aged well.) For them, collapse is an array of processes developing at different tempos, with effects that may vary by geography, and interacting in ways that defy generalization, much less prediction.

What the authors call their “manual for our times” is part of the ongoing effort to re-evaluate globalization-think in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and its anxious aftermath. With hindsight, the integration of whole continents into even larger networks of transportation, communication, supply chains and currency flows was predicated on an expectation that continual economic growth would establish durable harmonies of interest. The emerging order would be complex but self-reinforcing. A rising tide would lift all boats, which would all have Wi-Fi eventually.

Unsustainable elements of this system, particularly of the environmental kind, were in view even before the end of the 20th century. If not just the tide but the ocean level itself were rising, it would obliterate the existing coastline, with an incalculable impact on the residents, human and otherwise. When the specter of global financial collapse returned in 2008, the sharp increase in food prices caused riots in at least 35 countries, followed by a prolonged phase of reduced growth. That did not, however, reverse the trend toward longer and more complex supply chains:

“Our living conditions at this precise time and in this precise place,” the authors say, “depend on what happened a short time ago in many places on Earth … A shock such as the insolvency of a supplier spreads vertically and then horizontally as it destabilizes competitors. To crown it all, supply chains are all the more fragile as they depend on the good health of the financial system that provides the credit lines necessary to any economic activity.”

Here the potential for myriad social and political upheavals is practically built into the system. But Servigne and Stevens identify a more fundamental element of instability than either financial volatility or the precarious long-distance functioning of production networks: the declining rate of energy return on investment. EROI is the amount of energy surplus generated per unit of energy required to generate it. “At the beginning of the twentieth century,” they write, “U.S. oil had a fantastic EROI of 100:1 … In 1990 it had fallen to only 35:1, and today [2015] it is about 11:1. As a comparison, the average EROI of the world’s production of conventional oil is between 10:1 and 20:1.”

Nor is the problem limited to petroleum, since renewable energy sources have a significantly lower return, with solar energy’s EROI in the range of 1.6 to 2.5 units generated for the amount invested in manufacturing the technology. Hydroelectricity’s EROI is a quite respectable 35 to one or 49 to one but can do serious damage to the natural habitat. The existing infrastructure of 21st-century global capitalism -- “swift transport, long and fluid supply chains, industrial agriculture, heating, water purification, the internet and so on” -- was forged in a period of high EROI that there is no reason to expect will return. “Ultimately,” the authors say, “modernity will not have died of its postmodern philosophical wounds but because it has run out of energy.”

My overview here is very schematic, while the book itself is packed with both data and salient conceptual distinctions garnered from numerous studies -- most of them published over the past 20 years. One is the NASA-funded Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY) model of a civilization’s development given certain biophysical constraints and parameters of economic inequality. The HANDY results were published in 2014, indicating that growing disparities in wealth rendered even a presumably “sustainable” or eco-friendly economic system susceptible to long-term decline. Optimism seems imprudent.

“Today, as most poor countries and the majority of people in rich countries suffer from astonishing levels of inequality and the destruction of their living conditions, ever more piercing cries of alarm rise into the media sky,” write Servigne and Stevens. “But those who find this annoying inveigh against ‘catastrophism,’ while others shoot the messengers, and nobody really cares.” I think the authors would admit that last bit is an overstatement. But the point is that we have no idea what it would take to change the situation, or to find the will.

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