Essay: James Bradleyon collapse

The Library at the End of the World

In the middle of last year, I visited Hobart. Officially, I was there to help run a writing workshop; unofficially, I was there for a gathering organised by a philanthropist with an interest in the environment. The guest list was eclectic – some scientists, an artist who has been creating work from ocean plastics and her partner, a writer or two – but there was no agenda, no expectation of resolutions or outcomes. Instead, seated in an old building in Hobart’s city centre, we talked about our work, the world, the future, searching out points of connection and intersection, discussing ways of expressing and managing the fears we were all, in our different ways, grappling with.

Afterwards, I headed south to the farm of an old friend who moved to Tasmania several years ago. I was excited to see him, but also a little dislocated by the day, and indeed the months leading up to it. I had just finished writing a long essay about hope and denial in the face of the climate crisis, and at what point the two become indistinguishable. None of the material in the essay was new to me, but writing it had left me even more uncomfortably aware than usual of my failure to think through what I intend to do if – or when – things go bad. ‘When it happens, it will happen fast,’ one of the scientists had said. ‘And probably sooner than people expect.’ ‘Our place is built back from the road so it’s hidden from strangers,’ said another. ‘That’s going to matter.’ It had been like hanging out with the worst support group ever.

At the farm, this conversation about the end of the world continued, growing increasingly raucous as the night went on. One by one, though, the other guests began to leave or creep off to bed, until finally, sometime after midnight, my friend and I stumbled outside and stared up at the stars.

It was winter, the night air freezing, and overhead the stars were impossibly numerous, impossibly bright, the great girdle of the Milky Way luminous. For a moment I was unable to speak, dizzied by the wonder of it, the idea the light we were seeing was ancient, that much of it had been travelling since before Europeans invaded the land I was standing on, since before the birth of Christ, or the birth of the stories of Gilgamesh, Thoth and Osiris, since before the first intimations of the even older stories of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Since before there were human beings at all.

We’d been drinking, and it’s possible at least one of us was wearing a fake moustache. But as we stood there, my friend suddenly grew serious. ‘There’s a chance I might come into some money,’ he said. ‘And if I do, I’m going to build a library. Just up there, at the back of the property.’

As he explained his plan to me, it became clear he wasn’t envisaging some grand structure: more a granny flat that could serve as a repository for books and documents. Yet as he spoke, I could hear the same anxiety that had underpinned the conversation about bunkers back in the city. Something is coming, he was saying, something terrifying and incomprehensible, a storm that will wipe all this away. In such a situation, a library would not be a folly or an indulgence, it would be a lifeboat, a way of bearing some part of what we are into an increasingly unimaginable future.

My friend isn’t alone in his anxiety. Earlier this year, climate scientist Joëlle Gergis wrote about her work as one of the lead authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, due for release in 2022, and in particular about recent research by Australian scientists that suggests previous climate models have seriously underestimated the sensitivity of the Earth’s systems. Temperatures could rise much faster and much higher than previously thought. According to these new models, in the worst case scenarios Australia could warm by a previously unthinkable seven degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Even under lower emission scenarios, temperatures are likely to rise more than previously thought. More frighteningly, the study showed that on our current emissions trajectory we are likely to reach two degrees of warming by 2040. ‘The implications of this are unimaginable – we may witness planetary collapse far sooner than we once thought,’ wrote Gergis. ‘How could we not understand that life as we know it is unravelling before our eyes? That we have unleashed intergenerational warming that will be with us for millennia?’

The fires, heatwaves and storms in Australia and North America over the past twelve months have given us terrifying glimpses of what this future will look like. But they are only the beginning. As University of Illinois climate scientist Cristi Proistosescu noted recently, the time has come to stop thinking of this month’s record heat in California as the warmest August of the past hundred years, instead we need to start thinking of it as the coolest August of the next hundred years.

Even at two degrees our world will be utterly transformed: food and water scarcity, ecosystem collapse, extreme weather and disease will generate large movements of people within and between countries and are likely to cause widespread social unrest and political instability. Beyond that the scenarios grow ever more horrific, with large areas of the world rendered effectively uninhabitable by the end of the century and billions displaced, with calamitous implications for regional and global security and the lives and futures of those displaced. The first stages in this process are already underway in many parts of the world. In the United States 1.2 million people have been displaced by disasters annually since 2016. And in Southeast Asia, Central America and the African Sahel, millions are already on the move. And these numbers will only increase in years to come.

The failure to take concerted action sooner also means that much of this change is now unavoidable, because the planet will continue to warm no matter what we do. Indeed many experts worry we may have already passed the point where it is possible to prevent a process of runaway warming that will push the Earth into a radically less habitable hothouse climate state. In an article published in Nature late last year, seven of the world’s leading climate scientists warned of the possibility of ‘large-scale discontinuities’ with only one to two degrees of warming. Pointing to research showing worrying changes in nine of the fifteen systems that regulate the Earth’s climate, they argued current our current emissions trajectory risks triggering a global cascade of tipping points that would pose an ‘existential threat to civilization’. Speaking earlier this year Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and one of the authors of the article, said it is possible collapse is already inevitable:

Given the momentum in both the Earth and human systems, and the growing difference between the ‘reaction time’ needed to steer humanity towards a more sustainable future, and the ‘intervention time’ left to avert a range of catastrophes in both the physical climate system (e.g., melting of Arctic sea ice) and the biosphere (e.g., loss of the Great Barrier Reef), we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse … That is, the intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.

Others share Steffen’s pessimism. Last year, Melbourne-based think tank the Breakthrough Centre for Climate Restoration produced a report that argued ‘climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization’. It presented a plausible portrait of the national security implications of the disruption of global food and water supplies due to rapid global heating. In so doing, it offered ‘a glimpse into a world of ‘outright chaos’ on a path to the end of human civilisation and modern society as we have known it, in which the challenges to global security are simply overwhelming and political panic becomes the norm.’ Yet as the report’s authors note, ‘the world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change.’

In a similar vein, Simon Beard, from Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, has suggested we are perilously close to entering ‘a global systems death spiral’, in which pressures on social systems converge, creating a feedback loop. ‘You … get food security collapsing, political systems collapsing [and then] rising levels of environmental destruction. With this many people, that could be genuinely devastating for all of humanity.’

Others go further still. In 2017, Jem Bendell, a professor of sustainability at England’s Cumbria University, published a paper in which he accused his colleagues of failing to come to terms with the true implications of current climate science. Arguing near-term social collapse is now inevitable, Bendell proposed we needed to let go of the idea our world might be saved, and instead reframe our approach to the problems we face in ways that acknowledge reality instead of denying it, a conceptual framework he dubbed ‘Deep Adaptation’.

Bendell’s paper is important, and deserves to be read in its entirety. In contrast to most academic papers, it is candid about its author’s feelings of fear and hopelessness. ‘Even four years after I first let myself consider near-term extinction properly, not as something to dismiss, it still makes my jaw drop, eyes moisten, and air escape my lungs.’ And, rather than offering specific prescriptions for action, he advocates for radical honesty in the face of loss and disaster. What do we really want to save, he asks, and what is it no longer possible to hold on to? What do we need to let go of if we are to avoid making things worse? Perhaps most importantly, how do we come to grips with the certainty of our own mortality?

Bendell’s paper is profoundly clarifying, as is his demand we let go of magical thinking and denial and admit the world we know is already gone. Yet I would not be the first to observe that there is a slippage in his argument, a blurring of the distinction between possible (or even probable) short-term collapse and inevitable short-term collapse, or to question his reliance on worst-case scenarios to support his case. Nor am I alone in feeling uneasy about the way an emphasis upon inevitability focuses our attention inward, on questions of personal grief and fear, instead of turning our gaze outwards towards the structures and institutions driving the crisis. The climate emergency is not a natural phenomenon or a disease, something that just happened, it is the result of specific actions taken by a relatively small cabal of corporations and their political enablers in the full knowledge of what they were doing. Or, in Utah Phillips’ words, ‘the earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses’. Given that, is grief really the most appropriate – or useful – response? Wouldn’t it be better to hold those responsible accountable? To overthrow the structures that have made their actions possible? After all, as John Lydon famously observed, ‘anger is an energy’.

Still, in the face of such a convulsion, it is tempting to envision what is coming as a kind of rupture or discontinuity without precedent. As the eminent pyrohistorian Stephen Pyne writes:

So dire is the picture that some observers argue that the past is irrelevant. We are headed into a no-narrative, no-analogue future. So immense and unimaginable are the coming upheavals that the arc of inherited knowledge that joins us to the past has broken. There is no precedent for what we are about to experience, no means by which to triangulate from accumulated human wisdom into a future unlike anything we have known before.

Yet as Pyne notes, we should be wary of claims that our current situation is without parallel. Human societies have risen and fallen for thousands of years. Wouldn’t a better understanding of the factors that drive their success or failure illuminate our current predicament?

These questions lie at the heart of a growing body of work that seeks to identify the vulnerabilities of industrial civilization, and to explore the ways in which the intersecting and interconnected ecological, economic and political crises we face might cause it to unravel. Dubbed ‘collapsology’ by French agronomist Pablo Servigne and systems expert Raphaël Stevens in their book, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times (2020), this relatively new discipline draws on work in fields ranging from biology and anthropology to political theory, computer science, sociology, economics and geography.

As How Everything Can Collapse demonstrates, the chief interest of collapsology is the immediate past and near future. Yet it also draws lessons from the work of the various historians and archaeologists who have sought to place the development and decline of cultures and societies within a larger framework, or to theorise collapse.

The rise and fall of civilisations has been a preoccupation of historians for almost as long as history has existed, (Edward Gibbon, anybody?), yet in its contemporary incarnation the two most influential contributions are those of anthropologist and historian, Joseph A. Tainter and historian, geographer and ecologist Jared Diamond. In The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), Tainter argues societies tend to become more complex over time, as their responses to challenges and opportunity lead to ever-increasing levels of social and economic specialisation. This specialisation is expensive in material terms, often involving whole classes of workers and specialists whose role is not the production of food or other basic needs, but instead coordinating and managing the structures that sustain the society. Collapse for Tainter is therefore the rapid simplification of these same social and political structures.

In his wildly successful Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (2005), Diamond adopts Tainter’s notion of collapse as a rapid reduction in social, economic or social complexity, but adds a demographic element as well, arguing collapse often also includes a drastic decrease in human population. This addition is significant, because it lends an apocalyptic or millenarian dimension to the concept. But Diamond also – importantly – emphasises environmental factors, in particular rapid increases in population, deforestation and over-exploitation of resources. Exploring case studies as diverse as the Maya, the Anasazi, the Rapa Nui, the Norse settlements in Greenland, and more recent calamities such as the Rwandan genocide, he discerns a pattern in which overpopulation leads to deforestation or unsustainable farming practices, degrading the local environment and leading to food shortages that result in violence, political instability and, ultimately, depopulation and collapse. This process is usually hastened by other causes – climate change in the case of the Mayans and the Greenland Norse, isolation and political and religious factors in the case of the Rapa Nui – but its basic outline remains the same across cultures and across time, as do its lessons for us today. As Diamond concludes, ‘The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious,’ and provide ‘a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.’

Diamond’s book has been controversial. Historians have suggested his approach depends on highly selective use of evidence, and sometimes questionable interpretations that are driven by his larger argument about environmental exploitation and degradation. In Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire (2010), a collection of essays edited by archaeologists Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee, contributors point to the fact that seven million people still speak Mayan languages, a fact that contradicts the claim Mayan society disappeared. They also suggest that even the seemingly simple story about environmental devastation leading to the collapse of Rapa Nui’s society is questionable, given people were still living on the island when Europeans arrived. As McAnany and Yoffee conclude, ‘on close inspection of archaeological evidence … it becomes clear that human resilience is the rule rather than the exception.’

Guy D. Middleton makes a similar point in Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths (2017), in which he questions what we mean by collapse. A decline in population? Over what period? A loss of sociopolitical complexity? At what level? The end of the British Empire devolved power onto individual nations, but it was not a collapse in any meaningful sense. Likewise the end of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD did not bring about the abrupt end of Roman society and culture, suggesting cultures often endure even when particular political or religious regimes fail or are transformed. Indeed in   many instances we might just as easily celebrate such transformations as examples of successful adaptation and change, and see in them evidence of continuity rather than cautionary tales of collapse.

As Middleton observes, the way we frame and interpret events frequently says more about our own anxieties than it does about historical reality. This is particularly true of the kind of ecological overshoot argument Diamond favours. Citing Joseph A. Tainter’s observation that there ‘does not presently appear to be a confirmed case of overshoot, resource degradation, and collapse brought about by overpopulation and/or mass consumption,’ Middleton notes that not only do ‘overshoot models strongly reflect contemporary concerns’, but that most of their ‘most ardent proponents are outside of archaeology’. And, perhaps most importantly, that they tend to ‘see populations as either unwitting victims of natural circumstances, such as climate change, or as ignorant and irresponsible ecocidal architects of their own doom’.

A similar insight underpins Dutch historian Dagmar Degroot’s The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age and the Dutch Republic (2018), which is part of a growing body of research exploring the effects of the period of cooler global temperatures that prevailed from the late thirteenth century until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and which, in its three coldest phases – the Spörer Minimum, which lasted from 1450 to 1530; the Grindelwald Fluctuation, which extended from the early 1560s until about 1630; and the Maunder Minimum of 1645-1715 – saw falls in global temperatures of as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Exactly what caused this cooling remains contentious. Some scientists point to a decrease in solar activity: analysis of carbon 14 deposits in tree rings and historical records have identified two periods of very low sunspot activity in the years 1460-1550 and 1645-1750. Others have suggested the temperature declines were caused by volcanic activity, in particular the catastrophic explosion of the Samalas volcano in Lombok in 1257 and the eruption that created the submarine caldera of Kuwae in Vanuatu in 1452. Still others identify changing ocean currents as the culprit.

Whatever its cause, the effects of this sudden cooling were significant. Ice spread south from the Arctic, surrounding Greenland and Iceland, and in mountainous areas glaciers expanded. The colder winters affected rainfall patterns, causing droughts in many areas and flooding in others, leading to widespread crop failures, famine and social upheaval. Norse colonies in Greenland were abandoned. In Iceland, its harbours cut off by the ice, the population fell by half. In the Alps, villages were destroyed by glaciers, and in England the Thames froze. The Swedes took advantage of the freezing of the Zealand Straits to march across the ocean to attack Denmark, while in Africa changing climactic conditions allowed Moroccan soldiers to march across the Sahara and sack Timbuktu, capital of the declining Songhai Empire. In China, crop failures and drought may well have played a part in the long conflict that led to the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century, and it is possible famine and disease driven by cooler conditions in the fifteenth century weakened Mesoamerican societies and made them less able to resist European invasion. Dendrochronologists have even linked the unique sound of Stradivarius’ violins to the cooler climate, arguing the longer winters and shorter summers resulted in a denser wood that has not been seen since.

Yet while many societies struggled to survive the Little Ice Age, some – notably the Dutch – flourished. Indeed, while their neighbours were sunk in conflict, or grappling with famine and political unrest, the fledgling Dutch Republic was enjoying its Golden Age, a period of rapid economic expansion and material and cultural development that saw it become a global nexus of finance and trade, encouraged the development of science, philosophy and engineering, and produced artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Franz Hals.

Degroot argues these achievements are partly accidents of geography: the trading opportunities afforded by proximity to the coast left Dutch cities better equipped to cope with unreliable crops than many of their neighbours. Likewise their economic success was underpinned by the expansion of their marine trading network, a process that was assisted by changing wind patterns that shortened travel times for Dutch ships. Yet Degroot also identifies other, less obvious factors that played a part in the Republic’s success. Its high levels of urbanisation, dependence upon trade and unusual political structure, built around a loose confederation of cities and towns governed by local merchants, fostered a flexible, outward-facing culture that was able to respond creatively to the challenges of the changing climate. Dutch entrepreneurs invested in technologies that improved the efficiency of their ships and shipbuilding. They developed icebreakers, firefighting technology and fostered mapmaking and publishing, as well as innovations such as marine insurance, which allowed potential losses at sea to be defrayed, and company structures designed to make investment less risky. Faced with frozen canals and harbours, merchants set up markets on the ice; while villagers took to skating when traditional entertainments became impossible.

It is a pity Degroot’s account has relatively little to say about the darker aspects of this story, in particular the wealth generated by Dutch colonialism and the slave trade. As Marx notes, the Dutch Republic was ‘the model capitalist nation of the seventeenth century’, a point that is given added significance by recent research suggesting slavery made a far larger contribution to the Dutch economy than has often been assumed, and indeed by arguments that seek to situate the beginning of the Anthropocene in the destructive effects of colonial conquest rather than the Great Acceleration of the post-World War 2 years. As the legal structures that permit the destruction of Aboriginal sacred sites by Australian mining companies, the unequal burden of rising temperatures caused by decades of racist housing policy in the United States, or Bolsonaro’s ongoing dispossession of the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon in order to facilitate development demonstrate, capitalism and racism are often two sides of the same coin.

Nonetheless by focussing attention on the flexibility and creativity that made the Dutch Republic so resilient, Degroot offers a fascinating portrait of the ways in which societies can successfully adapt and respond to a changing environment. Equally importantly, though, his account demonstrates the way an emphasis upon decline and collapse can obscure the fact that the relationships between climate and human activity are complex and often counterintuitive, offering an important corrective to the potentially paralysing effects of narratives of despair. As Degroot puts it, ‘[t]here were winners and losers in the early modern struggle with climate change, just as there are today and will be in the future.’

I suspect that to some this will sound perilously close to Tony Abbott’s assertion that ‘coal is good for humanity’, or the Panglossian pronouncements of Steven Pinker and his ilk. Degroot is no denialist, of course – indeed he is explicit in his criticism of those who claim ‘climate change has happened before and is therefore nothing to worry about’, dubbing it ‘ahistorical nonsense’ that poses a barrier to urgent action. Yet there is no question the scale of the challenges we face today are of an entirely different order of magnitude to those the Dutch faced four hundred years ago. No less importantly, the Dutch did not face those challenges in a world where the environment is already well beyond its limits, or where the window of opportunity for change is closing rapidly.

This problem is one of the many concerns of environmental historian Jason D. Moore’s profoundly important Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015), in which Moore proposes capitalism’s success is underpinned by the availability of what he terms Cheap Nature, the environmental equivalent of the cheap labour capitalism so rapaciously seeks out. But whereas the Dutch could always strike out into the New World in search of new and cheaper resources to fuel their economy, whether in the form of goods or human bodies able to be bought and sold, global capitalism has colonised the entire planet, leaving us no new territories to plunder. As Moore observes, ‘capitalism’s basic problem is that capital’s demand for Cheap Natures tends to rise faster than its capacity to secure them.’ And with nothing left to devour, capitalism begins to feed on itself, accelerating social and environmental degradation, and increasing pressure on the cost of labour as it transitions from ‘surplus value to negative value’.

This process is already underway. As fish populations crash, reducing catches and forcing fishing boats to travel ever further, the incidence of forced labour and slavery is rising rapidly. Likewise in Brazil, record levels of land-clearing and fire are driving the Amazon rainforest ever closer to irretrievable collapse, an event that will trigger one of the major discontinuities in the Earth’s climate, possibly causing rapid and uncontrollable global heating. And here in Australia, corporate leaders and many in government are pushing to expand gas production and loosen environmental laws, locking in increased greenhouse emissions and reducing already weak environmental protections, moves that fly in the face of the catastrophic environmental, economic and human costs of the devastating bushfires of 2019 and 2020. 

For Moore, the endpoint of this process is clear:

The likely demise of Cheap Nature today therefore signals the exhaustion of a civilizational model, punctuated by the rise of negative-value. Capitalism will give way to another model – or models – over the next century.

Yet while Moore is clear we are at a moment of transformation, he is considerably less certain about what comes next, arguing that ‘whether  … the exhaustion of the Cheap Nature model leads to something better, or something worse, remains to be seen.’

Why then do we privilege narratives of collapse over stories of endurance and adaptation in the first place? The beginning of an answer might lie in the way these scenarios borrow heavily from the Anglo-American popular imagination, echoing the visions presented in novels and films and television shows, ranging from War of the Worlds to The Handmaid’s Tale and The Walking Dead. The way we imagine the future has always been about the way we understand the present, meaning the speculative futures of science fiction and allied genres provide a theatre for our anxieties and obsessions. And just as the worlds imagined by Wells and others are more about imperial anxieties of decline or the terror of invasion than the actual future, so too our imaginings of the end of the world reflect our own fears and concerns.

Understood like this it does not seem coincidental that the line from individualistic American fantasies about the frontier and the racist and patriarchal paranoias about social decay that grow out of them to the violent, post-apocalyptic landscapes of contemporary mass media is so short. As Mark O’Connell recently observed of the vision of imminent social collapse that motivates the American prepping and survivalist community, this is ‘a prediction of the future that could be offered only by someone who was never fully convinced by the idea of society in the first place.’ Likewise it is difficult not to discern a racist undertone in many arguments by environmentalists about overpopulation and resource depletion. When Diamond compares stressed societies to ‘overcrowded lifeboats’ and worries about breakdowns in authority and civil order, imagining the collapse of Greenland’s Viking communities as analogous to the riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, when ‘thousands of outraged people from poor neighbourhoods … spread out to loot businesses and rich neighbourhoods,’ or suggests ‘we are increasingly seeing a similar phenomenon on a global scale … as illegal immigrants from poor countries pour into the overcrowded lifeboats represented by rich countries, and as our border controls prove no more able to stop that influx than were [the Viking leaders] and Los Angeles’s yellow [police] tape’, he makes explicit not just the othering of the victims of environmental crisis by those in rich countries, but the connections between that process and the machinery of racism and oppression within those same countries.

Something similar is visible those on the left who relish the spectre of imminent collapse as a vindication of their belief in the corruption and cruelty and materialism of contemporary society. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be coincidental that so many climate doomers are white men; as Mary Heglar quipped recently, ‘only white men can afford to be lazy enough to quit … on themselves.’  

In fact, recent experience suggests that people respond to adversity with kindness rather than cruelty. In her study of communal responses to catastrophe, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Remarkable Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), Rebecca Solnit observes that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina most people did not turn on each other:

young men who took it upon themselves to supply water, food, diapers, and protection to the strangers stranded with them, to people who sheltered neighbours, to the uncounted hundreds or thousands who set out in boats — armed, often, but also armed with compassion — to find those who were stranded in the stagnant waters and bring them to safety, to the two hundred thousand or more who volunteered to house complete strangers, mostly in their own homes, via the Internet site in the weeks after, more persuaded by the pictures of suffering than the rumours of monstrosity, to the uncounted tens of thousands of volunteers who came to the Gulf Coast to rebuild and restore.

Something similar was visible in Australia last summer: members of the Sikh and Muslim communities travelled to provide food for firefighters and people affected by the fires; truckies and tradies organised convoys to assist the stranded and homeless; an outpouring of public support raised millions of dollars in a matter of days and led to offers of clothes, housing and more. And in the aftermath of the recent explosion in Beirut people did all they could to transport the injured to hospitals and deliver food and medical supplies to those in need.

Solnit goes further, arguing that not only are most people altruistic in situations of extremity, but that

often the worst behaviour in the wake of a calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From 1906 San Francisco … to 2005 New Orleans, innocents have been killed by people who believed that their victims were the criminals and they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order.

Some studies also suggest the complexity and interconnectedness of a society may – perhaps counter-intuitively – make it more, rather than less resilient. A recent paper on the effect of the Little Ice Age on Scotland suggests that unification with England, access to English grain markets and consequent modernisation of Scottish agriculture helped prevent a recurrence of the privation and disorder of the period of mass starvation and social disruption in the 1690s known as the Ills. In the words of the study’s author, Professor Rosanne D’Arrigo,

by joining England, Scotland became more resilient … The bigger message for today is arguably that as the climate changes, nations will be stronger if they stick together and not try to go it alone.

D’Arrigo’s study emphasises the importance of strong systems within societies, pointing to how ‘weak and mean and overburdened’ Scotland’s support for the poor was in the 1690s in comparison to that of England, and suggesting this heightened their vulnerability. This echoes DeGroot’s argument that the strong system of welfare in the Dutch Republic helped protected it against loss of life and social disorder during the hardest years of the Little Ice Age. Degroot also suggests similar lessons might be found elsewhere, in particular in India’s Mughal Empire, which responded to a catastrophic famine in 1630-1 by implementing a massive program of social welfare Policymakers might also do well to listen more closely to Indigenous Australians, whose bonds of community and culture have enabled them to survive two and a half centuries of disease, dispossession and violence.

Of course, none of this alters the reality of the situation. We are hurtling into a world that will be unlike any humans have experienced before. Extreme weather events are already being intensified by rising global temperatures, and this process will accelerate rapidly as temperatures continue to increase. Even in the best-case scenarios rising sea levels, extreme heat, social upheaval and food and water shortages will displace hundreds of millions within a generation and transform the lives of hundreds of millions more for the worse, triggering social upheaval and conflict. Unsurprisingly the burden of this will be borne disproportionately by the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. And these costs pale into insignificance against the ecological catastrophe taking place around us, the wave of extinction and ecosystem collapse sweeping across the globe. Scientists estimate humans have killed more than 60 per cent of the world’s wild animals over the past 50 years, a figure that is dwarfed by our effect on invertebrate species and plants.

The scale and urgency of this emergency cannot be overstated. The fate of the human world and the fate of the planet are inextricably connected. Yet while it might be impossible for society to survive in its current form, that does not mean the only alternative is catastrophe. As DeGroot observes:

The past tells us that when climatic trends make it impossible to live in the same city, grow food in the same way or continue existing economic relationships, the result for a society is not invariably crisis and collapse. Individuals, communities and societies can respond in surprising ways, and crisis – if it does come – could provoke some of the most productive innovations of all. Those responses, in turn, yield still more transformations within evolving societies. If that was true in the past, it is even more true today, as seismic political and cultural changes coincide with the breakneck development and democratisation of artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and other revolutionary technologies.

It is a point Moore echoes, when he declares ‘the politics of fear and catastrophism … will not produce the clarity necessary to face the challenges ahead’. Or as the psychotherapist and climate psychologist Sally Gillespie has said, ‘the most transformative debates move beyond old binaries that insist on an either/or perspective. Whenever we are caught in a binary of oppositions, our minds become handicapped by what we do not want to see or acknowledge.’

This might seem a trivial thing, but it is not. The philosopher Jonathan Lear writes of what he calls radical hope. Radical hope is not simple optimism, or the opposite of despair. Instead it involves accepting the fears so many of us grappling with and using them as the basis for a new set of priorities. Or, as Lear writes, ‘What makes … hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.’

Like deep adaptation, radical hope is a psychological practice as well as a political position. It requires us to accept the past is gone, and that the political and cultural assumptions that once shaped our world no longer hold true. It demands we learn to live with uncertainty and grief, and to face up to the reality of loss. But it also demands what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence’, a deliberate fostering of the flexibility and courage necessary to ‘facilitate a creative and appropriate response to the world’s challenges’ that will enable us to envision new alliances and open up new possibilities, even in the face of catastrophe.

If the disasters of recent years have made our new reality manifest, the spread of COVID-19 has exposed a reality we often seek to ignore by throwing systemic inequality, racism and oppression into stark relief. Around the world, the poor and vulnerable, many of whom are people of colour, have suffered the highest rates of infection and death, borne the brunt of both economic disruption and the policing of restrictions, as well as being required to expose themselves to increased risk of infection in workplaces in order to maintain vital services and supply chains.

Simultaneously though, recent months have also seen growing demands for change. In the United States, Britain, Europe and Australia, millions of people have taken to the streets demanding an end to the systems of oppression that underpin these inequalities. The protestors’ demands that the developed world reckon with the legacies of colonialism and slavery are a reminder that questions of climate justice are intimately entwined with historical injustice, and the impossibility of addressing one without addressing the other. But their courage, and its success in shifting the terms of political discourse around the world is also a reminder that it is in moments of crisis that new ideas, and new possibilities take on transformative power.

There is no single solution to the climate crisis. But neither is there an inevitable outcome. Both assumptions are forms of magical thinking that obscure much more complicated realities. Coming decades are going to be unimaginably difficult, and as societies and cultures struggle to transform themselves some will succeed better than others. There is no question there will be loss, and pain, and fear, or that there will be mistakes and defeats as well as successes. But fixating on collapse, and assuming the story can have only one ending elides not just the possibility of future change, but also the change that is already taking place. We need libraries and lifeboats, but we also need to recognise that history keeps happening, and that in the middle of transformative change and upheaval it is often difficult to see what lies on the other side.

The challenges we face are immense. As I write this against the backdrop of devastating fires in the United States and an Atlantic hurricane season so intense it has run out of names, a new study suggests the already unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating, while another reports the Arctic is shifting permanently from an ecosystem ‘dominated by ice and snow to one characterized by open water and rain’. Yet what history shows us is that stories like this should not be an excuse for giving up, they are reason to fight harder, for what is certain is that the answers to the problems we face do not lie in acceptance and retreat, but in action and engagement. Or as young Wangan-Jagalingou activist Murrawah Johnson put it not long ago, ‘we’ve seen the end of the world … and we’ve decided not to accept it’.

We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish this essay.

Works Cited

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Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee (eds), Questioning Collapse: Human Resilence, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

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Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Remarkable Communities that Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009).

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