Near-term Social Collapse: Threat or Promise?
As I write, 'unprecedented' fires in the Eastern States of Australia in November 2019 have been burning for days. They are likely to continue for weeks yet. They have already burnt out more than 1m hectares. Lives have been lost, livelihoods disrupted and homes destroyed.
In the previous three northern hemisphere late summers, California has experienced devastating fires. Bill McKibben has recently written that so serious has the situation become, that parts of California may well have become uninhabitable. (McKibben) He notes that already, some large cities in Asia and the Middle East are approaching the point where they will become uninhabitable due to extreme heat. In other places, every high tide event washes through living rooms.
Animal species are going extinct at a rate that is at least 1000 times the background extinction rate. Top predators, coral reefs, fish species, bees and insects and many other species are all approaching a precarious state.
Island nations in the Pacific are disappearing under the waves.
And so on…
We were warned!
The time for hiding from the truth or hiding the truth from others is over.
In 1972 the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth”, a carefully modelled projection of the state of the world to the end of the 21st century (Meadows). The models have been refined and reviews of the original predictions were carried out at the 20, 30 and 40 year anniversaries. All these reviews established the essential accuracy of the original projections. That's all pretty academic. What is not merely academic are the dire predictions of social breakdown by the middle of this century. Some already see the signs of its beginning.
In 2011 Paul Gilding published “The Great Disruption” in which he predicts the collapse of the systems on which our civilisation is built as early as the end of this current decade (Gilding).
Only a few days ago, an academic paper published in the journal Bioscience (November 05, 2019) warned that, unless there is a major transformation, we are going to experience “untold suffering” (Ripple). The paper was endorsed by more than 11000 scientists.
In this paper I want to introduce something even more startling. It is the idea that we are facing “inevitable near-term social collapse”. The idea itself is not new, but the addition of 'near-term' is enough to change one's thinking. To jolt us into reality. Business as usual, is not going to be an option for us.
Business as usual is already not an option for communities along the Darling River, for people living with extreme drought and unprecedented bush fires. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Changes are coming, whether we like it or not. An awareness of this new reality lies behind the momentum of young people protesting across the world. The school strikes are the most dramatic example. For young people, the threat is not in some hazy future. It is felt as being immanent. Because it is!
This paper is my call to us all – to reassess our work - to reassess our lives – to reassess the mission of our faith communities. How are we as faith communities going to respond to what lies ahead of us? We are now on the edge of something that is totally unknown, the impacts of which we can only vaguely imagine.
This new era we have now entered is marked by a shocking formula (Bendell):
collapse is inevitable,
catastrophe is probable,
extinction is possible.
When confronted with a dire warning (threat?) like this, how do we respond? The first step must be – honesty. Recognise our denial, fear, anxiety. Acknowledge our intense sadness that landscapes, animals, institutions we have loved are passing away. Admit that we sometimes feel overcome by despair and feelings of hopelessness. Let go of any pretence that this is not affecting all of us.
Emotional challenges are already confronting us – floods, fires, drought, dried up rivers, dead fish, coral reefs dying, political systems that are clearly not up to dealing with these things.
Where do we turn? Does our tradition help us? Have there been people in the past who have experienced things that are not so dissimilar? How did they express it? How did they live through it?
We are the inheritors of a tradition that knows all about despair and hopelessness. The community of faith, to which we belong, through the centuries has known at certain times that things are not going to turn out alright. That people will suffer terrible hardships, will die, will be dispersed. And they, like us, longed for a return to the old secure values, a way of life they remembered as being wonderful compared with their present reality.
In the Psalms and the Prophets, in the early church and the persecuted church and focussed most intensely in the passion and cruel death of Jesus – poets and narrators have given expression to all of the emotions associated with human suffering. We have been there before.
But suffering and death has never been the final word. Spanning hundreds of year of human experience, the community to which we belong has something more to offer. Out of the darkness, there appears a light to guide, a hand to comfort, a word to strengthen.
As communities of faith we have a unique opportunity to become places of refuge for those who have been battered by what is happening around them. We have a heritage that encourages us to become communities of mutual support and to preserve and reinforce the values of the Gospel that enrich human life.
To take on the mantle handed to us by our forebears requires of us at least three things:
to wake up – and open our eyes to see what is happening all around us and to let go of the delusion that things will get better
to front up – and acknowledge honestly our own emotional responses and recognise that others are experiencing these too
to show up – and be a part of a community of welcome for those who feel bereft and cast aside, where grief and suffering is not ignored or denied, where space is allowed for weeping and for anger and where there is loving kindness and solidarity.
In summarising this section I propose an analogy that might resonate with your own experience. In the days after receiving a diagnosis of a disease that is going to take your life early. In the months, even years, after someone close to you dies. Fear, despair, profound sadness, feelings of hopelessness are the kinds of emotional states that many people will experience some time in their lives. These emotional states are all associated with the grieving process. But many will testify that what came out of the suffering was a new way of looking at life. What opens up for many is life with new purpose and energy.
A person leaves the doctor's surgery devastated by the news he or she has just received. They have only a few months to live. After the initial shock and the experiences of fear and sadness - how many times have we heard people say: “I have started to live with a new zest. This has made me realise what is really important and I am living each day as a precious gift.”
Perhaps that will be what it is like as the crisis creeps up on us. New possibilities will open up – if we are prepared to receive them.
Focussing on what really matters changes everything.
In a much referenced work by Prof Jem Bendell, University of Cumbria, the term “deep adaptation” is used (Bendell). The term adaptation is often used in the context of climate change discussions to refer to the preventative strategies that might protect valuable assets from damage: building sea walls as barriers to encroaching seas; breeding plants and animals more able to cope with extreme heat; 'climate proofing' our homes. Adaptation denotes programmes designed to protect communities from some of the impacts of climate change that are essentially disaster risk reduction programmes.
When dramatic change comes, as it will, it is human beings that will have to adapt. When systems and institutions descend into chaos, how will we adapt? This is the question behind Bendell's idea of Deep Adaptation. He proposes that an Agenda for Deep Adaptation will include three markers: Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration.
Resilience: is our capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so we survive with valued norms and behaviours firmly established. What are the values, the norms, the behaviours that are core to our being human? Which of these do we wish to hang on to no matter how things develop in the future? That's a question we need to turn our minds to – together. And begin to practice.
Relinquishment: what behaviours and norms and attitudes do we need to let go of, to give up, because they are making matters worse? There are many things we will have to let go of in order to make room for that which is truly essential for human communities to survive. When things we have depended on in the past have collapsed, what do we voluntarily relinquish because they are clearly no longer viable? Our expectations will have to change – consumer goods will no longer be readily available; our food choices will have to change; building by the sea is out of the question; current systems of governance will not survive social collapse and new ways of doing things will evolve.
Restoration: what from our past can we rediscover and restore that might help us with the coming difficulties? There are many assets and behaviours that we, living our carbon-fuelled life-style, have ignored or forgotten. We will learn again how to feed ourselves and provide the goods we need for basic living without relying on overseas sources; we will allow large areas of land to regenerate; methods of agriculture that no longer rely on fossil fuel sourced fertilisers will be re-invented.
To summarise: we face an existential crisis of global dimensions. An emotional roller-coaster ride has already begun for many of us. We will re-discover from within ourselves what is essential. We will hold firm to that which is true – the values of loving-kindness, joy, simplicity, mercy.
Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Available for download at
http://lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf Accessed: 19/11/2019
Gilding, Paul. The Great Disruption How the Climate Crisis will Change Everything for the Better (Bloomsbury NY: 2011)
McKibben, Bill. Has the climate crisis made California too dangerous to live in? (The Guardian 29/10/2019) Available for download at:
Meadows, Donella H. , Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III. The Limits to Growth. (Universe Books: 1972) Available for download:
https://www.clubofrome.org/report/the-limits-to-growth/ Accessed: 19/11/2019
Ripple William. J. et al. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. 05/11/2019 Available for download at: