current affairs

When is it right to talk about collapse?

In February I read the book How Everything can Collapse, by Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stevens. In it, they talk specifically about how “a severe pandemic could be the cause of a major collapse.” They describe how “there is no need for a virus that would wipe out 99% of humankind: just a small percentage would suffice.” Enough people would stay at home to knock over 12% off GDP, which is pretty much what Capital Economics recently forecast for the Eurozone.

The French edition of the book came out in 2015, which means the authors had thought through this scenario and its potential effects at least five years before they began to unfold. The English edition is just in time then, with its focus on providing readers with language and clarifications to talk honestly about collapse and what it means.

In that spirit, I thought it was worth asking what we mean by a collapse? How is it different from a recession or a depression?

A collapse is not the end of the world, nor is it a one-off crisis or disaster that society can move on from. Servigne and Stevens offer a definition from Yves Cochet, France’s former environment minister. He classifies collapse as “the process at the end of which basic needs (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, etc) can no longer be provided (at reasonable cost) to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision.”

There are a few key elements of that.

  • It’s a process, which could be fast or slow
  • it’s about basic needs,
  • provided to the majority
  • at reasonable cost
  • under legal supervision.

We’re still in the middle of that process, so it remains to be seen whether or not the coronavirus qualifies as a full scale collapse. But it almost certainly will in some places. Here in Britain, we are expecting lockdown conditions to continue beyond this week, and every passing week means increased financial pressure. Even with government support, vulnerable businesses will fold. From this point, we have no idea how far things will fall.

As the authors of How Everything can Collapse point out, it’s important to remember what a collapse is not. It’s not the apocalypse, and it doesn’t mean barbarity and riots in the street. Life will continue, and people will adapt. You don’t bounce back from a collapse, but it’s not the end. There’s a still a future on the other side of it, and plenty of life to live in the midst of it.

There are also degrees of collapse. A financial collapse is level one, and we kind of know what that looks like. A commercial collapse is the second stage, which is when retail chains break down and shortages and stockpiling start to occur. There’s some of that going on in places, though we don’t know yet how much of that is temporary.

The next stages are progressively worse. Political collapse comes when the government loses control. Social collapse is when institutions such as local authorities or charities run out of resources, and people have to take things into their own hands, illegally if necessary. The final stage is a cultural collapse, where trust and empathy break down. This is vocabulary that we hopefully won’t need.

If you were reading How Everything can Collapse this time last year, it would have been easy to dismiss some of it as alarmist conjecture, but not today. And while we can’t know if current circumstances will amount to a collapse, we can’t assume that they won’t either. Now would be a good time to talk more honestly and intelligently about the subject.

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