François Grünewald & Pierre Brunet
What, in your opinion, can collapsology bring to the humanitarian sector?
And the other way round! [laughs] Collapsollogy brings the humanitarian question to countries who are not used to it: rich and industrialised countries who generally feel that humanitarian aid is for other countries, you know, those at the bottom of the ladder… The idea of collapsollogy is to gather together all the scientific evidence, proof and facts that show that there may be risks of systemic collapse everywhere, including in rich countries. Different forms of collapse – it is important to underline the fact that there isn’t just one kind – are not something new. They have existed on earth for a long time: in the past, whether local or civilisational (empires), and in the present (Syria and Libya, for example), but also the collapse of stock exchanges, of animal species, of ecosystems, of climatic patterns, etc. These are the types of collapse that concern the past and the present.
As for the future, not only are the risks of short-term, local and partial collapse becoming more severe, the risks of systemic collapse are also increasing, that is to say, collapse that would affect non-humans, the poorest social classes, and also rich countries. Humanitarian action is therefore useful, first of all because there will be even more to do in the countries where there is already a lot to be done (poor, fragile, war-torn countries, etc.), but also because it will be needed in rich countries because of the destabilisation due to climatic and environmental disasters of all kinds! All of this could take place in the future. I am aware that this is an issue that can be disturbing and which, in any case, is difficult for us to imagine. But that is the goal. That is what is important: talking about risks and possibilities in order to challenge received ideas and prepare ourselves better.
The second thing that collapsology brings is a systemic vision. In short, complexity science has shown that complex systems (ecosystems, markets, societies, etc.) do not react in a linear way, or at least in a much less linear way than expected. In other words, breakdowns happen more unpredictably and more quickly than we might think. This means that we need to be more vigilant about the risk of breakdowns. What we were proposing when we created collapsology – which is the idea of an inter-disciplinary science to help us prepare for risks – was to prepare for three phases: before the disaster, during (resilience) and after (recovery). Because all these aspects need to be considered as of now. As I see it, humanitarian action has to do with the short term, in other words, vital and emergency issues. It is important, but it doesn’t cover medium- or long-term policies, which still need to be established. It is important to underline that thinking about the short term here or elsewhere does not prevent us from thinking about the medium- and long-term, on the contrary!
Lastly, collapsology brings the possibility of discontinuity in our lives. We are not used to discontinuity in rich countries, in contrast to countries already affected by disasters. Therefore, in addition to ‘continuist’ policies and visions, such as the plan to end fossil fuel use by 2050, we also need to plan for ‘discontinuist’ scenarios here, in other words, possible breakdowns, and who better than the humanitarian sector to do this?
Having worked both on the concept of crisis and that of mutual assistance, what is your view of the humanitarian sector?
A paradoxical view, because I admire those who work in the field, who show courage and engage in mutual assistance, altruism even. I understand it and we need it, for vital emergencies. That said, I trained in ‘development’, as a tropical agricultural engineer, and in the development sector, I quickly became disillusioned. To me, it was the continuation of a certain form of colonialism where, on the one hand, rich countries destroyed existing subsistence farming economies and social fabric, and on the other, sent little ‘bandages’, including humanitarian aid, and neo-colonial policies (the IMF’s structural adjustment plans, etc.). In the end, development and humanitarian action can be seen as crutches for capitalism. This is what was often said of the sector in debates ten or fifteen years ago, within ATTAC1, for example: making the situation a little bit better but allowing a structurally unfair situation to last. Which explains my paradoxical view: we need humanitarian action, but at the same time, it maintains an unjust or even toxic system, and can even be seen as supporting it. But it is obviously very difficult to say, “Let’s stop humanitarian and development aid…”
Do you think organisations that work on climate change are sounding the alarm enough about the current ecological disaster?
The answer to that question has changed as the years have passed. Events are increasingly disastrous, so there needs to be a change in the message, and it is changing. It is not without reason that collapsology and the issue of collapse have been taken up by the mass media and the general public over the last year. People are talking about it, whether in a critical way or not. Whereas ten years ago, it was much more difficult.
So the big question – which has been around for about forty or fifty years, since the beginning of the ecological movement – is, ‘Do we need to frighten people, be prophets of doom, in order to make things change?’ For my part, I would say yes and no (laughs), because two paradoxical things seem clear to me today. Firstly, our society is frightened of being frightened, which is a major barrier. A lot of people say that whistle blowers are too pessimistic, but, in fact, it is the facts that are! There is a metaphor to illustrate this. Imagine that your house is on fire, that your neighbours are shouting ‘fire!’ and that the fire brigade arrives. Should you say to the neighbours, ‘Sorry, but you’re being a bit too pessimistic’? And are you going to tell the fire brigade to stop their scaremongering? No, of course not. The whole of our society is frightened of being frightened: the general public, donors and even scientists who are frightened of frightening us. They are faced with alarming figures and are hit with full force by eco-anxiety, ‘solastalgia’2, depression and all the feelings related to this loss and these disasters. A lot of people are frightened of sharing these negative feelings with the general public out of fear that they will lead to inaction. I therefore think that there is a place for frightening messages, and that they shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.
Secondly, I am convinced that there is a biodiversity of fears and psychological attitudes in response to fear. Several studies on fear show that, in general, fear is very useful to warn and inform people, but less useful, and even counterproductive, in terms of making people act. Alarm is not enough to make people take action. For example, to continue with the same metaphor, if the fire brigade arrive and shout ‘Fire!’ you are informed but you don’t know what to do. But, if they arrive and they say, ‘Fire! Take this, do that, etc.’, you will more easily take action. The biodiversity of fears means that there can be vigilance, worries, anxiety, short-, medium-, and long-term fears, and actually, within this biodiversity, certain fears are more likely to lead to action, and others less so. Anxiety can take hold and paralyse the person, preventing them from taking action, and even leading to denial by making them fed up with bad news. On the other hand, vigilance, which is a form of concern about the longer-term future, allows you to prepare better and to make more relevant political and strategic choices. As for the biodiversity of postures, this shows that certain people need to feel fear and are stimulated by fear while others, who are much more sensitive, do not need fear, which may even be counterproductive in their case. In any case, whether fear is necessary or feared, it is there and is part of us as we are mammals. And fear is also good because it shows us our limits, points out dangers, and as such it is very useful. It can even show us the route to courage. So, I think that the real question, today, is ‘How should we deal with fear?’ It can be through discussion groups, rituals, or working on ourselves collectively or individually, because fear and alarm, warnings and disasters, they are going to be there throughout the century, and increasingly so. We are therefore going to have to get used to it…
Faced with collapse, you argue that we should develop small resilient units rather than wait for anything to come from ‘sustainable development’. Does that mean that you trust horizontal aid movements more than big institutions?
Briefly, regarding sustainable development: it is a catch-all notion that has been heavily criticised and that is too vague to lead to action. Anything can be passed off as sustainable development. What I find interesting in your question is the comparison between horizontal, local and decentralised, or ‘community-based’ bodies, and the big, hierarchical, pyramid structures. I wouldn’t be able to explain exactly why I prefer the former rather than the latter, but they are definitely in keeping with my political culture. I have always had doubts about, or even been suspicious of authority, of domination, of big hierarchical bodies. Without even taking into account the fact that when things begin to collapse, it is likely that these big bodies will fall apart.
With regard to breakdown and discontinuity, what creates fear and panic is the breakdown of the social order, the end of the belief in a shared future. That is dangerous. When something breaks down, whether it is a supply chain, or the social order, people need to be able to quickly find a form of organisation where they have some power, that they are familiar with, and that is functional. And, to date, there has never been anything better for this than the community level. This is exactly what Alexandre Boisson argues for with the association, SOS Maires: that the municipal level should be reinforced so that, if there are any major breakdowns, people will already be trained to do something. They know their elected representatives and their neighbours, and will be able to take part in emergency plans, training, and simulations before disasters take place. They will already have prior knowledge and won’t be helpless. This might help to avoid panic because, if we only count on the state level and neglect the lower levels, we will be giving our power to people who do not always use it wisely, who hand over a lot of things to the private sector, and we will be less and less in control. But, most of all, we will encourage the accumulation of power and domination.
For example, throughout the 20th century, our countries promoted relatively centralised distribution systems for energy and telecommunications. Nuclear power is the archetypal example. This makes things both extremely effective at the time, but, paradoxically, it makes the system vulnerable because it is not suited to change or taking complexity into account. That is why I am in favour of developing local and low-tech initiatives in terms of technology and energy. I think it would be very healthy and very resilient to deploy decentralised technical systems right now that will make people autonomous and do not require engineers from the big centralised industries. Take solar panels, for example: they can be high-tech, made with computers, rare-earth elements, complicated materials and software, in which case, centralisation, engineers, etc. are needed. But we can also develop decentralised solar panels and renewable energy that is specific to each region, to each micro-region, where each user is able to repair a major part of the equipment themselves.
I therefore think that it is more reasonable and coherent to reinforce small-scale initiatives, though this does not mean that it is the only solution. Above all, it is a more resilient solution if the big structures collapse! Having said that, I am fully aware that not everything will be done locally. When the route of a railway line is drawn, you have to engage in politics, between towns, between regions, etc. You have to join forces, negotiate, and necessarily go through big structures. Political philosophy has a lot of things to offer in this regard: other types of mandate, body, power, etc. for these metastructures. Political imagination needs to be stimulated!
We really need to establish an empowering force at the grassroots level, at the level of the citizen, the neighbourhood, the village, the town, the town council, etc. just to regain people’s confidence. There is a major feeling of defiance against the public authorities because they seem distant. This defiance, and the feeling of powerlessness have grown since Nicolas Hulot3 resigned, and this is a very toxic feeling because it leads to denial, apathy, fear and anger. Anger that is then aimed at those who have created this feeling of powerlessness. We can see this at the moment with the strikes.
Promoting small-scale initiatives does not mean that we are going to be inward-looking. This is often the major misunderstanding related to the fact that we are promoting small-scale and local initiatives in this period of universalism and modernity: there is a feeling that localism means a return to walls and nationalism, or being inward-looking. But, not at all! You can promote local initiatives while maintaining the capacity for large-scale exchange and organisation. It is totally possible.
For that matter, we know that there is not much centralisation in nature, very little even. For the 3.8 billion years that the living world has been experimenting, pyramidal hierarchies and centralisation are really very rare. Everything is decentralised, rhizomatic, mycorhizien, reticulated, because this is a much more resilient form of organisation. Pyramidal hierarchies are effective in the short term and for a stable environment. But today, we need to think about the long term and unstable environments. Pyramidal hierarchies and big structures are the first things that are going to collapse – they are not resilient. In my opinion, it is crucial that we de-centralise the way we are organised. Unfortunately, people don’t really know how to go about it. A great deal of research needs to be done at that level.
You consider myths and fiction to be very important to stop people being in denial and help change things. How do you think this approach could be useful for the international aid sector?
I am convinced that myths and stories are useful and essential for everyone. It is the story that we tell ourselves, and therefore of the horizon that we set for ourselves, to shed a little light on the path in front of us. It obviously has a founding quality, and it is an essential condition in order to be able to organise ourselves or to do politics. So, for me, everyone should look at this question. For humanitarians, it is obviously important, but it is up to them to take this issue on board.
For example, I had a moment of insight after my studies in agricultural engineering. I was very interested in agroecology and permaculture as an agricultural engineer, and the idea of re-applying the principles of the living world to agriculture. I was also very interested in tropical regions and so in 2009-10 I went to Cuba and Venezuela on my own for five months. I saw a lot of extraordinary things there, such as incredible production units that you can’t find here in terms of permaculture and agroecology. I came back from that trip full of enthusiasm (though I am in no way defending authoritarian regimes!) because they are countries who have managed to innovate, who are really extremely bold in that area. And I also came back with a story that had been turned upside down: at university I had been taught that I was going to ‘develop poor countries’ and ‘feed the planet’ (that’s what they tell agricultural engineers) and, in fact, I realised that the agricultural programmes in Cuba and Venezuela were fifteen years ahead of us. Actually, the Global South was going to develop the Global North! Everything got turned around in my head, and this upside down story changed everything in terms of how I saw things. When I got back to Europe, I said to myself, “I’m going to develop Europe, do development here, because it is here that we need to promote agroecology, because we are decades behind”. If a story or a way of seeing things breaks down, it can change the way we see the world, and therefore how we act.
In terms of humanitarianism, there is one more thing that I’d like to say: I always considered that the word ‘humanism’ was divisive as it represents the ontological division with non-human lifeforms (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria…). For me, ‘humanism’ has an inward-looking connotation (on our species) that I do not like. And I find that the word ‘humanitarian’ has a similar idea: we are only going to save the humans. What I would like is to open up this story so that humanitarian action concerns all of the living world. Of course, there are already organisations who are going in this direction, but it would be a real change if, henceforth, all humanitarian action was to be based on this story of an enlarged living community. A type of ‘lifeformarian action’? [laughs]
Pablo Servigne is an independent researcher, author and speaker. He has a scientific background, and, along with Raphaël Stevens, he invented ‘collapsology’, which they define as ‘the cross-sector study of the collapse of industrial civilisation and what might replace it, based on reason, intuition and recognised scientific research’. Since 2019, he is also involved in producing the quarterly magazine, Yggdrasil.
Interview conducted by François Grünewald and transcribed by Pierre Brunet
- The Association pour la Taxation des Transactions financières et pour l’Action Citoyenne (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Citizen’s Action, ATTAC) is an activist organisation originally created for promoting the establishment of a tax on foreign exchange transactions.
- A neologism that describes a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change.
- Nicolas Hulot is a French journalist and environmental activist who became Minister for Ecology in May 2017, but resigned in 2018. He said that his time in office had been an “accumulation of disappointments”, and that he did not want to “create the illusion that we’re facing up to these challenges”.