Forget Collapse: Things May Be Like This Until You Die
Climate change, wealth inequality, and the end of things.
There has been a lot of talk of collapse recently. A study out of Harvard asserts that civilization might collapse if we do not make substantial changes. The Doomsday Clock has been moved to 100 seconds till midnight. It would surprise few to wake up one day and receive an alert on our phones telling us that a missile was launching, another plague had started, or that food reserves could no longer support our current population.
From ecological degradation to political dysfunction, it really does seem like everything is falling apart, and this has affected many of our emotional states. The amount of people who are depressed or suicidal is staggering. On a personal level, I recently published an article where I talked about my existential dread in dealing with collapse.
Yet while talk of collapse is sexy, I propose another possibility —unless something drastic is done very soon, things will go on like this indefinitely, and that scenario should scare us all the most.
People have a romanticized version of collapse. It usually is depicted as a totalizing thing where a bad state of affairs will lead to a domino effect that causes everything to fall apart everywhere all at once. We have civilization one day, and then six months later, survivors are huddled together trying to fend off Mad Max-style bandits or Walking Dead-like zombie hordes.
Yet collapse doesn't always happen all at once. It can be slow in places— services that were once the norm becoming less and less frequent. We could think of the water crisis in the Southwestern United States as a form of collapse. It's been known for years that Climate Change and overuse have been placing growing stress on the Colorado River, with the much-needed snowpacks providing less and less water to communities every year. The current crisis is partly the result of the 1922 signing of the Colorado River Compact — an inadequate century-old law that a lot of modern water policy in the region is built upon. Millions will undoubtedly face 'severe water shortages' in the coming years (and already have) as a result of this outdated agreement.
Although our understanding of water science has indeed evolved since 1922, scientists have been sounding the alarm about this problem for years, and truthfully were even then. As the decade progresses, wells will dry, farms will fail, lands will desertify, and climate refugees will become increasingly more common in the US — all because we couldn't change how we divide up this important resource. A collapse projected decades in advance.
In other examples, collapse is indeed quick, but it doesn't happen everywhere at once. Take the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Decades of economic development in the affluent Black majority community of Greenwood, Oklahoma, were undone because of an explosion of white supremacist rage. Over the course of several days, hundreds were killed, and thousands of homes were burned to the ground. There wasn't a slow decline of services here, where Greenwood withered away, but a sudden expression of violence that destroyed a generation of Black wealth. As a series of notable academics wrote in The New York Times:
“The destruction of property is only one piece of the financial devastation that the massacre wrought. Much bigger is a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren.”
Collapse can be slow or quick, and in some places, it never really happens in its entirety. It's often mentioned that capitalism destroyed the aristocracy that preceded it. Stories like Downton Abbey depict out-of-touch elites who are unable to keep up with modern times. The Crawley family only survives because of the infusion of New Money, not out of some understanding of business. Patriarch Robert Crawley loses nearly all his money in season one because of a bad investment in the railroads.
Yet, in reality, many aristocratic families simply reinvested in the new economic system, and some never lost much of anything in the first place. While some royal families imploded — as what happens during any change— a great many grew their wealth to become millionaires and billionaires. The British aristocracy, for example, still possesses an overwhelming amount of land in the UK, as well as very generous trusts. The French aristocracy likewise continues to hold onto wealth and titles, and we can say the same thing about monarchies all over the world: some even still holding onto the same political power we think should have gone the way of the Middle Ages (see Saudi Arabia, Brunei, etc.). Those in power often try to do the bare minimum to ensure they change little of anything at all.
I think a far more realistic Mad Max or Walking Dead series would show some people struggling to survive, with others living in techno towers looking indifferently down over the wastelands they rule (see The Doomsday Book of Fairytales as a great example of this) because that's our reality now. When I look at institutions of power, this inequality is not a sign of the end times but rather of the status quo. The wealth of modern democracies was pretty much built on exploitation, not just of slavery and colonialism, but also of the brutal resource extraction from the Global South. Western companies and countries have taken trillions of dollars from these parts of the world and not given back nearly as much in return.
If you were to tell someone from the "West" that X poor place from the Global South has no running water or a bad medical system, they would not say in response that "civilization is collapsing." Rather, they would nod absently because the expectation is that these places are exploited, even if it's not how they would frame things themselves.
This exploitation is not a new thing either. If you were to tell an ancient Grecian, or hell a founding father of America, that some groups of people are exploited by others, this likewise would not cause them to bemoan the collapse of their Empire. They would instead wax poetically about the state of nature and how some people deserve to be abused. Thomas Jefferson, although allegedly critical of slavery, owned slaves and was quite in favor of good ole fashion White Supremacy. As he wrote in 1785: "Blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time or circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind."
When we talk about collapse, do not confuse the collapse of your standard of living with everyone elses, and especially not with the system's ability to function. Historically, most systems have had an underclass of people to exploit. It's only been relatively recently (or very anciently, if you are going back to collectivist times) that this belief of equality is seen by some as a good thing, whose absence is problematic.
The truth is that although all people should be treated equally, our society is not built to do that. This inequality is baked into our current system, and it can more than tolerate your individual suffering or even the suffering of everyone you love. I see a lot of people anecdotalizing about collapse, pointing to declines in health outcomes and income as proof that we are headed for the shitter, but that's not actually a good indicator. There is no reason our system will spontaneously start caring about your suffering: it never has before.
And maybe that is the real problem.
Most of us need to rethink collapse. A terrifying thought is not that everything will end but that things will go on like this forever. We will continue to have a terrible healthcare system, a terrible police state, and terrible parasitic corporations draining all of our wealth, cut by cut. Some places will suddenly lose services after decades of neglect, while others will blissfully remain plugged in, referring to the forgotten places as "bad neighborhoods" and "trashy zip codes."
It's certainly what we do now.
There is nothing inevitable about the end of things: the end of capitalism, the end of the monarchy, the end of life. Things can change, but they can also change so imperceptibly so that they might as well remain the same.
And if that makes you angry, good, because while things can go on forever, maybe they shouldn't. Maybe a little collapse is what we all need.
About the author
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Niche topic & fresh perspectives