Has it not already started, the social collapse predicted to be part of climate derangement?
How would we know that this is social collapse and, if it is, what it has to do with climate derangement?
Currently the term ‘social (or societal) collapse’ is being used in two separate areas: for a few years now in climate change discussion (Deep Adaptation, for example) and recently in response to political turmoil such as in the USA, and the Covid-19 pandemic. A journalist called Indi Samarajiva, living in Sri Lanka during the civil war but now in the US, tells his readers ‘Societal collapse can be unnoticed … America is already there’. He says ‘This is how it happens. Precisely what you’re feeling now. The numbing litany of bad news. The ever rising outrages. People suffering, dying, and protesting all around you, while you think about dinner.’
Social collapse is a huge and abstract notion, you can’t touch it or pinpoint it. In the context of the recent US election, David Olusoga brings together superficially unconnected scenes, to build a comparison: ‘Alongside images of bodies being loaded into makeshift Covid morgues, children weeping in cages and torchlit rallies by white supremacists, the boarded-up businesses of Washington DC in the autumn of 2020 is a sight that would have seemed unimaginable four years ago, utterly inconceivable a decade ago.’ An official UK report warning of impending ‘systemic economic crisis’ leading to ‘chaos’ provides a cross-sectional view of the multiple links involved in social collapse. Collapse is a process that rarely has moments where a turning point can be defined – at least not at the time.
In a year of blatant climate derangement, it is the pandemic that is in the public eye. Pandemonium and derangement are linked, and so are Covid and climate. If we could talk about the pandemic as an expression of climate derangement (which surely it is), we wouldn’t be able to use it as a displacement of climate collapse.
‘All states that rise will one day fall’. This claim comes from Joseph Tainter, American archeologist and systems theorist, in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies. He didn’t talk about climate collapse but focused historically on what happens when societies’ growing complexity subjects them to diminishing returns. Now, he declares ‘complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet… the world today is full’. If, from a climate perspective, we focus not on greenhouse gases and global warming but the sustainable carrying capacity of the living earth, then his message about social collapse becomes directly relevant to climate: ‘No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.’
Climate politics and doomism
Dangerous climate change is now certain: this is the main message of Deep Adaptation (among a growing number of voices), a message that has led to criticism within the climate movement. In July, when this argument broke out, Jem Bendell went to lengths to justify the position he took in his influential Deep Adaptation 2018 paper. His claim of near-term societal collapse as a result of climate derangement has been labelled “doomism” by influential climate scientists such as Michael Mann. Some climate activists associated with XR let the cat out of the bag in their critique of Bendell with their objection to its ‘potential to cripple us as a movement’. It’s the familiar objection that climate anxiety will lead to paralysis and is therefore unconscionable. What price reality? In the critics’ subsequent argument about the scientific evidence (tipping points are likely to be complex and uncertain), I seemed to be witnessing ongoing difficulties in digesting unbearable, elusive and complex realities about climate collapse in a world awash with problems.
Would the 2018 Ministry Of Defence report be guilty of doomism when it explained ‘climate change may increase the probability of simultaneous breadbasket failures with the potential for devastating impacts on the global food market. There could be knock on effects for worldwide stability as higher food prices, in combination with poor governance, have been shown to heighten the risk of protests riots and conflict.’?
Note the ‘may’, the ‘potential for’, the ‘could be’. This is standard prevarication (listen to any news bulletin). Ok we can’t be and shouldn’t be certain about exact outcomes. But what endeared Jem Bendell’s paper to me initially was the honesty (against professional scientific norms); his stating what I already ‘knew’ but that had not reliably encountered in explicit thought. How reliable is this knowledge? It must involve reality testing but how do we know reality when the issue is beyond our sense experience? What or who else is trustworthy? When is doomism realistic and when does it defend against anxiety by providing certainty?
Disavowal works at a cultural-level, where the absence of certain ideas and practices provide a barrier to processing painful or threatening experience of the world. Judith Butler, philosopher and gender theorist, calls this ‘foreclosure’ – where something can’t be thought because the symbolic resources needed to think it are absent. For example, until recently, a young black British person would find it hard to think about and make sense of their experience because the symbolic resources, for example black history, were absent.
The anxiety attached to the ‘there-but-not-there’ quality of collapse is contagious. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion said there are two ways the psyche experiences and deals with painful unprocessed experience. It is embodied as trauma or unconsciously projected, away from the self into an other that then can be identified as the bad, in order to defend against anxiety.
Sculpture by Gustav Vigeland, Vigelands Park, Oslo
Attacks on truth as doomism work as an invitation to do just that, to project back out the unbearable anxiety, blame the truthtellers for not telling the truth, reversing the actual situation. It underpins Trumpism.
Conspiracy theories and Gaslighting
In a timely piece about the age-old phenomenon of global cabal theories, Yuval Noah Harari identifies the lure as being ‘able to attract large followings in part because they offer a single, straightforward explanation to countless complicated processes. […] But if I believe some kind of global cabal theory, I enjoy the comforting feeling that I do understand everything.’
Along with conspiracy theory, gaslighting has been the subject of an energetic and searching current thread on CPA’s discussion forum, documenting its recent prevalence in many people that we encounter and our worries about this cultural trend. As one CPA member wrote on that thread ‘Like frogs in warming water, [political gaslighting] becomes more and more ‘normal’ and it seems like a strategy that is a free for all’.
The term gaslighting began as a label for psychological manipulation of a person or group, known as a feature of some men’s exercise of power in relations with women. Political gaslighting is the technique used for political ends, such as Trump’s deceptions concerning the recent election results. At a historical and cultural level (I learned from Wikipedia) it is argued that
[political] gaslighting comes directly from blending modern communications, marketing, and advertising techniques with long-standing methods of propaganda. They were simply waiting to be discovered by those with sufficient ambition and psychological makeup to use them.
So how has the psychological makeup changed so as to lend itself to gaslighting? This question provided me with a way to think beyond the societal and structural focus of the treatments of collapse mentioned above and try to approach the question of the growth of conspiracy theories psycho-socially.
The psychodynamic mechanisms of projection, introjection and projective identification can illuminate political gaslighting. In Kleinian psychoanalysis, the splitting of good and bad, and projection of the bad onto another is the basic mechanism of paranoid-schizoid modes of experiencing reality. In situations of low key and well-contained anxiety, this kind of functioning can be left behind, but when widespread threats drive high anxiety – as at the moment – paranoid-schizoid functioning acts like a touch paper for gaslighting and conspiracy theory.
Sculpture by Gustav Vigeland, Vigelands Park, Oslo
I am not much nearer to answering my starting questions, but have generated some new ones (and there are plenty more, along with valuable insights and reading suggestions, on the Forum thread now called Conspiracy Theory). CPA opens a new “Thinking Space” this month and on January 12th I am facilitating one of these on the topic of Social Collapse. Perhaps I should say ‘psycho-social collapse’. Anyway, I hope that space will provide an opportunity to continue this exploration.
There will be no January Digest.