Highlights: How Everything Can Collapse by Servigne & Stevens


Summary

  • Part 1: The Harbingers of Collapse
    • To maintain itself and avoid financial disorder / social unrest, our industrial civilisation is forced to accelerate. It needs to grow to get more energy, and it needs more energy to grow. The era of cheap & abundent fossil fuel is coming to an end.
    • Increasingly complex civilisation, more interconnected, more systemic risk. Too much of civilisation is “uprooted” – inhabitants have no direct link with Earth systems (earth, water, animals, plants etc) therefore at risk
  • Part 2: So, When’s It Going to Happen?
    • Small section. Acknowledged difficulty of this prediction.
    • Some of the early signs with crises stemming from systemic risk & the environment
    • Overview of the different models especially Meadows’s “Limit to Growth”
  • Part 3: Collapsology
    • Stages of collapse: financial, commercial, political, social, cultural. Different shapes: linear decline, oscillating decline
    • We’re not wired to see this kind of risk coming – it’s too slow and too complicated
    • Building resiliency through localism, degrowth, reducing interconnectedness, fewer people being “uprooted”

What is collapse & the birth of collapsology

A collapse is “the process at the end of which basic needs (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, etc.) can no longer be provided [at a reasonable cost] to the majority of the population by services under legal supervision.

Servigne & Stevens explain that most of the literature is either:

  • Talking about the ebbs and flows of long-gone civilisations, analysing specific factors that made them succeed or collapse (eg Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”)
  • Practical survivalist literature, e.g preppers books on what to do if there’s a nuclear war

What is missing is a systematic, transdisciplinary analysis of how collapse be triggered and what it would imply for current generations.

“When the engine dies” – link between oil prices and recessions

  • There seems to be a causal link between GDP growth and oil production rate growth.
  • Out of 11 recessions that took place in the 20th century, 10 were preceded by sharp increases in oil prices.
  • Functioning economy & finance industries required to keep energy accessible and vice-versa.

Examples of infrastructure central points of failure & inter-connectedness

SWIFT

  • Standardised global banking transactions for 10,500 institutions in more than 225 countries
  • Only 3 data centers

Icelandic volcano

  • Grounded flights for 6 days in 2010
  • Caused job losses in Kenya, cancellation of surgical procedures in Ireland, a third stoppage of three lines of BMW production in Germany

“When the trucks stop, the US stops”

  • How quickly we run out of food, fuel, drinking water etc if trucks stop

Nuclear

  • Electricity is needed for shutdown of nuclear reactors. There is interdependency there in the power grids
  • Need enough nuclear engineers trained up (average age in france is high and renewal rate too low), and knowledged passed reliably through generations

Flood-prevention wall between India & Bangladesh

India has already decided to build a barrier two and a half meters high along the 3000km of its border with Bangladesh, one of the countries from which a very large number of refugees could arrive due to the sea flooding its low coastal regions.

Possibility of “Canfield Oceans”

Named after a researcher who modelled them:

Oceanic anoxic events or anoxic events (anoxia conditions) were intervals in the Earth’s past where portions of oceans became depleted in oxygen (O2) over a large geographic areas. During some of these events, euxinia, waters that contain hydrogen sulfide, H2S, developed. Although anoxic events have not happened for millions of years, the geological record shows that they happened many times in the past. Anoxic events coincided with several mass extinctions and may have contributed to them. These mass extinctions include some that geobiologists use as time markers in biostratigraphic dating. Many geologists believe oceanic anoxic events are strongly linked to slowing of ocean circulation, climatic warming, and elevated levels of greenhouse gases.

Wikipedia page

Destruction of biodiversity

  • Since 1500, 332 species of terrestrial vertebrae have disappeared
  • 90% of the biomass of large fish has disappeared since the beginning of the industrial era
  • In Europe 52% of the wild bird populations have disappeared over the last 3 decades

Cornucopians vs Malthusians

The cornucopian person lives in the myth of the cornucopia or horn of abundance: the future is seen as a continous and unlimited progress where human beings will continue to control their environment, thanks to their technical power and inventiveness.

For Malthusians, on the other hand, this power and inventiveness have limits, and it is now becoming difficult, not to say impossible, to continue on the path of continuous growth that we have been following since the beginnings of modernity.

  • These are not incompatible nor exclusive. Humanity can alternate between the two states.

Mutual aid in times of disaster

  • There is incredible solidarity among humans in times of crisis, countless beautiful examples
  • One of the things that does get maintained through a collapse is your connection with others, and it is probably the most important thing to maintain for personal resiliency

Cognitive barriers

  • We are wired to deal with immediate problems – adrenaline when a tiger is chasing you type things. Not slow moving climate change. “Climate change is not happening fast enough to get our attention” !
  • We are not well equipped to see the dangers posed by systemic threats. We lack the intellectual tools / education to analyse these risks

Criticism

What I think could have been better:

  • Strange structure. Part 2 on when the collapse might happen was very short (<10% of the book) and should have included a lot of the content of the last section about the stages and signs of collapse
  • Overall very light on what should to do avoid the collapse or best deal with it if it comes. It’s very focused on why and how things might go wrong, not what we can do about it. Perhaps they’re keeping this for the next book.
  • They brush aside the promise of new technologies, eg a clean boundless energy source like fusion, too quickly (“it would keep us going for longer but probably just make us fall from greater height”)
  • Not enough detail on the timeframes for when we might run out of fossil fuels or when they will become too expensive to get out. Such an important factor in their thesis & has been repeatedly mis-predicted – deserves more time
  • They do not bring in radical productivity & efficiency gains that could be achieved, e.g via automation, that could change the picture in terms of likelihood of famine or basic materials needs

📚 About “Highlights”

I’m trying to write up raw notes/highlights on books I’ve recently finished (for lack of having time to write proper reviews). This pushes me to reflect a bit on what I’ve learned and have notes to go back to. It may also be of use to you, Dear Reader, if you are curious about the book! 🙂

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