“Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.”— Haruki Murakami
So you want to talk about the end of the world without sounding like a crank?
Rule #1 should be: Don’t predict when it will happen.
A lot of the writing on this site has to do with the collapse of civilization (and what that means). Following Jem Bendell, author of the now (in)famous “Deep Adaptation paper”, I anticipate “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe, and possible extinction”.
Of course, all civilizations collapse. And all species die. Eventually, everything ends. But we are now in a process of acceleration toward that end. When will this happen? Who knows. The best answer I have read is “sooner rather than later”–which doesn’t really say much.
I have noticed, though, that a lot of people who are in the Doomer and Post-Doom communities are not so circumspect when it comes to putting a date on the end of the world.
Here’s five reasons why you shouldn’t put a date on the end of the world.
1. You’re wrong. (Collapse is complex.)
The collapse of any civilization is a complex phenomenon. Our global industrial-capitalist civilization is incredibly complex. And it stands to reason that the collapse of that civilization will be complex as well. And that makes predicting it that much harder.
I think some of the tendency to over-simplify collapse is driven by an unconscious desire for control. We feel out of control in our lives. Contemplating collapse only amplifies this. Imagining a simplified collapse gives us a sense of control. A false sense. The desire for control is a big part of the reason people deny collapse. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that we would see vestiges of this desire in the doomer and post-doom communities.
When you talk about collapse as something simple, you’re wrong. Because it’s complex.
2. You’re wrong. (Collapse is a process.)
Civilizations don’t collapse overnight. Collapse is a process. Yes, there are key moments in the process. Rome was sacked by the Visgoths on August 24, 410 CE. But the collapse of Rome was a decades long process. A good book on this is John Michael Greer’s The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World.
The same is true of our civilization. It’s a process. It’s likely the process will take place over decades. And it’s likely that it will be staggered. We will see declines followed by leveling out periods. We may even see temporary, partial recoveries.
So when you talk about collapse as an event, you’re wrong. Because it’s a process.
3. You’re wrong. (Collapse has already begun.)
Which leads me into the third reason it’s wrong to try to predict the collapse of civilization. Prediction presumes that an event is in the future. It’s not. It’s already begun.
Yes, there are still a lot of things that have yet to happen. But there are a lot that already have. We’ve already passed several critical planetary boundaries for sustaining human life. We passed 350ppm carbon in the atmosphere in 1986. The production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2006. The standard of living in the U.S. has actually been on the decline since the late 1970s or early 1980s. U.S. population growth is in decline. And let’s not forget the recent election of a demagogue in the U.S. and the resurgence of neo-fascism in several Western countries. (My apologies for the U.S.-centric analysis, but there is good reason to look at the U.S. as a harbinger.)
So when you talk about collapse as something in the future, you’re wrong. It’s already happening.
4. You’re wrong. (You won’t live to see the end.)
Some people make it a matter of decades. Some, a matter of years. But, among those who are willing to put a date–or a date range on it–one thing seems nearly universal: They tend to put it within their own lifetime. The result is: the older the would-be prophet is, the shorter the amount of time civilization supposedly has left.
I think this is hubris. It’s hard for most people to contemplate the end of their own existence. Those in the Doomer and Post-Doom communities at least claim to have come to terms with that fact. But I wonder.
I suspect a switch and bait. Contemplating one’s own extinction is an assault on the ego. So we try to deny it. We invite all kinds of strategies for denying it. And maybe the belief that we will live to see the end of the world is just another strategy. Perhaps it is comforting to think that the end of the world–the most significant event we can imagine–won’t happen without us. Or perhaps it flatters the ego to thing we won’t end without the whole world ending with us.
In any case, when you talk about the end as something that you will live to see, you’re wrong. You won’t.
5. You’re wrong. (And you will live to see yourself be wrong.)
Talking about the end of civilization is hard enough. People don’t like to think about death of any kind. From the political left to the political right, our ideologies are premised on a belief in perpetual progress. Getting people to the point of accepting, even in theory, that our civilization won’t last forever is challenging enough. If you give them any reason to dismiss you, they will seize on it. And putting a date (or a date range) on the end of the world is an easy thing for them to seize on.
When talking or writing about collapse, it’s really tempting to offer a prediction. It’s the first question most people in your audience will have. When is this going to happen? But as soon as you answer that question, will lose all your credibility.
And since you’ve probably set an end date within your own lifetime, you’re going to live to see yourself become a false prophet. And those who heard you predict the end of the world will remember and they will dismiss, not just your premature prediction, but the whole idea of collapse.
So do us all a favor, and stop predicting when the collapse will happen.