The Sociology of Civilizational Collapse

How do we envisage our future? To ask this question usually invites reflections upon personal biography. More rarely does it address ‘our’ in a civilizational sense – I use the term loosely here to refer to the totality of organised human social life which, in contemporary circumstances I would take to be unitary (in the sense of global capitalism rather than an underlying species bond) but would not assume this has always been true. In this sense, speaking of ‘civilizational collapse’ does not entail the extinction of the human species (though neither does it rule this out) but rather the unravelling of the existing social order: not a change in its state but the collapse of its capacity to change states. I’m using a processual term because in the absence of a discrete event bringing about the extinction of the species this collapse would inevitably be a process and potentially an extremely slow one. I’m very interested in the constraints upon our capacity to envisage such a collapse and suggested a few points in a blog post earlier this year:

  • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

Reading Tony Benn’s diaries I was intrigued to find that he was plagued by thoughts of impending collapse towards the end of his life. As he records on the 2nd November 2011:

I happened to see a television programme, when I was having my meal in the evening, about the Maya culture in Mexico. I had absolutely no idea that the temples they built were bigger than the pyramids; 1,500 years ago there was the most tremendously civilised society in Latin America, which simply disappeared, went under the jungle, and it does make you wonder whether ours might not do the same. There’s no absolute law to say that our civilisation will survive for ever.

That final line is a very succinct statement of what I was trying to get at with the notion of ‘the epistemology of civilizational collapse’: there’s nothing certain about the sustained survival of a civilisation and yet we assume that there is. A few years from his death (20th November 2008) Tony Benn described the nightmares that plagued him:

I have nightmares every morning. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that the world – Britain and the world – is going to collapse through shortage of oil. I visualise circumstances where people at the top of tower blocks would find that the lift couldn’t be run because there was no energy; doctors couldn’t climb twenty-four flights to stairs to look after them if they were ill; and the whole of society comes to an end.

There’s something interesting about a state of affairs where these ideas are largely confined to nightmares or to fiction. I’m sure there are people studying this (I’d be fascinated to find that there aren’t) but its relative absence from public discourse is surely susceptible to both sociological and psychoanalytical explanation. To clarify, I don’t think that much of the discourse surrounding climate change reaches the level of ‘collapse discourse’ of the sort I’m proposing: it’s technocratic on the one hand and individualised on the other.

I’m interested in exploring cultural representations of collapse as a means to understand the epistemology and sociology of collapse. I think that cultural representations of collapse are often post-hoc, elaborating a vision of the rebuilding of human society after a collapse has taken place. Whereas I’m fascinated by what the process itself would be like and how it would be understood by those within the collapsing social order. In spite of its many flaws, this was what I loved about the film Interstellar:

In fact I would have much preferred this film if it hadn’t had any of the science fiction and had just explored the transformed social order in which a “caretaker generation” seek to sustain the viability of an ever more inhospitable earth: I was gripped by the representations of a social order in which ascriptive identity had returned, agriculture dominated the American economy and the intellectual horizons of the society were narrowing into survival. I’m currently gripped by The Massive – a sociologically rich exploration of life post-collapse:

the massive

Perhaps when I talk about ‘collapse’ what I really mean are the conditions leading to dystopias? In a post earlier this year, Dan Hirschman put forward the idea for a course on real dystopias as a grim parallel to Erik Olin Wright’s work on real utopias. He suggested that “Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia.” These are the topics he suggested:

  1. Antibiotic resistant infections
  2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change
  3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich
  4. The Player Piano dystopia (“a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty”)
  5. The Surveillance state dystopia

However I think it’s important to distinguish between states of collapse and dystopias. Representations of dystopias often presuppose the ecological viability of the underlying context, projecting it forward so as to conceive the future as a product of solely social processes. Representations of ecologically induced collapse often have a converse absence of substantive social content:

Whereas I’m interested in the relationship between the two. Ecological decline doesn’t necessitate collapse in the sense in which I’m using the concept but it does make it ever more likely. I’m wondering if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?

13 responses to “The Sociology of Civilizational Collapse”

  1. Sociology seems to be focused mainly on short-term phenomena, but civilisational collapse is a slow process. Similarly, sociology has had trouble dealing with history.

  2. I know many historical sociologists who would object to that statement! But I agree though.. I’m less sure about the ‘short-term’ thing – surely theories of modernity are long-term?

  3. Most of my own research has been historical sociology, and I’ve always felt it’s very marginal within the field of sociology. Sociologists and historians generally don’t seem to know or care much about each other’s work. Is there a theorist of modernity who actually displays a deep knowledge of history, particularly non-European history?

    An example: although Weber was basically a historical sociologist and devoted considerable effort to explaining the history of religion, contemporary sociology seems to have lost interest in this question. Here I explored some possible reasons for this change:

    If there really is a sociology of civilizational collapse, I’d love to know about it.

  4. I agree but I think the reasons for that are intellectual s much anything else – the concern for diagnosing the grand sweep of history, elucidating epochal shifts, licensing a lazy detachment from historical detail. Though I’m talking about Beck, Bauman et al here more than anyone else.

  5. While theory should rise above details, the problem is that sociologists who make novel, ambitious claims about history, without doing the historical research necessary to back up those claims, are likely to reach wrong conclusions. Ulrich Beck’s claims about ‘risk society’ — the idea that in the past couple of generations, people have acquired new attitudes towards systemic risk — seem to be an example of this. Historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz found that that the attitudes Beck considers recent were actually widespread in the 18th century. I think sociologists who want to theorise about long-term phenomena should do historical research themselves. In other words, they should be historical sociologists.

  6. Science fiction is in fact very diverse and you can find there a large range of representations of collapse.

  7. But any recommendations are appreciated – I am saying that representations of collapsed societies are much more common than representations of the *process* of collapse. I have no idea if this is just a feature of what I happen to have come across.

  8. Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak and Depression or Bust by Mack Reynolds are for example interseting variations. But you are right.

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