We Need to Talk about Collapse

Hamish Lindop
5 min readJul 2, 2023
Tane Mahuta, God of the Forest, who will see us find our way through the transition in the blink of an eye relative to his lifespan

I read this post by Umair Haque on the weekend, who’s been writing on the topic of collapse for a while now. Obviously what he’s saying is pretty alarming so I went in search of a slightly more scholarly analysis of the situation, and I found a good one here.

The article provides quite a comprehensive analysis of the complex and interlocking problems facing us: a growing global population which is already too large for the carrying capacity of the planet, rapid species extinction, climate disruption, increasing overconsumption of resources, and more. The authors take up food production as one basic problem that seems difficult to surmount; the food production system will need to provide more food as the global population grows, it is a major cause of environmental crises, and yet it is in turn extremely vulnerable to environmental shocks that are happening. Without massive and transformative change to both the food system itself, and/or the cause of growing population, and/or the various causes of the multiple environmental crises (e.g. stopping deforestation, eliminating carbon emissions, etc), we’ll reach a point in the not too distant future where the food system will fail to feed us.

This is just one example of the multiple interlocking threats to global civilization that amplify each other. The authors point out that we can’t just tinker around the edges to avoid collapse; rapid, deep, transformational change is required across society in the next decade. But this is unlikely to happen:

Societies have a long history of mobilizing efforts, making sacrifices and changes, to defeat an enemy at the gates, or even just to compete more successfully with a rival. But there is not much evidence of societies mobilizing and making sacrifices to meet gradually worsening conditions that threaten real disaster for future generations. Yet that is exactly the sort of mobilization that we believe is required to avoid a collapse.

Here really is the rub. The overall awareness of the general population of how critical the situation is, and how much needs to be done and how fast, seems to be very low. Our elected leaders are also elected followers; they go with what the population demands and what will get the votes. So political leaders won’t make unpopular decisions to spur radical and rapid transformation when their voters don’t see the necessity. It’s like the Titanic sailing towards the iceberg (what an ironic simile), some people on the boat can see the iceberg and wave their arms but the ship can’t turn in time.

My scenario brain can imagine this playing out in a few different ways:

  1. The shocks from the problems we are causing start coming frequently and early enough, and causing enough pain to enough of the population, that society starts to approach the problems with much more urgency very soon, and we manage to create some sort of “softer landing” scenario. But this seems unlikely; look at how we talked about “building back better” after covid but it seems like things have mostly just returned to BAU or even regressed since covid. I’m also unsure whether we’ve already passed the “point of no return” in terms of cascading reinforcing environmental collapse; we may have.
  2. We don’t create enough change quickly enough, and the reinforcing feedback loops create a truly catastrophic situation, leading to extinction of human life. This also seems unlikely.
  3. The most likely scenario seems like some sort of “middle ground scenario” between extinction of the human race and preservation of the current order of society. This will likely involve a massive die off of humans, a great deal of chaos and anarchy, and eventually the emergence of a much smaller human society; my hope is that we’ll have learnt deeply and viscerally what sustainable living truly looks like, from our values, to our systems and way of life. The other side of this coin is that we’ll likely see some darker aspects of human nature come to the fore: despotism, raiding, survivalism, isolationism, that will have to be managed as best we can.

The thing I am starting to think about is, if there is a likelihood of scenario three, the middle ground scenario, for those that work in the field of social innovation, what capacities can we be developing in our communities to increase the likelihood of some sort of successful transition at some level?

Since the picture is so broad, with so many uncertainties and complexities included in what the specifics of the future situation will look like, it’s hard to make any sort of a specific “roadmap”. The work that I’m doing on the Participatory City Approach has two core functions: building social cohesion between diverse people in the community, and building co-production capacity in those people; this really just having the capability to live more collaboratively and collectively in a way that’s more beneficial to everyone. In that “middle ground world”, social cohesion and co-production capacity will likely be invaluable (possibly along with “harder” capacities like self-defense and self-reliance: I found this Nat Geo article on preppers in NZ useful to learn about the thinking some people are doing on that side of things).

I’ve paid some attention to likely timescales for this situation to play out. The work to review and update the well known “Limits to Growth” seems to indicate a likely inflection point of around 2040. Obviously we are dealing with a very inexact science, so I’ve thought how in reality for example, if we had a couple of super-impact weather events, plus two more coronaviruses, plus three other “black swan” emergent crises all emerge tomorrow from the “crisis soup” which has been brewing, that would probably trigger the collapse cascade tomorrow. On the other hand, if societal response becomes more urgent more quickly, and/or we are lucky, perhaps the collapse will be later, or will morph into a “soft landing” scenario. It ends up looking like a bell curve of probability with the high point of the bell probably sitting on 2040.

As a heuristic this gives us about thirteen years to prepare ourselves and our communities for whatever comes next through the looking glass. One study has shown that New Zealand is rated most likely to survive global collapse, but we’ll likely see mass migrations by those lucky enough to be able to do so, and this will lead to lots of tensions, negotiations, and conflicts.

So in the time before this highly likely, great, and challenging change, the likes of which we’ve never seen, and which will probably upend everything we’ve ever known about how life works, what can we do to ready ourselves and our communities? That has become my greatest concern.

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Hamish Lindop

Sharing insights from community building and social innovation, and reflections on ways of (well) being