Anticipating Collapse

January 16, 2020

Collapse can’t happen soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. By collapse, I mean the breakdown of the complexities of our current society. Those would be government bureaucracies, educational and credentialing systems, laws and regulations of all sorts, tax codes, the interconnected layers of our identities on the internet, the ballooning administrative sector, insurance, the stock market, multinational corporations, the military-industrial complex – all the way down to the proliferation of single-purpose kitchen gadgets cluttering our cupboards.

It’s not that I long for the feral world, red in tooth and claw, portrayed in collapse fiction, although I know there are those who fantasize about mastering a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I acknowledge that the collapse of complex societies (the name of a great study by Joseph Tainter) is both the result of problems and the cause of problems in human relations and survival. Collapse seems always to be tied to environmental degradation, although there are many other related causes, and is often accompanied by war, hunger, displaced people, and a fall in population. I would have to be a monster to want my family and neighbors to suffer all those things, and I’m not.

But there are two points I want to make about collapse: that it is inevitable; and that it is necessary before genuine reform can take place.

First the inevitability. History and archaeology show that every complex society that has ever arisen has fallen. Ancient China, Babylon, Assyria, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Mayans, Incas, Mali, Zimbabwe, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire – these all followed a similar pattern of expansion, administration, and dissolution. Some have fallen spectacularly and vanished from history, while others have rearranged themselves and emerged in another form, but none has survived for long at its peak of power. There are lots of theories about timelines and patterns that you can read if you’re interested, but the central point is that complex human societies, like everything else in this universe, do not expand infinitely. Eventually they all collapse, partially or completely, and something different rises in their place. This process will certainly be compounded and sped up in our generation by the looming climate catastrophe.

Discussion of the issue of collapse often takes a moral tone, asking what we’ve done that God, gods, or nature is punishing us for – and that is an appropriate and helpful process, one we should spend a lot of time thinking about, because we are moral creatures. But the moral element sometimes distracts us from the natural inevitability of collapse, the pattern that we see when a sapling sprouts in a forest, grows, ages, falls, and leaves a gap for other saplings to fill. Too often the moral approach assumes that we can avoid that natural pattern if we just shape up. To a degree and for a time that’s true, but ultimately it is hubris to expect that we and our institutions can live forever.

So the current Western society that we take for granted will collapse. I don’t know when or how or to what degree, but I know it will. It would be wonderful if we could assert our collective will to downsize voluntarily, to “collapse now and avoid the rush,” as John Michael Greer puts it. It would be great if we could restrict our appetites, break away from our expectations, and be willing to imagine an unknowable future, rather than fighting to preserve the status quo. I have a tiny hope that some people might being willing to collapse well, which is what keeps me writing about human-shaped institutions.

On the whole, however, I expect that the collapse will be messy, not carefully managed by people of goodwill. I expect there will be conflict and competition, selfishness defending itself against need, and a dearth of imagination about how things could be different but still good. Western society has made enemies of people and nature in its expansion, and those enemies will pour in when they get the chance if we don’t make peace with them first.

But the future doesn’t need to be a Book of Eli scenario of blasted landscapes, gangs, and cannibalism. My second point is that collapse is also an opportunity for new life, new systems, a new attempt at balance. In the gaps left by the fall of complicated, ossified institutions, more human-shaped ones can grow. It will be messy, but it could be good.

Think about this as an example. I’ve been writing a lot about educational reform. I have a picture of the kind of school I’d love to start, and have even worked on making it a reality at various times in the past. But starting a small, sane, countercultural school right now involves a lot of complexity: at minimum, credentials from states and/or independent agencies, which would dictate the training and qualifications of teachers; building codes; insurance of all sorts; and financing to rent or buy space. It involves competing with other schools for families who assume that interschool competitions in sports, music, debate, and other areas are necessary. It involves dealing with colleges who have become ever more demanding about transcripts and activities, and with parents who are afraid that alternative education would interfere with their children’s ability to get scholarships. And even if all of those issues could be successfully addressed, it means that only wealthy families could send their children to the kind of school that I think all children should go to.

If the public school system and its related institutions collapsed, however, the school I’d like to start would be a valuable alternative for the people who wouldn’t even consider it now. I could start it in my house, if I had to, and barter goods and services with parents who couldn’t afford cash, all outside of the current bureaucracy. The same is true of all other fields: I know there are doctors who would love to open a practice independent of the nationwide networks, and, not dragged down by the crazy costs of education and insurance, treat patients for a reasonable price. There are farmers who would be more successful if they were no longer crushed by regulations designed for industrial-level food producers and no longer competing against the subsidized foodlike substances sold throughout our fast food nation. The same is true of producers of all sorts: clothes designers, carpenters, builders, writers, artists, and others.

(Let me insert a quick explanation here: I am not against regulations guaranteeing safety and quality. I have no problem with reasonable government at the appropriate level for the issues being considered. I’m just saying that the expansion of complexity ultimately stifles freedom and creativity, and that collapse creates an opening for freedom and creativity.)

The next question that needs to be asked, then, is what should we do in anticipating collapse, and how should we participate in the process? Is violent revolution inevitable, as Marx said? Should we proactively start a violent revolution to hurry things along, as Soviet Marxists thought? Should we use heinous methods to destabilize the status quo like the accelerationists? Should we try to work through our current institutions of law and government to create reform, as activists want? Or should we retreat to woods and communes to start a parallel society apart from our metastasized system, as used to happen millennia ago when there was more unoccupied land to retreat to?

I’m not confident that any of these methods would yield the results that I’d like to see. Nor am I sure that revolutions and reforms can direct the mighty forces of expansion and collapse that rule the universe. I see us more like people on a raft hurtling toward a surf-torn shore, arguing about whether we should be paddling forward, paddling backward, or jumping overboard.

Can we really change anything, or are the forces driving us forward too powerful to divert? I don’t know. You can go ahead and try the method that makes sense to you, so long as you act within moral bounds and don’t assume that the ends justify the means; I just don’t think it will make that much difference to the ultimate collapse of society. However, the choices we make will mean everything in the world to the kind of people we become and the future society we form: either motivated by greed, competition, and entitlement, or founded on kindness, humility, and balance.

Damaris Zehner

Damaris Zehner is an associate professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. She is the author of The Between Time, a collection of essays, and a contributor to blogs such as and She has lived and worked on four continents, equipping educators, translators, and gardeners with training and supplies. Her blog, Integrity of Life ( focuses on sane living in the present and in... Read more.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of complex societies