“The collapse, a civilisation bug of anthropological nature.”
Specialist in systemic risks of resilience strategies and storytelling as a tool for transformation: with this CV, Arthur Keller, lecturer, trainer and author naturally has the answers to a question that has been bugging us at Bug Me Tender: the collapse of civilisation, will it be the last bug?
Since 2007, and with the appearance of Jared Diamond's book Collapse, the collapse of our society has been a credible and agonising prospect. It is at the heart of debates around the new models of resilience that Man must build, in response to a civilisation bug, for which he is primarily responsible. But what bug are we talking about exactly?
Perhaps we can begin with definitions, including that of Yves Cochet and according to which, collapse is a process at the end of which basic needs will no longer be provided by services regulated by the law. Vincent Mignerot has another definition, also very good. According to him, during or at the end of the collapse, natural laws will take over the human laws and Man will be subject to the laws of natural selection. That is, the competition for access to resources essentially.
My definition of collapse is rather general: it is a process in which we move from heteronomy to autonomy. If we do not anticipate it because we believe ourselves invincible, this transition will be forced and chaotic. The collapse is not a future event to which one could attribute a probability and a cost. It is a complex, protean and plural, process that has already begun. For the Stockholm Resilience Center, Humanity is going beyond several critical limits beyond which the stability of the socio-ecological system is being questioned. Today out of 9 theoretical limits identified, 4 have already been exceeded. In the United States, the Global Footprint Network compares man’s ecological footprint with bio-capacity, which is the earth’s ability to absorb waste and produce resources. And clearly today, one planet is no longer enough,so it’s not a weird speech to present the limits we would face. The massive disappearance of other living beings on earth, including animal species, is a tragedy and proves that what interests Men most is Men himself.
The collapse is a bug of civilisation, that of the thermo-industrial civilisation irreversibly transforming nature into waste. We take resources upstream, we transform them into goods and services, and downstream we reject waste and pollution. We will not be able to tackle this major problem, which is responsible for climate change, by continuing to produce growth at all costs. Even if our civilisation manages to decarbonise, it will not avoid a huge energy and material descent in the next decade. Necessarily the ecological footprint to return under the bio-capacity of the planet so either we do it in an intelligent, humble and lucid way, or we do not prepare and nature will impose. We had until the ’70s to act, we did not do it. Now it’s about making something else.
Man no longer has the luxury to bug in his collective response in the face of the collapse?
Today the problem is that there is no Man as an entity who is capable of taking a coherent collective decision because there is no collective consciousness. Hence, there will be collective responses but not on a global scale. They will be territorial. Does man still have the luxury to bug? It’s not up to him to decide, that’s the problem.
Sustainable development as it was thought of in the Brundtland Report in 1987 includes the imperative of growth.But when we grow economically, we grow energetically and we grow in materials. A study published in late April clearly shows that there can be no partial or total decoupling between resource use and greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand, and economic growth on the other. The data is extremely clear, it is not possible. In 2019, more and more materials are being used to produce one dollar of GDP globally. There is no decoupling, it’s an illusion and that’s the bug. This is the premise of all public policies in this area. In the text of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change that frames all COPs, it says “the imperative of growth” because it considers it necessary to invest in technological, legislative or normative innovations. But this postulate is not based on anything.
So this big lie that our inability to change paradigm is it not the result of a global inability to want to think about our relationship to life and nature, the way we interact with them on a daily basis?
It’s my point of view. I think one of the biggest bugs to come will be anthropological in nature. Our vision of our place in nature is false because very Cartesian. In the logic of Descartes, Man is the owner of a nature that is only there to serve him. It’s a very strong ideological vision, but the laws of nature do not really care about our ideologies. Several major disruptions would have to be done in our societies, starting with nature, where man has always been, even though we live in urban settings that permanently mask it. We are not out of nature, we do not have to dominate nature, we are not above nature, we do not have a particular destiny in nature.
If we go back to the biblical texts, which some people use to say that nature is at the service of man, they speak of “dominus” of nature, and “dominus” is not the master, but the master of the house. He is the good manager, the king who must take care of the Garden of Eden. Man must be put in his place in nature whether he likes it or not. This disruption is a narcissistic wound.
The second narcissistic wound is that everything is not a question of will, of human genius, of talent, of intelligence. Man feeds an obsession with his superiority. His genius has been as useful as dangerous and pernicious. That we understand well, what is problematic is not that Man is interested in Man, but that he is exclusively. It’s time to have a little respect for the rest of what lives on earth.
But finally, this bug of the collapse is it still anticipable?
When we look at the work of the Global Footprint Network, we note that the two curves, that of the ecological footprint and that of the bio-capacity were crossed at the beginning of the ’70s. Even if one can doubt calculations of these curves and even if they were mistaken a little bit, that it is not perhaps 1971 but 1986, it is very clearly seen that today all the indicators are red. I will mention only permafrost, the acidification of the oceans, the multiplication by 4 since 1950 of dead zones in the oceans. We have exceeded the limits of this planet and yet we have no other one.
Precisely, faced with the bug of collapse and the ability of humans to reinvent a society that ensures the sustainability of its development on earth, there are two opposing camps: the optimists, convinced of our relative biological capacity for adaptation; and the pessimists for whom it is already too late and our civilisation is heading for the cliff. If we stand between the two, what is announced as the last destructive bug can it actually be the first founder?
I like the idea of a bug that would be a beginning. Those who assure that we will be able to survive by thinking that we can preserve the system, assuming solutionist, often technological, approaches that totally ignore the primary causes. It is because of this bias, which is a bug, that this camp will treat the symptoms as if they were the causes, and therefore tackle climate change as if it were a source problem. Yet this is only a consequence of the problems of civilisation that we face.
Those who rely on innovation and ensure that Man has always managed are the most simplistic and the most candid. They are unaware of neither the magnitude or the dynamics, or the timing of the profoundly systemic nature of the problem. It is because they miss out on the real characterisation of the problem that they miss out on solutions. They do not understand that their solutions are inadequate. There is a saying that I love and that says, “If your only tool is a hammer, all the problems look like a nail”. We need to change the tools to answer the issue, but we don’t do it because we think we are invincible. These “optimists” supposedly oriented towards the future since they project themselves into technologically advanced universes, are the most archaic. Their conceptions of the future are totally obsolete. Unfortunately, they are the ones who feed the dreams to our political or economic elites the most. And they invest a lot of resources and money in innovative technology.
To come back to the question, last destructive bug or first founding one, I still believe in the ability of man to invent something new. It is entirely possible and it is immensely stimulating. It is a project of the civilisation. It can be scary, but I think it can motivate us, the citizens, because everything starts with us. Solutions will not come from these techno-avid blind elites, nor will politicians. The reality is that this reinvention must come from the territories, the basins of life or some communities. This is where the story of tomorrow is born, the only true path of collective well-being, of dignity through the elimination of heteronomy to become more self-reliant collectively.
Arthur, let's finish with the obligatory passage of any Bug Me Tender interview: the imposed epilogue. First question, what is your definition of a bug?
I will stay in an IT sense: it is a design flaw that generates malfunctions.
Secondly, in your field what is the biggest bug?
The absence of system thinking is a terrible bug because it makes us incapable to draw the right diagnosticsand therefore to identify the right solution space. More than that, it is the simplistic triumphalism that expresses itselfin this blind faith that people maintain the human genius. This faith makes us incapable of humility and lucidity.