Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to live in a society that had no word for ‘love’. How do you think the inability to express this crucial idea with a single, simple word would impact your relationships, your life? What effect do you think it would have on your view of the world, on the trajectory of human social development?
Words are powerful. They shape the way we view reality, even how we construct it. They shape our capacity to feel, to experience. As someone who’s distinctly aware of words’ power, I often reflect on how my own language patterns influence my life and my relationships. As someone who’s intimately aware of the many social, economic and environmental changes making themselves felt around the world, I’ve also considered how my language influences my capacity to contribute positively to my community and to adapt to changing life circumstances. As of late I’ve particularly considered the importance and impacts of the word ‘collapse’.
Perhaps some of us have been present when buildings or other structures collapsed. Many of us have watched recordings of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. The idea that man-made structures, so intricate in their design and solid in their construction, could so be quickly reduced to a heap of rubble reminds us of the impermanence that pervades our reality. Entropy bats last.
Some archeologists and anthropologists apply the term ‘collapse’ within the context of human social development. Joseph Tainter’s classic academic text The Collapse of Complex Societies and Jared Diamond’s more popularly oriented book Collapse are well known examples, although there are many others. In the same way that the collapse of buildings represents the sudden, permanent expression of entropy relative to physical structures, so too – in the eyes of these academics – can entropy express itself in the context of human social organization.
While societies certainly do succumb to entropy, I’m uncomfortable using the term ‘collapse’ in the context of human societies. Why? First, because the descendants of many societies that anthropologists claim collapsed – including the Romans and the Mayans, among many others – still survive today. A particular model of social organization might have succumbed to entropy, but the members of that society didn’t go extinct. They simply shed the old model in favor of a new one that better suited their needs. That which succumbed to entropy in this case was not something solid, something physical, but was rather a particular network of institutions and relationships that are not nearly as energy intensive to rebuild as concrete and steel. In my mind the differences between a collapsing building and a ‘collapsing’ society are so stark that the word ‘collapse’ can’t hardly be applied to both.
Academic jargon is normally immaterial to most of us, although over the past few decades a growing number of academics have forayed into public discourse and brought their unique application of the word ‘collapse’ with them. Today it’s common to hear pundits of all stripes warning of economic collapse, environmental collapse, climate collapse. Media pundits have a perfectly good reason to use the term collapse, one with no relationship to the term’s accuracy. Collapse, when applied to a social or environmental system we depend on, generates the emotional reaction of fear. Like sex, fear sells. Discourse crafted strategically to inspire fear in the hearts of citizens and consumers can help a business or government sell products, services or even policies that would otherwise be rejected. Fear is a powerful marketing tool.
Telling a story that paints ‘collapse’ as a universal enemy can unite a society, but it also disempowers them, lowers them into a reactionary mindset where they may well acquiesce to disastrous policies that don’t really serve their interests. When a building begins to collapse, there isn’t much anyone can do about it but get out of the way. The collapse, once set in motion, happens too quickly, is too unpredictable and gathers too much momentum to allow for an effective intervention. If people believe their economy will ‘collapse’ unless government agency X enacts drastic policy Y, they may willingly absolve themselves of the capacity to intervene in defense of their own interests and hand even more power to a governmental authority that’s all too happy to accept it. This disempowerment feeds an even deeper sense of fear, leading to isolationist and ‘survivalist’ tendencies such as the abandoning of communities in favor of isolated homes and the stockpiling of guns, ammo, precious metals, food, etc.
I frequent a range of alternative media outlets, most of which use the term collapse liberally. I wonder if their writers and producers have considered the broader implications of their language choice. Can educators and commentators with all the best of intentions cause broad social harm by couching their analyses and discourse within the context of collapse? Could talk of collapse lead to social turmoil that otherwise wouldn’t happen precisely because it pushes people towards reactionary – even antisocial – behavior?
I’m not naive. I know perfectly well that Business as Usual as I’ve experienced it over the course of my life is changing, that the next quarter century will look very different from the previous. This diatribe against collapse isn’t an attempt to deny or hide this reality. Rather, I’m convinced that promoting a need for radical, pervasive change isn’t best achieved by appealing to people’s fear. If this short essay achieves one thing, I hope it inspires people, particularly educators and commentators, to reconsider how they use language in their messages, particularly their decision to promote their ideas and ideals through the collapse meme.
I suspect the people alive 1,000 years from now will count among their ancestors those of us who transcended today’s collapse mythology and got to the real work of self and community development, inner work and adaptation. The future belongs to those who choose their words wisely so as not to undermine the outcome they most desire.