‘Humans weren’t always here. We could disappear’: meet the collapsologists

Michel Rosell gathers up a mass of papers and divides them into two piles. On the left are bills: a single sheet. On the right is a sheaf of letters from friends and lovers. “If the pile of letters is growing faster than the pile of bills, you’re on the right track,” says Rosell. “If it’s the other way round, you’re on the wrong track. It’s not that hard, the revolution I’m proposing.”

We are sitting on a wooden bench at a wooden table beneath a ceiling made of braided ribbons of wood, in Rosell’s house in the Cevennes, a mountain range in the south of France. Rosell looks like someone who has been fighting a revolution for half a century: untamed white hair, bare chest and feet, grubby black tracksuit bottoms. A weatherbeaten Robinson Crusoe, still hale and eager to take on cannibals – or capitalists – at 73.

He has lived here, far from any road or other habitation, since the 1970s, not long after spinning out, breathless and bloodied, from the 1968 student uprisings in Paris. Many of his rebel comrades urged a return to a simpler life, but few enacted it. He found a remote plot in the least densely populated region of France and built a bioclimatic home on it; that is, a house with low energy requirements and a light environmental footprint.

He hoarded rainwater, composted, recycled his waste water and heated his house with firewood and solar panels. Not for him salaried work, which he refers to as “five days of prostitution followed by two days of resuscitation”. He preferred to take what he needed – and no more – from nature. On the day I visit, he shows me a shallow pool filled with electric-green water, in which he grows the protein-rich algae spirulina: delicious, he says, with olive oil and garlic. It complements a diet rich in wild plants: 70 species altogether, which he gathers from the forest.

Michel Rosell teaching students at his University of Applied Collective Ecology in 2016.

Rosell currently lives alone. He does not believe in marriage and never had kids, he says, but people passed through. Some came out of curiosity, and left again; others moved in. He taught those who were interested how to live as self-sufficiently as possible. Young people bold enough to venture to his University of Applied Collective Ecology built walls out of crushed sunflowers and cow dung, motors that ran on seaweed, and reed beds that transformed sewage into drinking water. It was emphatically experimental, and it did not always work. But his approach, dismissed as eccentric by his contemporaries, appeared increasingly sensible to generations fearful that humanity had damaged the planet beyond repair, then urgent to the growing number of his compatriots who feel that their society is on the verge of collapse.

The belief that we are heading for some kind of all-consuming crisis is not exclusively French, of course. Serious scientists all over the world are discussing it. Wealthy Americans were buying spots in Armageddon-proof bunkers long before Covid-19, and militant environmental and social protest movements have been on the rise everywhere. Within Europe, however, a survey published last November by the left-leaning French thinktank the Jean Jaures Foundation found that only Italy beat France for pessimism about the future. Seventy-one per cent of Italians and 65% of French people agreed with the statement that “civilisation as we know it will collapse in the years to come”; 56% of Brits shared that apocalyptic vision – slightly ahead of Americans, at 52% – while Germans came in last with a sanguine 39%.

In 2015, two Frenchmen, Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stevens, who describe themselves as independent researchers, co-wrote an essay entitled How Everything Can Collapse, in which they introduced the term “collapsology”. In a long interview Servigne gave to Philosophie magazine this year, he explained that, at first, their neologism was tongue-in-cheek. The concept must have struck a chord, though, because within a couple of years he found himself at the head of a movement, and this summer the word collapsologie entered the popular French dictionary Le Petit Robert. “We created a monster,” Servigne told Philosophie.

Raphael Stevens (left) and Pablo Servigne, who came up with the word 'collapsology'.

For the authors of the Jean Jaures study, the political scientist Jerome Fourquet and the pollster Jean-Philippe Dubrulle, collapsology is driven at least in part by economic factors. The least apocalyptically minded country they polled, Germany, also has (or had, pre-Covid-19) the strongest economy, while the countries where the movement has the largest following – Italy and France – are those where economic performance has been poorest of late, and social and political tensions run high.

They deliberately left their statement vague as to the causes of the coming collapse, because people in different countries think differently about these. In Britain and Germany, the emphasis is on the climate crisis, as seen in the emergence of Extinction Rebellion in the UK. But in France, where they overlap to some extent with the gilets jaunes movement, collapsologists also consider society to be sick. The idea is that rampant consumerism, ever-accelerating technological advances and the dominance of neoliberalism are leading French people to perdition.

It is probably for this reason, say Fourquet and Dubrulle, that France stands apart from the other countries they surveyed in one important way: whereas in general the movement is strongest in the under-35 age group, “in our country, all generations, the 65-and-overs included, share the same sombre diagnosis”.

The movement also cuts across political boundaries, embracing everyone from the far right to the far left. One of the most outspoken collapsologists is Yves Cochet, a politician with Europe Ecology – France’s green party – and a former environment minister in Lionel Jospin’s leftwing government of the early 00s. He has retreated to a farmhouse in Britanny and reputedly has not seen the inside of a plane since 2009. But there are also French “survivalists” who – at least until about a decade ago – shared the drawbridge mentality of the Americans stocking up on peanut butter and ammo.

After the financial crisis of 2008, says Bertrand Vidal, a sociologist at the University of Montpellier who studies these groups, the predominantly rightwing, libertarian survivalists shifted closer to Servigne and Stevens’s softer, back-to-nature school of how-to-avert-the-worst, with its emphasis on sustainability. Differences between them remain, but one thing they share is a neo-Malthusian conviction that there are too many people on Earth. Even those who overtly criticise capitalism believe in a post-apocalyptic winnowing of the human species, in which nature will determine who lives and who dies. “They use the analogy of the grasshopper and the ant,” Vidal says, referring to the fable in which the ant survives the winter because it prepared for cold weather, while the improvident grasshopper expires.

Yves Cochet, a member of France's green party and a former environment minister, claims things will fall apart in 2030.

The uncertainty created by ongoing financial instability, climate change and now Covid-19 has shrunk the ideological distance between the two camps still further, while at the same time swelling their followings. “People hesitate to call themselves collapsologists or survivalists,” says Vidal. “Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that it has become a subject of general preoccupation. It’s no longer restricted to a minority of fanatics.”

These days it is mainly a middle-class phenomenon, in part because you have to have the means to be able to contemplate a radical life change. You probably also grew up with certain expectations that you perceive to have been frustrated by the deteriorating state of the world. “These are people who don’t see a future and who, in searching for a sense to their social disqualification, find it in this idea of the end of the world,” says Vidal. It is also markedly urban – as it was in the 70s – being fuelled by a romanticised image of what it means to live self-sufficiently in a low-tech, rural setting. For that reason, most collapsologists are content to discuss their anxieties, without acting on them.

Servigne acted. Born in Versailles in 1978, he studied agronomy in Belgium before completing a PhD in sociobiology. The subject of his thesis was cooperation in ants. It was the early 00s, and the scientific consensus was moving away from the idea that cooperative behaviour is genetically determined – you only help your kin – to one that said the environment matters too: social animals band together in harsh conditions, even if they are not related, because their survival depends on it. This chimed with arguments he had heard in anarchist circles, and after his second son was born, he and his family left their cramped apartment in Brussels – and the academic life – to move closer to nature and likeminded people.

They ended up in the Drome, a mountainous region in south-east France near Grenoble, living close to a forest where the children regularly glimpse birds of prey, wild boar, even wolves. Ironically, Servigne himself does not have time to garden – he is too busy leading a movement – but growing food is central to the family’s and community’s lifestyle. And though he and Stevens have yet to publish their vision of how best to live in the shadow of collapse – it is a work-in-progress – central to it is the concept of permaculture: living off the land, durably. Permaculture embraces organic and traditional forms of farming, but it can also extend to other domains of life: recycling, barter, homeschooling.

Unlike Cochet, who claims that things will fall apart in 2030 – in a series of mainly climatic catastrophes that will eliminate half the world’s population – Servigne does not predict when the collapse will happen. Indeed, he thinks we may already have entered the endgame. (Among scientists, there is a parallel debate over whether the people of lost civilisations, such as the Minoans or the Hittites, realised their societies were collapsing.)

A bioclimatic 'conference room' that Rosell built near his house in the Cevennes.

Nor does he claim to have all the answers, though he believes that salvation lies in slow, local, group-based solutions. “Small is beautiful,” he says. In the eyes of many French people he has taken on the status of a guru, not unlike Greta Thunberg internationally (she herself has been compared to an earlier French guru, Joan of Arc). And although he insists that his thinking is grounded in science, he does not shy away from accusations that his crusade has a religious dimension. For him, it is impossible to think about humanity’s place on the planet without engaging in spiritual or philosophical reflection. Science, after all, has provided a diagnosis but no workable solutions to date.

Collapsology has plenty of detractors. The philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and Stanford University in California, has two major criticisms. The first is that, despite vaunting their scientific credentials, collapsologists have misunderstood the fundamental nature of complex systems, whether they be ecological, financial, social or climatic. Servigne, for example, contends that the more globalised and connected human societies become, the more vulnerable they are to disruption. This is plainly wrong, says Dupuy. “It is in their complexity that both the resilience and the vulnerability of systems lie, meaning that collapse is far from a given, just because the system becomes more complex.”

Second, by predicting collapse on a certain date – as Cochet does – collapsologists shoot themselves in the proverbial foot. They are effectively saying that nothing we do will make any difference, but if that is true, we might as well sit back and wait for the end. They risk either engendering fatalistic resignation or, if people do act, being proved wrong. If their goal is to avert the calamity, they should prefer the second option. “The curse of the prophet of doom is to be condemned to be a false prophet,” says Dupuy.

He acknowledges that he is taking risks of his own, in criticising the collapsologists, because the threats to humanity are real, and they include the indifference of the vast majority of us. It is possible, though far from certain, that Covid-19 will wake us up; that people will see it as a taste of what is to come. Collapsologists read the pandemic differently. Bizarre as it may seem, says Vidal, many greeted it enthusiastically – as vindication. “For them, the catastrophe represents a sort of tabula rasa, a sweeping away of the errors of the past, and a step closer to the day when society will reboot itself.”

Yogan Bredel-Samson, a carpenter and builder who is raising a family in a bioclimatic cabin in the woods of the Dordogne, as part of a community of nature-loving artisans and artists, says: “When the coronavirus came, we were very happy to have our old ploughs and wooden tools, our gardens and horses.” He credits Rosell for inspiring his life change – he was a student at the latter’s alternative university 20 years ago – but says that what he took from that experience was how to live sustainably. Rosell’s politics, which he considered extreme, left him cold. “I’m against supermarkets,” he says, “not money.”

Meanwhile, Rosell continues his life’s experiment. Before I leave, he shows me a sweet chestnut sapling he has grafted on to an oak, in the hope that it will one day bear fruit. He does not fear Covid-19, having confidence in his immune system, because he has nourished it properly all these years. Does he see the pandemic as a warning? He shrugs. “There’s no point in frightening people,” he says, suggesting he has mellowed since the 60s. “We weren’t always here. We could disappear. But we could also do something different.”

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