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COLLAPSE: TO FALL TOGETHER



Collapse comes from the Latin verb "collabi," which means "to fall together." The prefix "col" is the root for "together," and "labi" is "to fall." Over time, this word was spread by various languages, referring to the sudden breakdown of a structure, system, or object.


"The Decline of the American Empire" (1986) is a Canadian movie, directed by Denys Arcand, that explores, through satire and philosophical dialogues, if there are any morals in a society ruled by money. The provocative dialogues among four couples who are intimate friends point out the incongruences and unsustainability of such a society. How can the pursuit of individual happiness, the saving of the planet, and the economic market be ever united?


Recently, I had a quick job in a cafeteria in Germany. Incredibly enough, the word I heard the most during those days was – catastrophe! As strange as it seems, my two shift colleagues referred to everything that was not right as, see = catastrophe! Anything unclean, not properly displayed, or set was classified by End of Days Vocabulary. Being a psychologist, psychoanalyst, and researcher, I was aware of the use of words, and specifically, of the expansion of such words. Collapse, catastrophe, and crisis -- coincidently three C's -- somehow have become part of everyone's vocabulary, based on this observation.


Nevertheless, Western civilization is not the only one to achieve such an outcome. Other civilizations before us have also collapsed for a variety of reasons. 


  • Ancient Sumer (2000 BC - Bronze Age) collapsed due to the salinization of soil due to poor irrigation, political instability, and the invasions of the Mycenaean (1100 BC).


  • Ancient Greece (circa 146 BC - Roman Conquest) fell because of multiple invasions, internal disputes, and the decline of trade. 


  • Ancient Egypt (circa 1069 BC – Iron Age) succumbed due to political instability and invasions by the Assyrians and Persians. 


  • The Roman Empire (circa eighth century B.C., to 476 AC) was attributed to internal decays, economic troubles, over expansion, military problems, and barbarian tribes. 


  • The Byzantine Empire (1453 AC - Middle Ages) includes the list of collapses when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople. 


The truth is, no civilization is ever safe, no matter how hard they try to prevent it. While specific factors for why civilizations collapse may vary from one to another, many collapses are deeply rooted in climate crises, internal ruptures, and invasions. The composition and order may alter, but no one survives with food restrictions, instability, and defences at bay (not socially, nor individually). Furthermore, it does not require much effort to read the news and find all three. That said, is collapse humanity’s destiny?


COLLAPSE AS DESTINY


Collapse is typically complex and multifaceted, quite often involving a combination of internal and external factors. The external reasons are often explored in history; however, what are the human factors present in collapse times? 


Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist from the University of Maryland, notes “instability is grown by social disparities and inequalities” in his thesis about the Models of Human-Nature Interaction (2014). The economic and social gaps generate a lack of social cohesion. Without social cohesion, individuals start to have increased conflicts among each other. It is the beginning of the end. 


The absence of cooperative relationships can hinder a civilization's ability to respond to crises. Building and maintaining social capital is crucial for resilience and adaptability, but how does the lack of social connections relate to collapse? What sort of behaviours can pre-announce apocalyptical times ahead? What sort of non-adaptive behaviours can even trigger more collapse and ruin?


Well, most of my futurist colleagues are working hard to build paths towards positive futures. Some are studying the probabilities of what is to come within data science. Many are expressing their continuous enthusiasm for the advances of technology, whereas others are advocating for individuals to become more resilient. 


By looking at the intersection of the individual and the social – I would like to suggest a trio of behaviours that may pre-announce the arrival of challenges ahead, including disruptions. They may not be the direct cause of the collapse, but there are certain behaviour patterns and individual traits that should be looked at to better understand these processes. 


OVERCONFIDENCE


Although self-confidence is a fair and well-incentivised personal trait, the truth is that too much of it can change one's self-perception, altering one's response, and leading to a biased perception of reality. No one is immune to moments of super confidence, but could too much of it weaken social cohesion, and a sense of belonging? Would overconfidence bring a feeling of not needing anyone else -- to such a point that it washes away social cohesion, and with it, the concept of the social that binds one to another?  

 

In The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, (1979), Christopher Lasch criticises contemporary Western culture for its self-indulgence, consumerism, and emphasis on individual gratification. For him, these trends could only contribute to a decline in the cultural and social fabric of today's society. 


When Russia invaded Ukraine, I was quite worried about the outcome. I was in Germany at the time and expressed my worries to a professor who worked for a local university. The professor was very confident that Putin would not stand a chance. I was immediately concerned about the way it was addressed more than the war itself. Having grown up hearing the stories of WW2, I knew overconfidence could blind one's perception and produce biased behaviours.


Why? Thus, one's estimations of risk and success can simply deviate from reality. 


FAILURE TO SUBLIMATE


The psychoanalytical view of civilization for psychologist Sigmund Freud is based upon the repression of the death drive. What does this mean? Humans can easily kill and destroy each other; however, this energy is sublimated and directed to more constructive and adaptive behaviours. 


This is how art, culture, care, and diplomacy are developed. Henri Bergson, the philosopher of Free Will, calls this “the Elan of Life.” It’s best described as an openness to construction instead of destruction. However, there is no definite guarantee of this composition, neither at the social nor the individual level. 


This is how the outside and inside world continues to be "a battlefield of opposing forces," Eros and Thanatos, Life and Death, Construction and Collapse. There can be positive outstanding futures as well as mass destruction. This choice and capacity are what would distinguish humanity from animals (not intelligence). It is a choice!


Civilization can only survive if built on instinctual renunciation, delay of immediate enjoyment, creation of substitute objects, inhibition of aggressive tendencies, sublimation of hostilities, etc. Now, the question is, is this sublimation still active?

The history of earlier civilizations points to examples of the vulnerability of these sublimated forces. If sublimation fails, all the repressed instincts can come to life. This is how the death instinct starts to rule and the elimination of the other becomes the regulation. Would this be a coincidence with the actual reality?  


Persistent social tensions, unmet desires, over-projection to scapegoats, inability to dialogue, and denial of internal conflicts, all of these contribute to societal breakdowns. The societal collapse also relates to how individuals respond to authority, whether they blindly follow destructive leaders or challenge oppressive systems trying to create new forms of a healthy existence. Dysfunctional imbalances may supply the pathway to sublimation failure, and there, Shakespeare is right – “Hell is empty / And all the devils are here.”


HOPELESSNESS


Dante Alighieri said once that, at the door of hell, there is a sign, which reads: “Leave all Hope behind.” In the metaphoric sense, this is indeed the beginning of it. 


The most surprising result of my post-doc research – Imaginable Futures -- conducted at the Graduate Centre of Cultural Studies at Justus Liebig University was the number of individuals who imagined and expected the future to be much like it was now.


Only 14.1% of the respondents were confident that the world would reach the 17 SDG goals. On the other hand, 78% of the 331 participants located around the globe said that education about the future should be a top priority. When they were asked what topics these courses should cover, the answer was – hope, kindness, and mental health. Would it be possible for mankind to just start worrying about issues once these are gone or at bay? 


Also, the outcome topics from the above survey show a shift from external aspects to inner ones, i.e. the lack of such as traits related to social cohesion and collective existence. Societies may show collective defence mechanisms in the face of existential threats, whether through denial of problems, scapegoating, or simply avoiding crucial issues. What is seen here is a very conscious process that shows that unless human relations to other humans is reframed – there will be no hope. 


Perhaps, this is exactly the point of collapse, perhaps to all earlier collapse. Perhaps, collapse comes when humans stop being humans...they start wishing to be gods, animals, and machines but fail to recognize that they can only be humans. It takes a giant step to acknowledge one’s own humanity – with all one's majesty and despair.   


Although the concepts of Overconfidence, Failure to Sublimate, and Hopelessness may offer some insights into understanding collapse from a social-psychologist perspective, Gore Vidal sums it all up by saying that CO₂ emissions anywhere threaten civilization everywhere. Therefore, unless there is a major shift in understanding that collapse happens when walls are built instead of bridges -- the films, their endings, and humanity’s hope remain unchanged!


*Dissertation Supervision for the Business Psychology Course at Arden University - UK, Chartered Psychologist at BPS, Researcher at the University of Edinburgh on prophetic futures, Consultant. 


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Dr. Monica Mastrantonio is a psychologist, futurist, transhumanist, and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Giessen on Imaginable Futures. Visiting Professor at the University of York on Women’s Letter Studies. Ph.D. in Social Psychology. An activist at Word Forest Organization - UK. Researcher of Bergson’s Time. Author as Margareth Stewart. CEO at Majestique Regenerative Farming. Goodwill and ASW ambassador. Research Foundation of India in Education and Training.


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