The age of panic

How Everything Can Collapse / Infinite Mobilization
Forfatter: Pablo Servigne, Raphaël Stevens , Peter Sloterdijk
Forlag: Oversetter Andrew Brown / Oversetter Sandra Berjan
Polity / Polity (USA / USA)
DISASTERS /  We humans have lost control of the development we have initiated. The catastrophe is a warning that comes too late, and the elites make themselves unresponsive to the danger signals. Can we avoid panicky escape from the common problems?


The downfall of civilization is a theme that requires a certain pace and discretion. How easily cannot an attempt to address the issue fall into a banalization, to superficial cynicism, a stated shrug? Or the opposite: to panic, black paint, collective conscience shock, prophetic social rage and misanthropy? Two books from Polity try with different strategies to get a grip on the situation.

Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens

The one release, How Everything Can Collapse by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, as the title suggests, chooses a soberly affirming form – although the subtitle "A Handbook of Our Time" is in itself dramatic and disturbing. What is referred to in English as a "crash course" could in this context be translated with the term "collision course", if the pun could be allowed. The basic course Servigne and Stevens offer is precisely a series of lessons to prepare us for the worst possible accident – a global collapse of civilization. It is thus not just about climate or environmental threats, but about the foundation of our whole techno industrial and economic machinery, the modern world as we know it. The first five chapters describe civilization as an accelerating car that also has engine problems and also drives off the road with a locked steering wheel, while the vehicle itself begins to fall apart. Despite the drama, they give us neither optimism nor black paint, but put sensible calculations on the table, to prepare us for the coming clashes and collapses.

Peter Sloterdijk

The second book, Peter Sloterdijk's new Infinite Mobilization, originally published in German under the mysterious title Eurotaoism – On the Critique of Political Kinetics in 1989, represents another strategy. This "kinetic critique" of our hyperactive time is only glimmering Taoist in its approach – albeit a quest for inner peace and acceptance. The collection of essays is both poetic and political. In a similarly rare combination, Sloterdijk also connects the cosmic question of fate with a quiet satirical undertone. From a cosmic point of view, people are "fools of processes", trapped in their own game, their often ridiculous priorities, their ability to deceive themselves, which are both tragic and foolish. In addition to the loosely connected essays, the original German edition of Sloterdijk's book had a host of illustrations that reinforce the element of cosmic satire: Images of ancient ruins, pyramids and pillars alternate with images of galaxies and planets – speckled travel ads, car advertising and capitalism's campaign for it. modern jet set life – that encourages consumerisms subjects to get carried away with, buy more and set the pace. The English version lacks this visual trace, but in return has a new preface, in which Sloterdijk takes a new look at this strange book. All that Servigne and Stevens seek to prove, Sloterdijk already takes for granted in his situation description that was ahead of his time and therefore hits us at home today: We are really moving into what he calls the "age of panic" – but what does it mean ?

Pictures from the German edition of Sloterdijk.
Pictures from the German edition of Sloterdijk.

Total acceleration and mobilization

In his first chapter, Servigne and Stevens sketch a description of the evolution of civilization after the Second World War, illustrated by an increasingly well-known series of steep, almost exponentially rising graphs: population, energy consumption and so on. We have become accustomed to calling this the "big acceleration" – and the question is how fast it can go the wrong way before it is too late to do anything about development. Particularly fruitful is the distinction they emphasize between limitations (limits) that cannot be crossed, such as engine performance and fuel tank capacity – and limits (Boundaries) which can be crossed, but at a high price, as when the car drives off the road and skims off into unfamiliar terrain.

Images of ancient ruins, pyramids and colonnades alternate with images of galaxies and planets – interspersed with ice cream advertisements, car ads and capitalism
campaign for modern jet set life.

Resourcelimitations are absolute – there are limited amounts of fossil fuels, ore, phosphorus and arable land, and we are fast approaching a "peak of everything". There will be less of everything, and the extraction of further resources will become increasingly demanding, so we will get less and less for the efforts we invest. The limits for emissions and looting of ecosystems can admittedly be crossed. But the price is an unstable climate, ecosystems where fine-tuned networks are torn to shreds, and a number of other self-reinforcing effects that, together with technological development, contribute to what the authors call «a total acceleration».

Sloterdijk finds the beginning of this development in the depths of history – and sees the very emergence of civilization as a movement that has drawn more and more people and resources into an ever faster and more all-encompassing "total mobilization" with an unclear goal – a movement that apparently takes place for its own fault. Unlike modern times, where civilization could still be experienced as a project, as progress, in the "postmodern" state, we are caught in the unintended consequences of modernity's projects. Nothing went as planned. Each movement we initiated triggered other movements – climate effects, pandemics, cultural contagions, economic debt spirals – so we are trapped in what we perceive as an uncontrolled operation. Where Pascal described the fragile individual in the cosmos as a "thinking straw", Sloterdijk describes us in a striking turn as "a thinking landslide".

Pictures from the German edition of Sloterdijk.
Pictures from the German edition of Sloterdijk.

When we are part of a movement we have no control over, the result is panic, which for us modern people all too often means a directionless escape, whether it happens mentally, politically or practically. Sloterdijk goes back to antiquity and recalls that the god Pan, who is the origin of the word panic, used to appear in the middle of the day, as a frightening presence in a quivering, delirious moment. Panic comes when nature itself stares at us in white. Presence, revelation and fear are the right keywords for a humanity waking up with a shock, Sloterdijk writes. We realize that "nature" is not safe and peaceful, but full of dangers, conditions we can neither endure nor control.

Predators at the top of the food chain

At Servigne and Stevens, the excruciatingly unconvincing becomes concrete, especially in the discussion of two systematic models for predicting global collapse: NASA's data model MOBILE is based on the calculations of the mathematician and biologist Alfred Lotka, originally used to calculate ratios of predator populations and prey. In the interpretation of HANDY's analyzes, where the natural resources are the prey itself, and humans act as predators, the elites also play the role of the predator within society. Globally, the West and the global north play the role of predators at the top of the food chain, write Servigne and Stevens – and the problem is that in such a global class society, the elites make themselves unresponsive to the danger signals. It is known that the global underclass bears the main burden of deteriorating living conditions such as droughts, floods, lack of resources and epidemics.

Like an accelerating car that also has engine problems and also drives off
the road with a locked steering wheel, while the vehicle itself begins to fall apart.

The model therefore confirms the insights of Jared Diamonds collaps: Through power and wealth, the elites isolate themselves from the constraints of their surroundings, but accelerate the disaster – as in Mesopotamia, on Easter Island and perhaps also in the Mayan Empire. The ruins are left under the stars.

The other model they mention is World 3 from MIT, which was one of the foundations of the Roma Club Limits to Growth from 1972, where Norwegian Jørgen Randers was an important participant. Based on default settings, this model predicted a global collapse from the mid-2020s. Servigne and Stevens tell how the researchers tried to vary parameters such as technology, slowed down pollution and improved agriculture, but regardless of variations, the outcome collapsed.

But doesn't the absence of positive predictions show that the World 3 and HANDY models are simply wrong? Many have claimed this, but it is also highly conceivable that we will put the blame on the model to avoid taking the realities inward.

A methodical pessimism

When the metaphorical car in Servigne and Steven's production has locked the steering and lacks brakes, we need to understand why the world community neither turns nor stops such runaway development.

Some of the problem lies in the phenomenon of "lock-in": The system has become too complex and too much has been invested in yesterday's technologies. We see this in the oil industry in Norway and in other petroleum nations.

The same applies to industrial agriculture which pollutes, depletes the soil and creates an unfair and vulnerable matsystem – dominated by giant corporations. We know today that agroecology based on syndicates of small farmers, local production and organic methods are better – but industrial agriculture's apparatus, ownership and huge investments make today's doomed practices roll further.

The fact that global production systems are increasingly automated today is exacerbating the situation. Sloterdijk writes in terms that seem more relevant today than when they were written: "A bleak inevitability arises from the interplay of countless automations."

Oguz Gurel
ILL. Oguz Gurel

With reference to the theorist Jean-Pierre Dupuy Servigne and Stevens emphasize that the only way to avoid the disasters now is to assume that they will certainly come. The collapse psychology they stand for uses a methodical pessimism to avoid the temptation to make easy reservations and show frightened skepticism to the warnings of science.

Sloterdijk puts it this way: The disaster is a warning that comes too late. We humans learn through pain, and it does not sting until it is serious. Thus, the catastrophe that would enlighten us all, like a flash of light, would be the one that simultaneously exterminates us all. The trick is to take the accident in advance and to learn from minor disasters. However, the alarm signals must not be interpreted as a "save the one who can", but rather as a "acknowledge the situation": only then does calm and action return and the "panic culture" gets in touch with the real world at last: the limitation of our one earth and finiteness.

The existential aspects of the world situation

Towards the end of the book, Servigne and Stevens place the cards on the table and admit that, besides being scientists and activists, they are also a kind of collapse nerd, "collapse sniper". With this, manufacturing also threatens to collapse, for the point must be precisely that civilization is ultimately not a theme of the "particularly interested".

Yet there is something conciliatory in the fact that they use their more personal voice as a means of humanizing an overwhelming situation. They talk about how they try to live with dark insights, spread knowledge and keep their spirits and mood up. The price for this everyday tone and the crash course grip, in general, is that the more existential aspect of the world situation becomes difficult to maintain. In spite of a commendable dissemination of factual information, the attempt at sobriety in the face of the world finally becomes a banal thought: Yes, we know we're obsessed with civilization collapse, but that's for everyone, we know you've heard most of this before, but it's totally true ... we're heading for disaster.

Sloterdijk warns against failing in "masochistic contemplation" of the world's troubles.

As a counterweight to some crisis chatter, Sloterdijk's masterful prose and rich stylistic register come into their own. In a myriad of interesting considerations, he looks for himself among different moods and attitudes to the world situation. "Cynicism has been emptied of liberating potential," says Sloterdijk in the introduction. He also warns against crashing into "masochistic contemplation" of the world's misfortune, and he warns against melancholy descriptions of a fallen and lost world, as in medieval Christianity. The task, personally and politically, is to move from running operations to a kind of navigation and a project.

An eternal beginning

In the book's key passages, Sloterdijk is inspired by Hannah Arendts concept of man's "mortality" (natality), which is a counterweight to mortality: This means looking at life – including political and collective life – as an eternal beginning, as bringing new worlds into the world.

Elements of cultural innovation must be read in conjunction with Sloterdijk's considerations alternative movements who often turn to Eastern practices such as tao og zen. The West's "California" swarm too Easts peace therapies are often laughed at, he admits, but perhaps they are full-fledged attempts to jump off the lightning train of Western world history. The alternative movements literally stand for other forms of movement, slower rhythms, and become part of a constructive "kinetic critique". Central to such an "Asian renaissance" may lie in rebirth (re-birth) as such.

And for Servigne and Stevens, an alternative movement involves spreading knowledge about agroecology, alternative technologies and other values ​​- hoping that the best of what we bring to the world today can help save tomorrow.

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