The discourse of collapse divides environmentalists

The most radical current of thought posits that transitioning to renewable energy is unfeasible and argues that the only way to avoid disaster is to reduce consumption drastically. But some environmentalists warn about the dangers of this view

Clemente Álvarez
The Boiro forest fire, which has burned more than 2,200 hectares in A Coruña this past weekend.
The Boiro forest fire, which has burned more than 2,200 hectares in A Coruña this past weekend.ÓSCAR CORRAL

Dire predictions amidst an energy crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine, current problems in different countries around the globe, and a desperate lack of progress in the face of climate change do not give much cause for optimism. However, for environmental collapsists, many of today’s problems are not temporary but rather evidence that the system is really collapsing. This vision is not new and has been an established part of environmentalism for years, but some of its approaches are now producing a clash among Spanish environmentalists because of its catastrophist discourse and because it’s fueling the rejection of renewable energies as they are currently deployed.

“My assessment is that we are going to hell in a handbasket,” says Antonio Turiel, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Spain’s most visible face of environmental collapsism. The author of Petrocalipsis says that “if we collapse, it’s because we want to; it’s not obligatory,” but the system must be completely transformed to avoid it: “If we do not abandon capitalism, then we will collapse. It’s simple,” he has warned for years.

One of the main theses of environmental collapsism is that it is not feasible to replace all the fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) we currently use with renewables, because of a scarcity of materials and green technologies’ dependence on conventional energy. “No one has been able to assemble a wind turbine or a photovoltaic panel without using fossil fuels in the process of extracting materials, manufacturing components, transport, installation, or maintenance,” emphasizes Turiel.

Thus, Turiel argues, to avoid disaster, we must stop striving for energy transformation (with renewables or the electric car) and start to drastically reduce the need for energy and other materials. “It’s not true that we have to return to the Stone Age or the Middle Ages; there are studies that say that Spain’s energy consumption can be reduced by 90% without changing the standard of living,” says Turiel, a physicist by training who is a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences in Barcelona. “It’s not a matter of making things more efficient but of doing much less. Maybe we should consider eliminating private automobiles,” Turiel says.

Antonio Turiel, researcher at the CSIC's Institut de Ciències del Mar, in Barcelona.
Antonio Turiel, researcher at the CSIC's Institut de Ciències del Mar, in Barcelona.Massimiliano Minocri

Although the environmentalist world shares a commitment to defending planetary limits, environmental activists and energy experts have begun to publicly criticize some of the collapsists’ more extreme approaches. According to Héctor Tejero, an environmentalist and Más Madrid politician, “the problem is that they are involuntarily feeding the perception that nothing can be done, when in fact it’s possible to make an ecological transition to a better world.” Climate scientist Andreu Escrivá does not question the need to reduce consumption and to pay close attention to the scarcity of minerals, but he also believes that the discourse of collapse “deters and discourages.” Escrivá warns that “[s]uch blunt statements lead us to flirt with a kind of eco-fascism that can lead us down a very dangerous path… When we convey such strong messages, we are going to make people resistant by making them think that we want to take away their freedom, that we want to take away their way of life,” he says. “If the alternative is reducing energy consumption by 90% or collapse, maybe I’ll choose to collapse, whatever that is,” Eloy Sanz, a professor of energy engineering at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, says sarcastically. He adds that environmental collapsists use scientific data in a biased way.

Journalist Juan Bordera, who co-wrote the book El otoño de la civilización [The Autumn of Civilization] with Turiel, does not consider himself an environmental collapsist, but he does believe that collapse “is quite likely, considering the inaction [in tackling climate change] and the fact that we would not be the first civilization to collapse: 26 civilizations have collapsed before ours,” he points out. “If we don’t recognize the problem, we’re not going to be able to deal with it, and it’s not being recognized because doing so would force us to change many things, not just the way we live on an individual level. We should be implementing a very significant transformation at the systemic level, very quickly, which people do not want, or know how, to do.”

Escrivá, an environmentalist, disagrees and argues that “the most successful path to transformation doesn’t involve painting apocalyptic scenes or blaming citizens but rather establishing collective strategies, transformation policies and, above all, redistribution, which is a key issue.” He explains it this way: “there is a quote by Raymond Williams that says that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.’”

With regard to the issue of minerals and renewable energies, Alicia Valero, a researcher at the University of Zaragoza’s Circe Institute, is one of the specialists closest to environmental collapsist circles. She asserts that “with current [energy] reserves, that is, the deposits in operation today, renewables cannot replace fossil fuels on a planetary scale.” As the researcher emphasizes, “We have conducted studies and the numbers are not sufficient for more than a dozen raw materials that are essential for an ecological transition.” This study is limited to today’s known reserves; it does not take into account the mineral resources that may be found in the future. However, according to Valero, “it takes an average of 15 years to open a deposit, so there’s a problem here, because we urgently need [to do so].”

One of the most critical voices against some collapsist approaches is Pedro Fresco, an expert in renewable energies and the general director of Ecological Transition for Valencia’s autonomous government (the Generalitat Valenciana). Fresco underscores that in the past 10 years the amount of lithium reserves have doubled as people have increasingly searched for it. “How much is there? We don’t know,” he points out. “You can run out of lithium, okay, but it’s not technologically predetermined that energy storage has to be done with lithium batteries.” In his view, “every time something new has come along, humans have thought it was impossible for the new to replace the old.” He notes that “one typical collapsist argument against renewables is that they are made with fossil fuels. Well, of course, and in the 18th century they used horses in making railroad tracks.” According to Fresco, “the problem is that environmental collapsism has given anti-renewable-energy movements an excuse to maintain their position, without falling into climate denialism or NIMBY [Not In My Backyard; opposition to key environmental initiatives]. Since these people tell me it’s worthless and an industry lie, well, I’ll reject renewables in my backyard without feeling guilty.”

Limited alternatives

Margarita Mediavilla, a researcher at the University of Valladolid’s Energy, Economics and System Dynamics Group (GEEDS), is another referent for the collapsist perspective. She has worked on these issues for almost 10 years. According to her, " both energy and ecological transition alternatives are, in a broad sense, much more limited than we think. The basic problem is that we have a society and an economy that are designed for growth; the capitalist economy is very good when it has abundant resources, because it has the capacity to fully exploit them, but it is incapable of adapting when it encounters material limits.” She goes on to say, “I agree with Turiel; if we cannot change this socioeconomic dynamic, we are simply going to collapse, and that collapse might be very difficult,” says Mediavilla. She advocates for organizing “good degrowth,” because “bad degrowth is already guaranteed: it’s clear that we’re going down.”

“It’s true that we’re going to confront a very turbulent historical period with a high risk of social failure. I believe that collapse is a possibility, but in no way is it destiny, nor can we assume that we are collapsing, if we rigorously define [the term] collapse,” responds Emilio Santiago Muiño, who specializes in researching the anthropological transformations of the climate crisis at the CSIC. “I disagree with my collapsist friends most strongly about their political hypothesis that the coming upheaval will inevitably lead to a kind of failed state. In fact, a certain disengagement from the state in favor of what they call community resilience solutions—self-management—tends to be very common in collapsist positions. They seem to take it for granted that our political order will break down because it’s not going to function in terms of energy, and that political solutions are going to have to come through a return to our communities, the rural world and self-management at the local level. That’s where I believe their assessment fails, because thinking like that removes us from the political battle that’s going to take place and the results will be much worse because of it.”

In the past, the anthropologist was linked to collapsism but he rejects the trend today. “Sometimes the collapsist discourse has certain deterministic tics that are very common when people with a background in the natural sciences start to speculate about the social world, because the social arena is much more complex,” Santiago Muiño notes. “It’s true that we are facing a severe systemic crisis that has a central energy component, and we also have geological limitations. All of that is true. But we have a little more room to maneuver than I used to think.” He goes on to say that he “also realized that you can’t do majority-based politics with a discourse like that. The combination of these two issues led me to move away from environmental collapsist circles a bit,” he says.

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