Collapse: An awakening
“What’s this book? “How can everything collapse?” (FR)? Isn’t it a bit… morbid?”
How creative the human psyche can be when facing the possibility and proximity of the end of our world. My awakening to the story of our world’s possible collapse is still very young but I have already been confronted with a wide array of human reactions when I tackle the topic. These have included accusations aimed at myself; “surrealist”, “selfish”, “disaster-mongering”, “irresponsible”… But when I contemplate this world we have created, it seems to me that its collapse is the most logical continuation. I briefly look forward to it sometimes.
My generation was born on a bridge between the scars of the 20th century and the progressivist and clean 21st century which was bound to save the human condition. As with many of my contemporaries, I experienced this divide first hand. The most remarkable thing may be the technological leap that happened between the 80s and today. In less than 30 years, partially thanks to the Internet, our world has deeply mutated. Along with it, so did our longevity, our individual comfort, our ability to travel. And most likely our ability for hindsight.
I started from graphic design and have ended up today studying how our world could collapse. That’s a wide gap in itself, right? It was when I was welcoming around thirty people joining me to discuss the confrontation between design and collapse last July that I stepped back to understand when and how I would eventually be able to listen to this narrative of collapse. It was a most unexpected journey with no plan nor boundaries, like a moth blinded by daylight.
Over three decades, I followed two trajectories, two opposing yet complementary movements at the same time. Life naturally brings you to know yourself deeper and better, both by diving into concentric layers of inner self and by a fractal exploration of our surroundings, from very little to infinitely vast. In one way, I peeled an onion layer by layer, getting closer to the magma core of myself. In the other I reaped the wild grass around me, uncovering many trails to be discovered, completing my own infinite ecosystem map step by step.
This is an attempt at a story of a different point of view of our world.
I come from a world long gone.
One where there are more jobs than jobseekers, so many more that we decided to make jobs the main entry point to social inclusion. A world of energy for everyone, so abundant that the very idea of not having any looked insane. A world of hope and balance between the old who suffered too many wars and the young, followed by a philosophical and material revolution; The world where everything was yet to be done.
As a kid, for fun I sang famous commercials for supermarkets, the latter which were becoming the very foundations of our society of consumption. These large, immaculate spaces, always fully furnished, have long supplied me with endless fascination. In my memory, some things pop more than others: diet culture and its fat-free, tasteless products which my auntie would praise the benefits of. Ever more convenient products, each time more packaged, more convenient, more hygienic. Progress in everyone’s reach, human power in a cart shaping a new paradigm, an allegory of modernity.
I witnessed the slow oblivion of phone boxes. I used to bike to one in the small town near my parents’ house to phone my friends. I witnessed the wave of pagers, of the first mobile phones with retractable antennas which, if you owned one, were something to be made fun of before they started to feel normal to own. I remember the first mutation around brands. Big corporations were changing their names, later their discourse, trying to hide the first banking scandals, or the first attempts at greenwashing, back when Nicolas Hulot, France’s former Minister of Ecology and Sustainability under Emmanuel Macron, was just a TV presenter exploring Amazonian forests to convince the broad public to cherish it from their couches.
Everything was yet to be done, and we did it in an apparent abundance that had no boundary but our own will.
That world is long gone. It is not part of the present we are living in and only its enduring consequences have been bequeathed to us. This optimistic, limitless world still exists in the stories we tell ourselves. There are many artifacts that show it at its best. One day, I understood it was a waste of time to believe it would survive. Which day was it, I cannot recall. In hindsight, I am able to read some signs at the new light of my recent and powerful awakening: the perspective of becoming a mother has never seduced me one second. Through three decades of life, I have heard countless counter-arguments to my wish of not having a child. None of them, no friend of mine with an infant baby, no positive narrative of being a parent, found a way to challenge my certitude. To this day, I have never wanted to gift a being with life in a world which would make them suffer.
In order to access new narratives about our world, there is a prerequisite of extracting oneself from acquired knowledge. At birth, we take the world around us literally, without questioning. I remember how it felt to be a little girl whose creativity knew no bounds but those drawn by adult rationality. I remember well, but I internalised their discourse so quickly that the playground soon became incredibly small. Children of my generation were fed a rhetoric of a meritocratic career compensated by a well-timed retirement plan. This quickly limited the paths I allowed myself to envision. To be fair, it was easy enough to read the available “society manual” — even if fairly outdated, are human beings so constantly late to their own party? — go to school, then university, graduate, find a job, wait for retirement. Don’t forget to get a mortgage on the way and start a lovely family.
I charted my studies accordingly, trusting the same simplistic compass: “Where are your best grades? English? Alright, then go for it. Oh well no, let’s do something else, something closer to the child’s creativity, something more materialistic? Visual design!” Another foreign language of sorts. I remember very accurately the last day of my preparatory year in arts where I had to choose between architecture, product design and visual design: “If I pick visual design because I feel it’s the most versatile of the three, I may spend the rest of my career helping people to lie for a living.”
Throughout my school years, there was one main thing that society was screaming in our ears: maximise your employability. Ideally I would have gone for fine arts, or become a craftswoman. But I was already too scared of landing in a jobless speciality. I still have glimpses of regret.
I was employed. I received my first missions, my first colleagues. I was so proud of being allowed in a business office, of having a desk, air conditioning, a real computer and a session with my name on it, a real, undernegociated paycheck that barely allowed me to make it to the end of each month but look mom, I have a permanent contract. I could even get a twenty five year mortgage if I wanted.
The world I come from has disappeared, but its patterns remain.
My generation was raised by the children of the Baby Boom, people who knew what it felt like to quit your job on a Monday and not having to wait until Tuesday morning to find another. The very people who experienced the “sixties” with its sexual and political liberation movements, Woodstock, epidurals, affordable housing, the first boys bands, home appliances and cars produced en masse. Baby Boomers took everything. They took everything from us. They have nevertheless taken care of teaching us their dogmas, the one of gas, debt and retirement at sixty. They have seen the birth of the very infrastructures we struggle to maintain today. They saw with their very eyes the creation of “sécurité sociale” coupled with life-changing medical progress. They listened to Françoise Dolto, they raised their kids in this new idea of comfort and their own way of understanding and applying the word “benevolence”, altogether in a glorification of capitalism. The house from my childhood is still filled with the remains of this world. Over packaged food, a pod coffee maker, five cars for four drivers, a massive TV set and everything needed to listen, record or watch something else when there’s nothing on the 150 channels available. When the dryer stops working, we go buy a new one. I saw my dad getting angrier with the years every time he has to renew the laundry machine, each generation lasting fewer years than the previous.
My mom remains fascinated by single-use products, single-wrapped items, cosmetic samples, plastic bags, Tupperware, “magic” kitchen ware and sugar sachets that she discreetly slides in her purse when she goes to a café. At home, we buy “100 liter” trash bags . On an impulse as much coming from consumption culture during war times scarcity, there are at least three of every product in the pantry.
I don’t remember being taught anything around waste and recycling. Not at home nor at school. Plastic cups and kitchenware were the markers of progress. No composting, no sorting out rubbish, nowhere. No symbiotic life anymore, no hens eating vegetable peels. Little to no cooperation anymore, no food or items swapping between neighbours. No garden, even if we were living in the countryside. And anyway, my parents were far too busy working full time in their respective jobs. We would take the car, always. Train and shared transportation modes for the poor.
This generation gave to modern times and capitalism such proportions that the ancient world, the notion of symbiosis, of helping each other and sharing the common knowledge, were quickly swept under the rug because it was just too backward thinking. The Twentieth Century rejected everything from the sober, measured rural world and the wisdom of the ancients. With it, they dismissed the possibility of a harsher but more durable world.
My first systemic shock may have been at a McDonald’s, when facing a trashcan into which we are supposed to ditch pretty much everything left from our meal. Half-full soda bottles, unused towels, cardboard, food, everything goes in. But by the time it takes to start asking yourself about these externalities and you’ve already started the car and gone. Our world taught us to never put into question the potential externalities we might glimpse when there’s a crack in the paint.
Since I was a student, I’ve owned an individual laundry machine. This heavy item pleased a lot of my friends who helped me move in and out for more than a decade. Way later I discovered that in other countries, Germany or Sweden for instance, apartment blocks typically have dedicated laundry rooms with shared washers. Another logical, mutualised organisation. What a clever idea, to share the space taken by these heavy machines that we don’t use all the time. So many items in our lives are duplicated, multiplied so that everyone can buy their own in order to maintain the illusion of industrial growth. Little by little, I have reduced the number of items in my home, acknowledging that quality and durability were fulfilling me more than the illusion of abundance. Many people around me are beginning to question the way their consumption practices.
We seem to be more and more, the people questioning the benefits of modern consumption, mostly because we can see with our very eyes the absurd externalities it creates: rubbish being buried, quality of air and water dropping, number of stupid single-use cups growing.
I am about to celebrate my 37th birthday and I already have more than 15 years of work experience behind me. Sometimes, it is hard to realise that half of the trip is done, if I end up matching longevity statistics for people of my generation. It is not a comfortable thought, living with the idea I have also contributed to the current state of our world. It is not comfortable realising I spent a large share of these 37 years wrapped in a paralysing mist which required I burned myself out twice before evaporating.
Burnout is just the tip of the iceberg. You wake up one morning and with no warning your body and mind have stopped working, suddenly allowing years of invisible pain and suffering to surface through reality. I can’t say if I simply wasn’t made for salaried employment or if the trauma of burning out made it unbearable. Nevertheless, it is through employment that I lost myself, year after year, payslip after payslip. I stepped onto the escalator and embraced my kin’s ideals, I believed fully in meritocracy, even if I was a woman in a corporate bullshit world full of macho managers. Burning out was not that big of a surprise after all. I spent several years convincing myself I could still make it through another year or two. I disconnected myself from the physical world through a job that was becoming less and less material. I lost the idea of blossoming through my job, of self satisfaction and recognition, all diluted in the missions our clients would give us. I surrendered to their vacuity and to the powerlessness: anything I would try, anyway I would behave, nothing would change. I used to spend my weekend imagining myself a new life, where I would craft with my bare hands nice little furniture items in a wood workshop.
The burnout bomb settles everything. It empties all gauges. It is a small scale collapse, really. Every square centimeter of foundation or certitudes on which I had built my life was blasted into crumbs. It took me 6 months to recover an almost normal daily life and another 6 months to be able to work again a little. A full year to resurface fully.
Once the first weeks of constant physical and mental pain through, I was able to leave my home to run as fast as I could to the closest library, aiming to quench this thirst for understanding how and why an individual like myself could have failed its mission towards society so badly. Through the study of work, relationships between actors of the professional world, I discovered a deep lack of meaning which was feeding itself with a relentless force. From David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs to Danièle Linhart’s “Human Comedy of Work”, I sailed towards the source of all this pain, the explanation of why we had created this perpetually unbalanced model still able to maintain itself, buoyed by discarded individuals.
I unveiled systems of power, systemic oppressions, sexism, ableism, racism in the workplace as well as in society as a whole. The birth of the gig economy normalised the worst of what North America and Silicon Valley had in store: a capitalism of work and productivity engrained so deep in every organisation that maximized profits would be guaranteed as long as their profitability would be based on the inability of the most vulnerable to defend themselves. This system based on individual responsibility and the exploitation of the most fragile can only collapse. It must collapse.
It took me a long time to understand it all. Thirty three years in total. And without burning myself out, I would still be there at my old company, tottering to work each morning in a perpetual emotional nausea, unable to heal myself mentally under the weight of 22 years of mortgage left to pay. Extracting myself from the nightmare was painful indeed, but it brought me salvation.
By putting the modern idea of work into question as well as individuals’ dignity throughout modern work, I came to ask myself which profound motivation could drive human beings towards salaried jobs. You know, when we have to pick — at least the most privileged among us — what “we would do as a grown up”. Employability still drives most of our professional choices, the places we chose to live, the perspectives and ambitions that we allow ourselves to have. In the way we live daily, we do not always have the freedom nor the right to bring to work all the facets of who we are. Entire walls of our personality are negated and can even play against us sometimes. Ethics are a mere detail, the purpose of what we do every day is hidden deep under processes and inert structures which organised complexity prevents us from putting into question. The vast majority of tasks people are assigned could disappear from one day to another without changing anything in the way society works. The most crucial jobs are the most underpaid and under considered. Productivity and growth above all are woven through anything we do, any strategy we build. In order to honour the sacred yet meaningless exponential growth curve, we justify the worst behaviours.
Bioenergy entrepreneur Gunther Pauli said in an interview that “exponential” is absolutely meaningless. “On many aspects, exponential growth makes no sense. A tree cannot grow to infinity, or it would grow itself into suicide”. Our worldwide industrial society throws shedloads of nonsense into our daily lives, pushing itself towards a potential collapse. Pauli made me happy by the way he wipes our glorious technology innovators off the table.
No amount of smart batteries or miraculous electric vehicles will save our world.
Over the past few years, the design industry has been facing the disastrous results of its incapacity of having a strong ethics in its practice. Every day, we witness systemic collateral damage. Luckily, some vocal designers remain very active about the lack of emancipation and regulation in the design industry. It is a matter of life and death according to Mike Monteiro, and God he is right.
I cannot say I am proud of my whole career. I worked for big global companies whose portfolios bears very questionable products. I kept my eyes closed while witnessing managers taking certain decisions. I kept my mouth shut when they demonstrated sexist or classist behaviours. I sold my time and effort to clients that did not respect them nor did they respect me, all for the comfort of a paycheck and a permanent work contract. “Because you need to pay the bills,” because since I was little everything was telling me this was what we had to do: be employed no matter what. I agreed to do only half of my job during these years, hiding away from the most important part of a designer’s mission: act for the better within an ethical framework and hold oneself responsible for what we put into the world.
We are currently witnessing the tragic consequences created by companies and people whose choices openly favour extremist voices, whose platforms give a say to neo nazis. Twitter was born blind, without a vision. The opportunism of their creators is feeding a monster that defines its values along the line in the worst possible way, “freedom of speech for all”, ignoring the systemic oppressions and the paradox of intolerance which has to remain intolerable and non tolerated. The result of this is awful. The already silenced, mistreated and under considered groups suffer even more abuse and discrimination. The voices which praise the disappearance of these groups are louder than ever. The worst is happening, by design. People find themselves helpless, harassed and threatened, sometimes pushed towards suicide. Jack Dorsey’s support to white supremacists is not even hidden anymore.
The “uberisation” of work fed the worst tenets of capitalism, increasing the already glaring contrast between social categories. Amazon employees who cannot afford to commute sleep in tents in front of their workplace. Bike deliverers from big French cities are currently fighting to unionise and denounce the violence they are forced into. Violence by design because without it, these companies could not be profitable, nor they could exist. This system based on the monetisation of misery and exploitation of the weakest layers of society can only collapse.
I cannot help myself but seeing barbarian eugenics in the way the US health system is designed. I cannot help it because if you decide, by design, to prevent fragile populations — the chronically ill, cancer victims or the handicapped — from accessing healthcare, it’s because you want to organise their death in the most violent way. The sheer violence of this praised civilisation makes me sick with rage.
Through burnout, I could lay down the very reasons I chose to become a designer. A few years ago, driven by the deep lack of meaning in my job and life, I started a kind of self therapy. “What is your intention? Why would you choose design over something else? What power can you use, how do you want to use it? Towards which purpose? Against which dynamics? Who can you count on?” This questioning was the start of a long deconstruction. I tried to understand which space I was owning in society and I listed my privileges and the oppressions that were holding me back, as well as those that were affecting other people. I analysed the way design happens, how I was using it and how other people were, trying to understand its implications and how could it be misused to serve interests that are playing against the living and its diversity. I widened my perspective as much as I could. I read the writing of fascinating activists. Every new day, I try to adjust my posture, to reinforce it, to make it even more radical.
I committed to choices, to not work for any company or person who could not match the basic criteria of benevolence and good treatment, even if my personal financial situation was at risk. I slowed my expenses so I could survive upon the missions that would make me feel alive, with people who share my values. I quickly discovered how hard it is to revert those criteria. I would rather be in temporary danger than feed systems that work against justice and fairness. It is an attempt at using my privilege of being a white, educated, middle-class woman untouched by oppressions linked to the colour of my skin, the way I express my identity or my sexuality.
It took me three decades to be able to handle the act of letting go. The very modern obsession of control was the normal state in which I was born. It took me another couple of years to let go of the act of design. We designers are not giving birth to empirical artefacts coming from our endless creativity well. We design based on constraints, parameters, dynamics, systems, living things and human beings. I very often have to explain to the people I work with that without their input and contribution, I cannot create anything. I am merely crystallising, remodeling, digesting what I am given. We work together, I work with them. Not for, not against, not isolated.
Learning to let go of design also asks me to let go of the output. Just today, we were discussing this topic with a fellow designer: we need to mourn the final product and the fact that it never really matches our expectations or our initial ideas. This fact became my reality and every day I learn to play with it, to accept the one and only state of things: change. The latter is not bad nor good, it just is and we have to accept it as such. Anthropocene is just another change. If it drives us to our own demise despite our attempts at avoiding it, so be it.
You need a lot of letting go when dealing with Anthropocene and the possibility of a collapse. We cannot know when, or how it will happen. We cannot know how many of us will suffer or survive. We do not have the cards in hand to stop the machine. This perspective is always the most scary, it often dries the speech and innovative thinking of my interlocutors. We do not know, we cannot plan and we cannot assess the amplitude of things. In this constant letting go and uncertainty, the act of designing cannot be planned either. It can barely print a direction for those doing it. But nothing we know or do as designers guarantees salvation, despite what the tech world promises through innovation. We have to plan for a future where our survival will be challenged.
Some days, it is hard to let go of all this. On those days, I am overwhelmed by a visceral fear, a deep anxiety which leaves me stuck to the ground, wherever I am, whatever I do. From deep within, I feel that I will still be alive when this unwanted world will emerge. The rise of populism (that Jean-Marc Jancovici links to the current state of climate linked to GBP and finance) is destroying decades of crucial fights while threatening the life of the most vulnerable. As I am writing these very lines, the world is going through one of its most unexpected and violent climatic phenomenons. It has been a few years already that living in town is more and more difficult. Young kids develop chronic illnesses, city centers are bathed in unbreathable heat waves which make the life of many citizens more and more uncomfortable. Political conflicts have reached such a state of social distress that we are not even able to rescue the most fragile among us, those fleeing their homes because of war and climate change. So many people around me feel desperate when looking at the constant stream of unpleasant, alarming news which has become our daily burden. I sometimes see glimpses of an Earth at its climatic tipping point, where just a few degrees more would make modern agriculture impossible, endangering the whole food industry. I see glimpses of street fights, of empty shelves in supermarkets, of rations and global panic. What will our lives look like when a liter of petrol costs 8, 9 or 10 euros? Which perspectives will remain when we are unable to maintain public services or when hospitals cannot function due to human or infrastructure failures?
Sometimes, all I can feel is anger. I am angry at politicians too busy planning re-election to take care of those people under their watch. I am angry at our post-industrial revolutionary peers for the energetic and technological choices they made and how they locked us into an irreversible inertia. I am angry at Alfred Sloan and at the industry tycoons who gave life to the concept of programmed obsolescence and said that “the key of prosperity is the creation of organised insatisfaction.” I am angry at Baby Boomers maybe more than all others because of their choice to embrace an absurd and unsustainable world and by pushing it to its climax, planned its destruction, still while telling us that everything was still possible, that this world would last forever.
Here lies this foolish paradox, where we see collapse as an opportunity. When I manage to push beyond the sadness, the anger and the fear, I can access a part of me that can’t help but be hopeful. In the past, burnout drowned me in the emptiness of my self to be reborn. Collapse now bears the hope of a new world.
Solutions are not too far. To those who only see in collapsology the perspective of a violent setback into middle age, I want to talk about resilience, mutual aid, collaboration, collective intelligence applied to the right problems, with measured efforts. I want to trigger their common sense and their will for a better world.
What if a systemic collapse brought down capitalism and all its injustices with it? What if the poorest strata of our society were the richest when facing survival and resilience? What if we could access through the foreseen fall of our civilisation the ability to gather and become smarter together?
When I discovered that other people had seen the same signs and had dwelled on the same questions, I suddenly felt less isolated and better equipped, enough that I could participate in the common narrative building before our very eyes. At last, people have managed to join the dots and recognise the systemic bonds of all things within our complex world. I nurture a strong faith in collective intelligence and the human race’s ability to birth the most beautiful proofs of mutual aid. This is what I feel like exploring from now on. Maybe I will find myself useful by leveraging my designer’s skills.
On a more intimate level, learning about Anthropocene felt like a strong pull to experiment on my own resilience. Reading about the Baronnet family, I wish to explore a few leads to learn to free myself from the grid, or at least part of it, to limit the externalities I create and the ones I depend on. I will most likely start with studying the plans they have published and try to design a wind turbine or a gravity lamp. Through this process, my ambition is to teach myself about electricity and energy in order to grasp the challenges of production and storage of energy outside of power grids. I am slowly transitioning to a new way of buying, wearing and repairing clothes and have started to “refresh” my sewing skills. With a few fellow designers in Lyon, we have created several multidisciplinary groups to try and strengthen a local community of mutual help. We wish to connect all those who practice systemic thought processes. We are looking into the dynamics of co-creation in order to help small groups of people, support small communities and, why not, small towns. We are eager to knock on the doors of institutions and structures to talk about resilience and cohesion and how design can help us reach these goals. We would like to help restore the notion of meaning and purpose in everything that designers do, in everything that anyone creates. Purpose brings dignity, desire and vitality. We need people who are able to sense their own vitality and feel able to grab it and to use it for something greater than themselves, to contribute to a greater future than just the one of work, goods consumption and a retirement plan to come.
The way I practice design is going to change. I wish to restore the dignity and encourage resilience of people and systems by supporting their creation of philosophical and physical tools aiming towards prosperity. I would also like to dedicate some of my time through Common Future(s) to creating new narratives which will help people to walk out of the emptiness of capitalism.
The books and articles written by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, Mike Monteiro, Alan Cooper, Aral Balkan, the talks given by Vincent Mignerot, Jean-Marc Jancovici, Ricardo Petrella, the work of Anab Jain, Leyla Acaroglu, Gauthier Roussilhe and James Auger (and so many more) helped me grasp the true meaning of design as an essential skill to support these purposes. How powerful design is and will be in our civilisation’s transition to a different future! Thanks to all my designer peers and our endless discussions, my thoughts are always challenged, enriched and they strengthen my beliefs.
The future we will build may not be better, but it will not be worse. It will be and we’ll take it as such.
Thanks to Fabrice Liut, Goulven CHAMPENOIS, Thomas di Luccio, Noémie Girard, Remy Sorondo, Yann IRBAH, Francis Chouquet, Jérémie Fontana, Nina Cercy, Thomas Jund, Alexandre Monnin, Anne-Sophie Tranchet, Geoffrey Dorne, Gauthier Roussilhe, Anne-Laure and many more, please wave at me if I forgot your name. Thanks to my husband Rik Godwin who held my hand in every dark step of this awakening and who proof-read this long piece with love and devotion.