Existentialist Lessons for Societal Collapse

What if the world we currently live in were to collapse? What sounds like the theme of a new post-apocalyptic TV-show in fact is what occupies an emerging scientific movement called Collapsology. It can be best described as the cross-disciplinary study of industrial and societal collapse due to climatic instabilities. Collapsology proposes that humans have to become aware of the fact that radical systemic changes and an uncertain collective future is not some gloomy fantasy. Rather, the idea of perpetual growth and indefinite stability is the fantasy we need to let go of. The concept has gained recognition since Pablo Servigne’s and Raphaël Stevens’ book How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times (2020) has been translated into English and thus reached an international audience. During the same year, the Covid-19 Pandemic served as frighteningly palpable testimony for some of the authors’ claims. It laid bare the vulnerability of our current world order and was experienced by many as a wake-up call that life as we know it can indeed rapidly change while our systems do not seem to be as resilient to unforeseen global crises as might have been expected.

According to Collapsologists, our climate cannot be saved – a claim that runs contrary to policy agendas and public debates until today, in which climate change is often framed as an “avoidable catastrophe” (Methmann & Rothe, 2021, 333). As of recently, more and more scientific support outside the Collapsology movement seems to counter this discourse. According to an article published in the Scientific American, new data suggests that previous estimates of ocean warming and, thus, sea level rise had been too low and global warming is proceeding faster than ever calculated (Jamieson, 2019). In an open letter of December last year, an international group of scientists and scholars called on policymakers to start discussing “the risks of societal disruption or collapse” since they “consider societal collapse a credible scenario this century” (Weyhenmeier et al., 2020). Servigne and Stevens acknowledge that any productive discourse about societal collapse requires walking a thin line between not remaining stuck in denial and a “business-as-usual” attitude while at the same time not getting carried away by fatalistic end-of-world narratives (Servigne & Stevens, 2020). So, how are we to tackle a debate about all-encompassing societal change?

Existentialism, a modern philosophy originating in post-war France and Germany, can be a valuable resource in thinking about societal collapse. It can help us look beyond conventional logics of crisis management, because it embraces a state of not knowing and, by doing so, can provide the impetus for channeling anxiety of an uncertain future in productive, creative and self-determined ways:

Beyond Crisis Management: Existentialism on giving up certainty

In their Manual for Collapse (2020), Servigne and Stevens explain why they chose to talk about collapse rather than crisis. While crisis connotates reversibility, a state of exception after which normality can return, collapse connotates a permanent loss of continuity beyond which nothing is certain. Therefore, embracing uncertainty, not only as an individual, but also on the level of politics and governance, has to be the first step in collectively adapting to the future. Methmann and Rothe argue that even though there exists within the global governance discourse a “logic of apocalypse” that stresses the unpredictable and catastrophic nature of climate change, none of this urgency is translated into action. Rather than applying exceptional measures and aiming for systemic changes, policy makers rely on “routine and micro-practices of risk management” (Methmann & Rothe, 2012, 337). This will proof counter-productive, since – as Collapsologists argue – we are not dealing with “just” another crisis, or a single event that our current systems can contain. In order for there to be systemic changes that take the finite nature of our current social, economic and environmental systems seriously, we have to give up on certainty. Instead of clinging to routine ways of dealing with risk and insecurity that will only make us more vulnerable in the long run, Existentialist thinking can help us act not on the basis of what we think we know, but from a place of contingency, of truly not knowing.

Existentialism claims that human life has always been fundamentally undetermined and predictability only an illusion. The only thing we can control is the degree of awareness we have of this. In times of relative societal stability and safety mostly of us might not be aware of or choose not to be aware of the overwhelming uncertainty and fleeting nature of life, unless we have had experienced some dramatic, unforeseen life change or encounter with death. By living without this awareness, or as Sartre puts it, in “bad faith” (Sartre, 2007), we remain stuck in re-producing seemingly permanent structures and create an illusion of stability that eventually can make us more vulnerable to inevitable change. But Existentialist thinking does more than make us aware of uncertainty. It shows us that uncertainty is not something outside ourselves, some external force threatening our structured lives, but rather it is inherently part of us as humans and of our lived experience: ”Existential uncertainty doesn’t happen to us, it is us” (Hohipuha, 2018). If we can accept that, then we can shift our focus away from trying to escape uncertainty towards using it as a source of creativity and as a potential to deliberately shape our lives.

Anxiety of the future: Existentialism on embracing negative emotions

Servigne and Stevens describe their subject of study as something “that reaches right down into the core of your being. It’s a huge shock, a sobering wake-up call” which can be accompanied by denial, anger, fear, confusion, as well as grief (Servigne & Stevens, 2020, 8). Thinking about societal collapse brings us in touch with our mortality not only as individual beings, but as a human race, which might be one of the most terrifying prospects of all. Existentialist philosophy can offer a constructive approach in dealing with negative emotions without becoming paralyzed and overwhelmed by them. Existentialism rejects the idea of comforting illusions or guidance through our lived experience and it might, therefore, seem counter-intuitive to turn to Existentialist thought when faced with anxiety and fear of uncertainty. However, it is especially the confrontation with Existentialist writings that can serve as a form of catharsis to relieve some of the stress and anxiety about the future. If we choose to believe Collapsologists, that in the decades to come, everyone will experience some of the destabilizing effects of climate change in a very uncomfortable, possibly even life-threatening way, deflecting or ignoring this might exacerbate symptoms of existential fear. Since we cannot deny that collapse will bring with it fear of the unknown, it is how we choose to confront this reality, individually and as a collective, that determines our experience of it.

An existentialist outlook does not make fear and anxiety go away, but it can give them a different quality. Kierkegaard (1980) writes in The Concept of Anxiety:

“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence anxiety is the dizziness of freedom […]” (61)

Anxiety here carries a positive or constructive connotation rather than one of paralysis and dysfunction in its mundane sense of the word. It has an empowering effect, since it makes us acknowledge and value our freedom and the potency of our choices, “for suppose he had not looked down.” We can choose to distract ourselves and not be confronted with our own existence. However, if we do look down and realize the limitedness of our freedom, we might gain a new appreciation for our human condition and all the emotions that come with it.

Imagining the future: Existentialism on inventing “Transition tales”

Facing in full awareness the limitedness and finite nature not only of our own existence, but of our current paradigms and systems that our collective world is based on, opens up a whole spectrum of possibilities that we might not have been able to imagine before. This leads to the third aspect in which Collapsology can benefit from Existentialist thought in thinking about a future society in a world post-collapse. Collapsologists believe that dealing with an uncertain future means “almost everything will be played out on the ground of the imaginary, of our representations of the world” (154). Again, at first sight existentialism might not seem to be a suitable philosophy when it comes to imagination and future narratives, since, as Sartre proclaimed, “reality exists only in action, man is nothing more than the sum of his actions” (Sartre, 2007, 37). If we assume, however, that the actions we choose are often based on behavioral patterns and are always preceded by intention and thought, then if we want to become aware of and change our actions, we need to first change our thoughts and the way we imagine our world.

In this case, we should ask ourselves how we imagine collapse. If the first thing that comes to mind is a state of anarchyand people regressing into a primal mode of “survival of the fittest”, then we need to be aware that it is our choice to imagine the end of our current civilization that way. Just like Existentialists, Collapsologists say it is up to us to choose which stories, which myth of the “end of the world” we tell ourselves. If we choose to believe that once our current systems fail, we have to surrender to a survivalist future in which every man fights for themselves then we create a collective atmosphere of fear, tension and violence. One of the fundamental cornerstones of Existentialism is the notion that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre, 2007, 20), meaning that there is no “human nature” that programs us to behave in a certain way. Therefore, the future of a society “post-collapse” is entirely contingent. By challenging and potentially letting go of learned behaviors, conventional logics and seemingly immutable truths we can think more creatively and widen the scope of potential actions to choose from.

Servigne and Stevens (2020) talk about inventing “transition tales” that promote trust in the feasibility of living in a post-oil, post-growth future (155). Existentialist literature can be part of these narratives and help foster a creative, productive approach to collapse by forcing us to confront the limits of human experience. At the same time, existentialism can help us remain aware that we are living in an incohesive, scattered reality in which different groups of people will interpret and react differently to the same event. Those imaginaries, therefore, cannot become an excuse for handing off responsibility to some bigger purpose or grand scheme of the future.

Finally, Existentialism’s biggest weaknesses lie in its biggest strengths. As an inherently contingent philosophical worldview it forces people back onto themselves and makes them aware of the potential of their own individual agency. It can neither offer ethical principles nor an actionable roadmap for the future. It can empower to endure uncertainty and take action, but it cannot discern “right” from “wrong” decisions. Nevertheless, by holding space in the in-between space of not knowing, existentialist thought can lead us away from conventional reasoning towards more creative, out-of-the-box ways of thinking. This might be an extremely uncomfortable path, but in a world of progressive destabilization, potentially the only one that can foster productivity and resilience.



Mirjam Limbrunner is a Graduate Student in International Criminology at the Hamburg University, Germany, and the Hebrew University Jerusalem. Her main interests lie in logics of risk and security governance in Israel/Palestine as well as Green Criminology.



Hohipuha, N. (2018, November 3). Existential Uncertainty. Absurd Being. https://absurdbeingblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/existential-uncertainty/.

Jamieson, N. O., et al. (2019, August 19). Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/scientists-have-been-underestimating-the-pace-of-climate-change/.

Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The Concept of Anxiety. A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. (R. Thomte, B. Albert, Trans.). Princeton University Press.

Methmann, C., & Rothe, D. (2012). Politics for the day after tomorrow: The logic of apocalypse in global climate politics. Security Dialogue, 43(4), 323–344.

Sartre, J.-P. (2007). Existentialism is a Humanism (C. Macomber, Trans.). Yale University Press.

Servigne, P., & Stevens, R. (2020). How Everything Can Collapse. A Manual for Our Times (A. Brown, Trans.). Polity.

Weyhenmeier, G. et al. (2020, December 6). A warning on climate and the risk of societal collapse (Open Letter). The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/06/a-warning-on-climate-and-the-risk-of-societal-collapse.

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