2. Ecological Collapse and Climate Crisis

Ecological and Social Collapse

The intersections between various and dynamic crises on a global scale are leading some to refer to ecological and social collapse and what it may mean for humanity. Notions of collapse tend to ignite the type of apocalyptic thinking that the introductory video opened with. This is a difficult topic, as it often leaves us feeling overwhelmed, scared or hopeless. But we need to understand the root causes of ecological and climate crises and how they are grounded in colonialism and racial capitalism, if we are to make shifts that will lead to other possibilities and ways of existing on our planet. And not only do we need to understand the root causes, but we also need to consider how dominant society approaches the very idea of collapse itself. What may other perspectives and approaches to collapse teach us?

The text Preparing for the end of the world as we know it, written collaboratively by a collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, artists, educators and activists from the Global North and South, weaves together Indigenous teachings that affirm the potential, likelihood or inevitability of social and ecological collapse. They describe how the potential of even talking about collapse in Western societies is often limited.

People generally avoid this topic or deny its relevance in order to maintain a sense of hope in the futurity and continuity of the existing system. Many assume that, once people accept the likelihood of collapse, they will stop fighting for climate action and indulge in fatalistic behaviour since there is no utility maximizing or teleological motivation to act. Accepting the potential or likelihood of social and/or ecological collapse, in this case, is equated with speeding it up.

However, many non-Western cultures, including many Indigenous cultures, do not approach death, dying or the potential or likelihood of collapse in this way. Societies that see death and life as integral to each other have processes and protocols of coordination and preparedness to deal with the inevitability of change, pain, loss and death that are unimaginable in Western societies. Indigenous people may often also be better equipped to work with and through complexities and paradoxes. […] Therefore, not all, but many Indigenous scholars and activists encourage conversations and preparations for social and ecological collapse, albeit in different ways.”

In the next section we explore the work of one of the many Indigenous scholars and activists referenced in the text above.

Relational Tipping Point and Kinship Time

Kyle Powys Whyte, a Potawatomi scholar and Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan School, uses the concepts of a “relational tipping point” and “kinship time” to discuss climate crisis and collapse. Kinship time understands time through the lens of relationship and the specific relational qualities such as consent, trust, accountability and reciprocity that are necessary. Similar to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s assertion, if you look at the climate crisis through the lens of kinship time, it’s a crisis that started several hundred years ago.

In an interview with vice, Whyte explains:

“The way in which a lot of (climate) issues are described relies on language that doesn’t emphasize what I am calling kinship issues. For example, it’s usually described as if there’s climate change, which has to do with chemicals in the atmosphere and all of that, and then there’s the climate change impacts. But what if climate change was described more as something that is actually a social phenomenon? You start with the idea that people didn’t respect each other’s consent, and then from there, you move into how that generates climate change.”

Whyte’s notion of a relational tipping point refers to the fact that our societies, still centred in racial capitalism and colonialism, have already crossed a relational tipping point, long before the ecological tipping point that many refer to. We simply do not have enough time to effectively address the climate crisis due to the slow and careful work that repairing relationships requires. There are consequences to generations of exploitation, oppression and appropriation and it is likely not possible to completely repair relationships.

In an interview with Grist, Whyte explains:

“People need to realize that on the one hand, renewable energy technology is important, but until people can find a way in which people of color, Indigenous, the global majority can actually exercise self determination — develop their own economies, use equitable financing mechanisms, participate equally in education and training, receive adequate technical assistance — then what we’re going to see is a world that may have a lower carbon footprint, but could be worse for people that get left behind. That happens when these infrastructure investments don’t really connect to what they would need to make up for generations of colonialism, racial capitalism, and patriarchy.”

Climate Anxiety

At this point in the module, we ask you to take a deep breath and pay attention to any intense feelings and thoughts that may be arising for you in your body and mind. Check in with yourself and consider what you may need at this point in terms of self care if you are feeling overwhelmed or are feeling a strong resistance to continue forward with this content.

As explored in module 1 in relation to colonialism and racial capitalism, there are many reasons to deny (consciously or unconsciously) or turn away from these hard truths, especially if you live in a place and community that is still relatively unaffected by climate crisis events. You may still have a choice, while so many others do not. In section 2.5 we will explore the topic of societal and structural denial, but we wanted to take a moment here to ensure that you consider your own emotional reactions to this content on an individual and personal level and to explore the topic of climate anxiety.

There are many who have flagged that not talking about big issues such as the climate crisis, is actually leading to an increase in feelings of anxiety, depression and anger. Ask yourself, what happens when something is really bothering you, but you don’t talk about it and you try to suppress your feelings? Or when you do try to talk about it, but others deny it, ignore it, or avoid conversations with you about it?

In a 2019 BBC article The harm from worrying about climate change, Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and researcher who studies children’s attitudes towards climate change, describes climate anxiety- and climate depression or climate rage -as a reasonable and healthy response to an existential threat. “I’d kind of wonder why somebody wasn’t feeling anxious,” she says. Instead of burying or denying the grief and sense of loss that climate crisis and ecological collapse may elicit, it is time to consider how our communities and societies can more effectively engage with these feelings.

Feeling part of a community that is aware of and engaged in these issues is important, while taking constructive measures to address what may feel like for some as “the end of the world”. This connects to Whyte’s assertion that our societies have indeed passed a relational tipping point and that the type of redress needed for generations of harm simply doesn’t fit within the climate movements timelines for emissions reductions, for example.

However, the purpose and intention of recognizing and naming this reality is not so that we fall into a sense of doom or fatalism. It does not mean that your decisions and actions are pointless. You have a responsibility to ensure that you are facing hard truths in order to steward change wherever you can. You are accountable to future generations. We are already experiencing the effects of crisis and collapse. As the crisis deepens, the decisions and actions we take now shape the quality, experience and well-being of future generations of human and non-human life.

Check Your Understanding

Reflection 5

Open your reflection journal and consider the following:

  • Are the ideas of ecological and social collapse new to you? What feelings arise for you when you consider the implications of collapse?
  • How does Kyle Whyte’s notion of a “relational tipping point” differ from the types of conversations centred at the UN’s Climate Change Conference, for example?

Note: to access your reflection journal please review the Introduction section of the Ecological Collapse and Climate Crisis module.



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Global Justice and Change Copyright © 2022 by Nisha Toomey and Emma Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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