The collapsist debate in Spain: a summary

Something funny is happening among the Climate Change activists, policy makers and scientists in Spain. The beginning of a fracture, maybe, on account of how screwed we are, and what course of action to take. The lines of the debate are fuzzy: some claim it’s a matter of pessimism versus optimism, or, if you prefer, hope versus rage as a mobilizing force. Others see deeper ideological rifts and claim that the other’s position is doomist,or politically inoperant, or a way to ignore the problem and waste critical resources before the worst comes. In any case, it’s a fascinating debate.

I’ll describe here the major talking points of the collapsist debate in Spain: a growing discussion on crucial topics on post-fossil fuel economy, climate change, degrowth and green capitalism, renewables and energy prices and political articulations of climate change discourses. I think this debate is unique, and it deserves a recapitulation in English for those of you who don’t speak Spanish. I would bet also that this debate is unique in that Spain is positioning itself as a center of discussion about climate change - particularly with the recent heatwaves, forest fires, and its unique position as Europe’s gateway to liquified natural gas and one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in Europe.

The cause and the actors

It all began when a major newspaper (El País) published recently an article on different perspectives of Climate Change and energy. A series of major activists, researchers and policy-makers were interviewed on their opinion on collapsism. Here’s the original article and a link to a backup in case it’s paywalled again.

For a quick summary, the article presents the perspectives of two fields of “ecologists” (thought I personally don’t like the term applied to this problem - see a sketch of my thoughts on that here). One of them is very pessimist about the effects of climate change and the energy crisis in Spain. It’s composed of Antonio Turiel, Juan Bordera and Margarita Mediavilla, among others; the first two are very active in activist circles and are generally known to most people working on climate change. Juan Bordera is one of the activists that threw red water to the Spanish Congress within the context of climate change activist group Scientist Rebellion, while Turiel has more of an energy crisis profile: he’s author of the (frankly quite good) book Petrocalipsis, appears from time to time in the media, and has given countless talks on energy. Margarita Mediavilla is a scientist specialized in the economy of green energy, critical as well with the status quo - I recognize I don’t know her work so well, but she’s very vocal in Twitter about these topics. Overall, these are people that are very skeptical about the predominant model of renewables.

The article labels them as collapsists - mostly because they believe some form of systemic collapse is bound to happen if we don’t change direction soon. They argue that the current consensus that we can replace fossil fuels with renewables and keep the same economical system and way of life is not based in realistic data. According to them, the green transition to renewables is impossible as long as we keep the same economical system (dependent on fossil fuels) and levels of energetic consumption. Most of their arguments reproduce points raised by the Club of Rome 50 years ago, plus some new additions: for example, they argue that fossil fuels are needed to construct a renewable infrastructure of a scale big enough to replace fossil fuels themselves, and that this is impractical due to limitations on fossil fuel disponibility. Instead, they propose a degrowth strategy: using less energy to adapt our lives to a post-fossil fuel life, beyond the economical system we know so far. Or, if you prefer, planified collapse (of fossil capitalism) to avoid a disastrous unplanified societal collapse whenever our economical system is no longer viable.

The second group considers this too much. Activists and leftist/green politicians are interviewed saying that these claims are too far off: they criticise they give the impression that nothing can be done to avoid disaster and that they flirt with apocalypticism. There’s a section of them that is tied to Spanish politics: for example, of this group (let’s call it the hopefuls for ease) Hector Tejero and Emilio Santiago are part of Más País, an scission of leftist party Podemos that has been trying to gain a green profile lately.

A small incise for those of you unaware of the intricacies of Spanish politics (I can’t blame you - the whole thing is a mess): Más País is a relatively small force in Spain - they are in the opposition in Madrid, but haven’t managed to make the jump to regional implementations elsewhere in Spain. It is, however, one of the few parties that seem to take climate change semi-seriously. Others, like Pedro Fresco, hold political positions in Valencia, coordinating the green transition from the local government.

I mentioned mostly those interviewed related to politics, but actually there’s also scientists among them - and not moot ones: Eloy Sanz, for example, is an IPCC expert reviewer, and Emilio Santiago doubles down as climate anthropologist at the major research body in Spain, the CSIC.

Mostly, the position of all this people is a mixed bag of Green New Deal proponents and decrecentists. What unites them is that they see claims of imminent collapse as vague, or not likely, and tend to gravitate towards more political choices of action. More on the nuances of their position below, because their point is actually more interesting than it seems.

The reaction

Overall, and in my humble opinion, the article is OK, but it does make the debate look like “is collapse inminent or are people overreacting”, and it closes with the position of an “ex-collapsist”, kind of implying there might be a middle ground and that the more radical flank of collapsism is a bit too far off.

Of at least that’s how it was interpreted by some. Antonio Turiel was pissed off. Mostly, because he’s very tired of being portrayed as a collapsist.

As seen above (and even mentioned in the article), he does believe that collapse is inevitable if the current status quo doesn’t change (the guy is an ardent proponent of peak oil theories), but he’s been consistently a proponent of degrowth. Apparently, he’s tired of being called a collapsist because of his analysis, rather than putting the focus of the debate on his proposed solution. He argues no one is, per se, a collapsist: whether we are headed towards collapse is part of a reading of the situation, but he’s not a proponent of collapse - just a proponent of the thesis that collapse is possible (and probable). Apparently, since he talks so much about how doomed we are, this has happened to him quite a lot: people think he actively hopes for collapse to happen, instead of considering him just a pessimist that is warning people to take action. In any case, he took things very personally in a twitter thread. Mostly, he complains about this point, and argues that collapse yes vs collapse no is a false dichotomy: the real debate is on the physical limits of capitalism as we know it, or a much more nuanced conversation on economical degrowth, or sustainable growth.

Here’s Turiel’s thread.

In my humble opinion, he’s partially right: the article is clearly biased towards Green-New-Dealism, and yes, it doesn’t paint a good picture of so called collapsists, most of whom in fact don’t even identify with the label. But also I don’t think the article is so bad. Most people it interviews are interesting to know, and major actors of climate change discussions in Spain - and the debate does exist. It’s nice seen a mainstream newspaper discussing the topic of the green transition, and giving platform to (relatively) unknown ideas to the public, such as there’s not so much consensus about renewables and how to drift away from fossil fuels.

Regardless of that: Turiel also threw in some strong words: critics of his position have “no technical knowledge about the matter”, the piece is a form of “misinformation”, and other ugly strawmans against the journalist that wrote the piece. Anyway, the vehemence of the thread quickly produced a string of responses.

And when I mean a string, I mean at least 12 twitter threads (!!) from everyone involved in the article and else, a couple articles, and a very heated discussion in activist circles.

The discussion is actually very interesting: it asks way more interesting questions than the article itself (which was already interesting enough for the uninitiated to the topic!). For example:

And, perhaps the most important of all:

Those are all amazing questions! And they deserve a well-thought answer. The good thing is that some of the threads that have spanned over this debate tackle these questions, and some of them are even quite brilliant (even if you were to disagree with their conclusions).

Since the discussion is divided in pieces, let me guide you a bit over what the actors have to say about these and other problematics of the intersection between climate change and energy in Spain.

The reactions

The journalist who wrote the piece

He’s the thread

Clemente, the journalist who wrote the piece, was quite surprised and hurt by Turiel’s harsh words. He claims that the debate exists (it does!) and that it’s his duty to freely present it as he sees fit (true that). He also points to some of the other threads we will discuss below.

I can’t help but sympathize. Yes, the article reads a bit biased towards one of the positions, but that’s ok - I don’t think he was aware of the nerve he was touching, and one could argue it’s unavoidable to make a perfectly fair article on a debate like this. He does miss a lot of nuances(as argued, with grace, by other fellow journalists), and makes some mistakes (again, “ambientalists” is a terrible word for climate change activist), but the reaction by Turiel is a bit too much.

Most “non-collapsists” interviewed in the article were quick to come out in defense of the journalist. But that’s not what’s interesting: is the rest of thoughts they offer.

Hope or rage? State solutions or radical activism?

Héctor Tejero, one of the politicians of Más País, proposes that collapsism is actually an ideology to battle. He claims the diagnostic of the ills of the system is shared with non-collapsists, but that it faults of catastrofism. It breeds positions like prepping and outer planet colonizations that are libertatian, individualistic or neoliberal responses to a perception of collapse.

What he argues is that a collapsist position prioritizes politics of doomism, in the sense that it disincentives positions within the structure of the modern States in favour of other diffuse entities with no real political power. In practice, our lives are conditioned by party politics - not participating in these is renouncing to political action in favour of others that might not act on climate change.

Additionally, he argues that, even if an (European) Green New Deal sounds hard to implement, it’s still easier than reformulating the whole system - and worse come to worst, if collapse does indeed happen, it won’t matter if we tried to implement a GND or not. And that’s even if it were to happen: he believes it’s not imminent (even if it’s possible).

Overall, the position behind these claims is that hope is a much more constructive way to frame the debate than pessimism. Climate change pessimism only causes paralyzing fear.

Thread by Héctor Tejero here

Contrast this with Juan Bordera’s positions. As I told you before, he’s an activist willing to make disruptive action and risk legal consequences in order to get the point across. He represents a position that recognizes that discourse is not enough for action against climate change to happen, as that has been tried by scientists for decades and it gets consistently ignored.

From that position, he recognizes the article’s pros and cons (more or less coincident with what was discussed above), and presents the possibility of collapse not as a fringe view but as something that climate change scientists consider possible. He mentions Will Steffen as an example. He makes a call for individual action: citing this article, he notes that eco-anxiety has a counter not in hope, but in anger. Anger is a much more potent emotion to activate an engagement to action than hope or optimism (under his view and the article’s).

Thread by Juan Bordera here

I’ll leave this questions for you to think about. I have more or less formed opinions on a part of these topics, but I think this debate is better taken as a series of open questions. I would like you to take these views to your own conclusions.

Is collapsism inherently anti-politic? What the hell is exactly collapsism?

Some of the people involved are very critic of collapsism. Their position is well worth exploring.

Pedro Fresco, for example, is Director of Ecological Transition in Catalonia. He reads to me as a Green New Dealist, but to be honest I didn’t know of him before - he also claims he’d probably agree with a degrowth proponent in an 80% of issues, if that helps you define his posture.

He argues that collapsism doesn’t accept doubts, rebuttals or gradualisms - it’s “pessimist, anti-politic” and doesn’t accept proposals or political initiatives. It tends to categorize critics as “tecno-optimists”, “capitalists” or “infinite growth” proponents, resorting to strawmans.

Thread by Pedro Fresco here

In the same vein, Eloy Sanz criticisms that one can’t be giving constant talks about collapse and expect not to be labelled as a collapsist (particularly speaking here about Turiel). He defends the journalist’s job and condemns the strawmans of Turiel. More interestingly: he thinks that a drastic reduction on energetic consumption won’t be accepted by most people. This “catastrophic discourse” is not the same as degrowth - degrowth doesn’t entail a collapse. Catastrophism would also be a cause of inaction and it helps “negationists/retardists” (in the sense of a retardation of climate action). He considers himself a defendent of renewables as the main solution to our problems.

Additionally, he also criticizes some of the figures Turiel uses, and accuses him of cherry-picking the data that fits his hypothesis.

Thread by Eloy Sanz here

To be honest, some of the points of both threads are fair, specially when related to the strawmans. As for a response: Luis González, the author of a (relatively) prominent book on energy in Spanish, argues that collapsism is not an ideology nor a political proposal - rather, it’s a diagnostic (albeit a very pessimistic one). As such, branding it as a political label is not fair. He also argues that the diagnostic of possible collapse is so grave, that we risk too much ignoring it even if it turns out to not happen (and compares it with a false positive in a cancer diagnostic).

As for political inoperacy, he does believe there is mobilizing power in pessimistic diagnostics, and that hope has a place as well - he cites his own article on the topic (here, in the excellent magazine CTXT). Additionally, he proposes that a realistic analysis is important to strategize ways of communication and action. He also provides a definition of collapse as measured in the decline of four indicators (among them, “number of people” or “degree of social specialization”) to counter the idea that collapse is a vague term.

I find the topic of “collapsology” interesting, and I tend to pessimism, but I haven’t set my mind on these topics. Again, I’ll leave you to your own conclusions. However, before you do that, I propose you read (even if it’s with google translate) the following thread, the longest, richer and more nuanced of the ones I’ve compiled here (which does not mean the rightest - just a very interesting one).

Emilio Santiago’s thread: on the hopes and flaws of collapse

I’m leaving this one to its own section because it’s a very long thread that touches on more questions than I can summarize in a title.

Again, Emilio Santiago Muin is an anthropologist. He defends the usefulness of the article and presents some of the opposing views in these debates: global ecology vs econacionalism, green capitalism vs ecosocialist, ecologist spiritualism vs scientific materialism.

He is a proponent of collapsism as politically inoperant (regardless of self-identification as collapsist or not). He does define it as an ideology, even if it has scientific grounds, and with diverse views, with a more or less shared idea (on the lines of decrease of social complexity, though he’s more verbose on that). He appreciates the discursive value of collapsism, but is very critic of it. In particular, he notes the case of the crisis of fuel in Cuba (he’s did his thesis on that) and notes that the lack of fossil fuels didn’t lead to libertarian decentralization, but to the same state power as always - resulting on a “combination of socialist traits with a capitalistic normalization of the Cuban economy”.

His critics of collapsism are multifaceted: according to him, it’s poorly defined (he proposes “failed State” would be a better marker of collapse), epistemologically flawed (since it derives social conclusions from natural science analysis), determinist (in that, as in comunism, you set a goal at the end and watch everything around confirm that end) and scientificist (problems of reductionism, simplification of social phenomena, putting too much weight on “scientific evidence”, etc). He also cites the lack of scientific consensus on an imminent collapse.

He details that he used to be a peak-oiler, and was convinced that the crisis of 2008 was it… but in Spain, instead of collapse, we had the surge of the 15-M movement, an anti-austerity, pro-democracy broad movement that changed Spanish politics forever. That led him to more political positions within party politics, where action was possible - as opposed to what he calls a hope for a “termodinamic anarchism”, where a decrease in energetic input to the economy would lead to increased decentralization. He doubts that’s the case, and claims that politics is the space to work from, whether we like it or not.

Anyway, I recommend you read the thread for more nuances. See the thread here

The tired, the mid-way and the final thoughts

After the dust was set, some smaller threads commenting on the situation of the debate arose.

Juanjo Alvarez (an ecosocialist who has written some books on the topic), proposes that these debates are obviously politically charged. La caiguda, a “collapsologist” twitter account (I’m not sure who’s behind, but they have a cool poetry blog), proposees that there’s a tension between the discourses where “there is no time” and the graduality of declining conditions of living.

Finally: Yayo Herrero, a prominent ecofeminist, published a very sensible article decrying the whole twitterness of the debate, the testosterone and cainism of climate change activists. She’s tired of seeing people that share a critical vision of the current state of affairs debate over (sometimes) minute points, or try to force action over their particular channel of political engagement (be it activism or parties). This is a poor summary, so I suggest you go read the article (linked below).

Thread by Juanjo Alvarez, by la caiguda, and here’s the article by Yayo Herrero.

And that’s it, so far. This debate will likely follow in some form or another, and I’m glad it happened - it has been interesting. I hope I haven’t misrepresented anyone’s position with my summaries, and if I’ve done so please write me and I’ll make the necessary amends (or typos)! I hope you have enjoyed this overview.