Is this the end? A conversation with Vincent Mignerot
Is this the end? A conversation with Vincent Mignerot
Vincent Mignerot is an independent researcher located in Lyon, France. He is founder of the organization Adrastia, dedicated to studying and spreading awareness about the collapse of the environment and human civilization. He is a frequent speaker in front of university audiences in France where his views on capitalism and human nature get him into hot water with some on the left. Whether you agree or disagree with some of Mignerot’s arguments you will see that he is a careful, logical thinker who builds his arguments brick by brick. He compares what humans have done to the earth to a burned cake in the oven, which can never be reconstituted into its original ingredients. The damage is irreparable but there are ways we can prepare and adapt ourselves to what is coming.
Full English transcript below.
Translation and Subtitles: Hélène Tomasini | Mark White
“As humans, as we are on the planet, we are not being our real selves and sovereign in our choices if we aren’t in the process of destroying our environment. It’s an internal drama, painful to live through and to analyze. But these contradictions in my own discourse simply demonstrate that I’m a being of contradictions.” -Vincent Mignerot
MW: Vincent Mignerot, hello! Welcome to Plebity and thank you for being our guest here this morning, early here in Northern California and mid-afternoon for you, in Paris, in France. Wait, you’re not in Paris, where are you?
Vincent Mignerot: I’m in Lyon, more to the south and slightly east of Paris.
MW: So, it’s very interesting, we shared some email a few days ago because Northern California was undergoing a mini-collapse because power had been cut for several million people. And it looked possible that we would have to reschedule this conversation…hard to do without electricity or internet. But fortunately everything is back to “normal”, the new normal, that keeps changing every day and which we’re going to talk about today. Could you introduce yourself a bit, tell us how you arrived at this point and what led you to think and study the issues of climate, social crisis and collapse?
Vincent Mignerot: Thank you for this interview. Yes, I’m happy to be able to record an exchange, this time with video.
We exchanged some messages earlier about the situation in California. As you know I passed on some of your messages to my network in France and that was interesting to lots of us here. We are all aware that this was a normally “privileged” area where things were unraveling.
And people remarked how collapse looks different to people in different parts of the planet. As Westerners whose situation is slipping little by little versus those living in countries already experiencing severe ecological pressure or more frequent power outages, of course the situations can’t be compared.
Alright, to introduce myself quickly, I’ve been working on the theme of existence for some 20 years. I was an adolescent who asked himself existential questions and tried to find answers in my own way and I wrote a text, that now goes back a while, that was a kind of model of evolution over time, which tried to understand humanity’s place in a long evolutionary process starting from the principals of natural selection but extending them in a broader context that included institutions and other phenomena.
And that work has led me to gain some understanding of humanity’s place in universal evolution. My basic hypothesis was that what we are, our intrinsic nature as a species, carries within it the risk of self-destruction. We’re a species able to exploit our environment beyond its capacity to sustain itself and to be able to provide resources to all the living creatures that live within it. We’re the species that pollutes, which drains an unsustainable volume of resources out of its environment.
I posed this hypothesis about 20 years ago. And it appears to be confirmed over time when I look at actual data. Over some 20 years, these questions of existential risk, collapse, or hunger, the idea of things coming to an end eventually over future centuries, this has been a question for me for a long time.
Along with that work, I’m trained in clinical psychology although I didn’t make that my career. I also worked in construction as a ”rope expert”. I did masonry, painting, but like an alpinist.
MW: Vincent, could you explain that just a bit? What was that work you did, you hung from ropes? Is that right?
Vincent Mignerot: Yes, that’s it, like all construction workers we did masonry, painting, roofing, replacing shutters, everything that you do on a building site but like an alpinist. Or rather more like a speliologue In other words, the rope techniques that are used are more like cave explorer techniques, you have to be able to go both up and down the ropes, not exactly like mountain climbing. I did that for 15 months and was injured and then I managed an agency that did this rope work for several years.
MW: And you founded the organization, Adrastia?
Vincent Mignerot: That’s right, from about 2012 I wanted to match up what was previously theoretical for me, to match it up with reality. I read up on the data, I read the Meadows Report. I went on to read Joseph Tainter, I had already read Jared Diamond. I brought myself up to date on what I knew about the risk of collapse, and the current ecological situation.
In 2013, I started a facebook group called Transition 2030, which I started with Joëlle Leconte, Laurent Aillet and Régis Perrot. We founded Adrastia in 2014. And this group and this association has participated in spreading knowledge of this subject within the francophone community. Later on came ”Collapsology” which especially succeeded in grabbing a lot of media attention.
Collapsology, Transition 2030, Adrastia, the Momentum institute, La Collapso heureuse and other groups and associations all make up what is now loosely called the study of collapse in the French speaking community.
MW: For you what are the most important environmental issues? Big question, I know…
Vincent Mignerot: Yes, big question! I made some notes… It’s a question, I need to break it down. I tend to approach this question not so much like a bullet list because it’s dramatic, we know that, the collapse of ecosystems and biodiversity, atmospheric and biospheric conditions, overall we know it’s intense. It’s very worrisome. But, if I have to take on one particular environmental issue, it would be, big word coming up, ontological.
The most worrisome, alarming aspect is our own nature and how we interact with our environment and the idea, among us in the west, of being all powerful. For me, the situation is partly due to our very particular relationship with our environment, an attitude which is very common among engineers and scientists in general. It’s a very positivist world-view, with roots in the enlightenment, that says the following: the human species exists outside of its environment.
Humans interact with the environment when there is some problem and they offer technical solutions or even political solutions and they apply those solutions and the problem is solved. So this allows us to keep doing what we’ve been doing. For me, contrary to what one might think, that is exactly what has thrown us into this situation that we can’t get out of. Because this belief that we can solve everything, it only works short term. Yes, antibiotics helped humanity. Yes, the phosphates we extracted from the ground increased agricultural efficiency. The nitrogen we extracted from the atmosphere increased agricultural efficiency.
But, we’ve hidden the negative externalities of our interactions with the environment. We gambled on the expectation that we would always be able to solve them. That’s our ontological relationship with the environment. We see ourselves as separate from the rest of nature and of living creatures. And we believe we’re sovereign over all the decisions we make. We think we can always control an environment which elsewhere might be considered sacred, especially in some spiritual philosophies in the west that have roots in ancient beliefs. And we think nature is something unchanging and everlasting which we can repair whenever we need to and that we can solve all our problems.
So, I think it’s the ontological problem that the most difficult to address. It’s not just a technical problem, or a problem of biodiversity or energy like we might want to believe.
MW: Elsewhere, you’ve compared the planet and what we’ve done to it with a cake that has been burned in the oven. Would you explain that idea for us?
Vincent Mignerot: That comes from our ontological relationship that we have with our environment. When our ancestors caused transformations in their environment they had such close, interactive interactions with animals, plants and mineral resources, that they understood right away that when they damaged their environment they were causing either a medium or long-term impact. They didn’t develop a disconnected view of reality, or in any case way less than we do.
What they didn’t do, as far as how they interacted with their environment was to think that everything was fixable. Hunter-gatherers, when they questioned the Shaman or divine beings about the magic of the real world, it was to always ask what were the limits of what they could do and what they couldn’t go beyond, because they knew inside themselves that they couldn’t fix everything.
The example of the cake that I like to use is something that we have forgotten. When we bake a cake, and we forget it in the oven, we’re disappointed because we’d like to get the ingredients back so we can make another cake, that will be just right. But it is 100% sure that we can’t get the ingredients back from the burned cake. We can’t get back the flour, the eggs, the sugar to remake it as a perfect cake. This is the principle of ‘irreversibility’ which is a basic thermodynamic principle.
Our hunter gather ancestors, or even farmers who were very conservative in their methods were meticulous and careful in how they interacted with their environment. Of course, they didn’t know the principals of thermodynamics, they hadn’t formalized them, they didn’t call it the principle of irreversibility but they had an intuitive sense of their interactions which limited the effect on their environment to prevent irreversibility and causing truly irreparable damage.
Because certain processes are irreversible, they acted in a way to prevent their agriculture from having too great an impact on the environment, where the yield might drop precipitously and would finally mean they were unable to feed themselves. The principle of irreversibility reigns over all our interactions. Yet we’re the civilization that believed, up to this point, that we could repair everything, and which has completely forgotten to regulate its interactions with its environment.
MW: Have we arrived at this point because of capitalism? You have talked about the problem of exponential growth. If we consider that exponential growth is a defining feature of capitalism isn’t this really a way to say that the fundamental problem is, in fact capitalism.
Vincent Mignerot: I’m happy to answer that question. And I’ll answer in several steps. Exponential growth is not something intrinsically related to humanity. It’s a part of every situation where there is life. Like when a colony of bacteria for example has adequate resources and is also not constrained. If a colony of bacteria has no predators or pathogens that prevent it from growing, if it has enough to eat and absent external constraints, it will grow in an exponential fashion. That’s true whenever living organisms don’t have external constraints that control their populations. We’re that species, as I said earlier, that learned how to overcome the limits of extracting resources and which can avoid predation or the limits of some resources and which can defend itself to ultimately allow for unlimited growth. So, this process of exponential development, is not, in my opinion, causally linked to capitalism.
For me, capitalism is a tool, a means to achieving certain results. It’s an ensemble of economic and political ideas, a system of coercion and domination, of appropriation of human labor and of capital for the purpose of speculating on possible short-term gains.
In my opinion, these are all methods being implemented as a response to a particular circumstance in human evolution, where we have on one hand lots of available energy, the simultaneous growth of humanity across the whole planet, a powerful energy source, hydrocarbons and on the other hand we have the constant need to respond to the pressures of competition.
Which means for example that when capitalism developed, we saw the British empire impose capitalism on India to extract their resources. And if India hadn’t adopted this form of capitalism it would have simply disappeared.
Once you have a really effective tool for extracting resources and when there is a very high need for energy, exponential growth happens. And for it to develop in a way that it is optimized for those who profit from it, capitalism became the preferred tool for tight control of resources, including human resources. Capitalism is a very effective coercive tool. But it is just a tool.
That’s why my discourse is often criticized. I don’t see capitalism as causal. Here’s a simple example. When a child hammers a nail into a beam, we can’t blame the hammer for putting the nail in the beam. The hammer is just the means that we use to transform the world how we want it.
Capitalism is the tool we use to transform the world the way we want it. That’s why I don’t accept the idea of capitalism as the cause, because in my opinion, this is what I call a causal substitution. It allows us to avoid seeing the real cause and this is a big problem for us. What I mean by that is that the real cause is a problem because it is about the advantages we’ve acquired, in wealth and population.
That’s the exponential part. The exponential destruction of the environment corresponds directly with an exponential increase in wealth and population. Where those two meet we find capitalism, which provided the means to satisfy a huge demographic demand and a great need for increased wealth.
MW: So, all that brings us to collapse and so, how do you define collapse?
Vincent Mignerot: Let’s put capitalism off to the side but let’s think about how outside of capitalism there are plenty of historical examples, where we don’t need capitalism to find ourselves in a state of collapse. There are plenty of civilizations and even hunter gatherers in situations where there were lots of resources and little constraint. Their populations went up and then they grew too much for the capacity of the environment. When the capacity is overused by too much or for too long the environment eventually imposes its constraints. Collapse, as I’m going to define it is not something that just happens to capitalist societies or to civilization in general or to the first communities of farmers or even hunter gatherers. It’s just a matter of circumstances. In certain communities of living creatures, in certain circumstances, these living creatures develop beyond the ability of the environment to sustain them. Then suddenly there is a risk of collapse.
So what happens in a human community when it’s exposed to a risk of collapse? The constraints of all living beings on the planet are based on food, health and security. When a living organism can feed itself everything is good. When it can maintain its functional metabolism, everything is good And if it can ensure its security, everything is good. When one of these 3 parameters is lacking then the organism or the community of organisms is at risk of death, extinction and the end as it undergoes collapse.
You need to guarantee, food, health and security. But these 3 parameters, intrinsic to life are circumscribed by 3 constraints which together define the big picture of competition. First, is the merciless nature of natural selection. If you’re alive, all is well. If you can’t assure food, health and security you’re going to soon be dead. That merciless nature of life imposes a certain binary reality for living organisms or non-humans in all cases. It’s very binary, like for a turtle that just hatched and is trying to get to the ocean. A passing bird can just swoop down and take the life of that turtle that just wants to live, like all living organisms. This is the binary nature of existence unchanged for the 4 billion years of the planet’s existence.
When I say this is the case for all organisms I’m saying that all life is subject to a merciless principle. There are no exceptions to this binarity of existence.
This is the arbitrary nature of life. If you’re the flower in the field that only wants to grow, and another living being, a cow is moving through the prairie and only wants to eat, then you’re this little flower that’s just going to disappear.
This is the arbitrary side of how life is organized.
Coming back to my definition of collapse. When a human community develops, it pushes back against this arbitrary, merciless aspect of life. This means that the humans inside this community are very protected. We aren’t subject to predation in our daily lives, particularly in very rich communities.
We don’t suffer that merciless, arbitrary aspect of life. We’ve pushed that all back away from us. We’ve made it easy to feed ourselves, with agriculture. We’ve deployed armed military defense against external threats. We’ve developed healthcare which protects our metabolisms. But all that consumes lots of energy and if, at some point, like what you experienced in California, if there is a glitch in energy availability, the danger is that the merciless, arbitrariness of natural selection reimposes itself on the organism. With that comes a risk of collapse, because over time the community can no longer assure its food, its security, its health.
To sum it up, for me, collapse is the return of constraints reasserted by natural principles in communities that have previously pushed them back. It is this return, more or less controlled, more or less global, which finally leads to the inability to provide necessities.
We’re going to feel the loss of this control. If we can’t maintain control of food, health, security, the population is going to decline. It’s going to experience physical shocks. This may lead to internal chaos, maybe civil war even, and this is a process of collapse.
MW: You have said that it is essential to focus on the core problems of collapse and not just on the symptoms. You have suggested several strategies that you call adaptations, not to be confused with solutions. Can you tell us the difference you see between adaptations and solutions and can you tell us specifically what are these adaptations?
Vincent Mignerot: I think the term solution is used in a basically unprecedented way in our society. It correlates with the huge growth of this positivist mind-set, this sense of being all powerful that makes us believe we can solve everything.
I don’t think that solutions were envisaged for everyone in the societies that came before the capitalism of today. And we can’t, clearly, we can’t solve the problem of finite resources. Planet earth is 8000 miles in diameter. At some point whether it’s in 10 years or 150 years, at some point, the resources we have exploited from our environment will be too sparse and too transformed for us to be able to reuse them in a virtuous circle. There is no solution against entropy, or in other words for the dispersion of everything we have transformed. There is no solution, in particular, against the finite reality of available hydrocarbons. When we exploit an underground resource, in the beginning we only get out a small amount of energy. Then at a certain point we reach peak exploitation. After this peak, there is less and less of the resource every day until finally, there is no more available to pull out of the ground.
This is the principle of the Hubert’s curve, this geological principle of resource extraction. It is a physical constraint. It’s a physical constraint for which there is no solution.
We can’t solve our way out of problems that arise from elementary physical principles. And that means that a decline of civilization or the economy is inevitable. We’re going to talk about inevitability when we run up against physical myths.
The question is, if there’s no solution does that mean there is nothing we can do? Absolutely not! We can do what I call adapting our society to new circumstances.
MW: But, the cake is burned. We can’t get back the ingredients, right? So, what are trying to accomplish with these adaptations?
Vincent Mignerot: We can try, for example to use less complex tools compared with those tools we use today which consume huge amounts of energy and resources. At the same time, strategies we can implement have to be able to maintain the provision of services. That’s very important, like I said before, our society, like all human communities organizes around provision of food, health and security. Today, food, healthcare and security are assured for the majority of humans.
Assured by a very intensive agriculture. Assured by a very technical medicine which consumes or emits 5% of all greenhouse gases. 4% or 5% is a considerable amount. We’ve deployed equally complex and costly systems for our defense.
All these are technical systems that will be constrained by the finite availability of resources and available energy.
So the adaptations include ways we can reduce our dependency on these overly complex systems.
In agricultural for example we could talk about agroforestry. We could talk about permaculture. We could talk about all the methods that allow us to transition away from an agriculture so dependent on pesticides and tractors to an agriculture that will be more manual and require more physical energy. This is an adaptation that allows us to transition from over complexity to less complexity all while trying to maintain the provision of basic services. That’s very important, and it means simply to be able to feed people.
For healthcare, we need to make some trade-offs between molecules we know that are not widely used and are very expensive in favor of indispensable molecules and by developing industrial methods that can produce these molecules with less energy. Of course there will be limits. We know some molecules will become less available. Maybe surgery as we know it today in 50 years will be totally reformed. We won’t be able to do all the surgery that we do today. We’ll have more low-tech surgical options but which allow us to provide a high level of service. That would also be called an adaptation.
And likewise for security, we’ll have to think about how to defend our territory. That brings us to the issue of asymmetric warfare which we already see taking place today, for example when Saudi Arabia is attacked by drones – very complex systems attacked by very simple systems. We will have to adapt our defense systems to be able to protect against shifting modes of attack.
But we can’t be naive about this issue. The world is going to change and so will the balance of power. It will be necessary to adapt new types of defense.
MW: Which brings us to the question of global scale. The effective implementation of these adaptations implies need for action on a global scale. But you explained to us that this is impossible since the first country to opt for de-growth is going to get eaten alive by the others, the non-degrowth countries. Isn’t there a contradiction to encourage these adaptations which you yourself consider impossible to achieve?
Vincent Mignerot: I don’t consider the realization of these adaptations as impossible. I do consider them impossible as part of a goal to protect the environment and to avoid decline or possible collapse. In that framework everything we can put into place to create a virtuous circle is targeting the wrong objectives – if it is aiming to both protect the environment and to avoid collapse. Those are unattainable objectives.
There is no solution. What we could implement in the way of de-growth would be for example to reduce revenues, reduce GNP, share the revenues as best as possible and to shift to manual work as much as possible. These are not strategies meant to solve anything.
On the other hand, they could be effectively introduced at a workable pace. I’ll explain what I mean. Clearly, no one is suggesting that this is going to be implemented globally in a coordinated fashion and everything will be fine and we can reach a level of de-growth worldwide and have a perfect world, in a few years, that I don’t believe.
On the other hand, we could maneuver to avoid an overly quick de-growth which could weaken the community that implements it, in terms of economic competition, and in which case it puts itself in danger and could collapse due to external pressure. This is obviously a way forward that should be avoided. It also leads to collapse and the community loses its sovereignty. So, it’s not a positive strategy for the community. But to keep up an overly complex way of life is also self defeating. The way things are now, for overly complex societies to make certain choices exposes them to the possibility of collapse, when they can no longer maintain their own complex systems, and are basically unable to maintain themselves. Between the two extremes, we have to find the right pace for trimming back the sails, without too much risk, but also without sustaining an overly complex system.
That is what is so complex about the strategies we need to implement right now. An example of the type of trade-off to consider is, do we really need 5G (next generation cell connectivity)? I don’t think that in terms of what we get out of it, an important consideration, that in terms of what the population gets from it, that we really have any need for 5G. A country that doesn’t keep up with global levels of technical growth, 5G among other things, is a country that’s going to quickly lose its sovereignty, both political and economic.
The trap is to get pulled into a self-defeating process of developing systems of immense technical complexity like we see with 5G. Instead, our goal should be to maintain technical sovereignty just at the current levels of complexity. This is an extremely tricky balancing act. Do we risk our sovereignty if we opt out of 5G? Not having 5G is going to allow countries that do have it to capture data from millions of people, giving them the ability to exercise economic influence inside one’s own country, which it will not be possible to control.
Those are the trade-offs. Not having 5G means being subject to external resource management which is also a loss of economic sovereignty. These are the trade-offs we absolutely have to put in place. I know full well that no one country is going to push ahead of everyone else to organize a sustainable de-growth policy. But to maintain unlimited growth, or the illusion of unlimited growth, is also to risk global collapse. That’s the narrow path of adaptation. We need to adapt at the correct pace in a world where everyone is going to come up against physical limits.
MW: If we can talk for a moment about Greta Thunberg. What is your opinion about the Greta Thunberg phenomenon which recently arrived in the U.S., arriving on a sailboat, not just a regular sailboat but a high tech racing boat. By doing that isn’t she sending the message that the problems can be solved by technology? Adrastia also calls for citizen action, what you refer to as ‘keep your feet on the ground’, where people commit to not fly, at least for a certain time. Have you committed to not fly?
Vincent Mignerot: I haven’t personally committed to that, to not fly for professional reasons, but it has been years since I took a plane. But if my work on ecology required it, I don’t see any inherent contradiction. Even if, how to say it… The issue of sovereignty comes up right away, as soon as one gives up control over their own sovereignty. A country that would give up flying, this is a problem, we’re in a global reality that blocks any possibility of certain trade-offs. But researchers, for example, ask themselves, should they keep traveling across the planet to attend colloquia or conferences on certain diseases or certain research projects in astro-physics for example. In France and some countries researchers ask themselves how much should they should continue to fly.
For a researcher, to no longer take the plane means limiting the scope of their own work and potentially, leaving it to others to do.
In our societies of free choice, freedom, growth, and sense of being all powerful, we’re in denial about competition. We’ve denied the reality of competition to the point where we think we can trim the sails without diminishing our choices and our sovereignty. And it’s possible that all our political, technological and economic choices are made to keep ahead of our neighbors.
If westerner researchers no longer take planes to go to conferences I doubt the Chinese or the Russians will stop taking planes to go to conferences. They will take the lead in fundamental research which is vital to support an economy.
So, I can’t say whether it’s good or not good to not take the plane. It’s a complex trade-off, an impossible trade-off. It’s painful to say today, but for certain fundamental activities, I’m not talking about leisure or tourism for which it’s easier to make the trade-off, it’s easier to say I’m no longer going to take a plane to go to Tahiti for vacation, as opposed to making the voyage to maintain the country’s sovereignty for managing ecological problems, or inequality or resource distribution or wealth distribution, that’s a different trade-off.
So there’s the answer, I know Adrastia promotes ”Keep your feet on the ground”, and it’s right to do so. We have to make coherent, long-term trade-offs.
Coming back to Greta, I have a great deal of admiration for her as a person and the attacks she suffers are made in very bad faith and are very low quality that discredit the attackers more than her work. I’m more reserved about the following. Greta Thunberg says, ”listen to the scientists”. But the scientists have not addressed everything. Scientists who are talking about environment and ecology, have not, in my opinion, posed the most basic hypothesis, which is the following: is it possible for humanity to protect its environment?
This hypothesis has not been raised.
Instead, they say if we do this or if we do that, implement technical solutions, protect nature preserves, monitor biodiversity, all the things we know about scientific ecology, if we do these things we can protect our environment.
But in fact that’s not proven. It hasn’t been proven with scientific methods. and it hasn’t been proven to be true historically. Because everything proposed by scientists for protecting the environment has only led to worsening conditions. Nature preserves suffer from global warming since they obviously aren’t insulated from the climate. All the solutions, the technical adaptations recommended by ecologists, turn out to be very high energy consumers or have unintended consequences where the more we try to transition to other energy sources the more energy we use and the more C02 we emit.
So, the first problem with Greta’s discourse is that if we listen to the scientists objectively and scientifically we see nothing but a series of failures. This poses a big problem with listening to the science as it is now, in ecology at least.
The other thing which is a kind of non-spoken among ecologists is that there hasn’t been a clear connection made between the reduction of our ecological footprint which I believe in and which we absolutely need to implement and the social implications of reducing our ecological footprint.
Today, almost every serious economist and scientist understands that there is a very close correlation between the amount of energy a country consumes and their GNP.
In other words, between the amount of energy consumed and the country’s ability to distribute wealth or advantages, social advantages for example, retirement, unemployment, quality healthcare for the greatest number of people, etc. This correlation between the greatest environmental destruction due to the amount of energy a country consumes and the quantity of advantages distributed within the society has not been made by scientists who say we need to lower C02 emissions and who have not also considered the social effect that this could trigger.
When a country is confronted with an economic downturn or problems we see how it reacts in the world today. We see it in Chile, Ecuador, Algeria, with the Yellow Vests in France. We see societies react worldwide to economic constraints. So there is a direct relation between the transformation of the environment, economic power and the satisfaction of basic needs.
Looking at from the other direction, when satisfactions are not met people are not happy, and in my opinion are right to not be happy and they will turn against the system, capitalism in this case, rightly attack inequality and continue to demand that the system keeps up a high level of pressure on resources.
This is the paradox. I know that in my work, and which I’m often asked about and which was in the questions you sent, that there is a kind of paradoxical contradiction in what I’m saying.
But this is a contradiction imposed on us by the nature of existence itself. Our existential problem is that all the advantages we’ve acquired in the distribution of wealth and population growth, we’re 8 billion human beings, all this growth we’ve achieved, with capitalism in the middle, it’s all related to the amount of environmental destruction we’ve caused, destruction of the environment, and thus of the future.
In my opinion there is no way to disconnect this in the real world. When I talk about ecology, of course, when I talk about the future, about adaptations, of course I’m talking about reducing C02 emissions, energy transition, the transformation of agricultural methods, etc. But I have no choice but to say, out of intellectual honesty and out of scientific rigor that as soon as we change agricultural models, immediately, and we know this very well, food prices will rise instantly. Food prices will instantly go up for the class that already barely has the means to buy their food.
I’m very sorry but I can’t make an artificial separation between these facts. Why can’t I make this artificial separation? Because if I do it makes people crazy, and it should.
And that commonly asked question about the end of the world (ecology) vs the end of the month (economic issues), in fact, these two problems are completely related and if we pretend to not consider them both at once, and here is where I take issue with Greta Thunberg, her discourse not the person, and with other ecologists or environmentalists who say, if we transition ecologically we’ll have both helped the environment and addressed social justice issues. I don’t think so. And reality doesn’t support that idea.
When we do see the link between ecology and its social effects we see that people, human beings are not happy with the diminution of their advantages and they revolt. And this could potentially lead to chaos and we come back to the risk of collapse. As I said earlier, collapse can come from the inside of a community when certain services are no longer provided. I have to say then, to be honest, of course we need to be ecological but this has a social impact, and not making this connection risks blowing up societies from the inside.
If I didn’t see examples of this every day these recent months I would revise what I say but unfortunately we do see it in the news every day.
MW: So, here’s a bit of a meta question which you’ve already just answered in part. In terms of your work as a writer and your process as a thinker in the way you develop your ideas, you develop certain ideas that you go on to refute yourself. Is this a conscious process on your part, a strategy of opposing opposites? And what motivates you to speak these truths to people who don’t like hearing them?
It’s possible to see some of what I’m saying as contradictory but I don’t agree that I refute my own ideas. It’s rather that I try to make connections that are not considered in the mainstream conversation. Looking at my notes… When I say we have to implement de-growth but then when I say later on that this de-growth can’t be implemented in a certain way that’s not refuting my initial point.
It’s rather that I answer a question that people ask. What should we do to protect the environment? The answer is very simple. If humanity wants to protect the environment it has to immediately accept less material advantages than it has now.
So, I’m answering the question. My answer is different than what other ecologists would say. Other ecologists would say that to protect the environment we need to develop wind power, nuclear energy, implement an agricultural revolution, a range of solutions. But that’s not the real answer. It’s just half the answer or the first part of the answer. The real answer is that there is ultimately going to be a reduction in the material benefits people have acquired. I have no choice but to answer that way.
What do we need to do is to protect the environment? We need to reduce the material advantages of humanity.
And that, as we see today, is very likely going to generate popular anger and resentment, leading to chaos and conflict that we don’t want. So I’m not refuting that we have to reduce our material advantages. I’m saying when we look at reality we can’t do it. We can’t do it by snapping our fingers or by magic thinking which is our western way of thinking that we just need to find a solution and to implement it and it will work. Reality has just shown us that if we implement energy transition policies, movements like the Yellow Vests, will not accept it. They won’t accept being taxed.
And the billions in Asia who are raising their living standards have absolutely no desire to put brakes on their growth since they’re doing exactly what we did for centuries. They have no intention of depriving themselves of the standard of living that we have ourselves. How can we in the West say to the 4 or 5 billion people in developing Africa, ‘no, don’t keep developing, we need to protect the environment’? How can we impose that? That won’t work.
So, my discourse is not a refutation of my own discourse. It’s just facing reality and brings us back to the ontological problem I talked about in the beginning and our definition of ourselves as a species.
If we don’t understand that we’re a species subject like all species to the satisfaction of our basic needs then I note what Sébastien Bohler said about the satisfaction of basic needs which are; food, sex, reducing the effort needed to obtain satisfaction, increasing social status in the hierarchy and of course always studying our environment for ways to enhance our well-being as a species.
Those are the basic needs that all humans share. If we try to sublimate our basic needs to protect the environment there is no reason that other people will not continue to satisfy their basic needs. If we don’t get over our unrealistically virtuous idea of the human species we’ll continue to give out nice messages, and I agree with the partial message Greta Thunberg promotes, but which are completely incompatible with what we are as a species, subject to basic needs just like all other living beings.
And these messages which are, how to put it, fantasy based, will generate, in my opinion and this is my fear, frustrations that are so big that we risk social chaos. I’ll finish up this idea by saying it is possible, and unfortunately we see, that as people’s frustrations rise it leads them to populism or the far right, looking for ways to continue to satisfy their basic needs while leaving aside any protection of the environment.
What is happening today in Brazil is a dramatic illustration of this. Bolsonaro… Brazil has officially declared the Amazonian forest is an essential resource. Period. For them there is no debate. Environmental protection has no part in the conversation. Which brings me back to what I said earlier that the primary resource for humans, of a community, is its sovereignty. Political and economic sovereignty. And so now, the Amazon forest, after being destroyed in the name of freedom, liberalism and western growth is now going to be destroyed in the name of nationalism, protectionism and populism.
The story changes but the reality for ecology, ecosystems, animals, the Amazonian forest, the reality is destruction. The story changes but the human impact stays the same. That is what we have to understand.
As humans, as we are on the planet, we are not being our real selves and sovereign in our choices if we aren’t in the process of destroying our environment. It’s an internal drama, painful to live through and to analyze.
But these contradictions in my own discourse simply demonstrate that I’m a being of contradictions.
MW: And so, to finish, could you talk to us a bit about the obstacles that you may have encountered while trying to communicate your message. Has not having a stack of scientific diplomas made it difficult to be heard?
Vincent Mignerot: Yes, the fact that I’m not a scientist was a problem, but I don’t let that bother me. Sociologically, it’s interesting to observe that that the people studying and thinking about collapse are in large part not coming from established institutions. It’s rather noteworthy that maybe, and this is a hypothesis, to be a product of the institutional culture means to not be “allowed” to deal with certain questions or to not address them as deeply as those who study collapse are able to do. It was a disadvantage sometimes but overall I think the lack of a scientific diploma is not a real barrier.
On the other hand, I have run into extremely ideological positions especially from anti-capitalists, people who are anti-system in general because I develop in my work the idea that not only is capitalism not the cause of our problems but that attacking it as such, diverts our attention, and historically actually enables continued growth because we’re not looking at the real cause of the problem, which is every individual’s need to increase their wealth and for humanity to keep growing in numbers. So, we are the cause. It’s not about the tool we use.
When I say that I’m criticized by ideological positions which are based on anti-capitalism, anti-civilization and anti-system in general, this is logical and I don’t blame them. But my own discourse tends to correspond much better to reality. Yes, social justice movements have been very effective in improving the redistribution of wealth and the overall standard of living for everyone but, in my opinion, no social justice movement has contributed to reducing humanity’s impact on its environment.
Today’s social justice movements and anti-capitalists face a false dilemma. Revolts and revolutions have worked in the past and today we have an ecological problem. So they want to continue to revolt and encourage revolution and in this way resolve the environmental problem.
But ecology, protecting the environment, that’s a goal never considered in past revolutions. And the false dilemma is to say that revolts work in periods of growth and therefore that they will work during periods of decline. But there is absolutely no guarantee that will work in a period of decline.
And actually when we look at the real world, revolt and revolution end up propping up the elites, because particularly in France, elites use this as a pretext to reassert their separate identity apart from the masses by pointing their fingers at the extreme violence of the unrest. What worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work in the future.
I am attacked all the time because of my critique of anti-capitalism. I’m also attacked by members of other ideological movements who are very present around the issue of collapse and particularly what we call Collapsology.
They offer a message specifically meant to calm people down. They like using stories that purposefully hide a part of reality which is hard to look at in order to keep people feeling positive emotions. At the same time hoping to motivate them to action while insulating them from hearing the reality in a way that’s too unfiltered.
The effectiveness of using this calming approach is not validated by sociology. We don’t know that a difficult and factual discourse, maybe frightening even, turns people away. We don’t know. Nobody can really say whether this or that strategy is good or bad.
But it’s not possible for me to adopt a falsely calming discourse. I can’t hold back about the reality of things. I’m attacked, or criticized by collapsologists who justify a discourse that seeks, above all, to calm things down with the idea, for them, that it is more important to keep up people’s morale, without any guarantee, in my opinion, that this motivates people to action.
So there are some of the criticisms that I’ve received and the other criticisms are mostly where people confuse the message and the messenger sometimes accusing me, absurdly, to be the disseminator of an overly dark message whereas my discourse is factual and close to reality.
That’s it, that’s what I’m sometimes accused of. And that I’m insidiously crafting a purposefully dark message which isn’t true to reality, but I don’t accept that.
My answer is that one mustn’t confuse the message with the messenger and in the questions you sent me there was one about Cassandra. For sure, it would be very frustrating to not be listened to at all. But I prefer to maintain a rational discourse, even if it means not being listened to. And too bad, I can’t be responsible if people don’t listen. As long as I am speaking the truth.
MW: Alright, and…I think..I know you occasionally cite anglophone authors, I’ve seen in your twitter feed, and since this interview is aimed at an anglophone audience are there anglophone writers and thinkers that have made an impression on you and that you might recommend to us?
Vincent Mignerot: I work a lot on psychological aspects – the denial people practice to convince themselves that they have changed when nothing has changed. There is an interesting book by George Marshall [British sociologist], Don’t Even Think About It which makes the case that the defenses we put up, individually and collectively are strategies of defense and denial and we can’t manage to change anything.
On the anthropological side it’s interesting to understand how the human species is a victim of itself and why it self-domesticated by reading James C Scott [American political scientist and anthropologist] Against the Grain, A Deep History of the Earliest States. He explores profound questions and makes us understand that contemporary problems are very ancient and we’re in an evolutionary process and we aren’t so much in control of it. Even though James C Scott is an anarchist thinker and that he hopes to see big institutions collapse and to see hierarchical society collapse to make way for a more horizontal society, it’s interesting to read him because we can understand historically how civilizations collapsed. So, Against the Grain.
And the last, also an anarchist anthropologist, David Graeber, and in particular his book – Debt the First 5000 Years that shows how the tools that we’ve developed like money, debt and speculative instruments are a response to, and coming back to what was said earlier are not the causes of our problems. They are strategies we put in place to answer our needs and in particular our need to develop markets on a larger and larger scale and to trade connections, advantages or social standing by means of a range of strategies which are all indexed as different forms of debt – debt towards nature and existential debt. We see this in our current society’s speculative fever which is taking on an absolutely incredible burden of debt, debt that is as much a physical debt in relation to nature as it is moral.
Graber campaigns for debt cancellation but from the moral point of view this poses a profound question. Can a country cancel a debt it has with another country or institution? Debt is a tool put in place to respond to basic problems. So attacking the system of debt as such will not fix our problems whereas understanding where this debt comes from, this debt that we have between ourselves and towards our environment, maybe that would help us develop more coherent strategies for the future.
So there are 3 interesting books.
MW: Great. And is there a way for people in the U.S. or the anglophone world to participate in Adrastia and its mission?
Vincent Mignerot: Adrastia is an organization, up until now francophone, which is having its General Meeting in about a month, on the 30th of November and which does want to expand its audience and especially to become accessible to English speakers. It’s not totally ready, have to admit, but this is something we’re definitely interested in. For anglophones, don’t hesitate to contact the association, even in English, of course, and little by little we’ll put together resources for ways of getting out our message and to include the working groups, the ideas and the strategies we work on internally and to make them available globally.
MW: On the Adrastia site I didn’t see a donate button. What are your revenue sources and how do you finance your projects?
Vincent Mignerot: The organization lives exclusively from its membership dues which are nominal and by donations that can be made via the membership form. When you join the association there is a tab you can click on to make a donation if you want, but there isn’t a donate button as such. But you can make a donation when you join. The association has very modest revenues which are exclusively membership dues and that’s a spirit we want to maintain – in that independence in our work is important.
For now we don’t have partnerships with either businesses or institutions. It is a citizen’s association. That’s very important. Of course we reach out to experts and scientists. But it is a citizen’s organization, it belongs to everyone who can each be a part of the organization whatever their profession, their knowledge, or their expertise. That is really the strength of the association, to bring people together and give everyone a voice.
MW: Perfect. I think we’ll stop there.
Thank you very much Vincent Mignerot!
Vincent Mignerot: Thank you very much Mark.
Translation and Subtitles: Hélène Tomasini | Mark White