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To Collapse or Not to Collapse? A Joint Interview

Françoise Besson, Marcel Delpoux, Kev Reynolds, Scott Slovic and Qingqi Wei

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1At the moment when all countries on the planet are questioning themselves about the post-COVID-19 world, when we are actually experiencing what many authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy novels or films have shown in their works, we might ask ourselves a few questions about the changes that must occur in our world if we are to avoid the dynamics of collapse. From Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), translated into French as Le dernier homme, a title echoing Mary Shelley’s novel and which was nearly the original title of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949), literature has warned us about the potential for collapse for a long time.

2Four prominent writers and scholars agreed to answer questions about the topic.

3Françoise Besson to all: What happened in Spring 2020 made the world experience what many of us had read in fantastic or fantasy books, or seen in science fiction films. The fiction that seemed so far from us and so unlikely proved to become our new reality. Do you think that this public health and economic crisis reveals a tragic collapsing of the world or does it foreshadow a necessary collapse of the world as we know it, bringing about some hopefulness?

4Scott Slovic: Even during the darkest of times there are moments of wonder and beauty, moments and phenomena to savour. I realize the 2020 pandemic is a time of terrible suffering, both medical and economic, for many people in the world—indeed, all of us are learning to appreciate our own precarity in ways that many have not previously understood. This is also a time of great social upheaval in the United States, as we are reminded about systemic racism and police violence. But I find myself hoping that the pandemic and other current crises will somehow trigger a process of cleansing and healing, a rediscovery of our better selves. I see glimmers of the positive aspects of human nature in various acts of kindness toward other people, such as Chinese scholars sending protective masks to American professors. I also find hope in the ways so many people have tried to experience the lockdown in the most positive spirit, slowing down their hectic lives, tending their gardens, watching birds, sending friends photos of rainbows and sunsets. I find hope in the blue skies free of contrails and in neighbours pausing to wave and chat, from a safe social distance, while walking by. Even as we experience this distressing period of collapse and cleansing, I see glimmers of this better nature, our better nature, beginning to show.

5Marcel Delpoux: Is the pandemic worrying us every day a threat able to call into question the very existence of mankind? If such a pessimistic forecast were to come true, it would be the first time that a collapse would concern a component of the biosphere. The history of life on earth, which started four billion years ago, shows that millions of viral, bacterial, cryptogrammic, vegetal and animal species followed one another without leaving descendants, except for some rare exceptions (ginkgo, nautiluses, horseshoe crabs, ...), to the present day. Collapses, from discrete to dramatic ones, have been described: trilobites vanishing throughout the primary era, the last ones disappearing at the end of that period, 250 million years ago; ammonites and non-avian dinosaurs vanished throughout the secondary era, the last ones at the end of that period, 65 million years ago.

6 Recent total vanishings have been described and the causes are known for certain: the dodo of Mauritius destroyed by humans and their pets or commensal animals, for example. As for ancient extinctions, more or less contradictory explanations and theories have succeeded or confronted one another, as direct observations and experimentation are hard or impossible to achieve.

7 Can we imagine that one or several vanished species were the victims of a virus? If this was the case, for species living in a wide range of places, all over the world, like man, we must admit that the virus considered could spread without any exception, including in areas or refuge stations colonized by its host and where predators can hardly get into.

8 The originality of the current pandemic is that the pathogenic agent benefits, besides some infection facility, from the great mobility of humans and their means of transport on the planetary scale. An unexpected repercussion of globalization! A handicap to fight the predator, who has another ally, furthermore: that of the upturn and the safeguard of economic activity, more or less contradictory with the implementation of measures of protection against the spreading of the pandemic.

9 Can we make a prognosis for the future? As for me, I will not take the risk of making one. There are still too many uncertainties concerning the knowledge of the virus and the behaviour of human populations as far as prophylactic measures of protection are concerned. We can have three hopes: the development, rather rapidly, of an effective vaccine, the acquisition of some immunity thanks to a bearable and non-lethal infection, and, in the worst case scenario, the existence of individuals genetically resistant to that model of virus.

10 Without wanting to deny the possibility of a positive and joyful rebound, we might do well to recall that all the species of the Homo kind who have preceded the Homo sapiens species on our planet, have vanished, some of them emerging in the genome of Homo sapiens only in the form of short DNA sequences. Humans may be intelligent, but they are also fragile.

11FB to Qingqi Wei: You have translated Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake into Chinese. Why did you choose to translate this novel and do you think that the warnings sent by writers in their Science Fiction and fantasy novels and films can make a difference and lead to a change in our societies?

12Qingqi Wei: I would like to brag about how insightful I proved to be when I began translating Oryx and Crake in 2003, but in fact as a junior member of the Chinese academia, I was given the task by the publisher. Well, if there was anything fatefully decided, it had to be ascribed to SARS that broke out the same year and that “helped” impress Chinese readers of Atwood. These “apocalyptic” cultural products are of course meaningful in that “invisible” crises are addressed to readers and audience in such a simultaneously fine (in terms of expressive technologies) and crude (by direct impact on the eyes) way that they come to realize that the aforementioned “invisibility” is merely a fantasy, either because the crisis has yet to show its teeth or because we choose not to be shown. And now, confronted by Atwood, we are forced to watch, surprised, stunned and shocked.

13 As for the Chinese, a severe lesson has been learned since SARS (and, allow me to boast, since the translation of Oryx and Crake) and they are more or less prepared for the COVID-19, though not fully, apparently. What we are supposed to understand, nevertheless, is more than a better way to treat nature: we have to continue our inquiry for a better way to treat each other.

14 The crisis can always be traced back to the human world proper. We set traps for ourselves. The realism of the art of the future enables it to reach the common people. That is how it might make a difference.

15FB to all: What are the solutions you see to avoid a general collapse and provoke a global change and local changes?

16Scott Slovic: I have noticed a tremendous effort among authors, scholars, and activists to try to analyse our current situation and predict or shape the post-pandemic reality. Many fascinating and visionary statements have been published, even as we continue to make our way through the current time of uncertainty. Society does seem rather tattered at the moment, at least in the United States. Every day it feels as if there is a fresh onslaught of terrible news—more cases of disease, more deaths, more political corruption, more misbehaviour by the officers responsible for protecting citizens, more selfish human attacks on the planet that sustains us. I feel as if we are already experiencing collapse, at least the beginnings of collapse, and the situation will become worse before it improves. For me, the question is whether we can learn from the current state of the world and do a semi-reboot without needing to collapse entirely and reinvent ourselves and our social structures or whether a full-scale, Malthusian collapse, is necessary before we can hobble forward as a species, living on a radically changed planet. I guess I find myself hoping for a semi-reboot, while also understanding that it may not be possible. I see no simple, clear-cut solutions to our own selfish, hyper-acquisitive, impatient nature aside from doing our best to heed the sobering lessons of the day’s news.

17Qingqi Wei: “If we don’t hang together, we will surely hang separately.” I do not feel ashamed, as a Chinese, to quote Benjamin Franklin, for I guess we have failed to follow his advice, not of course as North American militia of the 17th century, but as global villagers of today, when we are confronted with such common threats as the Covid-19 virus. More understanding and communication are needed by all the peoples. We instead have decided that we are going to take each other as the enemies. I do not believe the founding fathers of America, or any wise world leaders, would have approved of what the present condition looks like.

18FB to Kev Reynolds: Your writing is, in a sense, the opposite of Science Fiction and Fantastic literature since your books are the expression of the reality of the earth, as you have written dozens of guide-books and travel books meant to guide readers not only geographically but to make them aware of the beauty of the world. The recent public health crisis, showing that when the human world stops, when planes and cars no longer move, nature breathes again, questions our ways of living. How could we reconcile a change in our behaviour and travels, and a discovery of the beauty of the world, which, as you often show, is the first step to awareness?

19Kev Reynolds: Thirty years ago I toured Scotland on behalf of the newly-founded John Muir Trust, giving a series of lectures calling for the protection of wilderness. At the end of one of these lectures a member of the audience asked me how I could reconcile the need for wilderness protection when I was busy writing guidebooks to those same wild places, and even leading small groups of people to them.

20I was being challenged to justify my actions with as much eloquence as I could muster. Failure to do so would condemn me as a hypocrite, for the question went to the heart of the problem. Should wilderness areas remain completely free from human intrusion? If so, who would give them that status and decide on their boundaries?

21My response was that to know how precious wild places are, we need to experience their unique qualities for ourselves and be prepared to accept responsibility for their protection. Unless we know what needs protecting, who will care? The need for wilderness is within each one of us, whether we recognise it or not. My intention was to help others recognise that need.

22Over the years I have attempted to write my books in a sensitive manner, showing just how beautiful and vulnerable our planet really is. And the groups I led to experience some of the wildest places were reminded that it was essential to “take only photographs and leave only footprints”—and then make sure the footprints they left behind had no permanence.

23Thirty years on from those lectures, I am acutely aware that my carbon footprint has contributed more to environmental damage than the introduction to wild places through my books and wild land adventures. I cannot alter that now, and the responsibility weighs heavy.

24Yet in our present Covid crisis there are signs of salvation. With a travel industry in forced decline, there are fewer aircraft in our skies, and opportunities to use my guidebooks in countries far from home have plummeted. Perhaps I should mourn the inevitable loss of income both for me and my publisher. But look at the gains for wilderness, Nature and mankind in general that result from a stay-at-home policy!

25Enforced lockdown has educated large numbers of people to the wonders of the world “out there”—they’ve come to appreciate clearer skies, reduced pollution and discovered that the ‘exotic’ which drew them to far-flung places in the past, can be found closer to home. A new interest in birds and animals and insects has revealed to a previously uninterested general public the rich diversity of creation—as have the variety and importance of trees, and the kaleidoscopic delights of many plant species. Our gardens may not be trampled by elephants, but the flowers in our borders are alive with insects gathering nectar, while a new awareness brings the song of every bird into sharp focus, and the sight of a hedgehog plodding through the undergrowth can be as exciting as anything you’d experience in a tropical jungle. What’s more, it is our experience that may be repeated many times in the months and years to come.

26Wilderness exists in many forms, and Nature is now rightly seen to have an importance that exceeds its entertainment value. Many have discovered through this worldwide pandemic that we are Nature too. You and I and the actions we take are entwined in that rich web of diversity; should we destroy any strand and that web is weakened for all.

27The question now arises—how can we harness a new-found interest in Nature that will lead to a better and more sustainable future for all?

28For more than thirty years I tried to promote such an interest through my writings by gently opening eyes to some of the most dramatic regions of this planet. Perhaps the time has now come to adjust the focus and bring the landscape and its abundant riches closer to home, so all of us can identify with the world of Nature of which we are an integral part. It is, after all, as exciting to discover as any exotic location.

29In my village in southern England, landowners are joining together to create “wildlife corridors” to enable a variety of animal species to journey from one habitat to another in a natural, uninterrupted way. As one habitat is exchanged for another, that web of life is strengthened and enriched. This would not have happened had we not learned to appreciate the natural wonders we have on our doorstep, and our eyes been focussed only on the exotic found in distant lands.

30Those of us who write about Nature have a duty to express the very wonders of the world in which we live, and knowing that humankind is unlikely to lose its passion for self-interest, if we can show that we are Nature too, there will be a future to celebrate.

31FB to all: Do you think that literature and arts can play a role in a transition of how people think?

32Qingqi Wei: Sure, at any age. As a “weak and feminine” power, which in the long run will give people hope.

33FB to Marcel Delpoux: You have observed and analysed landscapes and their evolution since Prehistory, you have studied plants and trees and their appearance and disappearance in precise places. What do landscapes and vegetation teach us about the dynamics of collapse?

34Marcel Delpoux: A component of our environment, vegetation, plays a sometimes discrete, sometimes spectacular role in the structure of the landscapes surrounding us. In every place on the planet, the two components of the observed landscape (substrate and cover) result from a more or less independent evolution that started
- from the formation of this globe around 4 billion 4543 million years ago for the substrates;
- from the formation of the biosphere around 3 billion 800 million years ago for the cover.

35The history of each of those two components has not been a long quiet river: incandescent when it was formed, the Earth has cooled and several millions of years later, three constituents became individualized in its external layer: the lithosphere (rocks and soils), the hydrosphere (water in its three states), the atmosphere (a mixture of gaseous elements).

36The three of them have shown slow or spectacular evolutions; the latter can be described as collapses or rebounds: mountain formation and levelling, continental drift, volcanism,… for the lithosphere; transgressions, regressions or drying of sea, lake or fluvial formations, … for the hydrosphere; drastic changes in the atmosphere composition like the one linked to the apparition of oxygen two million years ago. It was the same for the biosphere, the last constituent that appeared in the external layer of the earth globe. During the earth’s long life, many biological types followed one another. They were aquatic for the first 2 billion - 150 million years: bacteria and strictly or not strictly anaerobic archaea, viruses, cyanobacteria, seaweeds and unicellular and cluster animals, mushrooms, mosses, common hepaticae, lichens. It’s only in the past 550 million years that the biosphere conquered nearly all continental biotopes on which new vegetal and animal biological types appear and follow one another in a more or less ascending order of sizes and degree of evolution. To stay in the vegetal field: ferns, club mosses, spikemosses, horsetails breed through spores; gymnosperms with bare seeds (hews, conifers, gingkos, cycads, junipers,…), angyospermae with seeds inserted in some flowers and fruit (magnolias, apple-trees, grasses, legumes,…).

37It was also very early on that, in that evolutionary lineage, there appeared an unprecedented vegetal model: the tree, which became the king of forests. What was essential in that evolution was progressive, but six collapses called mass extinctions resulted in the disappearance of 60 to 95% of living species, according to their intensity. All of them were followed by rebounds boosting the creativity of the biosphere. A seventh mass extinction is perhaps ongoing nowadays under human pressure.

38The observations and studies of landscapes and vegetation have told us nothing about the existence and the dynamic of collapse. That notion established itself thanks to the works of many scholars expert in numerous disciplines: geography, geology, paleontology, petrography, pedology, palynology, climatology, botany, zoology, microbiology, ecology among others.

39Yet if we have, as prerequisites, the results which we summed up so drastically in the preceding lines, we can recognize markers allowing us to identify, in landscapes and their vegetal components, the memories of geological structures and vegetal types which have survived the main collapses. For example, in the substrates of Malepère (Aude, France), the analysis of the pebbles extracted from the puddingstones which played a crucial role in the geomorphology and ecology of its hills, shows that the materials constituting them were torn off the axial area of the Pyrenees, rolled and rounded by rivers and dropped in the Aude foothills. In the vegetal cover, horsetails and ferns are descendants of the survivors of the last three collapses.

40FB to Scott Slovic: Do you think that at school and in all universities, in sciences as well as in the humanities, there should be systematic classes of discovery (as is the case with some teachers like you and your colleagues at the University of Idaho with the “Semester in the Wild” Program), in which teachers would take pupils and students into the wild to show them simple things in nature (water, grass, birds, trees, stones, clouds…)? Couldn’t any form of collapse be avoided with a different form of education, the education practiced by those who don’t go to school but who generally know how to observe the world?

41Scott Slovic: It’s fascinating to imagine how human societies would be different if more students—if all students—had the opportunity to participate in “experiential, place-based environmental education.” Our Semester in the Wild Program sends students and professors to an extremely remote location in the “wilderness,” an area without roads, more than 100 kilometres from the nearest small city. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is a relatively pristine and natural environment, a good place to be engaged with ecological systems and processes and to reflect on human civilization from afar. However, experiential environmental education does not require a wilderness setting—it can also happen effectively in other kinds of places, even in cities. The secret is to slow down and focus on the world—to pay attention and try to think slowly and deeply. I have found that even a brief writing workshop, emphasizing attention to specific natural phenomena and precise descriptive language, can revolutionize participants’ sense of themselves and their relationship to the world. People begin to notice animals, plants, shadows, breezes—the world beyond themselves. They also feel a greater sense of reflective peace, a kind of mental space that enables analysis and understanding. This kind of educational experience is pertinent not only to the natural sciences, but to the arts, humanities, and social sciences—drawing, writing, music, history, literature, philosophy, psychology, etc. Ironically, the current pandemic, which has led to the lockdowns in many parts of the world, has offered many people a kind of “retreat” from our usual social and professional commitments—an opportunity to slow down and pay attention. I have found that students who go through writing exercises requiring observational and descriptive attention often find this work to be life-changing, mind-changing. Perhaps such experiences represent a kind of collapse—a collapse of our usual understanding of the world and our relationship to it, and a renewal of a kind of essential sense of our connection to the planet.

42FB to all: To avoid the collapse of the world, isn’t another collapse necessary?

43Qingqi Wei: I am not that pessimistic. Such a “collapse” would claim so many lives. Rather, a “pause” may be better, for all of us to take more time to let our wrath die out and give more opportunities for mutual sympathy.

44FB: Thank you to all of you.

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Electronic reference

Françoise Besson, Marcel Delpoux, Kev Reynolds, Scott Slovic and Qingqi Wei, To Collapse or Not to Collapse? A Joint InterviewCaliban [Online], 63 | 2020, Online since 20 July 2021, connection on 29 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Françoise Besson

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès / Académie des Sciences, Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres de Toulouse

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Marcel Delpoux

Université Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier / Académie des Sciences, Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres de Toulouse

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Kev Reynolds

Writer, photojournalist and lecturer, author of guide-books and travel books, UK

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Scott Slovic

University of Idaho, Moscow, USA

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Qingqi Wei

Ginling College, Nanjing Normal University, China

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