Michel Rosell gathers up a mass of papers and divides them into two piles. On the left are bills: a single sheet. On the right is a sheaf of letters from friends and lovers. “If the pile of letters is growing faster than the pile of bills, you’re on the right track,” says Rosell. “If it’s the other way round, you’re on the wrong track. It’s not that hard, the revolution I’m proposing.”
We are sitting on a wooden bench at a wooden table beneath a ceiling made of braided ribbons of wood, in Rosell’s house in the Cévennes, a mountain range in the south of France. Rosell looks like someone who has been fighting a revolution for half a century: untamed white hair, bare chest and feet, grubby black tracksuit bottoms. A weatherbeaten Robinson Crusoe, still hale and eager to take on cannibals – or capitalists – at 73.
He has lived here, far from any road or other habitation, since the 1970s, not long after spinning out, breathless and bloodied, from the 1968 student uprisings in Paris. Many of his rebel comrades urged a return to a simpler life, but few enacted it. He found a remote plot in the least densely populated region of France and built a bioclimatic home on it; that is, a house with low energy requirements and a light environmental footprint.
He hoarded rainwater, composted, recycled his waste water and heated his house with firewood and solar panels. Not for him salaried work, which he refers to as “five days of prostitution followed by two days of resuscitation”. He preferred to take what he needed – and no more – from nature. On the day I visit, he shows me a shallow pool filled with electric-green water, in which he grows the protein-rich algae spirulina: delicious, he says, with olive oil and garlic. It complements a diet rich in wild plants: 70 species altogether, which he gathers from the forest.
Rosell currently lives alone. He does not believe in marriage and never had kids, he says, but people passed through. Some came out of curiosity, and left again; others moved in. He taught those who were interested how to live as self-sufficiently as possible. Young people bold enough to venture to his University of Applied Collective Ecology built walls out of crushed sunflowers and cow dung, motors that ran on seaweed, and reed beds that transformed sewage into drinking water. It was emphatically experimental, and it did not always work. But his approach, dismissed as eccentric by his contemporaries, appeared increasingly sensible to generations fearful that humanity had damaged the planet beyond repair, then urgent to the growing number of his compatriots who feel that their society is on the verge of collapse.
The belief that we are heading for some kind of all-consuming crisis is not exclusively French, of course. Serious scientists all over the world are discussing it. Wealthy Americans were buying spots in Armageddon-proof bunkers long before Covid-19, and militant environmental and social protest movements have been on the rise everywhere. Within Europe, however, a survey published last November by the left-leaning French thinktank the Jean Jaurès Foundation found that only Italy beat France for pessimism about the future. Seventy-one per cent of Italians and 65% of French people agreed with the statement that “civilisation as we know it will collapse in the years to come”; 56% of Brits shared that apocalyptic vision – slightly ahead of Americans, at 52% – while Germans came in last with a sanguine 39%.
In 2015, two Frenchmen, Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, who describe themselves as independent researchers, co-wrote an essay entitled How Everything Can Collapse, in which they introduced the term “collapsology”. In a long interview Servigne gave to Philosophie magazine this year, he explained that, at first, their neologism was tongue-in-cheek. The concept must have struck a chord, though, because within a couple of years he found himself at the head of a movement, and this summer the word collapsologie entered the popular French dictionary Le Petit Robert. “We created a monster,” Servigne told Philosophie.
For the authors of the Jean Jaurès study, the political scientist Jérôme Fourquet and the pollster Jean-Philippe Dubrulle, collapsology is driven at least in part by economic factors. The least apocalyptically minded country they polled, Germany, also has (or had, pre-Covid-19) the strongest economy, while the countries where the movement has the largest following – Italy and France – are those where economic performance has been poorest of late, and social and political tensions run high.
They deliberately left their statement vague as to the causes of the coming collapse, because people in different countries think differently about these. In Britain and Germany, the emphasis is on the climate crisis, as seen in the emergence of Extinction Rebellion in the UK. But in France, where they overlap to some extent with the gilets jaunes movement, collapsologists also consider society to be sick. The idea is that rampant consumerism, ever-accelerating technological advances and the dominance of neoliberalism are leading French people to perdition.