‘This is the End’ episode zero: Personal collapse & societal collapse

[Editor’s Note: This is a transcript of this podcast episode produced through the help of an A.I.-powered automatic transcription service. Although A.I. will one day take over the world, as of now it is a highly imperfect transcriptionist. I’ve tried to fix some of A.I.’s more embarrassing mistakes but don’t have the time to fix everything so please excuse any mistakes.]

Hello, I am the Pop Mythologist and this is the beginning of This is the End. 

Welcome to episode zero of This is the End. On this episode. I’ll be explaining some basic definitions for certain words and phrases I’ll be using throughout this podcast, as well as my motivations and objectives.

I won’t be discussing any specific works of fiction today. Rather, this is for potential listeners who want to get a sense of what this podcast is all about. 

 The very first thing I want to say is if you’re someone who, over the past two years, 2020 and 2021, has been looking at the world around you and been saying like, what the hell, man, everything is just freaking falling apart. What is going on then? This podcast is for you, or if you’re just a pop culture nerd or geek, maybe with a particular fondness for the dystopian genre, then this podcast is also for you. If you’re an activist, this podcast is for you. If you’re all of those things, then you, my friend, are my ultimate target audience because on this show, because I combine all those things. 

 As the subtitle, “pop culture and collapse” suggests, what I do here is use pop culture, specifically stories and fiction, as a starting point to talk about collapse. And I think first and foremost, the most important thing to do is clarify one of the words that I use in that subtitle, which is collapse. I don’t mean that generic dictionary definition of collapse, as in when dominos collapse, although that’s actually a good metaphor.

What I mean by collapses, first of all, is societal collapse and then secondly, personal collapse, but then what do I mean by those terms? Both terms need further clarification. And here I’m directing this to those who may not be familiar with the concept of collapse so those of you who are already well-read on the subject, just bear with me for a few minutes. 

Most people, when they use the term collapse, are talking about societal collapse. But there’s a whole lot of confusion and controversy over the term, so the first thing I want to do is dispel a few common misconceptions of the word.

When we say collapse, we’re not talking about the end of the world. Even though you might have some people say, “well, if we keep going the way we are, then it would eventually be the end of the world, basically because of climate change, because the earth itself will become uninsured.”

But if things were to get that bad, human societies would decline  long before the earth became that uninhabitable. So you might say that collapse is what happens along the way before the absolute worst case scenario of quote unquote, the end of the world. 

 Next collapse doesn’t refer to a state of society that resembles something you’d see in like Mad Max or The Road with groups of raiders roaming the landscape and small groups of survivors desperately trying to hang on  if such a thing were to ever actually occur that would be long after a collapse. At least the way I understand collapse. Also collapse doesn’t mean necessarily groups of people living in underground bunkers, stockpiling AK 47s. I mean, if things ever got conceivably bad enough then maybe, but that’s not really what I’m personally concerned about or interested in.

Yes. I know there are some people out there who do these kind of things, but for the most part, we’re not going to be talking about that on this show  

Okay, next. I want to provide the  definition that a lot of specialists on the topic of societal collapse mean when they use the word. And I want to borrow a term that comes from of all places, the Wikipedia entry for societal collapse, which I think is pretty good, actually.

So it goes:

“Societal collapse also known as civilizational collapse is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of social economic complexity, the downfall of government and the rise of violence.”

Okay. This definition is similar to one that a lot of authors who write about collapse mean when they say collapse, but even though terms like socio-economic complexity or sociopolitical complexity are used by scholars, researchers, and experts on the subject, I personally feel like these concepts are too, well, complex and abstract for people who are relatively new to the topic. They’re accurate, but they’re not entirely immediately intuitive. And you’ve got to dig a little deeper to understand it so what I want to do is offer an alternative definition that experts on this topic might not necessarily approve of, but that I personally think is a more intuitive and relatable and therefore more understandable definition to start out with, for people new to the concept.

 Here’s my alternative definition. Collapse is a slow gradual process of increasing instability and breakdown of social order, social systems, , institutions, and infrastructures caused by a combination of numerous ecological, economic, societal, and political factors, such that on one hand, the people of a given society have increasing difficulty securing their needs. And on the other hand, the institutions of that society are increasingly unable to help them secure those new. Okay. So I don’t know if that definition is actually any easier to understand for new people, but I find it easier for me and it makes more immediate sense than the idea of going from a state of socioeconomic complexity to the less complexity.

Because with that definition, I end up wondering “What’s that going to look like, what’s it going to mean for me and for other people?” And what it means is basically things are going to get harder in numerous ways for us, regular people. And if it helps, I’ll be linking to a few articles in the show notes that also explain in a brief way, the concept of societal collapse.

Next, I mentioned, there are scholars and authors who specialize on this topic and you might be wondering who they are. There’s actually quite a few of them and they tend to come from different disciplines or areas of expertise. So for example, you have Jared Diamond who among many things is a geographer, ecologist and ornithologist, basically a polymath.

And then you have guys like Richard Heinberg, who is a journalist and environmentalist. You have David Fleming, who is an economist and many others. instead of listing them all here, which would be tedious, I’ll be acknowledging these authors and their ideas throughout this podcast.

Now, one clarification I want to make is that on this show, I’m going to use the term collapse a little more broadly than the way it’s typically used in community circles that discuss collapse, where the focus is usually on certain specific themes and causes of collapse, such as ecological and economic factors.

And I think those are definitely key factors, but as I’ve continued to explore this area, I found myself thinking about all kinds of other things that I think are also playing a role In societal collapse , but which authors writing about collapse may not discuss that much or at all, because they’re focused on trying to help people understand what they see as the primary factor.

A few examples of the things that I see as also contributing to collapse are a collective mental health crisis, the crisis of social media, or rather, I should say unregulated social media, the virtual disappearance of local journalism and many other things, all of which I believe are also playing significant roles in the growing instability of our society.

The topic of mental health brings me to another point I want to make, which is that on this show, I’ll also be talking about what I’m going to call personal collapse, which isn’t really an idea that’s typically discussed in collapsed related discussion circles, but which I see as being closely and inescapably intertwined with societal collapse and the two.

In my view, are greatly reflected in each other, which I’ll talk about more in the last part of this episode, when I share the origins and motivations for this show. And I’ll also be just talking about it throughout the entire podcast. So personal collapse is a broad concept I’m using to include basically any kind of deep, personal crisis that’s so profound It just shakes up everything about your life and will sometimes cause your life to come tumbling down, or at least it causes the feeling of your life tumbling down. And this could be from a serious illness, loss of work and income and illness or death in the family, a major existential or identity crisis, a profound challenge to your worldview.

Sometimes all of the above at the same time, which is a whole barrel of fun for those of you who have experienced this and know what I mean, but there’s some good that can also come out of this process. And I’ll also be talking about that too, because I believe that the way people respond to their respective personal crises, We’ll play a key role in determining the direction in which our society goes, and that can be continuing to get worse, or it can be getting a little better.

 Next, I want to clarify that I’ll use the word collapse to refer to a process much more  than an outcome. Often the word is used to refer to an outcome, which is fine, but then one needs to be very specific about what that outcome is. Otherwise, there’s going to be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding due to lack of clarity.

With collapse, it’s not that one day things are fine and the next day it’s dystopia, it’s a slow gradual process. And whether you’re in the early stages of collapse or the later stages, you can still call it collapse in the way that cancer doesn’t refer to a final outcome, but a process in which an illness may be growing from stage one to stage two and so on. And the cancer analogy is also fitting in the sense that no matter how late the stage you’re in, there are always things you can do at the very least to alleviate some of the symptoms. So, if we’re looking at collapse as a process, not a specific outcome, then arguably collapse is happening now, not in the future.

And to support that idea. I have one word to throw at you or rather one number, and that is 2020. I’ll add a specific date as well. January 6th, 2020. 

All right. Just a couple more Clarifications.  next. Even though collapse is a process and it’s occurring now, I believe that it isn’t necessarily fated or inevitable.

And here there tends to be a lot of disagreement in the collapse aware community. And that’s fine. But again, I find that when it seems like people are disagreeing, sometimes what’s actually happening is they’re not really disagreeing with each other  due to a lack of clarity in terminology. So it just kind of all depends on what you mean.

 When I say that I believe collapse is not innovative. I don’t mean that we can simply continue to carry on with the way things are without adjusting our lifestyles and standards of living and still somehow manage to avoid the consequences of our actions or inaction, no matter what we do.

There are some consequences that at this point, I don’t think we’ll be able to avoid such as the increasing number of extreme weather events and natural disasters, for example, that are happening now due to climate change. And it’s too late to prevent a lot of that from happening because it’s already happening, but can it get worse?

Hell yeah, it can get worse, a lot worse. Is there something we can do about it? I believe so if not to prevent it, then at least to mitigate it. Because again, it’s too late to some degree to prevent it, because  it’s already happening, but it, like I said, it can get worse and will, if we take on a defeatist attitude or just escape into denial..

So there are always things we can do to reduce suffering and reducing suffering. Isn’t the same thing as avoiding all consequences .  . So I know that when I say this, some in the collapse aware community, and those who are well-informed on this topic might call this hopium, which is a slang term used to refer to a diluted kind of.

But the label tends to get used indiscriminately. And I think there’s a difference between saying that  we can avoid all consequences and not change anything about our lifestyle. That’s, it’s different from saying that, to saying that yes, there are and will be consequences, but we can always do something to alleviate suffering. And if that makes me someone who is addicted to hopium then so be it  

Finally the concept of collapse, as I see it, isn’t necessarily 100%, just a bad thing. This will be a challenging idea for some people to accept because the word has mostly negative connotations and yeah. Collapse can be a really bad thing, “bad” meaning that which causes suffering  and to the degree that collapse causes suffering.

Yes, it is bad. But it can also partly potentially be positive. It’s not guaranteed to be, but the potential is there. I’ll give two examples. One on the personal level and one on the societal. On the personal level in psychology, there’s a whole area of research that examines something called post-traumatic growth.

I prefer the term stress-related growth because even though the catalyst can be a trauma, it doesn’t necessarily have to be so long as the stress is either intense or sustained enough to meet certain conditions. But as a result of that stress or trauma, people will suffer. Again, not always, but sometimes undergo a process of personal transformation that on the whole ends up being positive.

And I can personally attest this because undergoing this process is actually what led me to start my blog, pop mythology.com and in particular,  my ongoing column where basically stress-related growth, through the lens of pop culture was all I wrote about.  That was about 10 years ago. And now after another intense period of personal transformation, this podcast is the result of that.

 In both cases, stories for me helped to make sense and create meaning out of difficult processes occurring both within. And around me and because of their ability to entertain and inspire stories, can be a useful way to engage with difficult material.

So next, an example on the societal scale. We have before us a very vivid example, the COVID-19 pandemic COVID has very much proven to be a massive societal crisis caused. Lots of suffering, but contained within it has been the potential for some positive change. Again, it doesn’t mean that change is going to necessarily happen.

And I have to admit, I do feel somewhat less optimistic about this now than I used to be when the pandemic first started.  Granted, we have seen some minor changes, but overall I’ve been pretty frustrated by what feels like a push to return to business as usual. And so part of what I see my role as being right now is to be one of the people out there who are trying to say, no, hold on, wait, wait.

Don’t let this become business as usual. Again, this is our chance. If not now, when all this is happening, then when and what would it take? 

All right. So those are some clarification’s of terminology and viewpoint. 

Next, I want to share just a little bit about the background of how this podcast came about. So as a result of everything that was going on in 2020, although the roots of this go further back, I embarked on a personal project where I just started reading a whole bunch of books that all in some way or another were about the current state of our American democracy and the way it was at risk of coming.

Some of these books I read cover to cover and  others. I just kind of skipped around or skimmed. But after doing all this reading and doing a whole lot of thinking, my eventual conclusion was that. Our democracy was in fact genuinely at serious risk of collapsing and that this was going to continue regardless of the outcome of the 20, 20 election.

Not because I thought there was no difference between the candidates, because I don’t agree with that viewpoint, but because of deeper structural issues, Because of this, I joined a progressive non-profit organization and devoted as much time and energy as I could to basically just one issue, saving democracy and to save time, I won’t go into all the details of the story.

Except to say that the experience of this eventually led me down another rabbit hole in which I realized that the potential collapse of democracy was actually just one part of a bigger picture, to make a long story short. This podcast is partly the result of me wanting to talk about that bigger picture and to do so in a way that would make material that was potentially frightening or depressing and make it more inviting for people to begin engaging with them through the power of story and pop culture. Now you might wonder if these issues are so important. Why not just talk about them directly instead of using pop culture to talk about them and my answer for that.

Could by itself take up an entire episode. But as a quick way, I just wanted to summarize it by borrowing a quote from an author that I admire named John Michael Greer was one of these authors who specialize in and write a lot about issues such as climate change, economic crisis, political corrosion in relation to societal collapse.

“There’s a common saying these days that politics is downstream from culture.  The idea being that first changes happen in the culture,  and then that makes possible or necessary changes in politics. But culture is downstream from the imagination. What people imagine about the future shapes the culture and then their politics.”

And then he goes on to say that what he’s talking about, our stories, movies, novels, graphic novels, and so on. By the way that quote comes from an interview that Mr. Greer did on a podcast that I highly recommend called breaking down collapse, hosted by a couple of guys named Corey and Kellen who do a really great job of breaking down, so to speak, the concept of societal collapse and the primary factors that cause it.

Speaking of this, I just want to strongly stress that I am not in any way, an expert on the topic of societal collapse or anything even remotely close. I’m just a concerned citizen who believes that if there are problems, that it’s a good idea to be talking about those problems and even better to be doing something about it.

This is why throughout this podcast, I’ll continually give props to those who do specialize either in collapse itself, or in certain aspects of collapse, such as climate change. And sometimes they might not even be aware from their own viewpoint that they’re talking about collapse, but I look at it and I’m like, this is totally cool.

 I’ll also discuss various kinds of actions that experts from different fields recommend for those who want to do something about it. And those who want to be a part of positive change.  And those who may be familiar with my previous work on pop mythology may know I’m not really that interested in pop culture analysis for its own sake. I think it’s fine to do. I’m just personally not that interested in it.

What I want to do is use analysis leading to constructive action.

 Okay. Lastly, I just want to explain the title of his podcast and why i chose it. First, I just thought it was kind of cool to reference that song by The Doors. It’s a great song. Obviously next I wanted to capture the feeling that I think many of us were feeling throughout 2020 and 2021, which is that regardless of the objective reality.

All this definitely feels, it feels like the end.  So I wanted the title to capture that emotional feeling. Even as, like I explained earlier, I want this show to be positive in a lot of ways. But true positivity must begin with.

And “this is the end” is how I honestly felt with respect to both things that were going on in my personal life, as well as what I was witnessing in society over these last couple of years and further back, of course, but it just came to a crescendo over the last couple of years. 

Another reason for the title of this podcast is that many of the works we’ll be talking about, tend to be works in the dystopian genre, not always, but often. And the dystopian John rhe is often associated with, you know, like the end of something, be it the end of democracy, like in the Handmaid’s Tale or the end of human fertility, like in children of men.

And actually both those works involve both the end of democracy and the end of human fertility, but regarding the word dystopian, I personally consider it to represent something broader than the way it’s normally used. Normally dystopian refers to a sub genre of science fiction and it is, but to me it can be any John rhe that depicts conditions of extreme societal injustice and inequality.

So using that definition. Dystopia isn’t futuristic. Dystopia is right now. Again, terminology and interpretation is super important. If this Topia means science fiction, then the idea that we have real life dystopia now may come across as ludicrous because  obviously our society isn’t identical to what you see in, like, the Handmaid’s tale.

For example, we don’t walk around and read robes saying blessed, be the fruit or under his eye. But if this Topia refers to a state of inequality and injustice, Then I think we are currently living in dystopia. And for this reason I’ll be discussing non-science fictional works as well, which I feel do a good job of reflecting our current real life dystopia,

finally, the show is called, this is the end because no positive change can occur without something that wasn’t working, coming to. This goes back to what I was saying about collapse as having the potential for positive change, even though it may cause a lot of suffering while it’s happening, but you know, many of us we’re already suffering and if we leave things as they are, they’re not going to get better. They’re only going to get worse. So let’s try to make things better. That’s why I’m doing this podcast.  And I hope you’ll join me on this journey  until next time I am the pop mythologist  and this is the end.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.