Photo by Marta Domínguez
Recently, inspired by our December "Apocalypse" issue, I had a coffee with Johannes Heimrath, the author of a Die Post-Kollaps-Gesellschaft (Society After the Collapse). Johannes is a musician, publisher and writer who has organised and lived in an "intentional community" in the village of Klein Jasedow on the Baltic coast for the past two decades – a community where everything, from vegetable garden to refrigerator is shared by the 18 residents.
For decades, says Johannes, he's tried to change the world for the better – to try to make it more ecological, more just. Now he admits that he and his fellow idealists have failed. Whatever progress has been made – from community agriculture to renewable energy – it's too little and too late to prevent a giant collapse of the world as we know it – a financial, ecological and societal collapse that will force humanity to live in a radically different way.
He's blunt about the cause: consumption is killing us. On a visit to Alexa or any of the other huge new malls in Berlin, it's easy to imagine 10,000 other identical malls around the world full of holiday shoppers buying millions and millions of consumer goods produced from every natural resource imaginable (oil, metal, plants, animals...) and cheap labour from every corner of the globe: electronics, textiles, chocolates, cosmetics, toys – virtually everything you find in shops is produced in a way that is somehow damaging to people and/or the planet.
Living in Berlin, it's easier to believe that we're somehow on the right course – we recycle, we ride bikes; organic food and fair trade coffee are everywhere and affordable. Germany even leads the world in the conversion to alternative energy. And yet, and this is Johannes' point, none of this really changes the system enough to steer us away from impending collapse. Nowadays, even the most vehement eco-warrior living the most austere lifestyle imaginable still might shop at Netto, own a lap top and smart phone – and probably treat himself to the occasional flight to South America or Thailand.
It's too late to save the world we know, says Johannes – and we're in mass denial. We suffer from "unrealistic optimism". Peak oil, climate change, resource depletion, nuclear contamination, water and food shortages, bee death, nanoparticles, Eurocalypse... one of these, or more likely a combination of them, is going to do us in. Sooner or later, probably in the next few decades, we'll find ourselves on a very different planet from the one we know today. Technical fixes like electric cars, wind farms, GMO food or geo-engineering aren't going to save us.
Of course none of this is new. People have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning of time. And the world has ended plenty of times in history. In Berlin alone we had the 30 Years War, the bubonic plague, World War II – each of which claimed a huge number of lives in the city. There's no reason it shouldn't happen again.
The nice thing about Johannes – apart from his warm, calm manner – is that he's not the messiah type, even though, with his long grey hair and piercing eyes, he might look the part. He has no message of salvation. He doesn't try to guilt trip you. He doesn't have all the answers. He understands that a centralised, ideological system – "here's my idea which is going to save us all" – as under communism in the GDR doesn't work. Instead, ideas must spread virally amongst the people.
One such idea that Johannes hopes to spread is that of "Commonie". If we are to survive as a species, the only way ahead is for people to live in small self-sufficient communities. Commonie is based on the old idea of the "Commons" - shared common land such as a meadow for grazing or a forest for harvesting lumber. The concept has enjoyed a renaissance on the net with Creative Commons.
We will have to return to the essence of life: growing the food we need to survive. Old skills will have to be learned once again. Or, as Johannes puts it: "You can't dig a garden with a smart phone."
Sound pretty bleak? A future of manual labour, digging away in damp fields, breaking your back harvesting potatoes, eating simple grub around a big table with your fellow farmers? Resetting humanity to rural subsistence agriculture with no internet, no olive oil (at least not in Germany), no made-in-Asia bling bling, none of the little gadgets and luxuries we take for granted every day? The subtitle of Johannes' book is "How we'll live with much less – and live much better – and how we can prepare for it". He believes this future will be better. Without the distractions of consumer culture we will return to a more meaningful, satisfying, though much simpler existence. And it's probably the only positive alternative to a dystopian nightmare future.
I left my meeting with Johannes Heimrath with a sense of vertigo – historical vertigo. As a species, it feels as if we're looking into a deep dark hole and we can't see the bottom. As for myself, I'm not ready to live in a rural commune. I'm not ready to give up this easy, digitally enhanced, machine-assisted life with all the spoils of globalisation a short trip from my front door. But, somehow, I know that Johannes is right about the way we will have to change if we want to survive after the collapse: "We'll have to talk to our neighbours. We'll have to learn a new Gemeinschaftsfähigkeit (a hard-to-translate word, something like "an ability to cooperate socially"). If that isn't a nice Christmas message, I don't know what it is.