Leaving the “sustainability or collapse” narrative behind

Publikation: Beiträge in ZeitschriftenÜbersichtsarbeitenForschung


In this paper, we investigate the cogency of the “sustainability or collapse” narrative, that is, the notion that the current global civilization risks ecological overshoot-induced collapse. Combining different strands of literature, we put forward three arguments: First, for many empirical cases of past societies that purportedly “collapsed”, alternative interpretations, emphasizing resilience, transformation and reorganization are equally if not more plausible. Second, the “sustainability or collapse” narrative tends to be misleading insofar as it suggests that resource input constraints are the main sustainability challenge global civilization faces today. Instead, we argue that a stronger focus on system outputs and pollution is needed. Third, collapse-warnings are psychologically ineffective because they might induce fear and guilt, which leads to apathy not action. In consequence, we suggest that the sustainability agenda relies on positive framings that highlight the benefits from institutional and behavioral changes for human well-being. We illustrate our argument with two examples, water scarcity in Cape Town, South Africa and the German energy transition.

ZeitschriftSustainability Science
Seiten (von - bis)1717-1728
Anzahl der Seiten12
PublikationsstatusErschienen - 01.11.2019
Extern publiziertJa