The first year of the Obama presidency gave some people hope that a new era of global prosperity and peace was imminent. In total contrast to this new optimism, Chris Smith—the creator of the groundbreaking documentary American Movie—emerged in 2009 with a film suggesting that much darker days were ahead. This film is called Collapse; the film’s subject is Michael Ruppert. Now, almost 10 years later, it is worth revisiting Smith’s doc with fresh eyes. While many of the claims presented in the movie don’t really hold up, Collapse raises issues that are more prescient now than when the film was first released.
Michael Ruppert, who died by his own hand in 2014, was a journalist, whistleblower and ex-cop who became famous for, among other things, exposing the CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking during the 80s. He later developed a newsletter called From The Wilderness that reported on various topics, including politics, economics and conspiracies. Despite the speculative nature of many of his claims, he shunned the term “conspiracy theorist.” Ruppert boasted that: “I don’t deal in conspiracy theory, I deal in conspiracy fact.”
In Collapse, Ruppert presents a systematic view of the world where government and corporate interests have wrested control of power from the people and are using it to malevolent ends. He believed that global oil production had peaked, the world governments were keeping this a secret, and that alternative fuels would not be sufficient to sustain international energy demand. Since the entirety of industrial civilization is built on petroleum, including petroleum-based products, civilization is close to falling apart.
Presented in a manner similar to the films of Errol Morris, including minimalist music in the style of Philip Glass, Chris Smith cuts the interviews together with news footage, propaganda films and educational films. Smith serves as the off-camera interrogator as Ruppert—a voracious chain smoker—answers his questions on screen. Ruppert’s confident and urgent chatter is bolstered by a torrent of statistics, scientific claims, and predictions. The overall effect is both mesmerizing and overwhelming.
A narrative doesn’t to be truthful or accurate to be compelling and Ruppert’s narrative is easily scrutinized, especially after a decade. His predictions in Collapse are setup in a sequential fashion (i.e., if A happens, then B will happen, if B happens then C will happen and so on and so forth) so his argument falls apart if there any breaks in the causal chain. The claims regarding the financial collapse caused by asset-backed securities were indeed true and economic turmoil is still coursing throughout much of the world. However, the dangers of unregulated derivatives markets were well known long before the 2008 economic collapse. For example, consider the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, which lost 4.6 billion dollars in 4 months due to bad derivatives trades. The 2008 financial collapse was not some mystery that only a few sages predicted.
Peak oil has obviously not been reached. The peak oil narrative has been around since the ’70s and these predictions continue to fail. This is not to say that that peak oil won’t happen; anything is possible given a long enough time horizon. An asteroid could hit the earth tomorrow and humanity could be extinguished. Nobody knows when such events will happen. This leads to the core problem with Ruppert’s collapse theory. We do know that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels is the most immediate and tangible existential threat that is currently facing humanity. However, climate change only garners a cursory mention in the Collapse. Peak oil predictions fail over and over again yet the scientific evidence and the observable impact of increasingly erratic and destructive weather patterns is right in front of us. Why spin an elaborate narrative about the collapse of the petroleum-based society without addressing the most immediate means by which this could happen? This oversight is a testament to Ruppert’s myopia and loose reasoning.
What does Ruppert offer as a solution to the inevitability of collapse? He dismisses all technological solutions as scientifically infeasible; hydrogen, solar, wind, and other alternative energy technologies can’t overcome the fact that civilization built upon petroleum products. The only thing that people can do is prepare for the collapse, which will take the form of a transition to a post-industrial area where humanity must rebuild using old methods and new thinking. What Ruppert is ultimately arguing against is civilization itself. It’s fundamentally the same anarcho-primitivist argument made by people such as Derrick Jensen and John Zerzan. Will the social collapse produce a new primitivism or it will just create a different kind of chaos where the fight for survival is reduced from the macro scale to the micro scale? Ruppert’s vision of survival in the post-petroleum world is more fragile than his domino theory of Collapse.
Of course, the intellectual tools that allow us to scrutinize the flaws in an argument also allow us to see the truth in an argument. Ruppert’s general intuition that the political and economic status quo are generally unsustainable is difficult to argue with. As we’ve recently seen, the post-World War 2 global order seems to be coming apart at the seams and the environment is becoming increasingly hostile to life. The desire to make sense of this rapid and potentially catastrophic change using grand theories and far flung speculation is both understandable and actually necessary. Like science-fiction, which allows us to think through the myriad possibilities of the future, films like Collapse help us envision the worst possibilities and think through the range of potential solutions.