Collapse Support: The Doomsday Prophets of Reddit
inside the 25,000+ community of people convinced the world is coming to an end imminently, and at its most extreme, valorizes climate-anxiety suicides as martyrdom
For years we’ve dryly joked the world is ending, but not everyone who says the seas are rising due to climate change is buying waterfront property on Martha’s Vineyard. A large and growing community of people genuinely believe we’re all about to die, and they’ve found each other on the internet. Their position is simple: global warming means apocalypse in our lifetime, and probably within the next few years. The only question left is how to live — or die, if we so decide to make that noble choice — with the time we have left.
A gripping portrait of a surreal phenomenon that perfectly embodies our present moment. Sanjana Friedman reports.
Kevin was 23 when he realized the world was ending. “I called my mom and was like, we gotta sell our property and move to Alaska, we need to get to a haven where, even if things got really warm — like super warm — we can still survive.” At the time he was in his final year of college, completing a degree in Environmental Engineering and writing an essay on water resource management. “I started to read about the potential of abrupt climate change from a cascade of positive feedback loops in the Arctic and stumbled across the YouTube videos of a dude named Guy McPherson who has, like, these literal timeframes where by 2026, the lights are off and there’s almost no people left,” Kevin said. He shared his concerns with professors and peers, but few listened. “No one had any sort of inclination that this was a possibility, there was no discussion of the worst-case scenario, they would just brush it all under the rug.” He bounced between evangelizing non “collapse-aware” friends and family and wallowing in anxiety. He grieved the loss of the future he had always imagined for himself — a long career, fatherhood, a nice house on a big plot of land. He stockpiled canned foods and planned for the coming chaos.
And then he turned to Reddit.
Though the almost 25,000 members of the subreddit r/collapsesupport come from vastly different educational, cultural, and financial backgrounds, they are unified by one shared conviction: things are bad — maybe as bad as they’ve ever been — and they’re going to get a lot worse, a lot faster than most people think. Officially the subreddit presents itself as “a dedicated place for thoughtful discussion about the state of the world as it stands today and how we are coping,” but, in practice, Kevin suggests it acts as a kind of r/suicidewatch for the collapse-aware. Unlike its sister subreddit r/collapse, whose almost 500,000 members mainly share news stories about environmental and social turmoil, r/collapsesupport is specifically for people to vent their fear and anger about what they see as the impending breakdown of civilization.
“i feel like im watching the entire world begin to slide like a bus down a cliff,” writes one user in a recent post, “but almost everyone [else] is content to sit by and hold on.” This person’s concerns are varied, but all are apocalyptic:
The uncontrolled proliferation of fungal infections, in which respiratory illnesses caused by fungi like coccidioides or histoplasma (symptoms include fever, cough and fatigue) become much more common as temperatures rise and the migratory patterns of birds, who carry fungi, change.
Thawed permafrost — soil, gravel and sand which usually remain completely frozen — that releases ancient bacteria and viruses to which humans have lost immunity.
The mass extinction of all insect species, causing a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems” and jeopardizing our ability to produce enough food.
“Rising fascism” — a phrase with multiple valences on r/collapsesupport; many Americans on the subreddit point to the election of Trump, overturning of Roe v. Wade, and increase of “anti-LGBT” bills as evidence that the US is becoming a fascist state.
“am i losing it?” the user asks. “i guess for context i should mention i’m autistic and i grew up in a religious doomsday cult, but that being said… [right now] really seems like the quick beginning of the fucking collapse.” Another user writes that becoming collapse-aware “completely shattered [his] hopes, dreams and mental state,” and led him to obsessively ruminate over the prospect of being beaten, tortured or imprisoned in the coming apocalyptic era. Another wonders why we can’t “just accept the facts and destigmatize no questions asked euthanasia.” Nothing will get better, he writes. Humanity will not survive. “I am tired of waiting for the collapse.”
Most people on r/collapsesupport use ‘collapse’ as a catch-all term to describe the chaos they believe will be unleashed by a combination of catastrophic climate change and geopolitical crises (r/UkraineAnxiety, a spinoff subreddit, was created a few months ago for those suffering from anxiety specifically related to the war in Ukraine). While specific concerns differ, many users cite the prospect of a “blue ocean event” as the primary driver of their climate-related collapse anxiety. In climate science, the term “blue ocean event” refers to the complete liquidation of ice in the Arctic Ocean. Such an event has never occurred in recorded human history, and some believe it could trigger a chain of meteorological consequences that would devastate our natural and built environments. The thinking runs roughly as follows:
Due to the “albedo effect,” according to which darker surfaces absorb more radiation than lighter ones, a water-covered Arctic Ocean would absorb more sunlight than an ice-covered one. This phenomenon would cause the Arctic region to heat up even faster than it already is, which in turn would mean that less ice would form during the cold season and more ice would melt during the warm season. With each successive warm season, the length of blue ocean events will increase. This cycle will increase oceanic and atmospheric warming, which will eventually disrupt jet streams and rainfall patterns, triggering prolonged droughts and floods, and massive famines. These phenomena will kill or displace millions of people, causing wide-scale social upheaval and, eventually, the collapse of any recognizable human civilization. “The first blue ocean event is likely going to happen in the next ten years,” Kevin told me, “and things are slowly going to fall apart from then on.”
In the past two decades, dozens of climate scientists have made predictions about when the first blue ocean event will come to pass, and what horrors will subsequently confront humanity. In 2007, Mark Serreze, then-head of the American National Snow and Ice Data Center, suggested that the Arctic could be ice-free in September 2008. But in September 2008, Arctic sea ice began its annual cyclical increase and even exhibited an unusually high retention of its relatively thin first-year ice layer. In June 2008, climate scientist James Hansen predicted an ice-free Arctic summer in five to ten years and in September 2012, Peter Wadhams, a renowned Arctic researcher, echoed this prediction, warning of the “final collapse of Arctic sea ice” within the following four months. But in 2018, ten years after Hansen’s initial prediction, the Arctic sea ice cover “increased quite rapidly” in the winter and fall, bringing its total extent within the interdecile range present between the 1980s and 2010s. Nowadays, many experts believe that the effects of a blue ocean event, if it eventually occurs, will be “mostly concentrated in the Arctic and most keenly felt regionally rather than globally,” to quote an article written by David Armstrong McKay, a climate scientist researching biosphere feedback loops.
That the prospect of an apocalypse in general — or of catastrophic climate change in particular — could drive people to grief or madness is hardly news. Decades-worth of research has explored how ‘eco-anxiety,’ or “chronic fear of environmental doom,” can impact wellbeing, and activists have been chaining themselves to trees to save the planet since at least the 70s. What is new, however, is the way people are using social media to publicize their grievances and neuroses in explicit, sometimes gratuitous, detail.
This kind of oversharing in the virtual public square, which has been described in other online contexts as ‘traumaposting,’ appears in spades on r/collapsesupport. As Cat Jenkins, communications coordinator at UK-based Deep Adaptation, an organization that offers workshops and online spaces to those processing climate grief, told me: “being collapse-aware can make you feel like an alien on this planet.” She said many users approach collapse-related spaces “punch drunk with grief and horror and emotional turmoil,” and their initial posts are often pure catharsis — the modern day death wails of those who believe that life as we know it is ending, and that the future of humanity will be unsparing in its violence and desolation.
When they emerge from this shell-shocked horror, many collapse-aware people find themselves standing at a philosophical crossroads. To one side lies the rocky way of blackpilled fatalism, where despairing users wonder whether “reality is a collective insanity” in which “we’re just chimps staring at screens.” To the other lies the smoother path of hopeful nihilism, where users rejoice, perhaps slightly in jest: “we’re not dead yet! We can still find enjoyment in the little things.” Which road one chooses to follow can condition not only their attitude toward collapse (and, by extension, politics and culture), but also toward life itself. The consequences of these attitudes can be far-reaching and, in some cases, deadly.
“Bruce’s self-immolation was not senseless. It was the act of a disciplined and rational mind. He rightly saw that on their own, individuals are powerless when it comes to enacting change…[he] deserves to be celebrated for his sacrifice.”
These lines come from the closing paragraphs of “In Defense of Wynn Bruce,” a blog post shared by an r/collapse user shortly after the news broke that climate activist Wynn Bruce committed suicide by setting himself on fire outside the U.S. Supreme Court last April. Bruce, a 50-year-old resident of Boulder, Colorado, was a photojournalist who had been involved in climate activism for years. He regularly shared climate change-related pictures and videos on his Facebook page. While Bruce did not leave behind a suicide note, shortly before his death he edited a comment on a video he had shared about the science of global warming to read “4/22/2022 🔥.” A few weeks later, he traveled from Boulder to Washington, D.C. There, on the cool evening of April 22nd, he sat down at the plaza of the Supreme Court, doused himself with lighter fluid, and burned. He succumbed to his injuries in a nearby hospital early the next day.
This was not Bruce’s first suicide attempt. Five years before, in 2017, bystanders had successfully intervened to stop his attempted self-immolation in front of the World Trade Center in New York. Bruce’s father, Douglas, flew to New York and accompanied his son back to Colorado where he coordinated psychological support for him. He was haunted not only by the fact of his son’s desire to die, but also by the gruesomeness of his chosen method. “Everyone gets to decide for themselves about how their [death] is going to take place,” Douglas told the Washington Post. Still, self-immolation “was the worst way [he] could think of ending your life.”
In interviews given after his death, Bruce’s friends and family described him as a sensitive, kind man whose life was shaped by his love of nature and commitment to Buddhism. G Michael Moore, who attended dance class with Bruce for years, called him a “man of faith and spirit,” possessed of a “deeply idealistic nature and high intelligence.” Bruce’s life had been marked by a traumatic brain injury that he suffered in a car crash when he was a teenager, and some wondered whether his last decision had to do with residual effects of this trauma. Others, including Moore and Bruce’s father, pushed back against this charge. “I agree with the belief that this was a fearless act of compassion about his concern for the environment,” said his father. Moore echoed this. “I believe he simply followed the logic of his convictions without flinching.” Still, he admitted, “I am horrified by what he did, by the pain he must have suffered in his last hours.”
Where Bruce’s loved ones paint a complicated portrait of a deeply compassionate, but perhaps mentally unwell man, many users on r/collapse and r/collapsesupport see him, alongside David Buckel, an environmental activist who also died by self-immolation in 2018, as a martyr. Bruce “died as a warning to us all that it’s time to stand up and demand action,” wrote the author of “In Defense of Wynn Bruce,” which received hundreds of upvotes when posted on r/collapse. The response to the piece was overwhelmingly positive. “What Wynn Bruce did is more than just an act of martyrdom,” one user commented. His death is “a reminder that we must take a stand for the sake of our future, and that we must commit beyond the reassuring embrace of rhetoric and symbolic gestures,” they went on. Another called Bruce “a hero wasted on a corrupted, soul-deadened people.” Unlike many in the world of climate activism, some said, Bruce was the real deal. “Principled, committed, and certainly walked the walk,” as one user put it. A true believer, in other words.
For some, this is where the rocky road of blackpilled collapse nihilism ultimately leads: attempts at, or defenses of, suicide. Many who reach this point embrace a seemingly paradoxical attitude toward collapse, climate change, and individual power. On one hand, they believe that the collapse of civilization and ‘death’ of the planet are inevitable, and that individuals have no power to alter the course of the catastrophe. On the other, they believe that public suicides like those of Bruce and Buckel can be powerful alarms to wake humanity up before it’s too late. “On their own, individuals are powerless when it comes to enacting change,” reads “In Defense of Wynn Bruce.” Yet, the piece goes on, “people who self-immolate… sacrifice themselves so others do not have to. For a society with so many Christians, one would think they could understand the idea of sacrificing oneself for a greater cause.”
Suicide apologism is undoubtably the most extreme destination along this dark path, and many of the blackpilled collapse-aware end their journeys at intermediate stops like depression, misanthropy, and antinatalism. Anecdotally, there appears to be significant crossover between r/collapse and r/antinatalism, an almost 180k-member subreddit dedicated to supporting “the philosophical belief that having children is morally wrong and cannot be justified.” On r/antinatalism, users call parents “breeders” and liken having kids to murder since it entails a child’s eventual “non-consensual death.” Many on both subreddits agree that the prospect of worsening climate change has exacerbated their misgivings about creating new life. “More babies also means more emissions,” writes one user in a post on r/antinatalism titled “We want to stop climate change, but still breed uncontrollably?” Others are even more unsparing in their judgements. “I believe causing non-consensual life is among the worst possible moral crimes” declares one antinatalist. “[And I am] more and more outraged with breeders [who] are causing an endless procession of non-consensual suffering.”
“Right now, I just have a lot of gratitude,” Kevin told me near the end of our call. “Gratitude that I have the ability to lead a minimalist and sustainable life, gratitude that I have the tools to address whatever comes next without feeling completely hopeless.” Every Sunday night, he attends a Discord call with a group of other collapse-aware people from around the world. “It’s a safe place where people can talk about their grief, or anything they want, and the woman who leads it knows a lot about therapy and stuff like that.” The ten or fifteen regulars on the call are at different stages in processing their collapse-related anxiety. “There are people who are on the mentally unstable side of things, but overall the group is very easygoing and it’s a safe place where people can talk about their lives, their fears, whatever they want,” Kevin told me.
“I realized that it’s so silly to be consumed by collapse when you could be hanging out with friends, being the healthiest version of yourself, telling your loved ones that you love them… and I realized there are things outside of my control, like obviously I can’t control the timeframe of collapse,” he said. Lately, he has taken to reading Marcus Aurelius and participating in art workshops; near the end of our call, he showed me two paintings he had recently completed, one of his dog and the other of a small town sitting at the edge of a waterfall. “Sometimes,” he said, “you go about your day and find that you’ve just completely forgotten about collapse. And that’s healthy. Our mind does that on purpose, to protect us.”
“The grief about collapse doesn’t go away,” said Cat, “but there is still hope. There is still coffee. There is still friendship, there is still joy. And we talk a lot about ‘hopium,’ but I wonder if maybe, despite all the catastrophes to come, maybe we will relearn how to connect and be of service to others and all that stuff that makes life worth living.” Deep Adaptation, whose Facebook page has over 15,000 members, draws its name and core principles from a 2018 paper authored by sustainability professor Jem Bendell. There, Bendell outlines an approach to help local communities “collaborate, not fracture during a collapse.” To do so, he argues, we must cultivate “the four R’s” — resilience, reconciliation, relinquishment, and restoration — and build tight-knit local networks able to weather the storm of collapse. “We can still find joy in a failing world,” Cat insisted, “whether we’re walking one another to the grave or coming through a storm to build a beautiful new world.”
If you or someone you know needs support now, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. Interviews edited for length and clarity.
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I love this blog, but I've been digging into global catastrophic risks for a couple years now and feel that this post leaves some tremendously important things unsaid. I upgraded to paid so I could leave this comment...
1. I am pretty confident that the world is facing significant risks (some novel) with the potential to kill lots of people. No, I don't think climate change will extinct our species, but positive tipping points in the climate system appear to be a very real phenomenon that could lead to much faster climate change than the IPCC is projecting, and these seem to be quite under studied! (I recommend the work of Tim Lenton, if you're curious) There's a gap between fringe alarmism and rather modest but straightforward projections that is actually very important for us to pay attention to. This pattern repeats across other global catastrophic risks like nuclear war and pandemics. My best guess is there's about a 50% chance that some event kills >10% of the human population in a span of 5 years or less by 2100. I promise a lot of work went into that number, and it's not just a "gut feel".
2. Anxiety/depression seem like natural responses to such risks. They're signals that something in our context is unsatisfactory. We should take those signals as meaningful, work to better understand the risks, and then strive to mitigate them! If the status quo is thinking everything is ok, the only path to understanding the risks and working on them is after a shock of realizing that everything is not ok. The only people who will work on these problems are those who have been through this shock, I think they're some of the most important problems facing humanity, and they could benefit greatly from a lot more people being aware of them and working on them!
3. This article presents two diverging paths from realizing the potential for collapse... but both are nihilism! The only way out is through, and whether you're depressed or blissful, you're still in denial and you can't work on the underlying problems. We need to show people that these problems are tractable, people are already working on them, and that it's possible to do so healthily. Learning to cope with an impending disaster is surely better for the individual then living in existential dread, but it's equally useless for society. I've personally found it tremendously fulfilling to work on these problems, and that this has done more for my mental health than any amount of trying to pretend they don't exist ever could have. Actually trying to work on the problem also creates feedback loops where your epistemics improve because you're trying to be useful! It's only easy to languish in unrealistic collapse scenarios if you stop at very superficial levels of understanding.
From a selfish perspective, this article is detailing an online community of a large number of people that are already closer to collaborating on solutions than most of the population! This is an untapped societal resource, and I expect messages that cause them to transcend nihilism to be disproportionately valuable.
This is a topic that I've spent a lot of time thinking about, working on, writing about, and talking to other people about. If anyone here feels trapped by fear/anxiety/depression about these topics, please reach out! We need you on the other side of that dread. If anyone is interested in better communicating this perspective, please reach out! I'm sure I'm not the best communicator, but I feel this is incredibly important and I'd be happy to help out anyone trying to do this.
Good post. The best way through these anxieties for society is to commit to a free and open society with no suppression of exchange (ideas, goods, etc.). This gives us the best chance at working through our problems.