Leaving the “sustainability or collapse” narrative behind

  • Sebastian StrunzEmail author
  • Melissa Marselle
  • Matthias Schröter
Review Article


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.


Behavior Collapse Overshoot Resilience Sustainability 



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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sebastian Strunz
    • 1
    Email author
  • Melissa Marselle
    • 2
    • 3
  • Matthias Schröter
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZLeipzigGermany
  2. 2.Department of Ecosystem ServicesHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZLeipzigGermany
  3. 3.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  4. 4.Department of Computational Landscape EcologyHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZLeipzigGermany

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