by Aric McBay
In this final scenario, militant resistance would have one primary goal: to reduce fossil fuel consumption (and hence, all ecological damage) as immediately and rapidly as possible. A 90 percent reduction would be the ballpark target. For militants in this scenario, impacts on civilized humans would be secondary.
Here’s their rationale in a nutshell: Humans aren’t going to do anything in time to prevent the planet from being destroyed wholesale. Poor people are too preoccupied by primary emergencies, rich people benefit from the status quo, and the middle class (rich people by global standards) are too obsessed with their own entitlement and the technological spectacle to do anything. The risk of runaway global warming is immediate. A drop in the human population is inevitable, and fewer people will die if collapse happens sooner.
Think of it like this. We know we are in overshoot as a species. That means that a significant portion of the people now alive may have to die before we are back under carrying capacity. And that disparity is growing by the day. Every day carrying capacity is driven down by hundreds of thousands of humans, and every day the human population increases by more than 200,000.15 The people added to the overshoot each day are needless, pointless deaths. Delaying collapse, they argue, is itself a form of mass murder.
Furthermore, they would argue, humans are only one species of millions. To kill millions of species for the benefit of one is insane, just as killing millions of people for the benefit of one person would be insane. And since unimpeded ecological collapse would kill off humans anyway, those species will ultimately have died for nothing, and the planet will take millions of years to recover. Therefore, those of us who care about the future of the planet have to dismantle the industrial energy infrastructure as rapidly as possible. We’ll all have to deal with the social consequences as best we can. Besides, rapid collapse is ultimately good for humans—even if there is a partial die-off—because at least some people survive. And remember, the people who need the system to come down the most are the rural poor in the majority of the world: the faster the actionists can bring down industrial civilization, the better the prospects for those people and their landbases. Regardless, without immediate action, everyone dies.
In this scenario, well-organized underground militants would make coordinated attacks on energy infrastructure around the world. These would take whatever tactical form militants could muster—actions against pipelines, power lines, tankers, and refineries, perhaps using electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) to do damage. Unlike in the previous scenario, no attempt would be made to keep pace with aboveground activists. The attacks would be as persistent as the militants could manage. Fossil fuel energy availability would decline by 90 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions would plummet.
The industrial economy would come apart. Manufacturing and transportation would halt because of frequent blackouts and tremendously high prices for fossil fuels. Some, perhaps most, governments would institute martial law and rationing. Governments that took an authoritarian route would be especially targeted by militant resisters. Other states would simply fail and fall apart.
In theory, with a 90 percent reduction in fossil fuel availability, there would still be enough to aid basic survival activities like growing food, heating, and cooking. Governments and civil institutions could still attempt a rapid shift to subsistence activities for their populations, but instead, militaries and the very wealthy would attempt to suck up virtually all remaining supplies of energy. In some places, they would succeed in doing so and widespread hunger would result. In others, people would refuse the authority of those in power. Most existing large-scale institutions would simply collapse, and it would be up to local people to either make a stand for human rights and a better way of life or give in to authoritarian power. The death rate would increase, but as we have seen in examples from Cuba and Russia, civic order can still hold despite the hardships.
What happens next would depend on a number of factors. If the attacks could persist and oil extraction were kept minimal for a prolonged period, industrial civilization would be unlikely to reorganize itself. Well-guarded industrial enclaves would remain, escorting fuel and resources under arms. If martial law succeeded in stopping attacks after the first few waves (something it has been unable to do in, for example, Nigeria), the effects would be uncertain. In the twentieth century, industrial societies have recovered from disasters, as Europe did after World War II. But this would be a different situation. For most areas, there would be no outside aid. Populations would no longer be able to outrun the overshoot currently concealed by fossil fuels. That does not mean the effects would be the same everywhere; rural and traditional populations would be better placed to cope.
In most areas, reorganizing an energy-intense industrial civilization would be impossible. Even where existing political organizations persist, consumption would drop. Those in power would be unable to project force over long distances, and would have to mostly limit their activities to nearby areas. This means that, for example, tropical biofuel plantations would not be feasible. The same goes for tar sands and mountain-top removal coal mining. The construction of new large-scale infrastructure would simply not be possible.
Though the human population would decline, things would look good for virtually every other species. The oceans would begin to recover rapidly. The same goes for damaged wilderness areas. Because greenhouse emissions would have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their previous levels, runaway global warming would likely be averted. In fact, returning forests and grasslands would sequester carbon, helping to maintain a livable climate.
Nuclear war would be unlikely. Diminished populations and industrial activities would reduce competition between remaining states. Resource limitations would be largely logistical in nature, so escalating resource wars over supplies and resource-rich areas would be pointless.
This scenario, too, has its implementation and plausibility caveats. It guarantees a future for both the planet and the human species. This scenario would save trillions upon trillions upon trillions of living creatures. Yes, it would create hardship for the urban wealthy, though most others would be better off immediately. It would be an understatement to call such a concept unpopular (although the militants in this scenario would argue that fewer people will die than in the case of runaway global warming or business as usual).
There is also the question of plausibility. Could enough ecologically motivated militants mobilize to enact this scenario? No doubt for many people the second, more moderate scenario seems both more appealing and more likely.
There is of course an infinitude of possible futures we could describe. We will describe one more possible future, a combination of the previous two, in which a resistance movement embarks on a strategy of Decisive Ecological Warfare.
Decisive Ecological Warfare Strategy
The ultimate goal of the primary resistance movement in this scenario is simply a living planet—a planet not just living, but in recovery, growing more alive and more diverse year after year. A planet on which humans live in equitable and sustainable communities without exploiting the planet or each other.
Given our current state of emergency, this translates into a more immediate goal, which is at the heart of this movement’s grand strategy:
Goal 1: To disrupt and dismantle industrial civilization; to thereby remove the ability of the powerful to exploit the marginalized and destroy the planet.
This movement’s second goal both depends on and assists the first:
Goal 2: To defend and rebuild just, sustainable, and autonomous human communities, and, as part of that, to assist in the recovery of the land.
To accomplish these goals requires several broad strategies involving large numbers of people in many different organizations, both aboveground and underground. The primary strategies needed in this theoretical scenario include the following:
Strategy A: Engage in direct militant actions against industrial infrastructure, especially energy infrastructure.
Strategy B: Aid and participate in ongoing social and ecological justice struggles; promote equality and undermine exploitation by those in power.
Strategy C: Defend the land and prevent the expansion of industrial logging, mining, construction, and so on, such that more intact land and species will remain when civilization does collapse.
Strategy D: Build and mobilize resistance organizations that will support the above activities, including decentralized training, recruitment, logistical support, and so on.
In describing this alternate future scenario, we should be clear about some shorthand phrases like “actions against industrial infrastructure.” Not all infrastructure is created equal, and not all actions against infrastructure are of equal priority, efficacy, or moral acceptability to the resistance movements in this scenario. As Derrick wrote in Endgame, you can’t make a moral argument for blowing up a children’s hospital. On the other hand, you can’t make a moral argument against taking out cell phone towers. Some infrastructure is easy, some is hard, and some is harder.
On the same theme, there are many different mechanisms driving collapse, and they are not all equal or equally desirable. In the Decisive Ecological Warfare scenario, some of the mechanisms are intentionally accelerated and encouraged, while others are slowed or reduced. For example, energy decline by decreasing consumption of fossil fuels is a mechanism of collapse highly beneficial to the planet and (especially in the medium to long term) humans, and that mechanism is encouraged. On the other hand, ecological collapse through habitat destruction and biodiversity crash is also a mechanism of collapse (albeit one that takes longer to affect humans), and that kind of collapse is slowed or stopped whenever and wherever possible.
Collapse, in the most general terms, is a rapid loss of complexity.16 It is a shift toward smaller and more decentralized structures—social, political, economic—with less social stratification, regulation, behavioral control and regimentation, and so on.17 Major mechanisms of collapse include (in no particular order):
- Energy decline as fossil fuel extraction peaks, and a growing, industrializing population drives down per capita availability.
- Industrial collapse as global economies of scale are ruined by increasing transport and manufacturing costs, and by economic decline.
- Economic collapse as global corporate capitalism is unable to maintain growth and basic operations.
- Climate change causing ecological collapse, agricultural failure, hunger, refugees, disease, and so on.
- Ecological collapse of many different kinds driven by resource extraction, destruction of habitat, crashing biodiversity, and climate change.
- Disease, including epidemics and pandemics, caused by crowded living conditions and poverty, along with bacteria diseases increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
- Food crises caused by the displacement of subsistence farmers and destruction of local food systems, competition for grains by factory farms and biofuels, poverty, and physical limits to food production because of drawdown.
- Drawdown as the accelerating consumption of finite supplies of water, soil, and oil leads to rapid exhaustion of accessible supplies.
- Political collapse as large political entities break into smaller groups, secessionists break away from larger states, and some states go bankrupt or simply fail.
- Social collapse as resource shortages and political upheaval break large, artificial group identities into smaller ones (sometimes based along class, ethnic, or regional affinities), often with competition between those groups.
- War and armed conflict, especially resource wars over remaining supplies of finite resources and internal conflicts between warlords and rival factions.
- Crime and exploitation caused by poverty and inequality, especially in crowded urban areas.
- Refugee displacement resulting from spontaneous disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, but worsened by climate change, food shortages, and so on.
In this scenario, each negative aspect of the collapse of civilization has a reciprocal trend that the resistance movement encourages. The collapse of large authoritarian political structures has a countertrend of emerging small-scale participatory political structures. The collapse of global industrial capitalism has a countertrend of local systems of exchange, cooperation, and mutual aid. And so on. Generally speaking, in this alternate future, a small number of underground people bring down the big bad structures, and a large number of aboveground people cultivate the little good structures.
In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter argues that a major mechanism for collapse has to do with societal complexity. Complexity is a general term that includes the number of different jobs or roles in society (e.g., not just healers but epidemiologists, trauma surgeons, gerontologists, etc.), the size and complexity of political structures (e.g., not just popular assemblies but vast sprawling bureaucracies), the number and complexity of manufactured items and technology (e.g., not just spears, but many different calibers and types of bullets), and so on. Civilizations tend to try to use complexity to address problems, and as a result their complexity increases over time.
But complexity has a cost. The decline of a civilization begins when the costs of complexity begin to exceed the benefits—in other words, when increased complexity begins to offer declining returns. At that point, individual people, families, communities, and political and social subunits have a disincentive to participate in that civilization. The complexity keeps increasing, yes, but it keeps getting more expensive. Eventually the ballooning costs force that civilization to collapse, and people fall back on smaller and more local political organizations and social groups.
Part of the job of the resistance movement is to increase the cost and decrease the returns of empire-scale complexity. This doesn’t require instantaneous collapse or global dramatic actions. Even small actions can increase the cost of complexity and accelerate the good parts of collapse while tempering the bad.
Part of Tainter’s argument is that modern society won’t collapse in the same way as old societies, because complexity (through, for example, large-scale agriculture and fossil fuel extraction) has become the physical underpinning of human life rather than a side benefit. Many historical societies collapsed when people returned to villages and less complex traditional life. They chose to do this. Modern people won’t do that, at least not on a large scale, in part because the villages are gone, and traditional ways of life are no longer directly accessible to them. This means that people in modern civilization are in a bind, and many will continue to struggle for industrial civilization even when continuing it is obviously counterproductive. Under a Decisive Ecological Warfare scenario, aboveground activists facilitate this aspect of collapse by developing alternatives that will ease the pressure and encourage people to leave industrial capitalism by choice.
There’s something admirable about the concept of protracted popular warfare that was used in China and Vietnam. It’s an elegant idea, if war can ever be described in such terms; the core idea is adaptable and applicable even in the face of major setbacks and twists of fate.
But protracted popular warfare as such doesn’t apply to the particular future we are discussing. The people in that scenario will never have the numbers that protracted popular warfare requires. But they will also face a different kind of adversary, for which different tactics are applicable. So they will take the essential idea of protracted popular warfare and apply it to their own situation—that of needing to save their planet, to bring down industrial civilization and keep it down. And they will devise a new grand strategy based on a simple continuum of steps that flow logically one after the other.
Continue reading at The Decisive Ecological Warfare Strategy