Title: Desert
Subtitle: Part 1
Author: Anonymous
Date: 2011
Notes: A German language translation of Desert can be found here: anarchistischebibliothek.org/library/anonym-desert, and a Greek language translation can be found here: athens.indymedia.org/post/1607008. You can also share Desert through the link readdesert.org. Desert was first published by Little Black Cart and can be found in book form here.

Desert1 noun

1. A barren or desolate area, especially: a. A dry, often sandy region of little rainfall, extreme temperature, and sparse vegetation. b. A region of permanent cold that is largely or entirely devoid of life. c. An apparently lifeless area of water. 2. An empty or forsaken place; a wasteland: a cultural desert. 3. Archaic A wild, uncultivated, and uninhabited region.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin desertum, from neuter past participle of deserere, to desert; see desert2.]

* * * * *

Author’s Note

I have written Desert as a nature loving anarchist primarily addressing others with similar feelings. As a result I have not always explained ideas to which I hold when they are, to some extent, givens within many anarchist and radical environmental circles. Hopefully I have written in an accessible enough manner, so even if you don’t come from this background you will still find Desert readable. While the best introductions to ecology and anarchy are moments spent within undomesticated ecosystems and anarchist communities, some may also find the following books helpful — I did.

  • Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

  • Fredy Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983).

  • Christopher Manes, Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990).

  • Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 1991).


Something haunts many activists, anarchists, environmentalists, many of my friends. It haunted me. Much of our subcultures tell us it’s not there, that we can’t see it, hear it. Our best wishes for the world tell us not to see it. But for many, despite their best efforts — carrying on with the normal activism, the movement building, living both according to and as an expression of their ethics — despite all this, the spectre gains form. The faint image grows more solid, more unavoidable, until the ghost is staring one in the face. And like many monsters of past tales, when its gaze is met — people freeze. Become unable to move. Give up hope; become disillusioned and inactive. This malaise, freezing, not only slows ‘activist workload’, but I have seen it affect every facet of many of my friends’ lives.

The spectre that many try not to see is a simple realisation — the world will not be ‘saved’. Global anarchist revolution is not going to happen. Global climate change is now unstoppable. We are not going to see the worldwide end to civilisation/capitalism/patriarchy/authority. It’s not going to happen any time soon. It’s unlikely to happen ever. The world will not be ‘saved’. Not by activists, not by mass movements, not by charities and not by an insurgent global proletariat. The world will not be ‘saved’. This realisation hurts people. They don’t want it to be true! But it probably is.

These realisations, this abandonment of illusions should not become disabling. Yet if one believes that it’s all or nothing, then there is a problem. Many friends have ‘dropped out’ of the ‘movement’ whilst others have remained in old patterns but with a sadness and cynicism which signals a feeling of futility. Some hover around scenes critiquing all, but living and fighting little.

“It’s not the despair — I can handle the despair. It’s the hope I can’t handle.” [1]

The hope of a Big Happy Ending, hurts people; sets the stage for the pain felt when they become disillusioned. Because, truly, who amongst us now really believes? How many have been burnt up by the effort needed to reconcile a fundamentally religious faith in the positive transformation of the world with the reality of life all around us? Yet to be disillusioned — with global revolution/with our capacity to stop climate change — should not alter our anarchist nature, or the love of nature we feel as anarchists. There are many possibilities for liberty and wildness still.

What are some of these possibilities and how can we live them? What could it mean to be an anarchist, an environmentalist, when global revolution and world-wide social/eco sustainability are not the aim? What objectives, what plans, what lives, what adventures are there when the illusions are set aside and we walk into the world not disabled by disillusionment but unburdened by it?

1. No (Global) Future

Religious myths: progress, global capitalism, global revolution, global collapse

The idea of Progress was central to the modern Western paradigm and the presumption that the entire world was moving ever onwards to a better future was dominant. The idea of the inevitability or possibility of a global libertarian future originates from that belief.

In many ways Anarchism was/is the libertarian extreme of the European Enlightenment — against god and the state. In some countries such as turn of the Twentieth Century Spain it was the Enlightenment — its militantly pro-science anti-clericism being as much an attraction as its anti-capitalism. Yet the rubbish of history is not so easily discarded and ‘progressive’ revolutionary movements have often been, in essence, form and aim, the continuation of religion by other means. As an example, the belief that universal peace and beauty would be reached through apocalyptic tumults of blood and fire (revolution/the millennium/the collapse) indicates firmly that as an enlightenment ideology, Anarchism has been heavily burdened by its Euro-Christian origins. John Gray was talking about Marxism when he said it was a “...a radical version of the enlightenment belief in progress — itself a mutation of Christian hopes... [Following] Judaism and Christianity in seeing history as a moral drama, that’s last act is salvation.” [2] While some anarchists never fell for such bunkum, many did, and some still do.

These days Progress itself is increasingly questioned both by anarchists and across society. I have yet to meet anyone today who still believes in the inevitability [3] of a global anarchist future. However the idea of a global movement, confronting a global present and creating a global future has many apostles. Some of these are even libertarians and look hopefully to the possibility of global anarchist revolution.

The illusory triumph of capitalism following the destruction of the Berlin Wall lead to the proclamation — more utopian [4] than real — of a New World Order — a global capitalist system. The reaction of many to globalisation was to posit one from below, and this was only re-enforced by the near simultaneous public emergence of the Zapatistas and the invention of the Web. The subsequent international action days, often coinciding with summits, became the focus for the supposedly global anti-capitalist ‘movement of movements’. The excitement on the streets enabled many to forestall seeing the spectre by looking in the direction of the ‘global movement’. But there never was a global movement against capitalism, then [5], or ever [6], just as capitalism itself was never truly global. There are many, many places where capitalist relations are not the dominant practice, and even more where anti-capitalist (nevermind anarchist) movements simply don’t exist.

Amidst the jolly unreality of this period of ‘Global Resistance’ some could get really carried away: “We have no interest in reforming the World Bank or the IMF; we want it abolished as part of an international anarchist revolution.” [7] Such statements are understandable if written in the drunk-like exuberance one can sometimes feel on having defeated the police, but they are found more commonly. The self-description of one Anarchist Federation reads: “As the capitalist system rules the whole world, its destruction must be complete and worldwide”. [8]

The illusion of a singular world capitalist present is mirrored by the illusion of a singular world anarchist future.

I love us, there’s so much we can do and be, but there are limits

Anarchists are growing in number. Groups and counter-cultures are appearing in countries where there were few, or no, social movement anarchists [9] previously. Yet an honest appraisal of our strengths and prospects, and those of the communities and classes we are part of, would show clearly that we are not growing “the new society in the shell of the old” [10], that someday will liberate the world in a moment of rupture. The earth has a lot of places with a lot of people; a reality that can increasingly easily get lost in the web-encapsulated global (activist) village. [11] To want to rid the world of capitalist social relations, or further still civilisation, is one thing. To be capable of doing so is something else entirely. We are not everywhere — we are rare.

Actions, circles of friends, social centres, urban guerrilla cells, magazine editorial groups, eco-warriors, housing co-ops, students, refuges, arsonists, parents, squats, scientists, peasants, strikers, teachers, land based communes, musicians, tribespeople, street gangs, loving insurgents and so, so much else. Anarchists can be wonderful. We can have beauty, and self-possessed power and possibility in buckets. We cannot, however, remake the entire world; there are not enough of us, and never will be.

Some may argue that a global libertarian revolution can succeed without being made, or significantly aided, by overt anarchists so ‘our’ present numbers and resources are null and void. While it’s a given that social crises and revolt are regular occurrences in societies based on class warfare; to put ones faith in the ‘revolutionary impulse of the proletariat’ is a theory approximate to saying ‘It’ll be alright on the night.’

There is unfortunately little evidence from history that the working class — never mind anyone else — is intrinsically predisposed to libertarian or ecological revolution. Thousands of years of authoritarian socialisation favour the jackboot... [12]

Neither we, nor anyone else, can create a libertarian and ecological global future society by expanding social movements. Further, there is no reason to think that in the absence of such a vast expansion, a global social transformation congruent with our desires will ever happen. As anarchists we are not the seed of the future society in the shell of the old, but merely one of many elements from which the future is forming. That’s ok; when faced with such scale and complexity, there is a value in non-servile humility — even for insurgents.

To give up hope for global anarchist revolution is not to resign oneself to anarchy remaining an eternal protest. Seaweed puts it well:

Revolution is not everywhere or nowhere. Any bioregion can be liberated through a succession of events and strategies based on the conditions unique to it, mostly as the grip of civilisation in that area weakens through its own volition or through the efforts of its inhabitants... Civilisation didn’t succeed everywhere at once, and so it’s undoing might only occur to varying degrees in different places at different times. [13]

Even if an area is seemingly fully under the control of authority there are always places to go, to live in, to love in and to resist from. And we can extend those spaces. The global situation may seem beyond us, but the local never is. As anarchists we are neither entirely powerless nor potentially omnipotent, thankfully.

From anti-globalisation to climate change

For many of us, when the turn of the century anti-globalisation surge lost its momentum, [14] the global thinking, and religious optimism went with it. However, in the last few years, an attempt to resurrect the ‘global movement’ appeared amongst us once again — this time around climate change.

The mobilisation at the Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference was billed by many as the next Seattle [15] and some groups have claimed they are “building a global movement to solve the climate crisis.” [16] Greenpeace, for instance, says “climate change is a global public ‘bad’. To solve it requires global collective action... We have no alternative but to build a global grassroots movement, move politicians forward, and force corporations and banks to change direction.” [17] I’ll take it as a given that you the reader understand the naive unreality of such lobby groups but it’s worth looking at those at the less institutionalised end of climate change campaigning.

There are three main tendencies, and sometimes folk wander from one to another. Firstly, there are those that have similar beliefs to Greenpeace — i.e. ‘direct action’ as an awareness raising/lobbying strategy. Secondly, there are those who use the discourse around climate change to aid mobilisation in local campaigns which, though unlikely to have any effect on climate change, at least have practical and sometimes achievable objectives in mind i.e. halting the destruction of an ecosystem/the worsening wellbeing [18] of a community or simply increasing self-sufficiency. [19] Thirdly, there are those nostalgic anti-capitalists who envision ‘climate justice’ as a metamorphosis of the imagined “alter-globalisation movement” [20] (notice it’s increasingly no longer anti-globalisation). An anonymous writer described the last tendency well:

[When activists] try to convince us that it’s the ‘last chance to save the earth’... it’s because they’re trying to build social movements... There is a growing and disturbing trend that has been lingering around radical circles over the last few years, based on the idea that blind positivity can lead to interesting and unexpected successes. Michael Hardt and Tony Negri’s books have provided some of the theoretical bases for this, and it has been taken up by some who want to unite the masses under the banner of precarity, organise migrants and mobilise for summits. For many coming from the left wing tradition, it has been the message of hope that they were wanting to hear, at a time when their ideologies seemed more moribund than ever.

...Theoreticians who should understand capitalism well enough to know better, write that a global basic income or free movement for all is an achievable goal. They may not believe it themselves, but ostensibly want to inspire others to believe in it, claiming that the ‘moments of excess’ generated by such Utopian dreams will give rise to potent movements for change. Climate change... is certainly a suitable testing ground for the politics of manufactured hope, being so alienated from our actual everyday realities. But whilst the new movement politicians — facilitators not dictators — watch their movements grow, there is still a case for living in the real world. [21]

Outside the convention centres the new stars appear more and more like those within. Inside and out the message is that a global future is winnable if only we organise. However, the reality both within ecosystems generally and peoples stomachs in particular is that there is no global singular future [22] and no imaginary community, either of states or ‘multitudes’ (or both a la Cochabamba) [23] can stop climate change.

Given our obvious inability to re-make the entire world the way we might like it to be, some replace the myth of ‘global revolution’ with a belief in imminent ‘global collapse’ — these days usually some mix of climate change and peak oil. As we shall see later (both in the next chapters and our future years) global heating will severely challenge civilisation in some areas and probably vanquish it in others. Yet in some regions it will likely open up possibilities for the spread of civilisations rule. Some lands may remain (relatively) temperate — climatically and socially. As for civilisation, so for anarchy and anarchists — severely challenged, sometimes vanquished; possibilities for liberty and wildness opening up, possibilities for liberty and wildness closing. The unevenness of the present will be made more so. There is no global future.

2. It’s Later Than We Thought

Observed climate change is faster than expected

One recurring theme in environmentalism is that the apocalypse is always imminent but forever deferred. Every generation seems to have one last chance to save the planet. Biologist Barry Commoner said back in 1970: “We are in a period of grace, we have the time — perhaps a generation — in which to save the environment from the final effects of the violence we have already done to it.” [24] Similar pronouncements can be heard today but the period of grace is probably over. Back in 1990 the editors of The Ecologist set out a general evaluation of the state of the earth in 5000 Days to Save the Planet:

Today we are told that our planet is in crisis, that we are destroying and polluting our way to a global catastrophe... We may have as little as fifteen years, perhaps as short a time as 5000 days to save the planet... One of the major concerns arising out of the Gaia theory is that we are pushing natural processes beyond their capacity to maintain an atmosphere fit for higher forms of life. Beyond a certain point, the system may flip to an entirely new state which would be extremely uncomfortable for life as we know it... once triggered, the change to the new state could occur with extreme rapidity. [25]

By 2005 the countdown envisaged in the title had reached zero and the originator of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock, was writing The Revenge of Gaia where he would state that he thought the living earth was probably now moving irrevocably to a hot state. Lovelock came to this conclusion primarily as a result of seeing scientific observations of climate change surpassing what most predictions said was meant to be happening. In an address to the Royal Society he stated:

The positive feedback on heating from the melting of floating Arctic and Antarctic ice alone is causing an acceleration of system driven heating whose total will soon or already be greater than that from all of the pollution CO2 that we have so far added. This suggests that implementing Kyoto or some super Kyoto is most unlikely to succeed... we have to understand that the Earth System is now in positive feedback and is moving ineluctably towards the stable hot state of past climates. [26]

Lovelock’s public advocacy of nuclear power, [27] disbelief in wind farms as a panacea and his clear statements that massive climate change is now probably inevitable has made him unpopular with many greens. He’s definitely ‘off-message’. It’s rather inconvenient, then, that he’s got such a good environmental and scientific pedigree. As a polymath in his nineties he has worked in many fields. Notably, he invented the Electron Capture Detector that made the discovery of the Ozone Hole and the writing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring [28] possible. His initially heretical Gaia hypothesis, of a self managing living earth, is now widely accepted under the title Earth System Science. He’s long argued for wild land expansion and been sympathetic to ecological defence actions. As an avid hiker he even carried out a personal bombing campaign around the right to roam way back in the 1930s! His detractors often admire his pioneering work but say (in a somewhat ageist manner) that he has now gone a bit batty. The real problem, though, is that he has made a professional career of being beholden to no-one else’s ideology or pay-packet. As such he has the capacity to say what many in scientific and environmental institutions are thinking but are afraid to say so directly in public. Lovelock thinks that a range of factors have led to a consistent under-diagnosis of the extent of human effects on the earth. These factors include:

  • A speed and complexity of change which research/publication schedules cannot keep up with.

  • A failure to see and comprehend the living earth as a dynamic self-regulating system.

  • A lack of joined up thinking due to academic compartmentalisation.

  • Governmental pressures on the writing of IPCC synthesis reports. [29]

  • The possibly considerable masking of present heating by global dimming. [30]

It’s beyond the scope of this text to give an overall summation of Lovelock’s thinking, never mind the wider science around global heating. Part of the nature of the problem is that by the time you read this the science will have moved on considerably. If you are interested have a look at the sources I have referenced and read wider yourself. However while the details may vary the inexorable direction of much of the science seems to be that we are probably heading to a considerably hotter earth, and fast. Recent observations put us further down the road than many of us thought even a few years ago. Decades later down the road. Combined with inertia around reducing carbon emissions this makes the chances of ‘stopping’ massive climate change probably rather slight.

While NGOs are still babbling about stopping a two degrees warming, increasingly many climate scientists are discussing a four degree warming by end of the century or even as early as 2060. [31] This is by no means a fringe worry. The 2007 IPCC report predicted a rise of between 2 and 6.4°C this century. Bob Watson, its former chairman has warned that the “world should work on mitigation and adaptation strategies to ‘prepare for 4°C of warming.’” [32] This is bad enough but Lovelock goes further and cites a number of feedback mechanisms he thinks are already moving us to an even hotter state, of which the melting of sea ice mentioned above is the most well known. What could this new hot state look like? Some highlights:

  • Hot deserts spreading over much of the global south and into southern and even some of central Europe.

  • Cold deserts predominantly in the global north retracting to leave new frontier land in Siberia, Scandinavia, Canada, Greenland, Alaska and even to a certain extent in the Antarctic.

  • Mass attempts at migration from arid zones to the still habitable areas.

  • Mass human die-off coupled with accelerating species extinctions.

Lovelock puts it rather bluntly:

Humans are in a pretty difficult position and I don’t think they are clever enough to handle what’s ahead. I think they’ll survive as a species all right, but the cull during this century is going to be huge... The number remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. [33]

Of course, I don’t know this is a true picture of present and future climate change. The true complexity of the Earth System (and human social dynamics within it) is probably beyond our comprehension (definitely beyond mine) and models should not be confused with reality. My informed hunch (that’s all one has in the fool-making business of describing the future) is that the picture painted is probably a reasonable approximation. You may not think so, but I would ask that you run with me as it’s a possibility worth considering. That hunch is as much informed by an anarchist critique of capitalism as it is a reading of climate science. Looking around me, it’s a lovely bright day and the leaves of the trees are almost shining; but little in the society in which I live indicates to me that a problem of the scale and complexity of climate change is going to get fixed. Given that, I feel that the big question posed is not so much if we will reach a world somewhat resembling that outlined above but when.

Lovelock is seriously proposing that such a world (or to be more accurate, such worlds) will emerge by the end of this century, and that emergence trends will start to become obvious by mid century. It could take longer, but either way it may be advantageous to take such shifts into consideration when thinking about what we want to achieve in our lives.

Here, to be clear, we are not talking about a millennial apocalypse, though it may feel like that to some caught in its more horrible or exciting moments. Rather we are talking about massive accelerating change. James Hansen (NASA), comments:

If we wish to preserve a planet similar to that in which civilization developed and to which life adapted, Palaeolithic evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm. [34]

Chances are it won’t be. The environmental niche that civilisation (class divided agriculturally-sustained city culture) developed in is on the way out. With it will probably go many of civilisation’s citizens. And there are many, many citizens.

Ghost acres feed population overshoots

Integral to the growth of industrial capitalism has been a vast increase in human population. There are now around seven billion of us compared to around 600 million at the beginning of the 18th century. That jump has happened in 13 generations [35] and in large part it was no accident. Silvia Federici has clearly laid out that a key foundation of early capitalism was the destruction of women’s control over their own fertility: “...wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the state, and procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation” (see box below). While it was capitalism that first enforced and then enabled this most recent mass expansion, in doing so it was/is singing an older anthem of civilisation [36] — this time, though, with mechanical amplification.

I was born in the mid 1970s when the human population was four billion; by the time I die (hopefully not before 2050) the UN estimates that the earth’s human population will be over 9 billion. [37] This estimate, though, presumes ‘business as usual’. Whether this happens or not will depend on three interdependent factors: birth control, death control and food supply.

Worldwide, despite the continued edicts of cult patriarchs such as the Pope, many are increasingly using birth control to limit family size. The continuing power struggle to enable us to do so is a key battle and one around which many anarchists — amongst others — have organised. [38] However the spread of birth control — and the fight for women’s liberation [39] more generally — will not stop the probable doubling of human population in my lifetime. With decreasing family size already a global norm in much of the world, it is the ability of industrial medicine and hygiene measures to enact death control that is now key. The human population, at least in business-as-usual projections, will continue to rise until at least 2050 as long as those alive today live their expected lifespans and have the expected number of children.

However, we do not have to wait until then to overshoot the planet’s human carrying capacity (its maximum permanently supported load) as we have probably done so already. Industrial civilisation has managed to push up food supply by both colonising ever more wild land for agriculture and developing fossil fuel reliant ‘green revolution’ [40] agro-technologies and transportation. Essentially, industrial agriculture relies on the harvesting of ghost acreage [41] (the fossilised photosynthetic production of ecosystems millions of years ago) to produce food at the present rate. This can be only temporary, for unless one is a believer in the cornucopian myth that resources are limitless, someday the fossil-fuel hunting will draw a blank. When this will happen no-one really knows, though many argue that we have already passed ‘peak oil’. Some may counter that hydrogen fuel cells, solar power, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and green goo will somehow avert a population crash. These apostles of progress more and more resemble cargo cults in their belief that technology marshalled by either the market (if capitalist) or state planning (if socialist) will provide all that is needed. In the unlikely event that they’re right, and the food supply does keep up with population growth, the highly managed nature of the provision will guarantee that the ‘freedom supply’ (for both humans and other animals) is increasingly scarce.

So the rapidly growing human population needs fossil fuels to stay alive. Most of us are eating oil and illness is largely controlled with high energy reliant technologies. Here is yet another reason I doubt the ability of activists, or states for that matter, to convince society to decarbonise. It sounds nice, but for millions, if not billions, it would mean shorter lives if humanity stopped importing from the past.

On a significantly hotter globe a major human die-off could be on the cards even if one does not go along with the ideas around peak oil. As much of the majority world becomes hotter and poorer, farmers will be unable to afford the petro-chemical based imports necessary for continued production even if fossil fuels don’t run out. Further, while industrial agriculture has temporarily increased land’s carrying capacity, in the process much ‘productive’ land has been denuded and without the application of fertilisers would now be unable to produce as much food organically as it did originally. Even Southerners ‘lucky’ enough to still have access to fossil fuel inputs will find magic potions lose their powers when soil dries, bakes and blows away. With little nutrition or medicine disease will harvest much of the hungry.

It would be nice to imagine that those countries still able to produce considerable food quantities (in part thanks to improved growing conditions — more of that later) would gift it but I wouldn’t hold your breath. A billion people on earth are hungry already. [42] Rather than the spectacular mass death of whole communities this mostly causes increased childhood mortality and decreased overall lifespan. Yet capitalism has, from the beginning, had definite ‘form’, (just ask the Irish) in allowing (and causing) millions to starve more dramatically. Mike Davis reminds us of an often forgotten example when he writes (in Late Victorian Holocausts ) of the 30–60 million people in the later part of the 19th century who starved to death, “not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures.” [43] Similar hungers have taken their toll throughout the following century, many engineered by state socialists, those most attentive students of British Empire.

It would be hopelessly Utopian to believe that hunger could be exiled from the human condition but mostly those dying today of starvation do so whilst others in their societies keep eating. Hunger is the language of class warfare. Power has many levels and amongst much of the poorest starvation in the future is likely to be played out as gendered violence, as it is now. [44]

I will leave it to others to argue about the relative contribution of population numbers or industrial consumption patterns (as though both are not now intrinsically linked) to global heating. Today, global (and local) population growth is a barrier to any significant ‘de-carbonisation’. Tomorrow, capitalism’s present inability to out-engineer its addiction to fossil fuels will likely result in a massive population crash.

Climate change brings possibilities as well as closures

Global heating, population growth, peak oil and other environmental limits are probably not the apocalypse that will end the reign of capital and the state everywhere. The global collapse is probably no nearer than the global revolution. Nevertheless it does mean that a totalised global capitalism, enclosing all relationships within it, becomes even less likely. The Western project of cultural expansion faces its limits. As part of that, the libertarian movements which capitalism has carried on its coat tails also face the real limits to the growth of Anarchism. Yet just as the establishment of a one world of Anarchism is foreclosed so the possibilities of many new/old worlds — some anarchies — becomes widespread. Some of these possibilities will be opened up by conflict, some will be closed by conflict.

The very nature of states is to control populations, but many of the billions will not hunger quietly. Yesterday the late Victorian holocausts triggered millenarian uprisings amongst those being swept away by the spreading flood waters of the ‘world system’. Tomorrow, as the tide retracts and surplus populations are left on the (desert) sand, we seem set for yet another, if anything more brutal, century of wars and insurrections.

3. Desert Storms

The military looks to the future

Whilst politicians of both states and social movements repeat platitudes, smile at their constituents and face off against each other, some realists are looking to a climate changed future less as something that can be avoided and more as something that will need to be policed. In National Security and the Threat of Climate Change leading thinkers and actors from the US military investigated a wide range of scenarios. Their first finding was that “projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security.” How?

In already weakened states, extreme weather events, drought, flooding, sea level rise, retreating glaciers, and the rapid spread of life-threatening diseases will themselves have likely effects: increased migrations, further weakened and failed states, expanded ungoverned spaces, exacerbating underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit, and increased internal conflicts. In developed countries, these conditions threaten to disrupt economic trade and introduce new security challenges, such as increased spread of infectious disease and increased immigration. [45]

As well as seeing climate change as “a new hostile and stressing factor” that will produce novel threats generally, they also saw it as exacerbating existing specific ones.

Climate Change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world. Many governments in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are already on edge in terms of their ability to provide basic needs: food, water, shelter and stability. Projected climate change will exacerbate the problems in these regions and add to the problems of effective governance. Unlike most conventional security threats that involve a single entity acting in specific ways at different points in time, climate change has the potential to result in multiple chronic conditions, occurring globally within the same time frame. Economic and environmental conditions will further erode as food production declines, diseases increase, clean water becomes increasingly scarce, and populations migrate in search of resources. Weakened and failing governments, with an already thin margin of survival, foster the conditions for internal conflict, extremism, and movement towards increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies...

Because climate change also has the potential to create natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today, its consequences will likely foster political instability where social demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope. [46]

Similar nightmares and fantasies are talked about by military experts elsewhere. [47] It should be remembered that armies plan for what could possibly happen, not what will definitely happen. Additionally, there is institutional self-interest in thinking the world is getting more dangerous if your job is providing enforced order. However, it is worth taking their predictions of strife seriously not least because when policy recommendations such as theirs are enacted, shadows of their dreams can become reality. Just as ‘generals are always fighting the last war’, so too their vision of future ones are shaped by present conflict. It should come as no surprise then that much of the military discourse around climate change is centred around hot wars, failed states and the political violence that can emanate from them. Potential cold wars, within the global north and extreme south, are given less prominence. I will follow this convention for now, though I will return to such possibilities later.

Hot wars and failed states

Looking at conflicts today there is already an obvious Equatorial Tension Belt which is expected to significantly expand. Its existence is due to a whole host of variables not least of which are the accumulated environmental impact from collapsed civilisations, the legacies of direct western colonialism, high population levels, the presence of ‘resources’ useful to capitalism and habitats that are on the margin of agriculture viability. [48] Given what the US generals describe above some governments in these regions will fall, whilst others, to varying degrees, will ‘fail’. Some states will retract back to their (maybe shifting) capitals leaving the rest of their supposed territories in a mosaic of war and peace, others will be engulfed in civil war, revolution and inter-state conflict. There will no doubt be much horror but also much potential for constructing free lives.

Unsurprisingly, there is division among military thinkers on what the great powers of today will be able to do. Some argue that they: “... may be drawn more frequently into these situations, either alone or with allies, to help provide stability before conditions worsen and are exploited by extremists.” And that they “...may also be called upon to undertake stability and reconstruction efforts once a conflict has begun, to avert further disaster and reconstitute a stable environment.” [49] Others predict a markedly reduced planetary policing role in an effective end to the New World Order declared by the US which, “lacking the means to help local authorities restore order, ‘will likely fall back on a combination of policies that add up to quarantine.’” [50]

Social movement anarchists in these regions might want to think seriously about what practical preparations can wisely be made for self-rule, civil war, survival and the unfortunately inevitable emergence and strengthening of authoritarian forces and inter-ethnic conflict. “We must have the ability to defend ourselves, survive, and exploit crises in society including capitalist attempts to destroy us. The divided and industrial nature of today’s society has already determined the instability of tomorrow.” [51]

In the depths of crises with social demands “exceeding the ability of government to cope” the glory days of Anarchism may be back. “If climate change results in reduced rainfall and access to the natural capital that sustains livelihoods, poverty will become more widespread, leading to increased grievances and better recruitment opportunities for rebel movements.” [52] Who knows we may even see scenes as dramatic as the anarchist armoured trains of Maria Nikiforova. [53] From the steppes of the Ukraine to the sierras of Mexico and the streets of Barcelona a huge number of those who ever identified as anarchists did so embroiled in overt war.

Unfortunately, in most places, rebel movements are more likely to be statist than anarchist. This is partly thanks to the large number of established authoritarian political gangs compared to libertarian ones, but also because in extreme situations people turn to extremist solutions. In some places this might be self-organisation, decentralisation and mutual aid, but in many there will be no social solution possible, just the false promises of despots and prophets. That’s not to say we couldn’t compete with them by spreading rival millennial hopes of a new dawn, but if we are honest with ourselves, having thrown aside religion, it would be a travesty of our ethics to pick it up again in the cause of gang recruitment and the joy of trouble.

Where visible and dramatic libertarian social forces do arise it is likely that many from other parts of the world will travel to join them. As the clouds darken, some of our family will run towards outbreaks of armed resistance — wherever they may be. This comes from a deep felt love and feelings of solidarity but also because, let’s be honest, for many conflict is attractive and anti-militarists rarely get the opportunity for outright war. The nihilistic desire — amplified in an increasingly complex world — to just get out there and ‘fuck shit up’ is, if not a creative urge, definitely a strong one. That’s not to say everyone has it, but many do. Here there is an uncomfortable symmetry between our emotional drivers and that of fighters generally.

In the ex-territory of failed and fallen states inter-ethnic conflict will become ever more common, at least until populations are cut back to a level more fitting a much hotter world.

The failed states have conflict levels so high and persistent that even baseline changes forecast by the IPCC are likely to worsen livelihood conditions. The trends suggest more of a social or tribal breakdown than wars between nations. Climate trends will ignore borders, and failed states prone to conflict will spread like a disease. [54]

Peacekeepers in the graveyard of the living

Such forces of inter-ethnic conflict will be far more widespread than groups organised around European originated political ideologies — libertarian or authoritarian. They are, after all, able to provide real solutions (if only temporarily) to people’s immediate needs in areas where the basics for survival are outnumbered by thirsty mouths. This is done, of course, by wrenching resources from ‘the others’. Additionally, inter-ethnic conflicts can erupt when the ‘cause is hopeless’ but the emotional driver is strong.

The consoling belief that individuals willingly join conflicts driven only by rational strategic considerations, family narratives or historical burdens dissolves when brought into the light of the expressed desires of many fighters themselves. For a dramatic European example one only needs to read Mattijs van de Ports’s study of a community swept up in civil war. In Gypsies, Wars and other instances of the Wild, he presents voices of people who “in festive mood, took on the role of barbarians.”

How is this possible in Europe at the end of the twentieth century?’ was the question that played obsessively through my mind... What the war in former Yugoslavia forced us to digest is the fact that people proved willing to make a conscious and active choice to embrace regression, barbarity, a return to the wilderness. Take the Serb fighters who dream of a return to the Serbia of the epic poems ‘where there was no electricity, no computers, when the Serbs were happy and had no cities, the breeding grounds of all evil.’ [55]

That some modern day militias reflect romanticist desires whilst shelling towns, massacring villages and being killed in turn, should neither surprise us I nor necessarily fully invalidate romance. It does however suggest — along with the honest expressions of joy in destruction mouthed by some soldiers in every war as well as many anarchists — that there is a coupling of some sort between a generalised urge to destroy and a disgust at complex human society.

Randolph Bourne was right when he said “war is the health of the state” [56] but this other driver is at work too, especially where the ‘sides’ are no longer states. French anarchist anthropologist Pierre Clastres’ description of war among Amazonian tribes is not directly transferable to inter-ethnic conflicts involving non-anarchist peoples but nevertheless an echo does resonate:

What is the function of primitive war? To assure the permanence of dispersal, of the parcelling out, of the atomization of groups. Primitive war is the work of a centrifugal logic, of a logic of separation which expresses itself from time to time in armed conflict. War serves to maintain each community in its political independence... Now what is the legal power that embraces all differences in order to suppress them, which only supports itself to abolish the logic of the multiple in order to substitute for it the opposite logic of unification? What is the other name of the One that refuses in essence primitive society? It is the State. [57]

It is not all hubris and doubletalk when military spin-doctors describe statist invasions as ‘peacekeeping’. Ethnic diversity and autonomy often emerge both from mutual aid in community and animosity between communities. I like to think (and our history backs this up) that self-identified anarchists will never inflict such pain as the Serb nationalist militias (an example I purposely chose for its repugnance) but we should admit that our wish to ‘fuck shit up’ is partly driven by the same urge to civilisational dismemberment as can found in many inter-ethnic conflicts, and in the minds of fighters more generally. As central power is weakened in some areas, possibilities for anarchy in both its happy and its horrible meanings will open up.

From (food) Riots to Insurrection

Climate wars to come may wipe out many anarchists but is unlikely to kill off Anarchism, which as a political movement has survived significant culls of its adherents in past local apocalypses. [58] Despite all the horrors of the last 200 years, Anarchism is, as the New York Times put it, “the creed that won’t stay dead.” [59] This is heartening, but we are not ideological machines. It does matter that anarchists themselves — i.e. you, me, our families and friends we have yet to meet — keep on living — not just ‘the ideal’. It matters to me! Give or take the particularities of the local, we may have twenty years (probably more) to prepare for these ruptures, not as an alternative to other tasks at hand, but as an integral part of a long term multi-pronged strategy. For some, it will also be a matter of life or death.

While future climate wars will be an extension of the present conditions they are likely to be far bigger and more extreme. In some places peoples, anarchists among them, could transform climate wars into successful libertarian insurrections. In others the battle may simply be for survival or even death with dignity and meaning. Those in relativity stable social environments — politically and climatically — will probably be faced by an increasingly oppressive surveillance state and a ‘mass’ which increasingly fears ‘the barbarism beyond the walls’.

What actual practical stuff needs to be done will depend largely on where and who you are. While we may have some shared aspirations, climate change reinforces the basic truth that we do not have one shared global future. While everywhere the enemy is estrangement and domestication, [60] the situations in Basingstoke and Bangladesh are different in the present and will be in the future.

During his lecture at the Royal Society, Lovelock stated:

We now face the stark choice between a return to a natural life as a small band of hunter gatherers or a much reduced high tech civilisation... [61]

Rather than a choice, there is likely to be both sorts of survivor (as there is now) — high-tech industrial citizen and low-tech gatherer-hunter anarchist. In between these two extremes will lie, buried or hungry, the “much reduced” (many from climate wars) along with those eking out a possibly freer (or not) life on the margins of agricultural/pastoral viability. Let’s look then at what possibilities there may be for liberty and wildness in some of these diverging life ways.

4. African Roads to Anarchy

Anarchic elements in everyday (peasant) life

To examine future possibilities for liberty in peasant life, let’s, as an example, look to the continent most often written off. These days “Africa has an image problem” [62]: war, famine, disease and charity appeals. As time goes on, this skewed view of a diverse continent will be further exaggerated by worsening climate change and the interventions of disaster capitalism. [63] In the previous sections we saw that climate change will cause and exacerbate civil wars largely through increasing the scarcity of food, water and cultivatable soil. Many envision these future conflicts as a generalisation of the image they hold of present day Africa. In doing so they are mostly mistaken.

Most of Africa’s wars today are fuelled more by the presence of resources and less their scarcity. [64] Retractions in global trade should deny oxygen to some of these fires. For instance, as the oil runs out, areas such as the Niger Delta, under siege by state/corporate oil interests, are likely to become once again backwaters rather than battlegrounds. I take it as a given that we will not see an African-wide conversion to Western-originated Anarchism, so what societies evolve into will, in large part, be defined by what they are now. And here is some good non-news from Africa — in many places and on many levels its cultures have significant anarchic characteristics, with a minority being functioning anarchies. I’ll hand over for a moment to Sam Mbah, a Nigerian anarcho-syndicalist:

To a greater or lesser extent... [many] traditional African societies manifested an anarchic eloquence which, upon closer examination, leads credence to the historical truism that governments have not always existed. They are but recent phenomena and are, therefore, not inevitable in human society. While some anarchic features in traditional African society existed largely in past stages of

development, some of them persist and remain pronounced to this day. What this means is that the ideals underlying Anarchism may not be so new in the African context. What is new is the concept of Anarchism as a social movement ideology. Anarchy as abstraction may indeed be [largely] unknown to Africans, but is not at all unknown as a way of life...

Manifestations of anarchic elements in African communities... were and to some degree still are pervasive. These include the partial or complete absence of hierarchical structures, state apparatuses, and the commodification of labor. To put this in positive terms, [some societies] were (and are) largely self managed, egalitarian and republican in nature. [65]

The extent to which Africa is viewed as a ‘basket case’ in ‘world opinion’ is in part the extent to which its societies are anarchic and not fully enclosed within capitalist relations.

Why have anarchic social relations survived in Africa to such a degree? Jim Feast, writing for the American anarchist magazine Fifth Estate, has some answers:

In sub-Saharan Africa, aside from in the minority of countries with a large, white settler population and valuable resources (such as diamonds or copper), there was little penetration of capitalist agricultural forms or government into the interior. In the colonial era... the imperial powers had only limited goals. There was no desire to invest resources to ensure the state could project its authority into every corner of the new colonies... And, after independence, settler states excepted... Africans remained only marginally affected by the market. They increasingly traded in the market, but their base was still a homestead and family farm where a subsistence ethos prevailed... The salient points are these. No matter how wide the impact of world capitalism, much of sub-Saharan Africa has not been effectively shaped by state or market power. Moreover, while in ... [many parts of the planet]... there is a struggle to develop an alternative economy, in the parts of Africa under discussion, a robust subsistence economy, unconcerned with profit and capital expansion continues to exist. [66]

Peoples without governments

While anarchic elements are pervasive in Africa there are also entire anarchist societies. [67] Some of these exist surrounded by more incorporated populations, while others are truly remote from external power — through luck or active avoidance. Environments which are not conducive to empire are a significant factor behind the survival of some of these cultures and their ability to defend their autonomy.

A number have remained anarchic within themselves whilst superficially accepting outside power. This should not necessarily be seen as assimilation. Governments don’t like to let outright opposition go unpunished lest it encourage others. Yet they don’t always have the capacity to fully internalise pre-existing or maroon societies, especially wily ones. For the community, the “state power and the alien political culture... are so different and so powerful that... direct resistance soon proves to be unaffordable; passive accommodation is impossible as well. The most acceptable possibility is some kind of collaboration that allows things to continue almost as before, with the idea that ‘we were here before them and we will be here after them’” [68] In some situations this is as simple as unspoken contracts approximate to ‘We’ll pretend you’re governing us, you pretend to believe it’. In other situations ‘outwitting the state’ may involve a complex set of tactics including providing key functions, retraditionalisation, regular movement and manipulating the balance of competing external powers.

Some may object that these anarchies are not those ‘we’ would design if ‘we’ were to sit down and plan the ‘ideal’ society for them [69] — but they are anarchies none the less. Though far more egalitarian than surrounding societies, they usually have some level of sex and age stratified power relations, a division of labour and sometimes rely on animal slavery. I don’t view any of these things as good but it should be remembered that to differing extents these are aspects of all civilised societies. At least these cultures don’t have class warfare or the state! In this sense they are anarchies even if they don’t conform to all the aspirations of ‘our’ western originated Anarchisms. They should not be idealised (any more than present day Chiapas or 1936 Barcelona) and you don’t have to ‘support them’. But these are existing anarchies, the active social creation of millions of people through time resisting the concentration of power. Any overview of possibilities for liberty would be foolish to ignore them. Those of us who are freeing ourselves from authority can find insights, inspiration and warnings from their examples. [70]

Commons resurgent as global trade retracts

For those in Africa, the fact that anarchies exist and some anarchic tendencies remain widespread beyond them leaves routes of escape and survival open which can be utilised as authorities collapse, retract or are destroyed. It should be noted that many commons-based societies within Africa are fall-back positions turned to after complex kingdoms collapsed or were dismantled by invading empires (both Western and African). While colonial elites often policed through local traditional authorities, they came to blows with them too. Dominant classes act in their own interest, not in that of an abstract system of hierarchical power. The attack on local authority by outside elites opened up possibilities for anarchy in the past and this pattern continues. Jim Feast once again:

Here’s an irony of history. In the last 15 years, in [some parts of] the industrially undeveloped world, the state has withered away, not because of its supercession, but due to the extension of global capitalism. Talk of state collapse on capital’s periphery doesn’t mean governments have completely vanished, but that many states have diminished from being the totalized agencies of control we experience in Northern tier countries...

Since independence, most sub-Saharan African countries have been one-party states, headed by corrupt strong men who rule by combining military coercion with the distribution of favours to well-placed followers... The intelligent strong man sees that not only his immediate cronies (who staff the state) but regional and tribal leaders of every significant stripe must be cultivated by financing infrastructural projects (that offer prime opportunities for graft) in their bailiwicks... But with structural adjustment policies forced upon these nations, this form of government has [often] ceased to exist because funds to sustain the patronage networks are no longer there... In a movement to shore up elite rule, there has been a widespread morphing into multi-party democracies. From 1988 to 1999 the number of states in sub-Saharan Africa featuring multi-party elections went from 9 to 45. This temporarily and cynically solves two problems for state rule... It restores a patina of legitimacy to a system that can no longer provide either patronage or welfare services to its citizens, and reinvigorates it by dividing clients among the competing parties, so each political grouping has need to siphon fewer funds since it serves a smaller client base [71] ...

Another loss of state power is the inability of it to provide minimal welfare to the citizenry, such as education and medical care, which structural adjustment programs eliminate as too costly. While some of these services are taken over by international relief organizations, most that are continued are done so by groups from the distressed society itself. In other words, as Thomson puts it, ‘Declining state capacity required civil society to increase its self sufficiency.’ The once-repressed women’s groups, trade unions, farmers associations, and other grassroots networks are assuming greater responsibility in social and economic life...

[So maybe here we are seeing an African road to Anarchism] ‘whereby the money economy and the state, which are in a condition of partial collapse or withdrawal, cede more and more functions to non-monetarized, non-statist village communities that are organized on the basis of mutual aid?’ [72]

This is already happening in some areas in a non-newsworthy manner without overt conflict. In others this revitalization of the commons is one of the forces filling the power vacuum left by the warring fragmentation of ‘failed states.’ The structural adjustment mentioned is of course time specific. There is an ebb and flow of projects of power, as the expansion of China into Africa shows, but nevertheless the process observed is a pointer to what may happen in many places as global trade retracts in a resource poor, climate changed world.

Outwitting the state

As well as those we could mischievously label lifestyle anarchists, [73] Africa has a growing, though still small, number of groups organising under the banner of Anarchism. These are unlikely to change the face/s of the entire continent but may play significant roles in emergent movements and struggles. To repeat the earlier quote from Seaweed: “Any bioregion can be liberated through a succession of events and strategies based on the conditions unique to it.” Even if we accept the foreclosure of any possibility of global anarchist revolution, there is no reason to say a regional anarchist insurrection somewhere in Africa (or elsewhere) is not on the cards and this is made more likely by the factors we have discussed already. In probably overly optimistic terms Sam Mbah states:

The process of anarchist transformation in Africa might prove comparatively easy, given that Africa lacks a strong capitalist foundation, well-developed class formations and relations of production, and a stable, entrenched state system. [74]

While a surprising number of African dirt roads lead to anarchy [75] much of what we have touched on here relates to many rural areas across the planet to differing degrees. For instance, in his excellent, The Art of Not Being Governed, [76] James C. Scott recounts numerous examples of lived anarchies in upland Southeast Asia. Even outside of anarchies, peasant communities whose self-sufficiency have not been entirely vanquished, still often retain high levels of autonomy — Land is Liberty! [77] Sadly in many places communal traditions have been eradicated, the ‘commons’ (or ‘wilderness’) enclosed and farmers forcefully transformed into wage labourers. In others however, they have not, for a diverse set of reasons, not least of which is resistance. States do not always get their own way.

The tide of Western authority will recede from much, though by no means all of the planet. A writhing mess of social flotsam and jetsam will be left in its wake. Some patches of lived anarchy, some horrible conflicts, some empires, some freedoms, and of course, unimaginable weirdness. As states recede and ‘fail’ — through entropy, stupidity, revolution, internal conflict, climate stress — people will continue to dig, sow, herd and live — most, admittedly, in vastly more challenging climates, and few with the guarantee of a peaceful life. In many places commodified land will be reclaimed as commons and new communities will be formed by refugees from the collapsed economies. Anarchic societies — old and new — will need to defend their liberty and lives, through avoidance, arms, flight and ‘outwitting the state’.

We have glimpsed some of the possibilities opened up (and closed) by both future climate wars and the retraction of state governance from rural communities — but what about liberty at the shifting outer borders of civilisation? And what of liberty beyond those borders — in the wild?

5. Civilisation Retreats, Wildness Persists

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817

Empires spread deserts which they cannot survive

Read it in the ruins of Ur and Mu Us, the desertified fields of Wadi Faynan [78] and the Techuacan Valley. [79] Empires spread deserts which they cannot survive. Raids, insurrections and desertion often mark the fall of civilisations but the real ground work for their destruction has always been done by their own leaders, workers and zeks. We are all working towards the destruction of our civilisations. [80]

“Civilised man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints.” [81]

The extent to which global heating will cause the expansion of hot deserts is unknown but that they will do so — and drastically — is a pretty safe bet. The interaction of soil, climate and civil power will continue to be a dominant factor determining both history and the opening up of territory for freer lives. That agricultural systems will fail as the arid worlds spread means that, once again, civilisations will have to retreat from much of their previously conquered lands. In some places this will be total, in others a matter of degrees.

In my mother tongue deserts are uninhabitable, abandoned, deserted ; but by whom? Not by the coyotes or the cactus wrens. Not by the harvester ants or the rattlesnakes. Not by the namib quicksteps, the meercats, the acacias, the tahrs, the sandgrouse and the red kangaroos. Deserts and arid environments generally are often biologically diverse, though by their nature, the life is sparser than in other biomes. While some desert areas are lifeless, in most communities of animals, birds, insects, bacteria and plants run, fly, crawl, spread and grow in lives unordered, undomesticated by civilisation. Wildness is in us and all around us. The battle to contain and control it is the constant labour of civilisation. When that battle is lost and the fields are deserted, wildness persists.

Behind the dust, meanwhile, under the vulture-haunted sky, the desert waits — mesas, butte, canyon, reef, sink, escarpment, pinnacle, maze, dry lake, sand dune and Barren Mountain. [82]

Nomadic freedoms and the collapse of agriculture

I remember sitting crouched in the red, under the hot sun, the wind low, the silence of the desert was absolute... or it would have been if it wasn’t, of course, for all the gossiping. There are people here, not all deserts are unliveable, but for states a surplus is barely possible. The sparseness of life favours nomadism — whether by herders, foragers, travellers or traders.

No one can live this life and emerge unchanged. They will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad. [83]

While the concentration of power can arise in any society with some level of domestication, overall the more nomadic a people the more independent they are likely to be. Governments know this as can be witnessed by the widespread attempts to settle their desert nomad problems. Whether it is the obstinate survival of Aboriginal life ways in Australia, [84] the uncompromising resistance of the Apache led by Victorio or the recent Tuareg insurrection in the Sahara, nomads are often adept at fight and/or flight.

Helene Claudot-Hawad says in a discussion of Tuareg conflict with modern states that: “State boundaries have by definition a fixed, immovable and intangible line, and are purposefully made not to be transgressed. They separate what are meant to be mutually opposing entities.” [85] That the resistant independence of nomads is often mixed with a practical disbelief in borders makes them threatening to the very ideological basis of governments.

Global heating will stimulate transformations in human land uses. As noted in the previous chapter, in some places peasant self-sufficiency will likely replace export orientated monoculture, while in others withered crops may be replaced by animal husbandry. In the expanding arid zones a good proportion of those who successfully adapt may do so by embracing nomadic freedoms and transhumant pastoral subsistence. [86] In others still, nomadic pastoralists and agriculturalists may revert to hunter-gathering.

For most of our species’ existence, all were foragers and wilderness was our home. Hunter-gatherer societies include the most egalitarian on earth [87] and where such cultures have survived to modern times they have done so in areas remote from centralised power and often unsuitable for agriculture. For example the Spinfex people of the Great Victoria Desert have been able to continue their traditional lives despite the advent of ‘Australia’, as their homelands are so barren that it is not even suitable for pastoralism. [88] The !Kung too, managed to live well and free as gather-hunters in a very harsh environment — the Kalahari. [89]

When agriculturalists face extreme food stress or external violence, foraging is an adaptive strategy that has been turned to many times. For some this may be temporary, for others permanent. Thus, with spreading desertification we could see, in some places, a spreading desertion from civilisation to something resembling our original anarchist wild-life. Whole new bands of foragers may evolve following collapses of agricultural viability and the retraction of exuberant, energy rich state powers. Given the present condition of many arid zone pastoralists and foragers it is more likely that in most cases we will see hybridity — an increase in autonomous nomadic populations relying both on animal herding and foraging.

Sandgrouse and creosote

On a more general level, many of those with a longing for wildness and a need for freedom from authority have gravitated towards the frontiers often hot deserts and semi-arid regions.

As I wander out in the gentle spring,
I hear a keen call of your roads, O Desert!
I shall leave my home in the dreary hills
How sad are other lands compared to you, O Desert!

— Seidi, a 19th century Turkman poet

Such possibilities are present — and will be more so — in many regions, Even for those within the walls of the supposed global powers, there will be an expanding outside. In the already water stressed areas of southern Europe, deserted farms and villages have been re-inhabited by anarchists, hippies, cults and others wishing to flee the direct gaze of authority and desert the prison of wage labour. Similar ‘drop out’ situations are present in the drying heart of Australia and the western deserts of North America. Here, importantly, aboriginal communities persist or are re-establishing. The long indigenous strategy of survival — “we were here before and will be after” — may bear desert fruit. As numerous contemporary struggles illustrate, anarchists and native peoples can make good allies.

Some of the oldest communities live in deserts. In the Mojave is a Creosote bush clonal colony whose slowly widening circle is estimated at 11,700 years old. Recent genetic testing has indicated that the Bushmen of the Kalahari are probably the oldest continuous population of humans on Earth. [90] These communities — both plant and human — are inspiring examples of resilience, but having survived millennia in the hot deserts they may not survive the still spreading cultural one. The ancient Creosote bush ring is quite low to the ground and grows on US Bureau of Land Management land “designated for recreational all-terrain vehicle use.” [91] The Botswana government has forcefully relocated many Kalahari Bushmen from their homelands into squalid re-settlement camps, seemingly to enable diamond mining. [92] For free peoples and wild-life the harshness of our cultural desert is a most threatening of environments.

Overall, then, as the planet hots up we should remember the nomadic freedoms of the herders and foragers, the refugia of aboriginal peoples and renegade drop-outs, the widening habitats of desert flora and fauna. That arid zones will expand brings positive possibilities as well as sadness for the diminished, often previously vibrant, ecosystems. [93] There can still be a beautiful flowering in the desert. I have mentioned the possibilities opened up by the spread of hot deserts, but course there are many closures too. Even some relatively anarchic cultures on or beyond the desert frontiers will become unviable. Species will become extinct. While there will be survivors in the expanding desert lands many will choose to flee the heat. Some of these migrations — to some extent already happening — will be intranational but many will be international.

In the hot arid world survivors gather for the journey to the arctic centres of civilisation; I see them in the desert as the dawn breaks and the sun throws its piercing gaze across the horizon at the camp. The cool fresh night air lingers for a while and then, like smoke, dissipates as the heat takes charge... [94]

These are some of the last words in Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. As civilisation and much of humanity flees and/or dies as the hot deserts expand what of the cold deserts — what of the new “arctic centres of civilisation”?