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…
— James Lovelock, Climate Change on the Living Earth
Desert, an anarchist pamphlet put out in 2011, has become something of a defining text for green anarchists and primitivists. It has the style of pop lit historical narrative texts like “Clash of Civilizations“ or “The Coming Anarchy,” but from a uniquely anarchist and uniquely ecological perspective. It influenced me profoundly when I was first delving into green ideas, but I didn’t realize quite how much until my recent re-read of it, prompted by its renewed popularity. Still, while the broad narrative of technological ivory towers and slums and rebels on the outskirts rings true, it suffers from a few problems worth critiquing. The most important of these are the author’s disregard for organized political responses and his position on wildlands conservation; but there are also a number of smaller historical and analytical inaccuracies, like his ideas on population.
It’s worth noting that although I admire the text, I often abhor the politics or tactics of the people who most loudly advocate for it. They often lack good political sense, and are overly antagonistic to organized responses to some of our ecological issues. Sometimes this takes a form that makes little sense given the actual content of Desert. Some of the inspirees will advocate a kind of complete (or incoherent) nihilism. But the author seems to be okay with a variety of traditional societies, even those with a degree of social stratification, and advocates defending territory and community as much as he advocates escaping civilization, a far cry from the “rebellion for the sake of rebellion” ethos that typifies much of the left and post-left today.
We Cannot “Save the World”
One of the major appeals of Desert is its frankness regarding the ecological crisis: like Kingsnorth and others, he declares it essentially hopeless and unsolvable. The liberal optimism of popular environmentalism — “This Changes Everything,” “100% Renewable Energy” — is fundamentally unachievable, and the two major ecological problems, climate change and the mass extinction, have already progressed far too much not to deserve a significant feeling of irrevocable loss. As the author points out, climate change is increasingly “the context in which ecological struggles are fought, not a subject against which one can struggle.”
In reality, that statement can apply to the overall ecological crisis. Rather than being the actual subject of struggle, the various ecological crises are transforming and, in the main, intensifying already-existing tensions in world society. Underdevelopment and the legacy of colonialism in Africa has been a world issue since at least the latter half of the 20th century; but it becomes a potentially fatal problem for the globalizing project when combined with ecological devastation and the predicted 21st-century demographic explosion. The Muslim world has long had tensions with the world-controlling dreams of the West, but resource scarcity and the affects of oil extraction and pricing on the global economy give the conflict an added dramatic flare.
As a result of this dynamic, we see a number of ideologies, which in the classical context are utterly opposed to each other, converging in their focus on environmental issues. Every ideology has an “eco-” strain nowadays. But to speak of “solving” the ecological crisis only makes sense from the perspective of progressivism: those who stand atop the globalizing project and who wish to preserve it, the ‘Davos men,’ the technician class. Consider climate change: at this point how can one hope to “solve” it without technological schemes, like geoengineering? If one is not prepared to accept solutions like that, the question becomes more how to mitigate the damage already done, stop continuing damage, and learn to live in the disaster industrial society has already created.
In other words, the divide today is no longer about rightism and leftism, but between a progressivist, technical elite and everyone else who opposes their agenda. Martin Wolf, a former World Bank economist, writes “Liberals, social democrats and moderate conservatives are on the same side in the great battles against religious fanatics, obscurantists, extreme environmentalists, fascists, Marxists and, of course, contemporary anti-globalisers.” Kirkpatrick Sale, a prominent environmentalist in the 90s, echoes the sentiment: “In a flat world, you can have left and right, but in a round world, which is what we live on, there are totalitarians at the top (Stalin, Hitler, Genghis Khan) and anti-authoritarians at the bottom (anarchists, communalists, libertarians), with squishy liberals and mindless conservatives in between.”
This is essentially the point the author of Desert tries to make: that for anyone who is not a progressivist, ecological crises cannot be framed in terms of “saving the world.” Rather, they are likely to take on an increasingly nihilist disposition, hoping not to solve the issues so much as preserve what is left, restore the restorable, and mount any meaningful resistance they can muster against the industrial system at fault.
Collapse and Revolution
But the author goes too far. You could certainly use words like “hopelessness” to describe the situations around climate change or habitat destruction, but instead of a cool-headed analysis he adopts a disposition of hopelessness in the whole text. It pervades his writing even in reference to topics in which much can still be done, and he revises history to be more dour than it actually is. For example, he says of the anti-globalization movement that “there was never a global movement against capitalism…” and cites as evidence the overwhelmingly liberal composition of the anti-globalization movement. This is patently untrue. While strict anti-capitalists were never the majority of the participants of the movement, this is only true in the way large-scale labor protests were never composed primarily of revolutionary Marxists. And a number of anti-capitalists, radical environmentalists, and third world socialists occupied dominant political positions in the anti-globalization movement, forming a global network capable of mobilizing vast amounts of people for the purposes of anti-global politics.
The author also seems to posit that the small number of anarchists relative to the world population is evidence that they could not achieve a global political movement. But while we might be able to challenge the desirability of a global movement, in purely practical terms it is certainly achievable. Already there exist global political movements, like the radical Islamists, and with a global crisis they already have the organizational and weapons capacity to make significant gains for their cause. Note that even they have small numbers, something that doesn’t matter all that much: more important is the power each individual and group can wield. The Bolsheviks, for example, only had 8,000 members at the beginning of the second Russian Revolution, when they took over all of Russia. There are certainly more than 8,000 anarchists in the world, and, as the author points out, they “are growing in number.”
Besides, the era of revolution isn’t finished. Even since 2001 there have been a number of revolutions, successful insurgent struggles, and related radical political events. That these are only regional supports the author’s contention that revolutionary struggle alone cannot solve the global ecological crisis, but there is no reason to dispose of regionally-confined revolutions as a tool in our toolkit. It is entirely feasible to imagine ecologically-based social transformation happening through a series of revolutions, just as Enlightenment ideas started in France, spread to the rest of Europe through Napoleon, and eventually made it to the New World with the American revolutionaries and Simon Bolivar. Of course, Enlightenment ideas and their associated political institutions only took hold because of the technological changes of the time. But the contemporary world is undergoing comparably important changes. If the technological system is only in a temporary crisis and ends up winning in the end, political systems based around an agrarian mode of production, like Jeffersonian democracy or even the notion of the “state,” will have to be entirely reworked. If, on the other hand, the crisis extends into a major economic decline, and perhaps even the beginnings of a collapse, traditional social formations will inevitably take hold in the areas where industry’s stronghold is loosened. Either future ensures a series of revolutions throughout the 21st century, a total transformation of the global political order.
Desert never mentions any of these things, but they are compatible with the written ideas. The author writes:
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’… 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. …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.
This is a bit of a misunderstanding. Collapse is no replacement for revolution. It’s relationship to revolution is more akin to the relationship between industrialization and the spread of Enlightenment ideas, that is, an infrastructural change determining structural, political changes. Like climate change, it is the context for political struggle rather than the object. But the overall point — that the technological changes will be uneven, and therefore the political effects will be uneven — is compatible with the idea of a series of revolutions, as well as less bombastic political responses the author emphasizes in his text. He quotes the author of a related green anarchist text, Land and Freedom:
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.
The question then becomes, what will these de-industrialized regions look like? What kinds of social formations might take hold? What societies do we see forming now, both in the rubble and the outskirts of industrial society?
Anarchy in the New World
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.’
Here, again, is one of Desert’s great strengths. Even though I disagree with him on the possibility and desirability of revolutions, it is precisely because he rejects them that he sees other political possibilities. Drawing on cases of indigenous resistance and the struggles of extant traditional societies, he repeatedly mentions that preservation of these communities sometimes happens without any outright conflict at all. For example, often traditional societies continue to survive merely because they buy into the pretense of being governed:
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.
The Zapatistas, of course, are the most obvious example of the latter. In the 90s they utilized new internet technologies and the political power of NGOs to win a sufficient amount of territory for their social ideals. They survive to this day, and have, in most respects, won. Not nearly enough to challenge industrial society, they are nevertheless representative of the kind of balkanization we should like to see in the future.
Many assume that “anarchism” means strict adherence to egalitarian ideals, often with a strong socialist aroma. In reality anarchism is a broad tradition, traversing both the left and the right and not always against hierarchy as such. Desert takes this more nuanced approach, recognizing that anarchy as it has been and is practiced in many parts of the world do not at all conform to Western humanist ideals:
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 — 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.
This kind of flexibility opens up a set of political possibilities unavailable to the typical conception of anarchism. Understanding “anarchy” to mean, at least in practice, non-state societies, makes more obvious the overlaps anarchists have with existing political struggles, like anti-colonialism and various quests for ethnic and religious autonomy. Indeed, it is another strength of Desert that he recognizes the role ethnic conflict plays in undermining the state, and how important an issue it will be in the areas where anarchist ideals are the most likely to be adopted.
Desert imagines these anarchies taking hold in regions abandoned or neglected by industry. He sees political possibilities both in the Bushmen and Zapatistas, but also in the slums and ghettos, where dominant institutions have less of a hold. In a global context, he sees most of the human population migrating to mega-cities while “lived anarchies” occupy the abandoned terrain. But this is where his disdain for revolution, or any sort of concerted global political campaign, betrays him:
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.
But even should these new primitives come into existence, what political strength would they have? These and other regional responses might give a measure of autonomy to the inhabitants, but they will still be brought into conflict with industrial society and its ecological devastation, its economic imperatives for extraction, its land claims. More, their autonomy is likely to be little more than a pleasurable illusion. The sciences of behavior control have already advanced far enough to manage the complex social arrangements of modern society; they will be even more easily applied to the societies of primitive people. One can imagine a sort of Brave New World scenario, where under the guise of anthropological and biological exploration, the cosmopolitans descend from the cities to manage the savages below. In some sense this is already the reality: consider the “humanitarian” efforts in the Third World, mere shields for development and methods of exporting humanist ideology. And even existing traditional societies can scarcely preserve their communities without help from cosmopolitan institutions: consider again the Zapatista use of NGOs.
In other words, the author’s global vision seems relatively accurate, at least insofar as the future is one of decline and collapse rather than the success of the technological project. But if the preservation of traditional communities and the collapse of industrial infrastructure is to be assured, we will need to figure out a way to mobilize these regional phenomena for an offensive against industrial society. For this we need to turn to the cities.
The rate of change is staggering. For illustration take mega-cities, those with more than 10 million citizens. While there were none in 1900, by the mid 1970s there were three mega-cities, and between then and 2007 the number grew to nineteen, with the total expected to rise to twenty seven by 2025. That’s 3–27 in around 50 years. Overall, since the beginning of the 1990s, cities in the (rapidly) ‘developing world’ have expanded by three million people a week. That’s roughly equivalent to a new city the size of Bristol, Bratislava or Oakland every single day. For now, the urban majorities look set to continue expanding as people are subject to forces that push and pull them away from agriculture and towards the freedoms and slaveries of the metropoles.
Desert’s primary point about cities is that they will host the majority of the world’s population and become the primary locus for political struggle for any industrial citizen. They offer a number of distinct advantages:
…as [one] US Army theorist … says,”…the urban environment offers individual anonymity, a factor that can be of great use to the anarchist.” The last two decades have seen an emergence of a ‘third wave’ of anarchists in many of the World Towns: Manila, Jakarta, Mexico City, Lagos, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Delhi and many others, with a truly remarkable growth in Latin America especially. Here we seem to have the beginning of a return to the flowering of diverse transnational Anarchisms that characterised us a century ago. That this is happening as part of globalisation, and the growth of cities is not surprising given that the seeds of social movement Anarchism are largely carried around the planet on the coat tails of capitalism and often grow best, like weeds, on disturbed ground.
But as the same US Army theorist points out, more than anarchists are accruing the subversive benefits of cities:
Distinctive features of the largest or so called ‘world cities’… include marked economic and social polarisation and intense spatial segregation. We also find what is probably an effect of these conditions; the large array of anti-state actors. Anarchists, criminals, the dispossessed, foreign meddlers, cynical opportunists, lunatics, revolutionaries, labor leaders, ethnic nationals… and others can all form alliances of convenience. They can also commit acts of violence and handle ideas that provoke others… Analyses that focus on a single strand of the fabric of violence — that isolate on ethnic rivalry, mafias, or revolutionary cadre — can underestimate the disruptive power that those phenomena gain when they coincide. Troubles will not come as single soldiers; they will come in battalions.
This touches on an important development I’ve mentioned in earlier texts: previously divergent political struggles are, in the 21st century, more likely to work together to combat a common enemy than remain isolated movements. Nearly all radical ideologies are finding that the primary stumbling block getting in the way of their ideals is the same, even if the names are different: capitalism, globalism, industrialization, Western civilization… This is an advantage for those living in traditional societies, since their ties in the city — such as in ethnic strongholds or gang networks — are more likely to network with movements, causes, and organizations that have strengths they lack themselves. It becomes possible, then, to imagine the city as a site for the wealthy, bored, and nihilistic to coordinate the preservation of un- and de-industrialized territories, and perhaps mobilize them against industrial society itself.
Notably this means 21st century political struggles are going to have messier implications than those previous, something the author of Desert tends to ignore and at times deny:
In terms of the strictly ‘political’, many activists seemed rather miffed when September 11th and the growth of Islamic terrorism upstaged the ‘movement of movements’ [i.e., the anti-globalization movement] which a decade ago was meant to be the only game in town. The growth (limited as it is) of non-state authoritarian actors, whether Al-Qaeda wannabes or far right ‘race soldiers’, shows that there are many potentially insurgent subcultures behind the walls, many of which are our enemies as much as the states are.
But even if no one will admit it, radical Islam was a definite part of the anti-globalization movement. In fact, before anyone knew it was a group of 20 jihadis, many suspected that anti-globalization protesters were at fault for the 9/11 attacks, not least because the movement often made the towers symbolic enemies, sometimes with rather aggressive undertones. In fact, on both the right and left there are increasing signs of an alliance with radical Islam as a potential anti-colonial force. The European New Right and some traditionalists seem to have done so explicitly, but the left often uses proxy causes, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, the “battalions” mentioned by the U.S. Army theorist are unlikely to be ideologically coherent.
The motivations of political actors in the city will be much different from those in the less industrialized regions. The latter is rooted in a community, and the threats of industry have to do with material problems, like the ability of the community to get its own food or have political autonomy over its land. But those in the city have little opportunity of gaining a similar community for themselves: their economic and relational ties to the city are too strong, their bodies and minds not made or prepared for life in non-industrial conditions. As a result their political acts are much likely to be existential and psychological. The author mentions this briefly:
While those of us living ‘behind the walls’ may be shielded from some of the more overt and large scale conflicts — and opportunities — that are likely to characterise this century, the social war is all around us. The lack of overt civil war is merely a sign of the depth of our domestication, as in most places, the policing needs only be sporadic… Though largely absent from the spectacle the class casualties mount up — in my country the richest live on average 10 years longer than the poorest and one of the greatest single predictors of fatal heart disease — thanks to social stress — is how low one is in a hierarchy. Just as worldwide more people kill themselves than get killed in wars and through interpersonal violence, in Britain suicide remains the highest single cause of death for both males and females aged 15–34. Assimilation is painful and trauma, self-harm, abuse and addiction are rife. As Raoul Vaneigem said, for many, “the greatest kept state secret is the misery of everyday life.”
Already these psychological motivations can be found in popular social movements, which people often join only to gain a sense of purpose, community, or power. What must characterize an anti-industrial movement, however, is a sort of nihilistic impulse. Bored, frustrated, embattled with the psychological and, at times, physiological stress of the city, the cosmopolitan has two choices: accept the status quo, or attempt to destroy it. Those in traditional societies might be able to fight for land or community, but the industrial citizens who are dependent on the very thing they want to destroy must feel like they have no option and a profound amount of resentment. Like the convergence of radical ideologies on a common enemy, the anti-industrialist of the city will often be oriented toward pure negation.
Even organized political responses must be based in this impulse. Although in practice they will act as surrogates to human social needs, they are as inadequate as the artificial institutions that characterize the dominant society. Their main advantage over those institutions is their promise for something that quells the boredom, purposelesness, and sense of powerlessness that characterizes civil society. Still, the conditions of the industrial citizen present an opportunity for the actual work of coordination and mobilization that more regional responses do not. The industrial citizen does not have to spend the bulk of his time or labor maintaining his way of life, and in combination with his resentment this freed time becomes a powerful weapon. The industrial citizen already lacks communities and environments that sufficiently satisfy his biological needs, so unlike members of traditional societies he is not sacrificing very much by becoming part of a political organization. The industrial citizen lacks other commitments, so his resentment is more likely to produce a combative attitude that those with attachments to community and land might consider reckless, but that may very well be necessary to provoke necessary disruption to industrial technology.
This explains my main disagreement with Desert: because it denies the potential for large-scale seizure of territory and ignores the role cosmopolitan organizations play in preserving that territory, he outlines a vision of a rather fragmented movement. His suggestions for city anarchists seem to stop at getting into existing social movements or living combative lives secretively, individually, and in the margins. But the city presents stronger opportunities than this. If in fact we will see a series of revolutions, a trend toward political balkanization, and an expansion of non-industrial territory, then the anti-industrialists of the city are in a unique position to add a level of coordination and cohesiveness to these movements — and they will have to do it organizationally.
Role of Wildlands Conservation
Desert mounts a critique of wildlands conservation on the grounds that it usually ends up increasing or disguising human power over nature and other human beings. Rather than erecting walls to preserve self-managing ecologies, park borders too often legitimize human management over the region, which includes the expulsion of primitive people from the land. The critiques are true, but are far from foreign to the wilderness debate. The tension between the wilderness ideal and the practical necessity of management is one of the most considered problems in applied conservation biology.
Specifically, the author targets the “ridiculous choice between wild (i.e. self-willed) land and biodiversity”:
From a radical environmental perspective (not to mention one with an eye to island biogeography) the solution would be rolling back human management of habitat over a large enough area that the ecosystems could function effectively. Realistically it now looks more probable that much of the world’s wildernesses will increasingly resemble my bioregion than my bioregion resemble the world’s wildernesses.
The author’s position is somewhat common in conservation circles. The environmental philosopher Eric Katz, for instance, has most famously argued for a hard-line position on wildness. But those who engage in the practical work of conservation cannot afford to take such a hard-line position. On the one hand, preserving biodiversity is one of the most powerful incentives for creating parks: it touches on the interests of scientists, naturalists, and recreationalists alike. On the other, preserving biodiversity is important if your goal is to have wild land that life can actually benefit from. One can easily imagine a vast tract of land that is technically wild but can sustain only the simplest life-forms. But if the goal is to restore habitats that humans, large mammals, and anything below can survive and thrive in, then preserving biodiversity is a necessary component of wildlands conservation. In the face of overpopulation and developmental threats, this means compromising on management and the wildness qualities of the land.
The argument that wilderness conservation is incompatible with indigenous land claims is also a frequent topic of discussion amongst conservationists. Undeniably the history of conservation, especially in the U.S., overlaps with the expulsion and eradication of indigenous cultures. But today the conservationist movement works closely with indigenous peoples, who —usually — offer quite a bit of political leverage for environmental protection. The related critique — that wilderness areas are somehow “anti-human” because they do not allow permanent, sedentary human habitation — is patently absurd. If wilderness legislation does not protect land against overpopulation, there is really no reason to guard it against development either: both are comparably damaging to ecological processes.
In other words Desert is not wrong to critique wilderness conservation on the grounds that it does, but because it never mentions the importance of these critiques to the conservation movement itself, the author represents conservation as more malicious in consequence than it actually is. Worse, it only serves to delegitimize probably the most powerful tool in the hands of anti-industrialists. Wild lands preservation is one of the most potent means of combating industrial expansion: it is in direct conflict with roads, damns, overpopulation, and development projects; and it provides a simple means of mitigating, sometimes solving, the biggest ecological problems, like mass extinction, biodiversity and habitat loss, and climate change.
Conservation has also gone far beyond the old paradigm of protecting isolated parcels of land. The cutting edge of both the politics and the science relies on the restoration paradigm. It’s motto?: bigger lands are better than smaller lands, connected lands are better than disconnected ones. The most radical proposals, which have gotten support even from global elites, advocate setting aside at least half of the Earth’s land for wilderness preservation. Anti-industrialists ought to take note of the advantages of this state of affairs. First, it offers a means of not only defending against industrial development, but directly combating it. It’s not hard to imagine how this might radicalize the otherwise moderate factions of the environmental movement. Secondly, it is a strategy that benefits anti-industrialists even if economic decline and collapse is not as near or as drastic as they hope. If technological society survives, wilderness areas do too; and if it falls, natural processes will be intact in enough places for the Earth to rebound from the damage of industrial civilization. As Dave Foreman puts it, “…the system is going to come down, one way or another way, on its own. My task is keeping all the building blocks of future evolution that we can.”
Still, there is something to be said for the dangers of wilderness conservation as a strategy. Desert draws heavily from Paige West’s book, “Conservation Is Our Government Now,” which examines the way conservation law has been used in Papua New Guinea to manage Gimi people and land. Extending this analysis, the author suggests that the age of ecological crisis might mean global elites will use popular environmental sentiment as a means of legitimizing their claims to authority:
Both of conservation’s big ideas — parks and conservation-as-development projects — are effectively forms of government over people which presume a static ecology threatened by a human population in flux. On a climate change modified earth, where ecosystems are themselves in flux (they always were, but not so rapidly); the obvious answer from a mainstream conservation perspective is expanding out to encompass management/government over human systems in the landscape matrix around reserves and management/government of the ecosystems within reserves. Overall “management strategies are likely to have to be more innovative and more interventionist.”
Indeed, one of the primary means global organizations have gained power is through environmental protection. UNESCO’s World Heritage programs, for example, ends up shifting control over historically important territories from states to global organizations. NGOs, including major environmental organizations, spend a large part of their budgets buying land, often in third world countries, to set aside for environmental protection. And conservation in general, while still the most powerful strategy for combating industrial development, does in fact rely on strengthening state power over the land. Conservationists are not unaware of this trend. As Nash points out in Wilderness and the American Mind, globalization seems to be producing more economic incentives for nature protection than the age of nation-states, primarily because of the ecological crisis, the benefits of eco-tourism, and the demographic shift toward mega-cities. So there is a bit of a paradox: on the one hand there is no greater means of combating industry than conservation; on the other hand, in practice conservation intensifies the problem of power shifting from individuals and small groups to large organizations.
Nevertheless, anti-industrialists cannot afford to relax their position on wilderness protection. There is simply no alternative that offers as many and as beneficial advantages. And in a tumultuous situation the paradox may very well end up being a strength. Radical environmentalists form the bulk of the workforce of many of the government agencies in charge of managing wildlands. While places like the U.S. are unlikely to see a dramatic seizure of power from a radical environmentalist proletariat, their bulky numbers offer obvious subversive potential. And if the restoration paradigm makes significant headway, it’s unlikely that wilderness areas could be easily policed anyway. Edward Abbey puts forward a fantastic thesis in his Desert Solitaire:
…I would like to introduce here an entirely new argument in what has now become a stylized debate: the wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny. What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift toward the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?
This may seem, at the moment, like a fantastic thesis. Yet history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies tend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible. Technology adds a new dimension to the process by providing modern despots with instruments far more efficient than any available to their classical counterparts…
The value of wilderness, on the other hand, as a base for resistance to centralized domination is demonstrated by recent history. In Budapest and Santo Domingo, for example, popular revolts were easily and quickly crushed because an urbanized environment gives the advantage to the power with the technological equipment. But in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam the revolutionaries, operating in mountain, desert and jungle hinterlands with the active or tacit support of a thinly dispersed population, have been able to overcome or at least fight to a draw official establishment forces equipped with all of the terrible weapons of twentieth century militarism. Rural insurrections can then be suppressed only by bombing and burning villages and countryside so thoroughly that the mass of the population is forced to take refuge in the cities; there the people are then policed and if necessary starved into submission. The city, which should be the symbol and center of civilization, can also be made to function as a concentration camp. This is one of the significant discoveries of contemporary political science.
It’s worth noting that Desert‘s alternatives to conventional conservation practices cite marginally successful environmentalist efforts. He mentions, for instance, Bruce Hayse’s “abortive ‘green army’ in the Central African Republic” and the Sea Shepherd which, because it operates in international waters, can “carry out eco-defence which elsewhere… would be judged sabotage, theft, harassment and obstruction.” But neither of these strategies have made nearly as significant gains as even The Wilderness Act alone.
On the topic of population, Desert is fundamentally wrong in almost all respects. His position is essentially the old-guard green line from the 70s: a population crash is inevitable, and no amount of technology can stop it. The global progressivist elite, on the other hand, predict with little worry that population will continue to grow in the billions, and suppose that accelerating industrial development will be more than adequate to deal with it.
Unfortunately for environmentalists, the progressivists seem to be correct. Huge population centers are more energy efficient, technologies like nuclear power can, if ever widely invested in, fulfill the bulk of these energy demands, and new biotechnologies are progressing fast enough to deal with changing agricultural conditions, even those caused by climate change. See, for example, the writings by ecomodernists, like Green Delusions by the former radical environmentalist Martin Lewis.
On a more ideological note, Desert briefly mentions ecofeminist positions on population: that the rapid expansion of the population is due to state, church, and capitalist control over women’s bodies. Consider, for example, Catholic positions on reproductive issues. This critique is relevant historically, but the contemporary problem is much more complex, for green radicals and anarchists in particular. Smaller scale communities tend to have social norms around reproduction that transgress modern values, and the periods between institutional collapse and reorganization are likely to be even worse. In addition, global capitalist initiatives are one of the primary means by which women are achieving the kind of autonomy over reproduction that mainstream feminism refers to. Any brand of “localist” will have to frankly address this issue in any clash with a progressivist elite; it’s one of the strongest cases in their favor.
The most glaring problem with Desert is, unfortunately, represented in its title: an undue emphasis on “desertification,” or the transformation of green ecosystems into arid zones. An anthropology professor, after looking over the text, once mentioned to me that deserts are actually rich ecosystems, and probably some of the only places that could support natural human subsistence in the U.S., apart from the Appalachians, Pacific Northwest, and parts of the North East. The author of Desert does mention the biodiversity of actual desert ecosystems, but probably from an aesthetic desire, still uses terminology like “wasteland” and “rubble” to characterize much of the impact of climate change.
He extends this error to his global geographic analysis, positing that the major division in the post-climate change era will be between “hot” — or mostly abandoned — zones, and “cold” — or mostly industrialized — ones. This is overly simplistic. I’m not well read enough on geography to challenge Desert in any sophisticated technical sense. But some texts that offer a more nuanced take might include, for example, “The Coming Anarchy” by Robert Kaplan.
However, in the last few years, an attempt to resurrect the ‘global movement’ appeared amongst us once again — this time around climate change.
On another note, my understanding of climate change is that it is not necessarily going to lead to a major expansion of equatorial climatic conditions, but is going to have varying and unpredictable effects. The “hot” versus “cold” dichotomy employed in the text only makes sense when climate change was still being marketed as “global warming.” This is, in fact, part of the problem with centering “climate change” in any political struggle: almost no average person really understands it. As such, it becomes an almost purely political tool, manipulable enough to suit any ideological cause. Anti-industrial radicals who form a united front around climate change suffer from the very real threat of being coopted by the global institutions the author warns are a problem for conservationists; worse still, the cause is as easy to use for fascists as it is for anarchists, for techno-utopians as it is for radical environmentalists. Those who truly wish to see a decline in the power of industry would do better to choose issues more solidly rooted in their cause: habitat preservation, roads, biotechnology, dams, nuclear power, computing technologies… In all these cases the dominant system can’t afford to relax its position, and, as a result, they are more likely to remain the sole domain of the anti-industrialists.
Desert‘s vision is stark: the ecological crisis is largely unsolveable, it claims, so we should shift our efforts from “saving the world” to defending the territories, communities, and autonomy that we already have — maybe eking out more where we can. The realism is refreshing amidst an obviously delusional climate in activist circles, and it echoes other influential texts in the environmental movement, like Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation manifesto. But Desert‘s pessimism goes too far. Too eager to combat a sentimental optimism, the author overextends his message of hopelessness and fails to see the most promising opportunities for radical political action in our future. Readers should take his message to heart, but in the end the analysis is stronger than the suggested strategies.